Fashion Writers: "Fat" People Lazy, Shiftless, Poorly Dressed

Newsweek's Sameer Reddy is railing against elasticized waistbands, chubbiness, Velcro, Juicy Couture, jean shorts, and the value of comfort in dressing. Does he hate puppies, too?

I suppose it was about time to read another one of these articles where some writer wrings his or her hands over Americans' allegedly inconsistent commitment to fashionable dressing. The rhetoric in these trend pieces never changes: we are always and in perpetuity too fat, too lazy, and too dumb. (Although there was, always and in perpetuity, a mythical time in the not-too-distant past when every male citizen of every state wore a 40R jacket and every female citizen could rhapsodize extemporaneously about the superior hand of natural fibers.)

What I don't understand is why writers like Reddy, and Lynn Hirshberg of the New York Times, who wrote one of these dismal pieces in 2007, consent so easily to playing the scold. Writes Reddy, "The stereotype of the ugly American has become intractable."

If you ask citizens of other countries to paint a portrait of the average American tourist, it would look something like this: a loud, chubby sight-seer wearing a fanny pack, baseball cap, printed T shirt, jean shorts and sneakers.

I wonder, why do we care? And do these people not realize they have elasticized waistbands in France, too?

Reddy harks back to the age of Mad Men — a fictional, modern-made television series with a professionally styled wardrobe department — as evidence that we only recently forgot ourselves and embraced casualwear in the workplace. That Nicole Phelps, executive editor of Style.com, points out that real working women of the 1960s had to wear girdles more painful even than Spanx to fit the reigning professional silhouette of the era, doesn't trouble Reddy, probably because he is a man.

Once upon a time, he continues,

Those with the means made a virtue of exuding relaxed elegance; they didn't try to overdo anything, but they saw no shame in appearing put together. It was an extension of what they believed in, a polished pragmatism that, today, has given way to self-indulgence.

Comfort has its place, of course, but if that becomes the guiding value in getting dressed—or anything else—then we've got a problem. This misplaced priority has arguably contributed to our current troubles with credit, education and productivity. Compared with our parents and grandparents, we've had it relatively easy. We've got cable TV, microwave popcorn and GPS. The world is at our command and we are at ease, but this kind of comfort breeds complacency—not to mention Velcro straps and elasticized waistbands.

You heard the man. Velcro and other signifiers of "self-indulgence" caused the credit crisis.

Hirshberg's piece was not much better: "I have long believed that leisure wear is one of the great evils of our times," she writes,

When a waistband can give and give, why should anyone stop eating? When a shirt does not need to be tucked in, who cares about the belly beneath?

Although the sizism of these kinds of pieces — specifically denied by both writers — is easily parsed from the continual references to "tent-size" shirts, "sloppiness," and "XXL polo shirts", what's also distressing is their classism. While dressing well needn't be expensive, what these writers seem to be calling for isn't merely fashion as fun self-expression, it's fashion as a system of social representation — the idea that one ought to look good, so that one can be recognized by other good-looking people, and feel mutually reassured in one's tastes. And that kind of dress-as-shibboleth requires the sublimation of most of one's ideas about clothes into the safe confines of designer labels. Reddy detests chubbiness; I don't like his clubbiness. Or his condescension.

Inherent in these stories is the idea that a certain way of looking equates with a certain way of being. I love fashion; I love playing with ideas of representation and how we declare ourselves in the world. But I think that when you start alleging that fashion — or, worse, "taste" — has some kind of absolute, timeless value, you get into potentially dangerous moral (and extraordinarily boring sartorial) territory. Hirshberg's story ends up reifying Italian President Silvio Berlusconi and former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin as tidy dressers; it's as though the fact that each is often in the public eye for corruption somehow makes their alleged fashion savvy more impressive.

Reddy thinks fashion in '09 will take a turn towards his narrow definitions of "chic" with the coming of the Obamas. What I'd like to see from fashion in '09 is fewer hectoring "trend" stories about lazy poor fat people and their lazy poor fat people habits. Comfort is not the enemy of style, and fat is not the enemy of fashion. Maybe we could just end the entire idea of fashion as a capital-F top-down regimented enterprise fit only for vetted experts. Then we could get back to wearing what we want, wearing what we think is fun, wearing what makes us feel good, wearing what reminds us of that one really great day when…and not being judged by mean writers for it.

Putting The Chic Back In Dressing [Newsweek]

Related: The Emperors' New Clothes? [NY Times]