"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Looking Good–We Are How We Dress

Liva Harris was an attractive young woman.  She had fine, regular features; slim, almond eyes; thick, dark hair and a well-proportioned figure; but had no sense of style.  She never once showed that she cared how she looked; never once did she undo a top button, change flats for heels, brown for pastels, or add a trace of eyeliner, blush, or highlighter . She did nothing to offset her plain and unassuming appearance; and her  personality was just as colorless, muted, and neutral.

Her friends wondered why she demurred when it came to sexual allure.  After all, they thought, it was a competitive marketplace; and regardless of ‘the inner woman’, strides made by feminism, and programs of gender self-esteem, women still needed to look good. “A pretty flower attracts the most bees”, said a friend of Liva’s, less out of concern for Liva’s well-being than a compulsion for conformity.  Her dowdiness reflected badly on the whole group. It was a blemish, an irritant, and a distraction.  Rather than seeing a collection of lovely, alluring, and bright young women, men would notice the flaw.

Ordinarily members of any tight group spit out the odd bit of grit, but Liva had been grandfathered in to her friends’ crowd because of family, education, and circumstance. The Harrises were wealthy, cultured, and gregarious, and ruled the social roost of New Brighton. Invitations to their parties, soirees at the Country Club, or lawn events on Martha’s Vineyard were in short supply, and few of Liva’s friends wanted to be left on the curb.

Despite the gaiety and sparkle of the Harrises’ parties, Liva remained plain and colorless. If she hadn’t been so physically attractive, she would have been called a wallflower. In fact it was that very contradiction which made her such a compelling enigma.  She was twice as beautiful as any other girl in her set, yet did nothing to create allure.  It was as though she wore a veil.  Yet not even that was a good metaphor. Gloria Swanson, one of the most beautiful women in American film, projected mystery, sophistication, and promise behind a veil.  There could be a sensuality in demureness. Even a woman so unassumingly dressed as Liva could, with only a slight change in demeanor, change her entire look. Clothes do not necessarily define the woman.

gloria swanson

   Edward Steichen, www.fine-arts.org

A recent article in the New York Times (6.14.15) by a well-known psychiatrist chronicled his personal dilemma treating a ‘dowdy’ patient.  She was as physically attractive as Liva Harris but had no love life to speak of.  After much hesitation, he finally suggested that she spruce herself up a bit and try a makeover.  The comment, he realized afterwards, was inappropriate and said more about himself than his patient. Who was he to revert to a classically male position and judge women on their looks? Yet he, as a very socialized man, knew without a doubt that her problems would be solved if she did something to become more appealing.  A change of clothes, after all, is a lot simpler and cheaper than ten more years of therapy.

Surprisingly, what the psychiatrist missed was the fact that not only would no theatrical changes of clothes solve his patient’s problem; but given her natural, psychological reticence, she would never even consider such a transformation.  Moreover and more importantly, the psychiatrist did not admit that an instinctive sexual allure – a conscious awareness of female sexuality and the irresistible power it has over men – trumps any Dior dress.

The case of Liva Harris was more complicated.  Liva was a happy woman. She was not at all frustrated by male inattentiveness nor resentful of her friends’ intention to reform her appearance.  She would never need the attention of psychiatrist.

Because she fell outside the normal curve – a beautiful woman with no concern for her beauty nor any intention of using it to her advantage – she was always the subject of gossip.  Her friends would have given anything for her looks and knew that with just a  fraction of her beauty, they could have any man in New Brighton or New York for that matter.  Homely women who dressed to the nines to attract a mate were common.  Beautiful ones who dressed with indifference were the oddities. “What makes her tick?”, asked the matrons of New Brighton.

Choosing clothes, however, is never a matter of complete indifference. When Liva’s hand went to the hospital shoes, the button-up dresses, and the cardigan sweaters, it went there willfully.  She could have chosen any one of a hundred dresses on the rack, but went to the most silent and unassuming. Why?

Liva was no different than the rest of us; and she understood that clothes made a statement.  No matter how overstated or understated, funereal or dramatic, they reflected personality.  She knew herself perfectly and felt that life would be happier and far less complicated if she dressed consistent with personality and intellect rather than beauty. If and when mating occurred, it would result from a natural concurrence of likes.

Liva was not a feminist, and her social posture had nothing to do with prizing the inner woman over externalities or dismissing male sexuality as hormone-driven and illogical. She was all about matching.  Clothes, demeanor, and character must match.  Beauty was an irrelevant trait that matched with nothing.

A quick look around any room will show how badly askew most women’s matches are. Too much makeup, a disastrously low décolleté, bright colors that blanche light skin or make it look sallow; ensembles that are anything but, dragon lady eye shadow, too much jewelry.  The point is that when these women looked in the boudoir mirror, they thought they looked great.  They were sure that they had chosen an outfit that perfectly matched their mood, enhanced their looks and still was a la mode.

As Liva knew, matching clothes with beauty and fashion only made matters worse.  Women who ignored who they were did so at their own peril. “All is derived, not copied”, she once told a friend.

Diana Vreeland was a Seventh Avenue genius.  She said that she had been born ugly, and to add insult to injury grew up with a beautiful sister who was always the center of attention.  Either as a reaction to her childhood or thanks to natural artistic talent, or more likely both, Vreeland became the arbiter of women’s fashion for decades. In creating fashion as an art form, she untethered clothes from both female beauty and social conformity.


At the same time her own personal style was the perfect match between her artistry and her defiantly independent personality. Her clothes neither accentuated her classically unattractive features as a political statement, nor were deliberately designed to soften them.

Image result for images diana vreeland


Most women pay no attention to Diana Vreeland; nor did any of Liva Harris’ friends pat attention to her. Every generation of Americans mismatches clothes with personality, and follows conventional rules of fashion.  Whether hippies, flashers, or hipsters, both men and women wore jarringly discordant clothes that conformed to Haight Ashbury or the Mission but had nothing to do with personality. Clothes were social constructs but more often than not looked awkward and unbecoming. 

The New York Times psychiatrist ended his story by noting that after many years he saw his patient again, and she still wore the same dowdy clothes and was still single.

For whatever reason — a poor match of patient and doctor? my own deficiencies as a therapist? the complexities of our society’s gender relations? — the dowdy patient was mine.­

No, doctor.  The dowdy patient was hers.

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