my mid-20s, I was an active young woman who liked music, parties, good
movies, and hoped to get married to a man who would love me for the rest
of my days. But as years went by, I was increasingly unhappy with
my life. After trying work as a secretary and a waitress, and two
important relationships failed, I decided to go to college to study something
I might really like to do: design clothing. I had liked sewing outfits
for myself and others, and later earned good grades at the Fashion Institute
of Technology, where I learned about some of the beautiful fabrics and
garments of the past and present.
was excited about what I was studying; but it wasn't until I studied Aesthetic
Realism that I learned about the true, deep meaning of clothing.
Decades before he founded Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel, then a young man
of 23, wrote in an article for the Baltimore American newspaper about why
he liked the new direction in the fashions of 1925, placing them in relation
to cultural history:
kind of clothes that the people of any country wear, or the people of any
time, shows the mind or spirit of that country and time. It is the
most outward things that show the deepest desires and the desires least
known.” [TRO 1545]
Realism teaches that the criterion for being proud of anything we do--reading
a book, eating a meal, kissing a man, or putting on a garment--is whether
our purpose is to respect the world, or have contempt for it. Learning
to distinguish between these two purposes is crucial for a woman to be
proud of her effect on men. I've learned, too, that the existence of clothing
as such is evidence that the world can be liked. In the Aesthetic
Realism Explanation of Poetry class, Ellen Reiss spoke some years ago
on what poetry says about clothing, and asked:
clothing keeps you warm, makes you prettier, it makes you more yourself.
With all the misuse of clothes, is it a tremendous tribute [showing] that
the world is for us?”
she described how the phrase "It fits like a glove" is about that garment
and you, but also says something so large about how reality can fit you.
It never occurred to me to be grateful that the world provided materials
to make clothing--like the earliest made of grass fibers, and later made
of fabrics woven from spun threads--or to respect the people who made them.
speak now of what I learned, and of a very good, very influential American
designer of the early to mid 20th Century, Claire McCardell. And
as I talk about how women can use clothes and fashion to be proud of our
effect on men, I also have to say that it is horrible and unnecessary that
millions of people in our rich nation can't afford to have decent, attractive,
well-made clothing to wear!
What Interferes With Being Proud of Our Effect on Men?
am sure that along with knowledge of color coordination, proportion, and
this season’s hemlines--women need to know that there is such a thing as
one's purpose as to clothes that we are either proud or ashamed of.
That is what I was learning in an early consultation as I spoke about how
much the "right" wardrobe meant to me. My consultants asked me questions
no one had before, such as:
should you look as good as you can? Does the world somehow benefit?
Or is it just that you would knock people’s eyes out? When you get
dressed, or sew garments, is it to beautify reality, or to be superior
to reality? [3/23/83]
answer was, "Superior." And I came to see that that hurtful desire
began early in my life. There were times, for instance, when after
shopping for a new holiday dress and shoes, my mother would ask me to “model”
them for my father, and to thank him. But what was more important
to me was how he would say "Ohhhh, you look beautiful" than being grateful
for his hard work which enabled me to have them.
I grew older, I yearned for the day when I'd have a woman's figure, and
could use it to my full advantage--feeling "If you've got it, flaunt it."
Meanwhile, even as I sometimes worked hard to make a stunning appearance,
I felt somewhere uneasy, not proud. Then, I began to learn there is an
ethical basis for our choices as to clothes! In her commentary to
Right Of #1545, Ellen Reiss explains:
should be a means of relating ourselves accurately to the outside world,
or showing ourselves honestly....[but] people so often use clothes really
to hide who they are and to put forth something that will impress and fool
people; that is contempt, and is a big reason people are excessive about
feel so described by these sentences! There were times I had great
pleasure in finding or making an outfit that had me feel “This is me!”
And I once stayed up all night to make an outfit for my sister to wear
for a special occasion, when she didn’t have money to buy one.
many times I used clothing to impress and fool men, without knowing how
much it made me ashamed. Women the world over need to know what Miss
Reiss writes further in her commentary: "And, of course, women have used
clothes as weapons, to weaken men."
out on a date, I often dressed in a flirtatious manner in some of the daring
clothes of the day: tight tops and hot pants, or a low-cut jumpsuit.
One summer my boyfriend, John, and I drove to Canada to see the Montreal
Expo. After visiting several exhibits, I was surprised when he said
he thought my outfit was too revealing, and that he was uncomfortable with
how other men were looking at me. I dismissed his feeling as being
old-fashioned: I was a modern, liberated woman, and thought: “If men can’t
keep up with evolution and accept woman’s new freedom of expression, it’s
their problem." But I wasn't proud of this attitude because I was
looking for a cheap victory as I arranged to turn men's heads toward me,
and not at the exhibits of countries from around the world. And as
I think of that outfit now, I see it did not have a beautiful relation
of the opposites of tightness and looseness, hidden and shown, and didn't
encourage people's respect for women.
many styles are even more revealing, such as skimpy tops showing bare torsos,
and the low cut pants I see on girls in the high school where I work.
Many of these states of undress are promoted by music videos and designers
as the most avant garde fashions But with all the bold and surprised-how-they-stay-on
kinds of garments women wear, it is simply a fact of reality that when
we use anything—money, education, love, or clothing— to have contempt for
the world and people, we have to be ashamed.
Realism certainly doesn't tell people how to dress, or say women should
look like prudes. But it does teach that we have an ethical unconscious,
and we judge ourselves for how fair we are to the world, in everything
we do. This knowledge is more precious than gold--what women and
clothing designers are hoping for.
The Beautiful Practicality of Good Will For Men
crucial aspect of being proud of our effect on men is having good will,
the “desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this
desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”
began to learn about this in a later consultation when I said I had felt
unsure of how to dress when going on a date--not wanting to wear a tight
sweater, or to wear a “sack”. For example, my consultants asked:
Do you think you can ask yourself: `Should I appear in such a way
that he will have to think about me, or is it good will for him to be
able to see me as one of many people?’ If you’re interested in what
affect [your appearance] will have on a man, that’s part of it. Would
you like a man to feel that he can be pleased by how a woman looks,
and like himself for how he is pleased? Because most men don’t.
No, and they can resent a woman very much for the way they come
was so surprised by this! It never occurred to me that a man could
feel angry at what is brought out of him! Yes, men need to hear criticism
about how they see the bodies of women. But women also need to respect
the powerful, mysterious facts of reality which govern how men and women
affect each other. With a purpose to have good will, a woman can
look very beautiful and encourage a man's keenest interest in the world
at the same time. One of the greatest compliments a woman can
receive from a man is for him to feel that she represents the wide world
he hopes to know and care for. But unknowingly, our contempt interferes
with this hope, preferring to have a man in an exclusive, cozy state of
adoration, away from the world. In the Preface to his great essay
“The Ordinary Doom”, Mr. Siegel writes:
know a person is to know the world become throbbingly specific. It
is always the universe on two feet, with two eyes, and an articulate mouth.
It is the universe we want to skip.”
means so much to me to that I had been learning to see a man as representing
the universe when I first met Jeffrey Williams, who is now my husband.
While working on this paper, he reminded me of how I told him then that
I hoped to dress in a way that would have people feel the world looked
good to them. He felt it important for me to relate what a good effect
hearing this had on him--that he had never heard anything like it, and
would never forget it.
An American Designer Met the Hopes of Women
the 1920's, the new direction in fashions also affected a young woman,
who became one of the first designers promoted as having "The American
Look": Claire McCardell. And as I say some of why her work is still
widely respected, I’m not in any way saying that this is the style women
should follow to feel proud of their effect on men, but as a means of illustrating
the Aesthetic Realism principles I’ve described.
use a book about her life and work, Claire McCardell: Defining Modernism,
written by Kohle Yohannan and Nancy Wolfe in conjunction with F.I.T.
Born May 24, 1905 in Frederick, Maryland, Claire McCardell grew up in privileged
surroundings, and was affected early by the fashions her mother had made
by a personal dressmaker.
attending a local college in Maryland for two years, she finally convinced
her parents to send her to New York City to study fashion design in the
spring of 1925. This happens to be the same time that Eli Siegel’s
article on the new styles appeared in The Baltimore American, and I wouldn't
be surprised if she read it.
1920s was an era of much change in America, including in how women dressed
And in his article, Mr. Siegel wrote: "The best style in clothes is that
which shows the beauty of [one's] body most with as little perceptive effort
as possible." Claire McCardell said she felt that--and here we see
the opposites of delicacy and sturdiness--
ought to be useful and comfortable. I’ve always wondered why women’s
clothes have to be delicate-why they couldn’t be practical and sturdy as
well as feminine.”
is this philosophy that led Ms. McCardell’s designs to be loved by many
thousands of women, and for her to be called "the designer for Mrs. America.”
She was also among the first designers to popularize separate, coordinated
pieces, now called “sportswear”, and was widely admired for creating practical,
affordable, attractive styles--many of which are still popular today.
some of her ideas were at first met with resistance--as being too radical.
Yohannan and Wolfe describe Ms. McCardell as caring for biking, skiing,
and swimming, and say that she felt, for instance, that the padded, matronly
swimwear then on the market, were "repressive", and unfit for the purpose
of swimming. In one discussion on the topic, she added coolly, “Swimsuits
are for swimming. If it’s a dress you want, I have that, too.”
encourage a man to be more interested in the world, or have him focus exclusively
Diaper Suit, Vogue 1944
is a magazine photo of the “Diaper Suit” first introduced by McCardell
in the 1930s, but was not widely popular until the 1940s. While it
may not appeal to every woman's figure or taste, I think it shows "the
beauty of [a woman's] body with as little perceptible effort as possible."
And it certainly has met the hopes of women for over 60 years now, as I
saw styles just like it on the racks last spring.
young woman today might ask, "So, what's the difference between a bathing
suit that was once seen as too daring and is now accepted as `classic’,
and my wearing a thong bikini now?-—I’m ahead of the times!" I would
ask her to ask herself: "Will the relation of hidden and shown in this
McCardell will be remembered by students of fashion for many more innovations
than I can show tonight, including her deep commitment to using America’s
mass-production capabilities to provide millions of women with stylish,
affordable clothing. This is McCardell’s own gouache rendering of
her immensely popular day dress called “the Pop-over” of 1943: a denim,
wrap-front with an attached oven mitt! And while women today don’t
usually wear a dress for chores, it could be asked: could we be proud of
our affect on a man, children, or a roommate by going around in something
looking fresh and energetic.
give one more example from 1951: which has this description: “Top-stitched
cotton twill sheath dress with slash pockets. Inexpensive and elegant:
this credo defined McCardell and helped launch her in the world of working
women." It is, I think, a lovely relation of tightness and looseness,
hidden and shown--what women are still hoping for to be proud of their
effect on men. [p. 108]
the final sentences of Mr. Siegel's article of 1925, he wrote:
is great fun, and it is needed fun, to watch the world change, and change
for the better. How it changes can be seen by things--like fashions
in clothes--most historians and sociologists do not use. They ought
to use them.”
Siegel is the historian and sociologist who did use fashions to see how
the world changes, and to understand the deepest hopes of people, of women
and men--and I am so glad he did!