Clothing – particularly women’s clothing – is pretty obnoxious. Overall, it’s not doing women many favors.
Men hear me say this and they’re like “but look at the options!” Some of the more… “conventional” men, who delight in it all, are also like: “but women look so beautiful!” (“As you all should!”) Or they think to themselves but do not say: “This is a ‘you’ problem. Other women are clearly doing just fine.”
Women field my complaints with rebuttals of “oh my gosh, you just don’t know where to shop! Come with me sometime!”
And I’m like “honeycakes, no offense, because you look amazing, but I really do not have time for that.” Like, maybe that’s the problem. But “figuring out where to shop so I’m not so infuriated with clothes” isn’t really something I think I should have to do. I am my clothing’s Master. Not the other way around.
The sheer inefficiency of shopping and the amount of time we’re expected to shop — the fact that we see it as a past-time; the fact that we dress ourselves “at hanger,” lifting something from the rack and exclaiming, “ooh, cuute.” And then try to convince ourselves it looks just as good on — is only part of the problem.
But then there’s also the issue of dressing: what style top to wear with what style of bottom; what skirt goes with what shoes; having a pair of pants tailored to every heel height.
Then the issues with quality. Fabric options: polyester and poly-blends? And construction: For a while, I thought it was my fault, buying “cheap” clothes. But then my Hugo Boss trousers from Nordstrom and my custom-tailored dresses all came apart at the seams and discolored at the shoulders after one day in the sun. (Was I not meant to wear this clothing outdoors? I guess I should have clarified.) We can’t even get a decent dress shirt, let alone easily get one custom-tailored. (If we do find a tailor willing to do it, chances are it’s only after a degree of prima donna back and forth. Because #deargodnotbreasts.)
And I look around and I’m like: What is this? What year is it? How are we all still okay with this?? And when will it ever end?
I have been asking myself these things lately, and today I found a kindred spirit in a one Elizabeth Hawes.
Elizabeth Hawes was a writer, sketcher, copyist, stylist, journalist, author, union organizer, champion of gender equality, and political activist.
But above all, Elizabeth Hawes was a fashion designer who believed that “Fashion is a parasite.”
It is easy, of course, to find fashion designers. Even philosophical ones (and aren’t they all? Really?) But Hawes was an outspoken critic of the fashion industry, and champion of ready to wear and people’s right to have the clothes they desired, rather than the clothes dictated to be fashionable.
She drew a merciless distinction between “style” and “fashion,” saying:
“Style gives the feeling of a certain period in history. Fashion is a parasite on style. He is the horrid little man who tells you last winter’s coat may be in perfect condition but you can’t wear it because it has a belt.”
“Style is what you can have, the right clothes for your life in your epoch, uncompromisingly, at once.” Fashion “changes not in response to events or to public taste or need, but because industry payrolls must be met, magazines published, a myth perpetuated.”
“I’ve become convinced that ninety-five percent of the business of fashion is a useless waste of time and energy as far as the public is concerned. It serves only to ball up the ready-made customers and make their lives miserable. The only useful purpose that changes in fashion can possibly have is to give a little additional gaiety to life. But by the time you’ve taken off fashion’s bright cellophane wrapper, you usually find not only that fashion is no fun at all, but that even the utility of your purchase has been sacrificed.” – Hawes, Fashion is Spinach
“The public, in a dumb way… stick to [what they find] until something really better crosses their path.” And if they never find something satisfactory, they just keep searching. And this is what the fashion industry wants, because “if a fundamentally satisfactory way had been developed for making clothes in mass production, Fashion would be far less successful in changing women’s clothing every six months.” So they deliberately make things mediocre in order to, as Ellison effectively wrote to exactly the same effect in Invisible Man, keep us all running.
Hawes lamented, “some people seem to like it. There are a good many people who don’t, but just accept it as inevitable, throwing away perfectly good old clothes and buying new ones every year.” (Or, worse, being forced to throw the clothes away because the construction is so bad that they have to.)
And if we’re not cheated by constantly-evolving whims, we’re being cheated on fit.
“The great majority of women in the United States, never having had their clothes made to fit them, have not the faintest idea what it is to be really comfortable in clothes… Any dress which is made to a size catches you somewhere, in the ribs because the waistline is too high, across the back because the back is too narrow, under the arm where the armhole is too small.”
But we don’t know it. “The vast majority of American women are uncomfortable in their clothes whether they know it or not. A good many of them know they can’t get wholesale clothes to come anywhere near fitting.”
The problem, of course, is that mass-production lends itself to pumping out countless identical garments that fit nobody, because, as Hawes brilliantly, cuttingly observed:
“There are no size 14 women in the world, nor are there any size 16.”
“No two women in the world have the same proportions, width of shoulder, length of arm, height of waist.” And yet we agonize over these garments – things that were never really intended to suit us because their makers never cared enough to do so – and we blame ourselves for the fact that they don’t fit, or urge ourselves to overlook or un-see it. Things don’t fit and we think it’s us, walking dejected from store after store with the piling belief “my hips are too big,” “my boobs are too small,” “I’m too short,” etc.
But in the words of the shoe salesman from Me and You and Everyone We know:
“You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.”
We all deserve better. Clothing should be subservient to us, and not the other way around.
Clothing must not rob the wearer of our basic human rights.
Hawes also defended authentic, honest human form and was adamant that that human form should always, always trump fashion.
After taking design courses at Parsons, she wrote:
“I learned a very important thing, namely that no art school, however satisfactory to others, was ever going to teach me how to design clothes… We took life drawing but no one ever mentioned anatomy to me as a student of dress design. Apparently it did not occur to them that I was going to dress living human beings who had bones and muscles.”
She believed a successful dress must fuse with the wearer, that line, in relationship to anatomy, was the basis for a beautiful dress. That “the lines of the body are naturally beautiful and its movement naturally graceful, so any clothing that impedes movement is, by definition, ugly.” – The Lost Art of Dress.
“No dress can be really beautiful which in any way hampers action.
Clothing must honor the individual’s personality as well.
Hawes despaired that most men and women were clothing conformists. Clothes should be the expression of personality, of fantasy, of individuality. (If a woman occasionally wanted trousers to wear, or a man ruffles, she argued provocatively, why shouldn’t they have them?)
“Throughout her career, Hawes offered an honest, often funny appraisal of the fashion world as it was and as she thought it should be. She was a proponent of using style to get what you want (and, essentially, to become who you want to be), and a wicked critic.”
Gregory curated Hawes’s wittiest one-liners from her nine books. Here are some of her favorite:
1. “It is impossible to be completely abstract about clothes because they have no life unless they are worn. They must fit onto a body or they do not exist.” – Why Is a Dress?
2. “I would not be doing justice to the future of clothes if I did not point out that practically all psychologists who have bothered to consider the subject agree that eventually we will all become nudists.” – Fashion Is Spinach
3. “I took a brandy at lunch to dull myself for the ordeal of afternoons on Seventh Avenue.” – Fashion Is Spinach
4. “Running any business is just figuring out what the traffic will bear. American women bear a lot.” – Fashion Is Spinach
5. “No store can afford to get above the general level of its public’s tastes.” – Fashion Is Spinach
Hawes felt optimistic, albeit critical, that:
“The clothes designers of the future, the American Designers if you like, will find some way of solving these problems of neatness and cleanliness and a fundamental human desire to look attractive. These designers will also find some way of designing clothes that must fit, so that they have no specific demarcation line to emphasize the varying widths of shoulders, so that they must, by virtue of the basic design, hug into any size waist.”
Nearly 100 years later, though, we still haven’t. We still subject ourselves to the same agonies.
On the upside, however, we can download and read her Fashion is Spinach here.