It’s not just that Americans don’t seem to care about how they look, they have no idea what it means. Not so long ago men and women knew how to dress. The 40’s was a decade of tailored suits, fedoras, veils, and lace.
Looking good was not just for Seventh Avenue, Hollywood, or Bel Air, but for middle-class Americans as well.
Looking good had as much to do with community as it did with individual appearance. Proper dress was a sign of respect for others, for accepted norms, and for communal values. Attire, manners, and comportment were all aspects of the same middle-class propriety and sense of decency. Families were expected to uphold community standards as a sign of membership and in solidarity against outsiders. Although modern critics have repudiated the bourgeois exclusivity of America in the post-war era, there was something to be said for communities which hewed to traditional religious and social values.
In any case, the Sixties did away with all that, discarding capitalism, elitism, and fashion in one fell swoop. The Seventies reinvented fashion, but as a means of individual expression. The outrageous styles of the period were anchored in no fashion history and designers discarded any notion of line, couture, or stylish grace.
There have been many high-end fashion innovators. Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon in the 60's teamed up to radicalize women’s fashion and to stress ‘integration’ – the importance of hair, dress, shoes, jewelry, and handbags as fashion ensembles – but this careful, artistic vision of women never made it much beyond the runways of New York, and by the time it hit the ready-to-wear racks it had been fundamentally changed. The demand for the perfect cut of clothes and hair had no salience or traction in the Midwest; and before anyone could notice, the vision of talented stylists and designers had gotten completely lost.
It was enough to have the semblance of something stylish without the style itself. If a dress recalled Mary Quant or Betsy Johnson, that was enough.
Much of the Eighties and Nineties went unnoticed in the fashion world. There were always the Spring and Fall collections of famous designers in Milan, Paris, and New York; but middle-class dress never changed as fundamentally as it had in the Sixties and Seventies. Pants might be longer or shorter, thinner or wider; lapels broad or narrow; ties colorful or subdued; but these were only minor adjustments, slight progressions, and nothing to be taken seriously.
The new century was far more innovative. The eclectic, thrift shop style was indeed innovative; for designers were combining pieces of an ensemble in unusual ways. Pieces that never had ever gone together were now matched. The old palette of complementary colors was discarded as were patterns. Now plaids and stripes, checks and frills; hems and embroidery; broad swatches and minute detail all went together. Retro, archived, ironic, and passé clothes, jewelry, and accessories were all in. Sexy and folk went together. High heels and funk; rural cracker and Broadway.
Once again, these new and promising fashion trends never made it out of San Francisco or Lower Manhattan. For all their put-together eclecticism, designers had conceived of ensembles of fashion no differently than Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon. You couldn’t just slam anything together and call it fashion. You had to pay attention. In fact this new style was more complicated to reproduce because it did rely so much on irony, history, and cross-culture. Hipsters were indeed cool.
The fashion of middle-America got even worse. At least when Target and Wal-Mart were selling high-fashion knock-offs there was some recognizable style; but when the New Eclecticism arrived, the result was a grab-bag rummage-sale disaster.
Betsy Armour was one of those women who had gone through the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and every other decade with absolutely no sense of fashion. Everything she wore was without style, inappropriate, and in unremittingly bad taste. She wore the same baggy sweatshirts with Barbie designs that she had picked up at a rummage sale decades ago. They were pink, chartreuse, and purple; sequined, stained, and misshapen. She never wore proper pants, skirts, or dresses; but sweatpants which, like the sweatshirts, were old and faded. The Clemson Tiger logo on one had been washed almost beyond recognition; and the Pius XII Vatican emblem on another was peeling. The Pope looked ghoulish and misshapen. Dressing in the morning was no more than a matter of Betsy sticking her hand in the bottom drawer of the dresser and wearing whatever she pulled out.
There was nothing ironic or eclectic about her scattered ensembles, they were simply accretions – add-ons from one church sale to another and hung indiscriminately in her closet. If the Fifties-style pink poodle embroidered jacket was the first on the rack, that was what she wore; and if the only blouse left in the drawer was a Seventies décolleté, so be it. She was so indifferent to her outfit that she never even stopped before the hall mirror before leaving her apartment.
To be honest there was little she or anyone could really do to improve her appearance. No high-fashion or Milanese designer could have done anything to disguise the looks God and her parents had given her. Perhaps that is why her mother never gave her a word to the wise or a subtle hint about color coordination or mixing-and-matching. Although Maggie Armour loved her daughter, she had wisely put her money into the girl’s brains and not her looks.
An unattractive, style-less, nerdy girl in the Fifties had no chance whatsoever of getting a date, and it was only because she had been born with absolutely no social intelligence whatsoever that she survived adolescence. In other words, not only did she pay no attention to the jibes, insults, and asides of her classmates; she was oblivious to them.
Because of this unfortunate configuration of physical unattractiveness, social obtuseness, nerdy obsession, and poor parenting, Betsy emerged into adulthood with few if any positive attributes.
If looked at dispassionately, she was quite an interesting psychological phenomenon.
A professional acquaintance of mine wondered which came first – the chicken or the egg. Did Betsy dress so indifferently and so horribly badly because of her ugliness (sadly that was the only adjective to describe her), or vice-versa? Do clothes make the man or the other way around?
All Dr. Pinker could conclude was that whatever the underlying cause, the poor woman was painful to look at.
Over the years all these dynamic factors strengthened and complemented each other in increasingly marginalizing ways. Women who know they are unattractive but who do something about it are often successful. In her autobiography Diana Vreeland admitted that she was ugly, and her self-consciousness only increased when she had to compare herself to her beautiful sister. Nevertheless she became the arbiter of New York fashion, a fashion plate herself, and a deeply alluring woman.
Betsy Armour, in other words, could have done something to divert attention from her big nose, wide-set eyes, high forehead, and thin hair. Diana Vreeland showed it could be done. Yet Betsy, because her Social Intelligence Quotient was zero, did nothing. She had no idea that her appearance actually mattered.
Like everything else, fashion sense can be plotted on a spectrum. There are those women who have an instinctive sense of style. Because of their social acuity, quick mind and emotional fine-tuning, they understand how to look good. They look beyond norms and standards and create a fashion which enhances their looks, impresses others, and gives them stature and allure.
There are those who prefer to hew to the middle ground – conservative suits, ties, dresses, and shoes. Nothing special, nothing to turn heads, but more of a uniform.
There are those who try to dress conservatively but end up shabby-looking. Their pants are not retired when they get shiny, jackets not discarded when the elbows begin to fray or when the lapels are 10 years outmoded.
There are those who combine indifference with a modicum of respect for social and professional norms. They are either frumpy, dowdy, put-together, or sloppy; but at least they try.
Finally there is Betsy Armour and the few women unfortunate to have the same perfect storm of irregularity as she. Women – and men also to be fair, although men’s appearance has historically always been overlooked – who have no clue either about their looks or the impact that appearance makes on others.
Fashion is a good thing. It is not a frill, trifle, or insignificant waste of money. High fashion is most definitely an art, a craft, a historical and social marker, and an integral part of character and personality.
When an attractive, stylishly-dressed woman walks into a room, all eyes are on her. She has immediate social weight, stature, and importance. When Betsy Armour enters a room, all eyes look away. Fashion is essential and has been since the first bearskin and sabre-tooth jewelry. Women’s fashion and women themselves add color, brightness, and style to an otherwise plain and grey world. We can feel sorry for Betsy Armour and wish she and others would go away; but the more important sentiment is the sentiment of beautiful women, haute couture, and looking good.