Redressing the New York Times on Fashion

 Photo by Pete Bellis on Unsplash

Last month, the New York Times published an alternately sneering and baffled article by Naomi Fry entitled “Modest Dressing, as a Virtue,” but it was really about modest dressing as a problem. This was a clumsy attempt to understand women’s sartorial motivations. Mid-way through the initial read, I second-guessed the source. Was this really the New York Times, or some new high-brow project from the makers of TMZ? And was it actually written by a woman? I’ve never been superstitious, but wondered: Could this be a psychic message from the Ghost of Heffner Past?

Alas! I must acknowledge that it was indeed published by the reputable New York Times, and written by a woman, some sort of academic, no less, who has heard of feminism! Let’s take a closer look at Naomi Fry’s understanding of fashion and feminism.  “Modest dressing, as a Virtue,” is muddied by the author’s personal feelings, but I’ll do my best to break it down.

Fry is alarmed that modest clothing is on trend. She betrays her gut reaction by an overwhelmingly negative lexicon. Here are some of the descriptors with which she characterizes such attire and the people who wear it: turd, aggressive, drab, cult-style, patriarchal, oppressive, sack-like, hobo, dowdy, comical, outsize, disconcerting, radical, severe, subjugated, figure-blurring, humblebrag, elitist, better-than-thou, disheartening, frumpy, disgusting, jarring. The thorough reader will eventually discover a few nearly neutral adjectives–“cultural,” “mobile,” “versatile,” “ambiguous,” “cushioning,”  and “understandable”—as a disingenuous nod to the ghost of journalistic impartiality. (God rest its soul.) Last but not least, Fry wonders if covering up might be “a real dare.”

Crucially, we are given to believe that this trend indicates some threat to feminism, especially because these new “aggressively non-provocative” styles can no longer be neatly chalked up to outdated religious adherence, and thus disregarded. Befuddled, Fry grasps at straws. She hypothesizes that the fad might be an exclusionist strategy of rich, slim, beautiful women. Or, she concedes, the use of fabric as “armor” might be a means of self-preservation in these fraught end-times of convulsant patriarchy. This, she could benevolently understand, but there is a patronizing undertone to her sympathy; such socially conscious modesty, she implies, is a concession to the aforementioned patriarchy. Finally, Fry allows that, however implausible, modest attire might not necessarily prevent a woman from feeling at home in her body.

Where shall we begin, with such a fecund trove of folly? Fry is considered very funny, by Brooklyn standards, so one might wonder if this article is a total joke.  If so, it has gone over her editor’s head, or the New York Times is turning into satire. However, I doubt that Fry’s consternation is satirical. With that lucrative alarmism now rampant throughout the news media, she promptly contextualizes the modest trend within our current “heart-poundingly swift, frequently terrifying news cycle.” She reiterates that women today live in “ a volatile, vulnerable time.”

For any reader who does not immediately grasp the supposed dangers of modest dress, the editor helpfully embellished the article. 19th century paintings of heavily shrouded, seemingly immobilized Arab women mingle with recent photos of modest but fashionable western celebrities and supermodels. Indeed, we can almost hear Naomi Fry’s heart pounding. The panicked warning quivers on her lips: Sound the alarm! The burqas are coming! Well, at least, the full skirts and long sleeves. Sisters, it’s a short, slippery step to headscarves and servitude. To arms! Put your best breast forward! Pussy grabs back!

First of all, Naomi, please calm down. Feminists, fear not this “virginal drabness!” Skirt fabric is not a hymen proxy. I was still a sheltered adolescent in a map-dot town when I realized that apparel is rarely an adequate indicator of the wearer’s personal values or sexual experiences. What I’ve observed since then has consistently reinforced that lesson. Let’s try to keep up with the social savvy of pubescent schoolgirls.

Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen may don some unsexy garb, but there is no reason to believe they’ve made vows of celibacy. Neither are they taking aim at Ms. Fry’s “sexuality as a source of power,” or anyone else’s. I too promise that I’m not smuggling manacles under the non-provocative sweater I’m wearing right now. Cross my snuggled, knit-loving heart. My thick ski socks also come in peace, and even my unfortunately-named haram pants do not hide a chastity belt. Fear my wits, Naomi, not my pleats.

Secondly, what are these big ideas we speak of? What is fashion? Which feminism are we talking about? Fry seems to believe that fashion ought to be a peep show, and she clearly feels that she’s not getting her money’s worth this season. Such a voyeuristic sense of entitlement has not been displayed so brazenly since, well, yesterday, on casting couches all over Hollywood. Still, isn’t it just a little disconcerting to read this blithe attitude of consumption from an ostensibly liberated woman? Oh, wait! That’s right: Male predators and their female bodyguards have been using so-called feminism as an excuse for decades, and it’s been working. So never mind.  (If in doubt, just re-read Gloria Steinem’s 1998 op-ed about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. That was published by the New York Times too, but then banished from their archives. The Atlantic recently dredged it up from the abyss, and for good reason.)

Let’s get back to fashion.  Among other things, high fashion is an art form. It plays with form, texture, color, symbol, line and movement. There’s good and bad art in every discipline. I don’t aspire to the aesthetic of the Sequoia dress which kicks off Fry’s mild panic, but a “generously cut midi-skirt” is not synonymous with dowdiness. The haute couture examples of supposed modesty which she proceeds to cite all attest creative priorities beyond flat concealment.

For example, Céline’s designs that Fry calls “cocoon-like” sport some provocatively plunging necklines. At least one was a pointed homage to the power suits of the 1980’s. These shared the runway with gracefully draped scarves of long, softly shimmering cashmere fringe which resonated sensually to even the slightest movement of the body beneath. The full-length frocks from Erdem (pre-spring 2018) evoke gardens in floral thrall. What could be more romantic to the attentive eye than unruly passionflowers blossoming across a bodice? Those high collars visually lengthen the torso while underlining the jaw, a feature at the poignant intersection of anatomical vulnerability and interior resolve.  Likewise, Solange Knowles’ off-beat Gastonbury get-up, which so puzzled Fry, neatly defined the chanteuse’s womanly curves without upstaging her singing (you know, the actual reason she was there). Somehow, this emphasis harmonized with her magnificent, untamed coif. Her whole silhouette was ineffably balanced. There could be no questioning Solange’s strength and beauty.

Clearly, we don’t have to like or wear such artifacts, but anyone dealing in fashion criticism ought to regard them with an eye for inspiration, craft, beauty and meaning. I am no connoisseur. The features I’ve just mentioned are discernible to anyone with one good eye and two brain cells. And yet, their punctums are lost on Naomi Fry. She’s chiefly interested in exposed flesh and flaunted figures. She also insists upon analyzing clothing primarily as a sexual-political statement. (No pressure, ladies!) Naomi Fry cannot see the forest through the trees, or the fashion through the fabric.  And yet she is employed by the New York Times as a copy editor and sometime-style writer. The mind reels.

Thirdly, let’s see if we can delve a little deeper into Naomi’s feminism, since it—and not modest dressing—is the only virtue she proclaims here. As far as articulating it, she says just that feminism asserts “a woman’s right to self-determination over her own body,” but a bit of digging reveals more detail. Her knowledge of the modest trend relies heavily on a more thorough article penned last spring by Vanessa Friedman, New York Times chief fashion critic. In June 2017, Friedman had just begun to question her forty-year crusade against long skirts, which she had intransigently rejected all that time as “symbols of women’s anti-liberation.” Fry might pretend at humor, but Friedman was serious, and I was amused.

Naomi Fry similarly lets slip hints of her own rigid feminist orthodoxy. Like many complacent ideologues, she first channels sneering mainstream derision towards the devout women of marginalized sects.  But this snide posture turns to indignant alarm when she realizes that her own inarticulate value system, which she heretofore believed to be the official state religion of Free Womandom, has new dissidents, even in the Holy City! Observe her consternation that cradle-Mormons founded the wildly successful lifestyle magazine, Kinfolk, and that secular, liberal, progressive women eagerly buy into it. The religious believers whom she smugly disregarded as “retiring” and “self-enclosed” are not dinosaurs on the brink of inexorable extinction after all! They have not even been successfully ghettoized. Worse, their habits could be contagious. In short: heretical values threaten to infiltrate Fry’s fictitious fashionable feminist realm.  I’m sure all this unforeseen un-change tastes just as bitter to Naomi Fry as it did to every other self-absorbed flash-in-the-pan who went before her. The attentive reader might even detect her socially paranoid sense of exclusion at being left outside the imagined “psychographic tribe” of “pretty stylish, pretty good-looking women,” who “dare” to feel confident in their own bodies, even without flaunting them!

But what kind of critic, let alone a fashion, art, or culture editor today, could be taken unawares by these realities? This is hardly news.  Or are the fashion-focused elite of New York really so insulated? Unfortunately for Naomi Fry, blind-loyal feminism—the sort which, for the past four decades, incomprehensibly considered skirt hems as the battle-line against oppression—has never been the universal standard by which women measure their worth, nor the manual according to which they tend and adorn their bodies.

As most women throughout history could tell her, we have more important factors to consider when getting dressed. These include the weather; our budgets and means of transportation; the nature of our work; the unique abilities, shapes and sizes of our bodies; personal taste; cultural heritage, and the oft-overlooked need for pockets.

Even those few women who have the luxury or frivolity to shop for looks alone don’t necessarily consult modesty before choosing a voluminous silhouette. Fry is correct that anyone who slips on a $400+ designer dress, no matter how ugly,  might not be trying to fade into the woodwork. Still, there needn’t be anything coded about this brag. As any healthy adult female knows, it’s just that our bodies are not the only things we have to boast.  For example, while I don’t have beaucoup bucks to fritter on fleeting fads, I am absurdly proud of my instinct for upcoming color trends. I’m practically a prophet of pigment. I also have a knack for cheap alliteration. What can I say? It’s the little things.

For most of us, the priorities propagated by haute couture are about as distant from our daily wardrobe choices as is today’s increasingly authoritarian faux-feminism. Few of us could purchase the designs which Fry regards with such abhorrence. On the other hand, show me the woman who stands before her closet each morning and asks herself “What would Gloria Steinem wear?” and I’ll show you a tormented, self-doubting (albeit chic) wretch. We do not gaze into the looking glass and recite “Germaine Greer, on the wall, who’s the feminist-est of them all?” There is no altar to Lena Dunham on my dressing table, and that’s not just because I have no dressing table.

We do not owe Fry or the feminist establishment an explanation of our clothing, any more than we owe one to cat-callers, lecherous bosses, workplace gossips, or fatwa-wielding clerics.

Indeed, Fry has even less right to such explanations than have our family, friends and employers–which is to say: precisely none.

To take a little pardonable liberty with the timeless words of Jane Austen, we are only resolved to dress in a manner which will constitute our own happiness, without reference to you or to any person so wholly unconnected with us.

It behooves us all to be circumspect in any conjecture about another person’s sartorial motivations. Nonetheless, I dare say that Sheila Heti just might have felt like one such self-possessed, comfortable  woman on that “late autumn,” presumably chilly day when Fry spied her in New York. (Emphasis my own.) That is, so Heti might have felt every day, until a perfect stranger unleashed her sycophantic inner paparazzi and published nosy remarks on Heti’s practical shoes and unflashy warm layers.

Finally, this brings into sharp focus the eye of the beholder: a writer inexpertly projecting her own complicated feelings onto other women and passing the resultant dross off as something like journalism to a leading national newspaper. But why is Fry so unsettled by beautiful women covering themselves? The answer is simple. Displays of female flesh and stolen intimacies have habitually provided her bread and butter. Fry is a former employee of the gossip rag, US Weekly. She recognizes the media’s tendency to “expose any intimate body part for public consumption,” then rides that tendency with relish. She declared in a 2014 talk at the School of Visual Arts, “The trashy place is my happy place.” Now, with “Modest Dressing, as a Virtue” she reasserts her implicit expectation that fashionable, attractive, slim women ought to show her their youthful flesh before the “supposed scourges of childbearing or menopause.” In case we failed to diagnose her voyeuristic bent already, Fry does not stop at general allusion to the female form, but directs us to the “fabulous breasts” and “monumental butt” of specific women. This feminist, self-described Marxist has professionally exploited and still ravenously consumes female sexual vitality. The cognitive dissonance is deafening.

Then again, maybe this shouldn’t surprise us, coming from an apparent devotee of the misguided movement which now asks its aspirants to parade around with vaginas on their heads as a sort of basic loyalty test.  Likewise, had I read any of Fry’s previous work, I would not now be surprised by her entitled tone and mind-numbing misinterpretation of modesty and fashion. After all, in 2012 she published a 500-word swoon about a photo of two oblivious, nearly-naked teenagers, whom she knows were later ravaged by the side-effects of early celebrity. This was no fleeting crush on her part; two years later, Fry still considered that skimpy essay her favorite piece of work. She said of the snapshot “[It] encapsulates everything that’s been interesting to me, ever … ever.”

That explains a lot about Naomi Fry’s fashion sense. It does not explain why anyone would ever publish it or pay for it.

To buy style insight from someone who openly worships naïve adolescent nudity is to buy the emperor’s new clothes once again.

In fact, financial necessity aside, one wonders why Fry continued to turn her curiosity on anything new after penning her 500 favorite words about her one favorite photograph, let alone why she proceeded to foist her opinions on women’s choices to wear more material. It would have been far more prudent to gracefully retire when her interest had found its metaphorical climax, and her writing career was in its—dare I say it—modest zenith.  She could then have taken up some more fruitful pastime, such as tiddlywinks, or frying ice.

And yet, continue she did! In June, 2016, she gave us this insecure, navel-gazing and vaguely amusing anecdote about her obsession with teen street fashion. In it, she compared the development of her own distinctive style to a pilgrimage, a never-ending quest for “the imagined perfection of the symbolic phallus.”

Is anyone else uncomfortable yet?

So, there we have it. Naomi Fry suffers from fashion insecurity, bordering on symbolic penis envy. She feels intimidated by women who feel good, even though they don’t look sexy to her. It’s a pretty sad condition. But even if all this poppycock is sincere, there is still hope! Fry as good as confessed her inscrutable envy of Sheila Heti, who doesn’t mind looking slightly “drab” on occasion.  There are probably other famous-enough, feminist-enough women dressing warmly this winter in Brooklyn for Naomi Fry to ogle and even admire. Maybe with a little luck and a lot of therapy, she too can stop fretting so much about her own appearance.

After all, the other parents didn’t give a rat’s ass when she wore a leopard-print sweater vest at her daughter’s birthday party. They came for the kids, and possibly the cupcakes.

Naomi, don’t be afraid! Somewhere this side of the rainbow, there’s a marvelous place where your emphasized body is not your conventional calling card, and long, non-provocative skirts are not even almost aggressive. You can meet me there. Just look for the royally unbothered little woman in a bulky sweater, haram pants and ski socks. I’ll be smiling.

Red cabbage