A Dressing-Down

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love Liz Claiborne.

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One of the reasons many of us watch the AMC series Mad Men is “for the clothes.” This isn’t as superficial a reason as one might think. Clothes say a lot not just about a person but about a period. It’s true that fashion trends are often resurrected, and we are now seeing the narrower tie, the thinner lapel, and the angora sweater — the latter, with the concurrent popularity of breast enlargement, making for a lot of Joan look-alikes walking around. But though we may bring back the clothes, and even the breasts, that doesn’t mean we aren’t saying something entirely different with them.  I know this because I was the age of Sally, Don Draper’s daughter, in 1963. I looked up at that world, literally speaking, carrying around the tray of pigs-in-a-blanket at my parents’ parties.

 

A salient memory I have of that period was of watching my mother get dressed for one of those parties. She would go through her closet and pick out a “cocktail dress,” as this garment was called: an above-the-knee confection, beaded or brocaded, with a “plunging neckline” (for all the ubiquity of breasts nowadays, people somehow don’t refer to “plunging necklines” anymore). I still have one of those cocktail dresses hanging in my closet. The bodice (is that term still in use?) is fitted like a straightjacket and pushes everything up, producing an astonishing décolleté, even on someone of my modest endowments.  The dress is a definite emblem of female oppression — one can barely breath, no less eat a pig-in-the-blanket in it — but it’s a pretty thing, and I wish I had an occasion to wear it.

Which brings me to my point. That dress was made with a particular occasion in mind: it was designed for a cocktail party, and we don’t have cocktail parties anymore. Oh, someone may throw one now and then, but it’s just a winking way of asking people over for a few drinks (and maybe an episode of Mad Men), and no one feels obliged to wear a cocktail dress.

But in the early 1960s, cocktail parties demanded cocktail dresses. Men and women were not only relegated to separate spheres; their separation was also part of a larger demarcation that involved the matching of clothes to occasions. Dressing up was an inherent part of daily life of that period. I recall the ordeal of a scratchy crinoline when we went out to dinner, of white gloves when we went into the city, and of patent leather shoes when we visited my grandparents. This was a time when any restaurant with upscale pretensions demanded a jacket and tie, and women could be turned away for not wearing a skirt.

But the sartorial demarcation of space went beyond dressing up for these special occasions. There were specific clothes for other occasions as well. Betty Draper has her party clothes, but she also has her bridge clothes, her going-shopping clothes, her beach clothes, her riding clothes, her stay-at-home clothes, and her going-to-bed clothes. One understands why Barbie dolls, with their vast and specialized wardrobes, had their debut during this period. They helped little girls learn how to organize their future closets.

I should also note that women’s bodies were themselves partitioned spaces at that time. Can one forget Betty Draper in her girdle? Why a woman of her impeccable proportions would need a girdle is hard to fathom, but women were expected to wear elaborate private garments under their public clothes, not matter how firm and shapely their flesh.

The rejection of occasion-specific clothing seemed to happen in a rush in the late ’60s. Many young people grew their hair and threw out their ties, stripped off their girdles and burned their bras, “letting it all hang out,” rather than tucking it in or dressing it up. But this was the extreme expression of a select group. A more pervasive and deeply structural change was occurring more gradually in the society at large. I associate this change with the advent of the “the separate.”

The designer and merchandiser Liz Claiborne pioneered the separate in the early 1970s by selling jackets, tops, skirts, and slacks individually rather than in prescribed ensembles. Her innovation may seem negligible, but it signaled an awareness, albeit a demure one, that women weren’t built in standard sizes — that some had bigger tops than bottoms or bottoms than tops, and they should be able to buy their jackets larger or smaller than their skirts. The separate was an acknowledgement that women were not cookie-cutter specimens and thus not mere tokens of exchange between men.

If the counter-culture movement had spurred a shift from occasion-specific clothes to aggressively casual ones, Liz Claiborne was not so much destructive as renovative of sartorially demarcated space. Her marketing of separates inspired magazine spreads which featured a single garment (a dress or a skirt) and showed how one could add pieces, producing different looks for different occasions. Clothes, these magazines told readers, could be subject to creative manipulation; women who owned them could decide on their use rather than have their use thrust upon them. It seems apt that the advent of separates coincided with the pro-choice movement: Both gave women power over their bodies — one over its presentation, the other over its procreation.

We are currently living in a society that seems, on the surface, to be the heir to the late-’60s counter-culture. Dressing down rather than dressing up seems the order of the day, as we now see jeans in the workplace, shorts at the opera, and flip-flops in the White House. The restaurant that once demanded a jacket and tie is now grateful for a collared shirt.

But history progresses in dialectical fashion. Simple opposition to the past is usually an illusion, and our culture isn’t as uninflectedly casual as we think. Back in the 1970s, the separate added a restrained, creative dimension to the idea of letting it all hang out, and that legacy has not died. Madonna, if you recall, sparked a minor fashion trend in the 1980s when she wore her underwear outside her clothes — that was separates taken to new creative heights.

The other day, my mother-in-law, who likes to say she doesn’t belong in the 21st century, took my college-aged daughter shopping for a birthday present. Kate picked out a cashmere sequined top with a “plunging back” (if we no longer refer to plunging necklines, we do refer to plunging backs). My mother-in-law was surprised. “Where are you going to wear that?” she asked. “I didn’t realize you girls had fancy parties anymore.”

“Oh, we don’t,” my daughter replied. “But I like it. I’ll just wear it around.”

And there you have it. We may not have sartorially demarcated space of the sort Betty Draper inhabited, but if my daughter is any indication, we can still dress up — i.e. wear the sequined cashmere top “around.” It’s no longer a matter of choosing the outfit for the occasion but of making the occasion fit the outfit. Which means I can wear my mother’s cocktail dress to the supermarket, if I want to. • 8 April 2010

 

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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