The Damsel Is in Distress
PRETTY in pink? Not Deborah Watson. “If I see a floral print or pastel dress in my closet, I think: ‘Ugh, gross! I don’t want to wear that,’ ” she said. Ms. Watson, a fashion stylist in New York, has turned her back on those hallowed totems of femininity in favor of the raffish look of a big T-shirt, well-worn jeans and a graying black cotton overcoat. “Anything more girly, I just see as weak,” she said. “It’s not cool to be demure.”
A disdain for such sweetly conventional trappings of sex appeal has trickled down of late from tastemakers like Ms. Watson to scores of followers who are swapping their baby-doll dresses, spindly heels and lace for the flinty attractions of studs and leather, mannish jackets and rock-star jeans. Their embrace of a pointedly aggressive, street-smart style suggests that the more adventurous are rethinking the tenets of female allure.
If the old ideal of sexiness was the shoulder-baring voluptuousness of Scarlett Johansson, the new sexy is the European fashion editor Carine Roitfeld in a black blazer and tall vixenish boots. The look, often slightly disheveled, is shared by off-duty models and style-world insiders.
“We may like Lady Gaga, but in this day and age, women aren’t rushing out to look like her,” said Sam Shahid, the art director behind the provocative advertising campaigns of Abercrombie & Fitch.
Women now want to project a “more powerful sexuality, not a damsel in distress,” said Sharon Graubard, a senior executive with Stylesight, a trend forecasting firm in New York. The look, streamlined and armored for tough times, reflects a distrust of trends and a skepticism toward traditional gender roles. Most tellingly, perhaps, it also represents a pragmatic response to a hobbled economy.
“So-called luxury — people are tired of it,” said Tatsugo Yoda, the owner of Aloha Rag, a fashionably progressive Honolulu boutique with a New York outpost. “They want more utilitarian pieces — military jackets, track pants and classic white shirts — that they can wear more than twice a year.” The look is assertive, Mr. Yoda said, but recognizable at the same time.
Much the same can be said of the 1990s-inflected biker jackets, latex leggings and fingerless gloves that are also key components of a style that is as racy as it is familiar. It represents “a down and dirty kind of look,” said Andrew Bolton, curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the same time, its suggestion of disarray “gives an idea of accessibility,” he said. “There is so much sex appeal in imperfection.”
These notions of sexual allure can be traced to the utility gear adopted by self-styled survivalists, the funky regalia of old-school rockers, even the lingerie-and-leather of Parisian streetwalkers. More Patti Smith than Fergie, current variations on sultriness are thorny and faintly androgynous. These rebellious, antifashion messages, blunted over decades of exposure, have been picked up, inevitably, by the world of high style.
Today shapeless, and sometimes shredded, T-shirts, combat boots and aviator caps reminiscent of a Mad Max epic, are proliferating on runways, as are leggings, fatigues and bicycle shorts. At the same time, retailers are championing the studiedly casual look of tailored jackets, oversize tunics and understated dresses as unfussy correctives to the rumba ruffles and dolly-bird frocks still appearing on some runways. This fall, fast-fashion outlets like Topshop and Forever 21 offered myriad variations on the biker jacket, leather rocker vest and calf-clutching jeans.
Mr. Yoda, for one, is selling a brand of androgyny that has antecedents in the artfully shabby world of grunge. At Aloha Rag, the look is slightly rough-hewn but has the advantage of spotlighting some overlooked erogenous zones: shapely backs and forearms and fragile collarbones, to name a few. It also reflects a willful gender mash-up being propagated by the young or young at heart.
“We’ve got a new dress code based on shifting norms around gender,” said Diane Ehrensaft, a psychologist in Oakland, Calif. Dr. Ehrensaft, who sees many middle school students and teenagers in her practice, argues that their blurring of assigned roles is deliberate and calculated. “Younger people just aren’t accepting the standard boxes anymore,” she said.
With their harsh outlines and suggestions of menace, the latest iterations of sexiness have gained little traction in American fashion glossies, which, some readers argue, persist in promoting sugary looks that are juvenile and contrived.
“Whatever the magazines say, somehow it isn’t working,” said Jamie Chiu, 29, a photographer in New York. “I’m not a soft girl,” added Ms. Chiu, who prefers the more rugged glamour of a leather jacket and skinny jeans. “I want to be sexy on one hand, but I also want to be tough, and I don’t want to show off my body.”
Nor would she be likely to commit the fashion infraction of trying too hard. For sartorial inspiration she looks to mannequins rather than movie stars. “Agyness Deyn, she is the perfect woman now,” Ms. Chiu said. With her choppy hair, funky suspenders and jaunty men’s hats, Ms. Deyn “doesn’t show off too much. She’s my idol now.”
Ms. Deyn and her peers in the modeling world — and, as significant, the editors of European fashion magazines — are the superstars of fashion blogs like Sartorialist, Fashionista and Garance Doré, which tend to bypass the labored sexiness of Hollywood stars like Megan Fox for the spiky yet approachable allure of Emmanuelle Alt and Ms. Roitfeld of French Vogue or Giovanna Battaglia, an Italian fashion editor, who are frequently snapped during fashion weeks on their way to the tents.
“Editors and models have become the new fashion icons,” said Tommy Ton, the Toronto-based publisher of Jak & Jil, a photo blog that documents their comings and goings. “Even celebrities follow their lead.”
Off-duty models increasingly function as fashion bellwethers, said Ms. Graubard, the trend forecaster. “They know how to inhabit clothes.”
To Helen Yi, a boutique owner in Chicago, editors like Ms. Battaglia are freshly anointed fashion avatars. “They show you a real-world version of high fashion. They’re not dressed by a stylist, and sophisticated people recognize that.”
And as Scott Schuman, creator of the Sartorialist, the photo blog about street fashion, observed: “It’s the models’ authenticity that makes them so sexy and appealing. People want a look that’s real.”
On recent visits to Europe and Australia, where he was promoting a new book based on his blog, Mr. Schuman noted that the influence of models and editors had become more widespread. “The accountants, doctors, lawyers and students who came to my book signings recognize their names and emulate their style,” he said.
That style, low key and mostly covered, retains a subtle charge. “For me sexiness is more interesting when it’s not in your face,” said Susie Cho, the designer for Inhabit, a fashion label built on drape-front tank tops, cashmere leggings and filmy cardigans. Neither demure nor revealing, Ms. Cho’s unstructured look is based on comfort.
“It’s not overtly feminine and certainly not ladylike,” she said, taking a swipe at recent corseted revivals of the Eisenhower era. Interpreted literally and stripped of irony, many such period looks “are self-conscious,” she said. “And there’s nothing sexy about that.”
Read The New York Times article here, written by Ruth La Ferla.