What Not to Wear: From Hot-Pants Trashy to Pinafore Classy, the New York Times Way!

It may sometimes seem like women face an impossible task:  Whether it’s motherhood, professional life or just walking down the street, ladies are vulnerable to the conflicting demands and judgmental expectations of society.  A woman is  liable to be judged on tiny details — of speech, behavior, even the clothes she wears — and must negotiate the conflicting dangers of being labeled too butch or too feminine, too assertive or too timid, too prudish or too sexy.

But if you think that sounds hard, it’s nothing compared to what New York Times writers have to deal with.  Just look at the first sentence of Ruth La Ferla’s article “Women Enjoy the Cool Comfort of Summer Dresses“:  “Trends come and go, but the dress persists, secure in its status as a metaphor.”

La Ferla has a daunting intellectual task indeed: writing a trend piece about something that isn’t even a trend.  Like a beautiful prose poem, a nonfiction novel, an inside-out house or a vegan cheesecake, this paradoxical demonstration of artistry promises to revolutionize the genre.  If the idea takes off, who knows what’s next!  “Think pieces” that involve no actual thought, editorials that seem barely edited, celebrity profiles that question the subject’s right to be a celebrity, ethics columns in which Randy Cohen declares the uselessness of ethics… now that I think of it, all of these have actually appeared.  I suppose “Summer Dresses” was the inevitable next step.  Let’s move on.

“Irwin Shaw captured its wispy allure in his classic short story, ‘The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,’ using the dress to conjure a mood of diffuse urban longing.”  Hmmm.  I think if you’re going to go around assuming everything is a metaphor for something else, like you’re writing a bad Moby Dick term paper, you should find something better for things to symbolize than freakin’ “diffuse urban longing.”  Metaphors are supposed to be for something important, like God or Nature or the Industrial Revolution.  If I was writing a paper about the dress as metaphor, I’d come up with something mind-blowing.  Like, I would make the existence of two legs represent Man’s unique destiny (because animals walk on four legs).  And covering them with a dress could represent humanity’s endless quest to transcend our baser impulses.  Maxi-skirts could represent the Catholic church, and skorts could symbolize Science’s quixotic attempts to meddle with the natural order.  A young woman trying on dresses at the mall could represent a young woman gradually becoming disillusioned with her society’s moral hypocrisy.  It’s a bildungsroman!  Now that’s a work of literature.  Forget about some weak-ass story where a creepy guy walks around the city, perving on hot women.  You can see that anywhere.

“Bruce Springsteen struck a similar chord, crooning ‘in the cool of the evening light/The girls in their summer clothes/Pass me by,’ as did the Airborne Toxic Event, an indie rock band, whose variation on the wistful summer-dresses theme still resonates in some circles as a catchy cellphone ring tone.  The list goes on.”

It does, indeed.  One can’t help but wonder why, out of the rich tapestry of all recorded history, these were the three examples chosen.  Did you Facebook-poll your friends, and this was what they came up with?  Couldn’t you have talked about, like, togas (extra-drapey man-dresses), tunics (hipster-y Medieval dresses), and Scarlett O’Hara’s hoop skirt?  The Mona Lisa is wearing a dress!   Although, come to think of it, most famous paintings seem to show the women after they’ve already taken off their dresses.  Now you’re talkin’!  How’s that for “diffuse urban longing”? {More on the nudity issue later.}

But enough of these contrived male fantasies.  “To get to the heart of dresses’ appeal, talk to the women who wear them: those scores of fans, young or not so young, who have made them the backbone of their summer wardrobes.”  A “score” is twenty.  So now we know there are at least forty such women, ranging in age from young to “not so young” [i.e. “women of a certain age, i.e. OLD AS FUCK].

What do the actual dress-wearers have to say?  “In the punishing heat of a July afternoon, dresses are ‘the ultimate in comfort,’ said Whitney May, who is an assistant in the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York…. ‘Dresses are almost always looser and less constricting than pants or a skirt.'”

Hmmm, again.  I don’t see this level of expertise as being necessary, just to explain that a cylinder of cloth allows air to circulate freely around the legs.  In the winter, are they going to consult her on whether mittens are warmer than gloves?  “It says here on your Curriculum Vitae that you specialize in twentieth century European modernism, particularly Hermann Muthesius’ Deutscher Werkbund and the English Arts and Crafts movement — which holds up pants better, a belt or suspenders?”

Other ordinary gals go on record as saying dresses are “‘colorful, light and airy.'”  La Ferla claims her interviewees are “but two in a random selection of women interviewed this month in the city,” leading one to wonder how the random sampling came about.  Did she conduct man-in-the-street interviews, like in The Onion?  (Again, I suspect Facebook was involved.)

The third random subject observes that “the dress is ‘such a practical outfit’ because ‘you don’t have to think about coordinating tops and bottoms.'”   Good news for a busy urbanite, OR the director of a gay swingers’ club!

At this point La Ferla seems to get worried that she has forgotten about the dress’s status as a metaphor, and let the “diffuse urban longing” thread slip from her fingers.  She starts insisting that “to dwell on pure function is to miss what, to some minds, makes the dress particularly current.”

“The designer Nicole Miller said that as little as four or five years ago, ‘dresses were kind of unhip,’ which of course, thanks to the inevitable swing of the fashion pendulum, ‘is what makes them cool now.'”  Noooo!  Dresses were supposed to endure.  They were supposed to be my rock, my one point of certainty in a crazy world.  That damn, ever-swinging pendulum.  I don’t even know where it came from.  I thought trends were caused by These Challenging Economic Times, not some stupid-ass invisible pendulum careening around the sociocultural landscape like a high-pressure front from Hell.

“Dresses’ popularity tends to peak in summer, said Marshal Cohen, senior analyst with the NPD Group, which tracks apparel sales. According to the NPD, retailers recorded just over $6 billion in dress sales April and May, an increase of 3.2 percent over the same period last year. Dresses do particularly well in a recessionary climate, Mr. Cohen said, when consumers embrace them ‘as the most economical way to create a new outfit.'”  I KNEW IT!!!!

“Dresses, she said, owe at least some of their formidable staying power to their forgiving shapes, unfussy construction and obviation of caked-on accessories or cumbersome layering.”  Concomitantly, it abrogates the need to wear a thong!  When people start whipping out Henry James-ass words like “obviation,” I know some pseudo-intellectual shit is about to go down.  Get ready:

“Younger women, who once adopted the dress as a cheeky sendup of mid-20th century feminine stereotypes, are now dispensing with such ironies and acknowledging the frankly sensual appeal of the dress.”

They were doing it ironically until now?  Does this have something to do with 9/11?  Also, I thought the dress thing was because of the pendulum swing and the economy, not because of a frankly sensual appeal.  Causality has now become tangled indeed.  One perceives that Ms. La Ferla has read just enough literary theory to be uncertain whether to view the dress as a physical article, an ideological construct, or a commodity fetish.  Luckily, there’s one intellectual discipline powerful enough to trump all others:  Fake sociology.

Young women’s love for dresses “chime[s] with the results of a behavioral study, ‘Pink Frilly Dresses and Early Gender Identity,’ published last year by Princeton University. According to the authors, Diane N. Ruble, Leah E. Lurye and Kristina M. Zosuls, researchers in developmental psychology, ‘A large proportion of girls pass through a stage when they virtually refuse to go out of the house unless they are wearing a dress.’ In very young children, they concluded, ‘pink frilly dresses are especially salient and concrete feature of “girl-ness.”‘ It’s not surprising, then, to learn that some women’s favorite dresses have something demure and old-fashioned about them, if not downright chaste. Ideally, Whitney May said: ‘A dress should have a bit of a childlike quality to it. It should be elegant and sophisticated but not too revealing.'”

La Ferla concludes by praising dresses that are “innocent-looking ” and “primly reminiscent of a pinafore,” and cites Ms. May’s desire not to appear “fashionably aggressive” or “trying too hard.”

Now that you mention it, it would be ridiculous for a grown woman to go out in public not looking demure, old-fashioned, chaste, childlike, innocent, prim and submissive.  This is the twenty-first century!  But what if you did wear something bold, assertive, adult, new-fangled and lecherous?  Other than getting smacked in the ass by the fashion pendulum, what’s the worst that could happen?

Well, I’ll tell you what.  All that exposed flesh could unhinge the minds of otherwise intelligent people, distracting them from your words and ideas and forcing them to not take you seriously.  With each inch of exposed flesh, you respectability drains away like body heat on a February night in the Himalayas.  Ask Rebecca Traister; she’s been there.

As a feminist critic, she should have heartily approved of a viral protest movement intended to stop victim-blaming and end sexual assault.  And she herself writes that “I wanted to love SlutWalks.”  SlutWalks, for the unfamiliar, are a series of protests that sprang up after a Toronto police officer told women they could avoid rape by not “dressing like sluts.”  And Traister can see that the protesters had their heart in the right place.  As good liberals, we can all agree that women shouldn’t be threatened with rape just for dressing like sluts.  But that doesn’t mean they can go around, like, dressing like sluts!

But that’s exactly what these protesters did.  For example, participants often wear “bras, halter tops and garter belts.”  Surely there was more to these protests than that!  Did they carry signs, shout slogans, make speeches?  They are “stripping down to skivvies and calling [them]selves sluts.”  Where can I find out more about their mission?  Did they send out a press release?  They’re “marching in hot pants.”  What about a website?  They’re “dressed in what look like sexy stewardess Halloween costumes,” as well as “scantily clad.”  Also:  “bustiers.”

It’s obvious why, however much Traister “wanted to love” this protest movement, she couldn’t.  The protesters wouldn’t let her.  With their tacky garter belts and vulgar language, they forced her to hate them.  They committed the worst violation of all: a violation of delicate upper-middle-class sensibilities.

But Traister has more reasonable-sounding justifications for her feelings.  You see, we are “at a moment when questions of sex and power, blame and credibility, and gender and justice are so ubiquitous and so urgent.”  (She doesn’t mention pendulums or These Challenging Economic Times, but I assume they’re also in the mix.)  Ladies, please: put a damn prairie skirt on until questions of sex, power, blame, credibility, gender and justice cease to be urgent.  This is no time to wriggle around in hot pants, trying to get people to listen to you.

“Thanks in part to [Anita Hill], we were, by now, supposed to be braver and more skilled at calling out injustice, at exposing or reversing sexual-power imbalances.  But 20 summers later, we’re marching in hot pants.”

It’s true, ladies.  Remember how Anita Hill never wore a bustier, and because of that, everyone loved her and Clarence Thomas had to become a janitor at the Greyhound Bus station?  THE SYSTEM WORKS.

“We were, by now, supposed to be braver and more skilled at calling out injustice, at exposing or reversing sexual-power imbalances.”  Ya know, the thing about a “march” is that it’s called a “march,” not a “philosophical disquisition” or a “dialectical critique of hegemonic power relations.”  I remember when I used to go to Iraq War marches, and our chants about “This is what democracy looks like/ Bush is what hypocrisy looks like” were not exactly the apex of logical argument.  Unless everyone involved is incredibly skilled at interpretive dance, you can’t really convey ANY idea just by marching, even in a three-piece suit.

“I have mostly felt irritation that stripping down to skivvies and calling ourselves sluts is passing for keen retort.”  Man, I get irritated by all kinds of stuff, from people who slow down too much to change lanes, to grocery stores that don’t stay open 24 hours.  But it never occurred to me to be “irritated” by the failure of ambulatory locomotion to resemble the Anita Hill hearings.  Rebecca Traister, you seem tightly wound.  You need to eat a melatonin brownie and chill out.

Traister continues that condemning rape “is right and righteous. But to do so while dressed in what look like sexy stewardess Halloween costumes seems less like victory than capitulation…to what society already expects of its young women.”  That’s right, young women.  You can’t just go objecting to one thing society expects of you, while capitulating to another, different thing.  It’s hypocritical.  Society hates that.

“Scantily clad marching seems weirdly blind to the race, class and body-image issues that usually (rightly) obsess young feminists and seems inhospitable to scads of women who, for various reasons, might not feel it logical or comfortable to express their revulsion at victim-blaming by donning bustiers.”

It might “seem” inhospitable, but like, is it really inhospitable?  I mean, you’re allowed to show up in modest clothes.  You can even see modestly-dressed people in the background of the photo that ran with the article!  If the mere presence of people wearing bustiers makes the bustier-less feel unwelcome, maybe protesting isn’t for them.

Traister doesn’t quote any bustier haters who felt unwelcome at the marches.  Anyway, all this talk of bustiers is making me wonder:  Is Traister aware that not all skimpy clothes are from the Frederick’s of Hollywood “70’s Swinger” and “Honeymoon in Thailand” collections?  So far we’ve heard about halter tops, garter belts, skivvies, hot pants and bustiers.  Someone should really tell this woman about jean shorts and tank tops.

But Traister has made her main point.  The very idea of women trying to make a serious point in sexy clothes is ludicrous, and makes imaginary people feel unwelcome.

“So while the mission of SlutWalks is crucial, the package is confusing and leaves young feminists open to the very kinds of attacks they’re battling.”   Someone is attacking young feminists at anti-rape rallies?  Oh, no!  We must get to the bottom of this lurid and incredibly ironic crime wave!  We’ll have to get our best detectives on the case!  The perp will likely turn out to be someone who’s very easily confused, and is always complaining about women “showing off” their physical attributes.  Oh screw it, it was David Brooks.

Traister has already named all the kinds of underwear she’s ever heard of, and the article is only one-third over!  Maybe it’s time to move on to the next phase of her argument.  Or a new argument entirely?  The next few paragraphs abandon SlutWalk to discuss journalist Mac McClelland, whose recent personal essay tells a strange tale of using violent role-play sex to recover from PTSD.  Like the slutty protesters, McClelland is judged by Traister to be be guilty of “flashiness” and “imprecision” in getting her point across.

Thus “not just prudes but peers impugned McClelland’s journalistic abilities.”  People were hella insulting McClelland and calling her nasty names.  Reading these internet comments, Traister felt (as the web surfer so often does) a vague unease.

“Scanning through them, I found myself again wishing that the young women doing the difficult work of reappropriation were more nuanced in how they made their grabs at authority.”  Yes… yes, that’s itNuance.  Nuance woulda solved everything.  Whether you’re planning an outfit, a sensitive first-person memoir, or a series of protest marches, there is nothing that isn’t made better by a healthy splash of nuance.  It’s the most relaxing aesthetic quality.  If the New York Times and NPR had extremely well-mannered sex, the baby’s name would be Nuance.

And if there’s anyone who ought to know nuance, it’s a New York Times writer.  Just watch.

“But I also wondered if, perhaps, this worry makes me the Toronto cop who thought women should protect themselves by not dressing like sluts.”   See?  The best way to add nuance to an argument is to not be sure if any of your points make sense, then add a Carrie Bradshaw-like “I couldn’t help but wonder…” at the end of every paragraph.  You’re introspective!  And if anyone gets mad about your argument, you can be like “I SAID I wondered if I wasn’t just like that Toronto cop who called all those women sluts!  Is that what you want me to say?  Fine!  I’m just like that Toronto cop!  Maybe I do think all those women got raped because they were dressed like sluts!  But before you start to feel so superior, just remember: I’m not so different from you.   There’s a little of that Toronto cop in all of us.  We’re all the same deep down… I’m just more nuanced about it!!”

Also, editing out the parts of the argument that might be irrational fluff is too much work.

At the end of the article, Traister, aware that she needs to switch gears again if she’s going to have an all-embracing and vaguely optimistic conclusion, replaces concern-trolling with backhanded compliments. “While clumsy stabs at righting sexual-power imbalances may be frustrating, they remain necessary.  Social progress is imperfect, full of half-truths and sloppy misrepresentations.”

You tell ’em, girlfriend!  Gazing down from Olympian heights upon anyone who might be guilty of sloppiness or half-truths, she is free to wind up with Ye Olde One-Sentence Final Paragraph That Doesn’t Mean Anything.

“Which, I guess, is enough to make SlutWalkers of us all.”  And if you didn’t go, you can always just write an essay about it.

Confidential to Aaron Breslow, who told the Times he’s not marrying his boyfriend because “I don’t understand the concept of legalized monogamy and normalcy…. My brother and I both studied queer theory”:  Never base a major life decision on something you learned in literary theory.  It’s just like that time I refused to get a driver’s license because “identity” is an essentialist construct that reinscribes the unitary Cartesian subject.  Trust me, it’s a mistake.  You’ll thank me when you’re my age.