Fashioning Strange Truths About Clothes

Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays

What does it mean when fashion designers in 1994 seriously propose to put American women in baby-doll dresses?

Oh, how it pains me to say this, but probably nothing.

After many years of looking for unconscious motives on the part of designers, I realize I've been interpreting fashion all wrong.

There was a time when it seemed appropriate to place current styles in some sort of cultural context: miniskirts as a symbol of the sexual rebellion; Amazon-shouldered suits as a response to the increasing presence of women in male-dominated professional ranks; the rage for lingerie as a response to masculinization; the current crop of apron-inspired dresses as a compromise between the kitchen and the office.

But I've seen the light.

It's not that fashion doesn't serve as a fun-house mirror, horrifying or thrilling us with its distorted reflection of the social trends passing through the carny of life. It's just that trying to analyze why is pointless.

If you really want to impress your friends, I suppose you could talk about the boom in baby-doll dresses as a reflection of society's insatiable need to infantilize women, especially now that they're getting too big for their britches in the professional realm. (Take that, Hillary!)

But the only meaningful reason fashion zips like a psychotic pinball from big-shouldered suits to baby-doll dresses is to stimulate consumer interest and, of course, sales. You can lather on all the socio-blather you want over the fact that designers are pushing women to look like overgrown Raggedy Anns. Or Barbarella-esque bimbos. Or little lost waifs. It doesn't matter at all.

Because the designers are in their showrooms even now, presenting their next collections to buyers, convinced beyond a doubt that the time just feels right for a revival of the longer "Queen Elizabeth" hemlines. And God save us, too.

I've thought about this a lot, because I used to cover fashion.

At a newspaper, this is a difficult job, and one that keeps you continually on the defensive. For many journalists, the idea that fashion is part of the terrain of real news--land of brush fires, wars and interest rates--is as upsetting as the idea that some readers buy the paper only for the horoscope.

"You must feel very empty inside," a smug news photographer once told me after I had begun writing about fashion. "You've gone from covering things that matter to . . . this."

"Oh, yes," I replied, as my cheeks got hot. "I feel especially empty on those sunny Paris mornings I sit in a Left Bank cafe sipping coffee before heading off to the Chanel show."

Punk.

In truth, covering the shows in Paris and Milan is probably the closest many reporters will ever come to warfare. You have to fight, beg and weep for tickets to get into half of them. Then you have to fight, beg and weep just to find a seat. I've seen photographers come to blows over their places. I've been reduced to tears many times.

Eventually, you give up trying to explain to your "serious" colleagues why fashion is important--what a huge employer the industry is, how many billions of dollars it generates and why even a smug photographer changes the width of his tie every few years.

Merely by getting dressed every day, everyone participates in the fashion industry. There is no such thing as anti-fashion. Just ask Seattle grungers. Their plaid flannel shirts and ripped jeans were co-opted by designers a few seasons back, who made a killing on the stuff.

The fashion world always comes as a shock to the neophyte. I saw my first show in 1986. In a ritzy Los Angeles hotel, models strolled around looking like players in an Edwardian drama. Their narrow shoulders and tiny waists were accentuated by bustles, their legs hobbled by slim skirts as they minced around the room.

The designer of these silly dresses, a French unknown, was soon hailed as the new king of fashion. Christian Lacroix enjoyed several seasons in the limelight, producing clothes that went further and further down the gangplank of creativity before finally going off the deep end somewhere.

When he was hot, though, society women were dressing like they had just stepped out of a commedia dell'arte , or maybe Gilbert and Sullivan. These were costumes, not clothes. On the street--even at the charity balls--Lacroix's women looked ridiculous.

My job, I believed, was to explain What It Meant.

Well, of course, as lovely as they were, I could only think that these clothes were simply a way of turning back the clock on women's progress.

I noted that one of Lacroix's stylistic signatures, a wide collar that enfolds bare shoulders like a stole, was rather restrictive. Grasping for Deeper Meaning, I interpreted this as a subtle attempt to keep women in their place, to keep them from--oh, I don't know--raising their hands to vote?

Now I see I was wrong. Now I see that particular collar as merely a lovely way to accentuate the shoulders.

Now I see--to paraphrase Freud--that sometimes a collar is just a collar.

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