Anne Roiphe, author of a bold new coming of age memoir, considers style through the decades — and the hazards of being too well-dressed
I’ve always been unfashionable. At some moments in my life it was deliberate; at others it was just a lack of attention to changing hemlines, combined with an unwillingness to totter about on heels that slowed me down and made my ankles turn while crossing the street. That is not to say I don’t gasp with envy at the sight of a beautiful Vogue model or a very thin women wrapped in gauze on a runway. Do I wish I looked like that? Of course I do… at least for a second or so.
In the beginning, in my late teens, even before I knew the word, the issue was feminism. I simply didn’t want to spend the time on clothes that seemed normal for a mid-century girl who had aspirations of marrying well. My mother and her friends spent more hours in department stores and beauty salons then they spent exploring the world, working in it, thinking about it, reading about it, worrying about it. I didn’t want their fate or the clothes they met it in. And then I went to Sarah Lawrence college, arriving in 1954, and soon adopted the uniform of the bohemian, the beat, and the soon-to-be beat up. I wore a black leotard, blue jeans, (no one else in those days wore blue jeans if they weren’t working on a farm). I wore sandals with thick leather straps and no makeup, except for black eyeliner, that often ran and gave me the look of a raccoon in a trap. This last drove my mother mad. That might have been part of the point. It had something to do with purity, and freedom from corsets that crunched the ribs. It also served as a sign of rebellions vast numbers of my cohorts were soon to join.
I had a good black dress and a gold circle pin for the right occasions. I could find in my closet something to wear to a job interview, but my blue jeans were always within reach. Then one day, I noticed that styles had changed. It was fashionable to look a little ragged on the street. And soon you could purchase a peasant blouse in a store on Madison Avenue. Women went without bras and the world had turned upside down as the flower children seemed to have taken over the designer houses. That was fine with me.
Today I think I look like every other woman in my neighborhood. I am certainly not high couture, but I have no need to make a life statement with my sweater. This makes shopping quick and easy.
And I look at the clothes and the models that walk down the runway, and I still feel a shiver go down my spine. The beauty of the fabric, the ease and grace of the drape of the thing are surely admirable — and sometimes (as if I could afford it), want rises in my chest. But I still recoil from something in the model’s face, something that seems without humanity, something that tells me these women are not dressed for changing diapers, or cooking macaroni and cheese. They are objects, like finely blown glass, waiting to be looked at. And the soul, the erratic, scruffed-up soul that most of us have — that soul seems to have been left on the dressing room floor. Also, no matter how interesting the shape, how deep the color of the dress, the entire look frightens me. It is good for a couch to be covered in great style. But a woman is reduced to something bare and lonely and maybe hollow when the clothes she wears fit too perfectly. Or at least it seems so to me.
I had thick, unruly black hair when I was young. Once, my mother took me up to Harlem to have it straightened so I could look like the ideals she saw in the culture around her. My hair fell out from the chemicals and, semi-bald, I went to school.
The conformist world of the 1950’s disappeared in the blink of a demi-decade, and the hippie style that replaced it has also gone the way of all fashion. But now, at least the ideal of beauty includes various ethnic groups, and the variety of acceptable looks has vastly increased. Still I prefer to be left alone. I prefer dowdy to sharp, and out of it doesn’t seem so terrible. I don’t mind if my ice cream cone drips on my sleeve — and no matter how fashions merge with the times and lead them on or hold them back, I will still be dripping ice cream until I can’t anymore.
Editor’s Note: Anne Roiphe’s new memoir is Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason, just published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. The author of eighteen books (including the memoir Fruitful, a National Book Award finalist), she has written for the New York Times, Vogue, Elle, the Guardian, and many other publications.