It’s not about the dress you wear

…but the life you lead, said Diana Vreeland.  Well, it’s been a while since the election and I feel pretty much like wearing this every day — arming myself for battle, because it sure feels like it’s on, mister, it’s on.

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So thanks, Vreeland, it is the life you lead, but it is also about the dress you wear. Designers have a strong sense of where the culture is moving — in broad terms, the business of fashion is to predict taste and aesthetic preferences before the public is fully aware of its own shifting inclinations. This is why people can get so riled about fashion and get upset about what other people wear. Most people dress to fit in, to conform, to function. But then there’s the edges of conformity, those who tweak the dominant styles — and then there’s the outré — the “out there” types.

After viewing Hillary Clinton’s 2017 Wellesley Commencement Speech  (link to pbsnewshour, Clinton’s speech starts at 50:00, suggesting they were moving this ceremony briskly and on time!), I started thinking about my own sometimes agonizing sense that the world — the social, cultural, economic, and yes, political world — is somehow disconnected from what I am living. In 2017, with political power held in the hands of men (and they are men and they are white and they are old), and with my daily life made up of men, women, children, diversity, arrays of backgrounds, family units built around love and caring, kindness, working hard… you get the picture, because it’s your life as well. When I look at the news and read about the political world, I’m aghast because what is talked about — not providing food, or health care, or education — of discussing openly the idea people don’t deserve these basic rights — I can not connect this to what my life is like, and what the people around me are like. And what, I wondered, are women feeling (53% of white women who voted for Trump, or the 95% of black women who voted for Clinton)– or, since I’m no pollster, what does women’s fashion suggest right now? What does style tell us, if anything, about where’s women’s minds are at (and, the men who wear dresses).

Rather than looking at fashion blogs (which are largely prescriptive, telling readers what to wear and how to wear it) or fashion magazines (useful to tell us about editorial and marketing priorities, but say little about what women are actually interested in wearing), I took a look at what is selling well online at four different price points/markets.

Barneys First up, a higher end retailer, Barneys of New York, a store so intimidating I haven’t entered it after seven trips to NYC. Barneys online (where I might be a beagle with literacy skills, for all they know, so no intimidation factor) won’t let me see dresses by sales or ratings, so I went with one label, arranged by prices low to high. Here are the eight lowest-priced dresses in Acne, a popular brand among well-off 30+year olds. Interestingly, eight dresses and only two (the slip dress in watercolor print, and the v-neck sleeveless dress in blue and yellow print) have even the potential of being close-fitting. The rest are rigorously unrevealing with high necklines, modest hemlines, and straight figures. Aside from the slip dresses, I could see almost any woman who isn’t stuck wearing an employer-issued uniform able to wear these dresses (although they are almost all dry clean only…).

barney low high acne

barney’s low to high Acne Studio

Blair Jumping down to the lowest end of the scale is Blair. Blair is a 100-year old retail corporation that has always led a happy life in the middling ranks of clothing and goods, never quite competing with the big three of the 1900s (JCPenneys, Sears, and Wards) but never being quite out for the count. Its clothing is utterly, completely safe — one step up or so from Walmart and other pure-discount retailers. Its best-sellers were not a surprise.

Six loose-fitting dresses in bright, clear colors (otherwise known as “cheap colors”). Rose pink, sky blue, bright navy, lead the pack. Knit dresses abound, usually with unfitted waists — in this, the bottom-end Blair dresses share some commonalities with Acne: loose-fitting, lacking waistlines, and sleeveless.

ratings blair dress

Let’s compare the ways these two retailers differ in one important regard that reveals a lot about consumer markets: the cut of the sleeveless shoulder.

Why do these look different? The Blair dresses are cut straight down from the outer edge of the armhole, creating a rectangular block — especially noticeable in the red dress. The Acne dresses earn their higher cost with an armhole that looks simple, but is carefully engineered to create a slight, super-flattering indent just at the edge of the arm-shoulder joint. The Blair dresses suddenly look dowdy in comparison, and the wearer’s arms will look heavier in them without that wee bit of accent. The two clothiers, however, provide some interesting overlapping trends:

— loose-fitting

— sleeveless is fine

— simple lines

Macy’s Macy’s is by far the most national of retailers right now, and its job is not, as with Barneys, to curate and edit the field for customers — and unlike stolid Blair, Macy’s does attempt for fashion and style. It has been caught up, I think, in a terrible contest between ‘fast fashion’ retailers like Forever 21, Zara, Mango, H&M, and even Urban Outfitters. These fast fashion retailers are like swarms of feeding sharks: if one-shoulder tops are in, Forever 21 stocks a relentless array of cheaply-made one-shoulder tops in so many patterns, styles, and fabrics as to render the originating idea (a top that lacks one shoulder) into a shred of a concept without — weirdly — a physical aspect. Macy’s tries to match this and Macy’s struggles for the attention of the older mid-market woman who would otherwise go to “boutique-style” retailers like Ann Taylor, Chicos, Coldwater Creek, where the fast-fashion styles are tamed down into odd detailing, strange but quieter fabric patterns, and so on. So Macy’s waves many flags. It’s perhaps the best general barometer, and here are its Best Sellers of 5,625 dress styles (yes, seriously) it offers.

macys best sellers

Macy’s Best Sellers Dresses

This is a fascinating look at what is selling. Here are the top three in detail: a “Melania” dress (similar to the one she wore at the RNC Convention in summer 2016), a floral maxi dress that is too long even for our model, and a prim overall-lace-knit dress. Long sleeve, no sleeve, cap sleeve. No color, bright color, pastel. macys 2

The second row, seen below, is all over the style map as well. Cold-shoulder (last popular in the 1990s, most famously worn by Hillary Clinton as First Lady), a traditional “dressy gown”, and a uniquely beaded sheath dress. Of the six dresses, only one, the maxi dress, is especially easy to wear. And I’m going to say it, bluntly: none of the six are particularly attractive. In the three below, the cold-shoulder dress looks odd with its shorter hem, and would be an unlikely dress for most work places, being too casual for some and too dressy with those odd droops of fabric for others (the styling suggests a confusion as well, with sandals too revealing for many workplaces and yet too dressy for casual wear).

second row

The beaded dress by Papell looks more like a “puff pigeon” dress from the Gibson Girl era than a contemporary dress for modern women.

Saks Fifth Avenue Finally, back to the high end, where things are more interesting and attractive. Saks Fifth Avenue, like Barneys, doesn’t allow for arranging by best sellers or customer ratings… so instead, I went with the brand Akris punto. Relatively easy to wear dresses (they only go up to size 10, so one will be thin to wear them, of course). What’s interesting is the ease of movement in the dresses: the orange cap sleeve dress is called a “shift dress” but we can all see that slight A-line flare to the skirt; the grey and blue dresses are full-skirted (one with drop waist, and one with godets up to the bust).

 

saks Akris low to high

Saks Fifth Avenue, Akris best sellers

And the other three dresses present a similar interesting picture: pockets, drop waists, and a narrow dress in jersey knit. The stylists knew what they were doing using that black-soled loafer and the more traditional heel. These are expensive dresses for tall, thin women — but the best selling dresses by this brand suggest a very basic praticality and desire to be able to move freely. 

What did I learn from checking these four retailers — Barneys, Blair, Macy’s, Saks? First, Macy’s is all over the style map, maybe as it should be — but what a mess of sleeves, droops, and fabrics. The higher-end markets suggest restraint, quiet control, little interest in frippery or flounce, and in general, easy-to-wear dresses. Blair, the low-end marketer, distills this approach into timelessly gawky styles — a catalog from the 1970s would have on offer almost the same mix of sleeveless knit “summer” dresses, bright color schemes, and loose fit. If we assume the higher end retailers reflect more closely shifts in the larger culture — at least for those women at the higher end of the economic scale — then woman want control, freedom, and ease of movement. I’ve no clue whether women (cis, trans, whatever) share anything fundamental — dress styles or lives.

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Diana Vreeland dared a lot in her lifetime, from being a working woman to having a family, from wearing men’s styles to wearing outlandishly feminine red dresses. She did not hide that high forehead or that “skinny” body, she did not tone it down, and she did not play it safe. I do hope most women end up living lives closer to Vreeland’s “man repeller” ways, than the gentle submissiveness of pastels, tight fitting sheath dresses, and perky heels.

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