There must have been a time when I cared about my wardrobe, but that was too long ago to remember. In college, I wore levis and sweaters. Later, as I travelled the globe, my wardrobe remained the same. Being elected to public office required some refinements. I bought pantyhose and wore suits. Now that I’m retired, I’ve fallen back to my old habits.
Nonetheless, though I have sinned against style for years, I am aware of New York’s Fashion Week and have been known to page through more than one edition of Vogue. The slim silhouettes displayed on its pages are nothing I can wear. I’ve long since given up tucking in my tummy.
Despite my proclivity to gawk at fashion, I didn’t expect couture in The Baffler, a periodical formerly published by MIT Press and known for its off-beat slant on life. Yet, volume # 27 was dedicated almost exclusively to the subject. To be sure, some of the articles had dubious titles like, “Bubble Butts,” “Science of Clothes” and “The Revolution Will Probably Wear Mom Jeans.” Still, I didn’t hesitate to sit down to read, “Idle Threads,” a review by Ann Friedman of 3 new books on women’s dress. (The Baffler #27, pgs 34-40.)
What the 3 books share in common is the opinion that women identify with what they wear. Women in Clothes, by Sheila Heti, is a rant against a fashion industry that dupes customers into thinking they chose their garments for self-expression when, in fact, clever marketing narrows those choices. (Ibid pg. 34) Worn Stories concedes that women want to express themselves through what they wear and do it with a mix of garments. The author, Emily Spivack, makes it clear, however, that dress, no matter how provocative, is never a statement a woman wants to be raped. In fact, “Anti-rape activists…have collected descriptions of what women were wearing when they were sexually assaulted in order to prove that none of them was “asking for it.” (Ibid pg. 37) In Supernovas, author Maureen Callahan, writes about the birth of Grunge. She describes it as an attempt to break away from high fashion’s dictates. Unfortunately, the rebellion failed when fashion embraced it. (Ibid pg.40.)
Deciding what fashion means is tricky. One Muslim woman writes, “When I see what the women on billboards, commercials, and game shows are wearing, it really aches my heart. I mean no offense to anyone, but it hurts me to see the bodies of these innocent women being used to sell products. And they are made to believe that this is freedom.” (Ibid pg. 36.)
Fashion and freedom? I doubt the two often converse. Garments aren’t expressions of freedom, though some might think it. They reflect the culture and no one should understand this truth better than Muslim women who live in societies that require them to don the equivalent of black condoms in an effort to make them invisible.
Fashion, I confess, is a mystery — which probably is why it holds my interest. Some think fashion is a mink coat. Others, like several of my friends, think it’s being covered in cat hair. Given the latitude for-self expression, I cling to Giorgio Armani’s dictate: “Jeans represent democracy in fashion.”
(Originally published 4/7/15)