What's an American girl without a dream? (Think of all those 16-year-old mothers on TV who plan to become pediatricians.) I'm sure that I, too, could have worked my way to the top but for one thing: The possibility of having to wear something scratchy. Photographs of young women wearing angora and starched organdy gave me a thrill of horror that all the promise of a shallow, happy life as a rich babe could not overcome.
We all have our quirks. One of mine is extreme intolerance of clothing-related discomfort. When I was a girl, my nana used to sew nice dresses for me, only to be rewarded with non-stop whining about itches at the try-on sessions. She eventually gave up, but not before making me the Dress From Hell. (This very well may have been straight vengeance. Nana was what is politely called "a complicated person." And when you're talking about your grandma, you sure as hell better be polite.) The fabric was a cotton print I loved--little sprigged roses on a black background--set off by a dainty row of lace around the neck. Both she and my mother kept trying to talk me into the thing by telling me how pretty I looked in it. I wore it exactly once, for photo day at school. I do not recall how I was persuaded to do this, but there is a class photo in which I do look rather nice, sharp-edged little roses and all. I'm even smiling. But I can still feel that lace around my neck.
My horror of things that itch and poke and bother remains strong. Full disclosure: I cut every label out of every garment I buy--which helps explain why my wardrobe is sparse and mostly coming unstitched around the neck. To really and truly creep myself out, I imagine I'm wearing a hairshirt, like a medieval monk. I'd happily take self-mutilation or martyrdom over itching.
What made me think of this was a photo in The New York Times last week of a model wearing a tweed evening gown. In fact, as far as I can tell, there was quite a lot of punitive tweed and tartan in the fall collections. Tweed frocks, tartan bustiers--that sort of thing. Mohair is no longer torture enough: Designers are raising discomfort to a whole new level, one previously tolerated only by the type of Scot warrior prone to marching barefoot and sleeping out in the sleet. (Under his tartan, of course. In context, even wool makes sense.)
I reconsidered the old theory that all people at the top of the fashion industry--including the women--hate women. You can make the argument from how stupid fashion designers make women look, but clothes that hurt are better evidence. It's like, what next? Burlap underpants?
But then, unfortunately, one thinks of the 4-inch heel, and one has to admit that the women who go in for this stuff are, as the feminists used to say, complicit in their own subjugation. Especially the ones with antlers in their hair in a Sunday magazine layout last month.
So, in my role as thoughtful columnist, I think that's really going on with the tweed evening dress isn't hatred of the mother but just the wild over-valuation of the new and original that New York, more than any other city, and fashion, more than any other industry, run on.
(Not that there's anything new or original about it. Machiavelli described the symbiosis in Florence in the early 1500s. In a wonderful story called "Belfagor," a devil disguised as a man comes to ruin within a year there, in large part because of his wife and "the expenditures he made to keep her happy, dressing her in new fashions and indulging her in new styles, which our city is continually changing by its innate custom.")
The innate custom of great cities is to love whatever's new and salable. But originality of the tweed-evening-gown variety is, in general, a bad thing. Its fruit is most often dopey stuff that doesn't work: thyme ice cream, novels written in the second person, Charles de Gaulle airport, Modernist furniture. (I've been told that all the chairs Frank Lloyd Wright designed fell over backwards when the sitter stood up, and all his roofs leaked. Once, when a client complained about his roof, Wright pitilessly replied that that's how you can tell it's a roof. It leaks.)
The truth about most of what tries to be original is that if it were a good idea, someone would have thought of it before, and if it were a really good idea, it would be unimprovable by now. Vanilla ice cream, chaise longues, design based on the golden ratio--oh, and the T-shirt (cotton, V-neck, washed and successfully de-labeled). These things are not striking, not original. They're just perfect.