A fellow graduate student once informed me that one of the reasons he went into academia was because he could wear whatever he wanted.
Really? Can we ever really wear what we want to? It seems as if we always present an image to the world, consciously or unconsciously, carefully orchestrated or carelessly unthoughtful.
I recently read a thought provoking book by Linda Przybyszewski called The Lost Art of Dress. Przybyszewski described the history of the so-called “dress doctors,” authorities on fashion who guided women on what to make, buy, and wear from the turn of the century until the 1960s and 1970s, when the dress doctors lost their authority as most women deliberately rejected their authority as old-fashioned and passé.
But were the dress doctors really wrong? Przybyszewski provided a nuanced look at the ways that regular women interpreted and listened to the experts of fashion and observed the 5 art principles: harmony (and consistency in shape and texture), rhythm (in purpose and color), balance (with symmetrical as formal and asymmetry as informal), proportion (in scale with one’s body), and emphasis (every garment should move the eyes upward to the face). The dress doctors also emphasized thrift, as many/most women made their own clothes and bought patterns and fabrics. I happen to think the dress doctors were spot on, generally speaking, in emphasizing the basic art forms to enhance a woman’s appearance. I especially appreciated the importance of thrift, as most woman do not have unlimited clothing budgets. The dress doctors also delineated between young women and more mature women, but not in the way our current youth-obsessed culture might think. The dress doctors believed more mature women had the character and poise to pull off the most elegant and stylish looks. Younger women should wear clothes more youthful in print and color, but, according to the dress doctors, the real fashion was worn by middle aged women who had acquired the taste and character to wear the best fashion. How refreshing!
To be fair, while the dress doctors advised women of all classes and budgets, they assumed fashion belonged to white women. Women of color were virtually ignored. How unfortunate and short-sighted, to think that white women were the only ones interested in presenting themselves in a respectable way.
Przybyszewski bemoans the demise of the dress doctors in the 1960s and 1970s as most of the rules disappeared, or more accurately, were soundly rejected by a culture not in the mood to conform, especially when it came to fashion. Did the counter-culture have a point? Probably. On the other hand, as Przybyszweski points out, the fashion industry shifted (permanently?) to a youth-obsessed focus for fashion. Previously, women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond, as respected and mature woman, could wear things that young women could not. In addition, the dress doctors assumed a particular shape for mature woman that young women did not emulate. In other words, the dress doctors assumed women in their 40s or 60s did NOT want to look like or be mistaken for a 20 something.
So what makes someone a good dresser, by today’s standards? I hear a cacophony of voices desperately trying to tell me what to wear in magazines, blogs, cable channels, and even network tv segments (often on ‘news’ shows). While I realize that the vast majority of these so-called fashion “experts” are typically paid to endorse certain products, thus making their suggestions suspect, it seems as if there is a void left by the dress doctors of a bygone era. Am I supposed to look professional? Invisible? Respectable? Sexy? Victorian? My age? As if I am permanently in my 20s?
For a female, the messages about dress differ slightly from messages to men about how to dress. Is the goal to attract the opposite sex of a certain age category? It seems as if our society marks attraction by men in their 20s as some sort of status symbol for women. For Christian women, the messages about how to dress become even more complicated. Be modest. Don’t cause others to stumble. Be confident. People should know you are married by the way you dress and act. Rejoice in the body that God gave you. What you wear does not matter.
Except it kind of does, doesn’t it?
With all the mixed messages, is it any wonder that women (and men) of all ages struggle with how to present themselves? Furthermore, if the way we present ourselves is connected with our identity, is it any wonder that 21st century American youth struggle with their identity?
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College