imaginary outfit: giving thanks for radical dowdiness

imaginary outfit: finding gratitude


I was composing an outfit for Thanksgiving, as I do each year, when it hit me — kaftan dressing is the answer. Easy, simple, comfortable; ample room for whatever waistline expansion may occur after multiple platefuls of carbohydrate-rich fare. Hello, mashed potatoes. We meet again, stuffing. Smother everything in gravy, please, and pass me another roll.

You may protest that kaftans are not precisely flattering. Perhaps, like Doree Shafrir, you might say “Bless everyone who is pretty enough, skinny enough and rich enough to wear this dress.” (The kaftan in my collage is $120, so somewhat more affordable than the Creatures of Comfort dress Shafrir linked). To that, I say, with polite disdain: please. If you want to wear it, WEAR IT. This mandate should apply to me in caftans, Kardashians in miniskirts, and everyone in between.

Naomi Fry's recent NYT piece, "Modest Dressing, as a Virtue," rankled me. She seems concerned that certain trends (think long sleeves, high necklines, and sack-like silhouettes) in a specific slice of the fashion world reflect a conservatism inimical to female empowerment. It's a weirdly retrograde notion of empowerment, though: that somehow women are only free if we choose to expose our bodies, and that failing to do so is somehow a signal of protection or retreat.

I think the answer is simpler: some women are dressing this way because they like it and it makes them feel good. In the piece, Fry claims, "You have to be a pretty stylish, pretty good-looking woman to claim ownership of such radical dowdiness." Well, no. Like the fairies in Peter Pan, these things are only real as long as you choose to believe in them. As a short, not thin, not wealthy, average-looking woman with prematurely graying hair well past dewy youth living far from a global fashion center, I happily wear clothes like these. I love the fact that so many are designed by women, and I don't care whether anyone else in my daily orbit thinks I look dowdy because I feel like myself.

Radical dowdiness strikes me as a concept to embrace: dowdy, as it stands, is a gendered word usually applied to dismiss women through judging their clothes as unfashionable or not of the moment. If radical dowdiness means elevating qualities traditionally associated with women, age, thrift, and practicality, let's storm the fashion barricades carrying a darned and mended banner while wearing our sensible flats and elastic-waisted pants!

And at the revolution of radical dowdiness, as we all mill about in our high-necked tent dresses, button-down jumpsuits, and many-pocketed denim work jackets, we should firmly fold and put away the shabby thinking that ties any notion of female empowerment to a specific set of choices. The power lies in having the choice, not in choosing a particular outcome. The work lies in expanding and accepting the choices, not in dictating them, even when they involve a simple dress.

Haltingly and grudgingly, I think society is making more room for women to be themselves, and I'm grateful for the women who've fought for every painful inch of space. And one little happy act of defiance I continue to embrace is simply wearing the things that make me feel good, even if they don't fit some notion of what looks best, because it lets me share some small part of who I am; not who anyone else expects me to be.  Radical dowds, unite!

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Tangential note: new gift guides will be posted next week, and I'll be sharing book gift guides the week after.

'before the internet'

It was a heady time! 
You’d be in some kind of arts center, wearing roomy overalls, looking at a tray of precious gems, and you’d say, “That’s cat’s-eye,” and your friend would say, “Nope. That’s opal.” And you’d say, “That’s definitely cat’s-eye.” And there would be no way to look it up, no way to prove who was right, except if someone had a little booklet. 'Anyone got a little booklet?” you’d ask, looking around. “Is there a booklet on this shit?' 
Then you’d walk outside and squint at the sky, just you in your body, not tethered to any network, adrift by yourself in a world of strangers in the sunlight.

Emma Rathbone, 'Before the Internet.' The New Yorker, 6/26/2017.

(One my favorite pieces of writing in 2017. I love it so much, probably because in the days before the internet I did wear roomy overalls and stare at rocks in arts centers, and I was also friends with crows.)