Kellyanne Conway, the president’s “counselor” who functions as his press mouthpiece, promoted the president’s daughter’s clothing line on national television this week. ” “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, told Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy. Ivanka Trump has a “wonderful line,” Conway added. “I own some of it. I fully, I’m gonna just going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today everybody. You can find it online.” ” (source: NBCNews). Conway was reprimanded, Ivanka’s struggling line got free publicity, and we learned that it’s totally like unfair when super-wealthy women’s products don’t do well in the free market of competition.
But does Ivanka’s fashion have a “wonderful line”? Conway meant a product line, a group of clothing, but “line” also refers to the cut, tailoring, and silhouette of clothing — the ways the fabric lays on the body. And, ironically, “a wonderful line” can mean bullshit, lying, a convincing or at least sounds-good bunch of foolish nonsense.
So a lesson in how silhouettes in clothing convey emotional and ideological meaning. In the 18th and 19th centuries silhouettes were “shadow” cutout portraits treasured because a silhouette, albeit the negative space of a person’s profile, was understood to reflect their essence, their personality and character. And they did.
We all get that is Abraham Lincoln to the right — sure, his name is under there, but it’s his stance, the beard line, the nose and shape of the head — no one living has seen President Lincoln in three-dimensions, real life — but he’s instantly recognizable.
The outlines — the shape of the mass — of a person’s body, then, conveys character, meaning, ideas. The word, French of course, refers to a concept dating back to Plato’s cave, in which men chained to a rock in a cave were convinced by the shadows — the silhouettes — of monsters, that those monsters were real. In other words, lines and silhouettes have running through them a question about realness, authenticity, lies and truth.
The silhouettes of clothing are created by taking fabric and manipulating the material around the body — cut, paneling, stitching, gathering . My current standard outfit of narrow skirts or pants, longer tunic length sweater, and a large bulky scarf give the outlines of my body a specific shape, while in the summer bare legs, a simple straight shorter skirt, t-shirt and sun hat provide a different outline, albeit with the same body underneath.
Silhouettes convey ideas. This montage of dress silhouettes can be read as statements of self — keep in mind, what is viewed as “flattering” changes over time. The woman sitting for her silhouette in the images above would have a shape (provided by the dress, the fabric, and the wire-and-canvas undergarments) that would read as “ugly” and odd today. There’s no universally appealing silhouette — there’s just shapes of clothing.
Long, tall, and narrow = inward-looking, controlled by self and others, uptight, tightened in. The column dresses require a body willing to be flattened (either by restrictive undergarments or discipline imposed by the person through diet, rigorous exercise, and denial of age). Dresses that flare out from the waist connote expansiveness, fertility, willingness to play along. Dresses that use fabric to create a silhouette that stands away from the body (flared skirts or tiered, pleated skirts) or layering on top to visually expand the torso out, are likewise about acceptance of life, openness to others.
Michelle Obama wore both silhouettes while serving as First Lady. She wore the narrow top-flared skirt silhouette often, usually to semi-formal or slightly-dressy occasions. Again, consider the ways the silhouette conveys openness and a willingness to engage with others — just the fact it is easy to walk in these dresses makes that clear. The narrowly-cut, tightly tailored tops tend to demonstrate a degree of self-control.
She also wore a narrow silhouette with a few tweaks. The skirts are pencil-shaped, tailored to cut in at the waist, skim the hips and slightly narrow in around the knees (or, less often, the hemlines offered a bit of flaring out — that blue skirt in the middle is cut wider at the bottom then around the hips — that’s also why that skirt seems more casual in feel than the repeatedly-worn seagreen skirt). These skirts require adopting a stride with steps cut in towards one another. Interestingly, Obama paired these constraining skirts with soft lines on top: cardigans, pullover sweaters, or, in the middle image, a sporty tee shirt. She never paired the narrow skirt with a tucked-in blouse, a tightly-tailored jacket, or a narrowly-cut woven top. She seems to have selected this outfit for speeches, events where she walks across a stage. Note the colors as well: Obama tended towards slightly-off color combinations — a thoroughly modern approach favored in fashion magazines and in more stylish cities. The seagreen skirt paired with a camel-toned sweater; the mid-blue skirt (not navy) worn with coral-red top; the seagreen skirt with a cream-blush cardigan. Innovative mixings.
So, Ivanka’s “line”. As I discussed in an earlier post, What’s missing in Ivanka’s closet, her clothing line tends towards the uptight conservative lines of grown-up dresses or she indulges in her own clothing choices in an infantile, barely-of-age style of pinafores and little-girl frills. Her clothing line reflects the former: uptight, conservative, challenging dresses. Here is a sampling from Elder-Beerman, a department store chain based in the south that offers more conservative women’s fashion, with styles that look back towards the 1980s and early 1990s fashions favored by the wealthy, than 21st century mix of styles, colors and silhouettes.
These are some of the more relaxed silhouettes in her line. The dresses on either side are narrow, made of double-knit polyester (now deemed “scuba knit” in the industry but it’s good old-fashioned 1970s style stretch polyester knit). The hems are short — really too short for most business settings. The lines of the dresses are tight. The striped dress offers a slight flare of fabric coming off the high, almost empire waist. Even on the model you can see that the armholes are cut awkwardly — there’s a gap on the left that bodes ill for most women. The floral dress on the right again has a raised waistline with a wide band across and some slightly gathering of the fabric — if a woman carries a bit of weight here this fabric will create a harsh horizontal block of material. The top is again cut awkwardly; on the model the fabric bulges out a bit under the arms to the waist. The skirt is cut tight and very narrow around the knees. The middle dress is really the same dress as the striped one, with a lighter fabric gathered into four pleats: one set of pleats sits right on the edge of the hips, while the second set is placed about four inches off center. The more-full skirt gives a sense of the way a fuller silhouette connotes openness. If a woman carries weight below her waistline this dress will block out that part and exaggerate the line of fat.
These two sets of dresses from the same retailer tell us how the designers of the line struggle with the restrictions imposed by a loyalty to the same narrow silhouette. The problem is that while narrowly-cut sheath dresses are plentiful on the market, the silhouette is very challenging for most American women (size 16, with a 37.5″ waist, according to the estimable fact-source The Today Show) to wear. So, variations are called for! Top right: the column dress with a slightly belled skirt, middle top is the same silhouette but with a forward-looking detailing of pleather on the waist (this dress verges on cool, except that including that narrow patent-leather belt ruins the interesting Alexander-McQueen line of the dress) and top left a weird blend of silhouette, with a paneled top and an oddly limp skirt, probably with a tight narrow underlayer skirt. Bottom row we see the narrow column dress, with its self-contained, self-disciplined feel, given a boat-neckline to the left, a “trumpet” ruffle in the middle, and most forbiddingly, a ray of pleated gathers to the right. The pale pink aligns that dress lower right to the overall pallette of the line — the Ivanka’s colorways are off-trend and out of sync with the larger culture right now. The red dates from the 1980s, not 2016; the purple, pink, and navy floral dates from 2000-era Lands’ End sheath dresses. The “nude” tone of the paneled dress top left was a look popular in the early 2000s, while the “flesh-pink” of the lower right corner has been a dated look for decades. The “nude” and “flesh” tones are ironic-quote-marked for a reason: these are tones favoring Caucasian women, for whom “nude” tones are comfortingly normalized to suit them.
One final look at what is discomfiting and dreary about the Ivanka Trump line of clothing: this dress, now marked down to $24.99. There’s a reason for that markdown. First, it’s an ungainly silhouette. The elbow-length sleeves, boat neckline, and seaming down the bustline suggests a flattering fit, but the reality is for most women, the waist will be strained tight, the material over the chest will pucker at the wrong places, and the neckline and arm length will make most women look football-armored. The point here is not that women should wear only silhouettes and clothing that flatter — screw that rule! F+++ it! The only person who a woman should look to please with her clothing choices is herself. But…. clothing should also allow you to move without concern, it should not make you nervously aware of body parts that are perfectly fine. A skirt that grabs you across the butt is a skirt that does not fit — but too many women think that the fault lies with their butt, not the skirt. The problem is not you, it really is with the clothing. So….
The skirt continues the seam lines, but depending on a woman’s body shape, the fabric will tightly pull over the butt and hips, inching the skirt upwards as she walks; if she sits, she needs to be prepared to pull that fabric down when she stands. The ruffle on the hemline is decorative: the skirt hem ends mid-thigh and cuts inwards. This is a dress that imagines women immobile, poised and posed. The knit polyester will help her move but don’t be fooled: that ruffle on the hem is decorative. She might try walking but that tight hemline will force her to move cautiously, she’ll need to police herself and make certain that the skirt hasn’t crept up on her. She’ll mince her steps, and if she tries to stride forward, she’ll pull back and learn to move more slowly.