by Joan Harvey
Even though I knew better, when I was told I could get free magazine subscriptions with my minimal airline miles that would otherwise expire, I succumbed. Of course I didn’t need any more reading material, and I was fully aware of the waste they’d create, but I allowed myself to be lured by the idea that getting something was better than getting nothing. So I got Food and Wine, with recipes that I could never make, and Conde Nast Traveler, with glamorous photos of places I’ll never go. And I got Vogue, with, naturally, clothes I will never wear. I’ve always enjoyed fashion. But I found the first issue I received, August, disturbing. I was astonished at how covered up all the models were. Almost no skin anywhere. Necklines were high, so high that there were turtlenecks even on summer dresses. Turtlenecks even on the beach. Long coats over full length body suits on the beach. Gigi Hadid, of Dutch and Palestinian heritage (I suppose to avoid issues of cultural appropriation) is shown in a head scarf and a coat the same green as the sister wives in The Handmaid’s Tale. And, naturally, she too is wearing a turtleneck. There are also almost no legs to be seen in the issue. Dresses are shapeless and long. Even bare arms are rare. Hair is cut short or covered up. The September Vogue was not much different. More long dresses, more head scarves, more turtlenecks on the beach. Though in this issue we do get some shots of Beyoncé’s legs.
An article in the September Vogue by Lynne Yaeger asks: “Is there seduction in concealment?” The models in the photos accompanying her essay have not just their bodies, but their faces covered as well. “What is the meaning of this peekaboo?” Yaeger writes. “Is this desire to cover up— which manifested itself in the all 2018 collections not just with covered heads but with modest necklines and voluminous long sleeves—a reflection of the #MeToo moment, a rage against the sexual-objectification machine? . . . Or perhaps the new visibility of women in the Middle East, and they way that hijabs are finding their way into the fashion vocabulary, is playing a role? Or could it just be that in an age of Instagram vainglory the allure of literally covering up, of not being so endlessly available, has its own currency?”
This being a fashion magazine, Yaeger does not answer her questions, but continues on to discuss the kind of makeup that goes best with headscarves. But her questions are worthwhile. Fashion is, of course, about commerce. A long coat brings in more than a bikini (and the coats this year are David Byrne Talking Heads huge). Fashion always goes through cycles, hemlines rise and fall. But this particular trend seems more unsettling because we’re one 71-year-old, misogynist, abusive, dotard away from a religious prude who famously won’t be alone with a woman not his wife. This is a time when The Handmaid’s Tale seems all too close, when two conservative Catholic men who will doubtless be effective in removing abortion rights have just been put on the Supreme Court, when women who supported Dr. Blasey Ford have been openly shamed and ridiculed and harassed.
True, a woman in an oversized sweater, long skirt, tights and boots, is not showing much more skin than the models in the magazine, but she can look natural or sexy or naturally sexy, whereas these clothes displayed with no flowing hair and no curves visible anywhere seem quite different. A similar trend now being pushed has been dubbed “Prairie Chic.” “The prints are Laura Ashley-esque micro-florals, calicos and gingham, the necklines are high, sometimes there is a bib or apron, there is usually at least one ruffle.” Really? Women want to wear this? Why? It turns out that Batsheva Hay, one of the main forces behind the prairie dress look, is, no surprise, a convert to Orthodox Judaism and was married in a ceremony in which men and women were separated from each other. In a piece in the New Yorker, Hay muses on the “effortless confidence projected by Amish and Hasidic women.” A woman wearing one of her dresses sent a photo to a friend who wrote back: “’I can’t tell if I love it or if it’s your ‘Big Love’ Halloween costume,’ followed by a still of Chloë Sevigny from the HBO show about Mormon fundamentalists, wearing almost the identical ensemble, down to the ruffled collar and oxen tongue pink color.”
It is troubling to see how quickly fashion has seemed to embrace a new prudishness with religious undertones. Of course, in longing for religion, people long for community, for being told what to do; it’s now often said that Western Liberalism has failed. Religion has such a pull, Neil MacGregor writes because of “the power of narratives that articulate an ideal, that offer fulfillment in the context of a community, make demands on everyone, and – above all – hold out hope. It may be a matter for regret, it may represent a failure of secular politics, but it should certainly be no surprise that so many societies now see in such narratives of faith their best way.”
This all seems to be part of a nostalgia for fitting in, for having a place, for the comforts of home and rules and hierarchies. In Bavaria millennials are embracing dirndls and lederhosen, a trend with some frightening undertones. But, as with MAGA, we cannot go back to some imagined better time. Perhaps the wealthy women wearing these expensive prairie dresses feel so liberated and confident that they know their butter churning fantasies won’t impinge on their work lives, that they’ll still have equality at home; maybe the dresses just make them feel more feminine, or maybe they find it kinky to play pioneer virgin. There’s something a little Marie Antoinette about it. But it seems dangerous to embrace an aesthetic of prudery with religious signals when that is also being pushed on women from the outside. As if women had taken it upon themselves to make their bodies unsexual, constrained, hidden, both to reduce what is seen as too sexual, and, because men supposedly can’t restrain themselves.
A young woman, Hailey Gates, who wears Batsheva prairie dresses, remarks that she heard someone describe a Batsheva design “as the perfect dress for the #MeToo movement, which I found truly asinine. People still seem to believe that the amount of clothing a woman wears dictates whether she will be assaulted or not.” And, from what I’ve read, in Islamic countries where women are far more covered up than we are, harassment and groping still go on in public places.
I confess that after Vogue I was relieved to find that the college girls in my town were almost all still wearing short shorts and the streets were filled with long bare tanned legs. What a shame it would be for young women at the height of their beauty and sexuality to miss sun and air on their skin and freedom of movement and the ability to show themselves off. I’m with Nora Ephron who famously said, “If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four.”
Naturally, it is hard to address this subject without opening the whole question of freedom of choice in what one should be allowed to wear or not. I understand that it would be as hard for a woman used to wearing a headscarf to take it off, as it would be for me to put one on. I want to completely respect each woman’s choice to wear what feels right. An Iranian-American friend of mine, who has never worn a hijab recently considered putting one on in reaction to the racism she experienced both at work and from the President. Eventually she chose not to do this. But I understand her sentiment. On the other hand, I think it’s worth reading Mona Eltahawy’s book Headscarves and Hymens for an insider’s view of the issue. It took Eltahawy many years to have the courage to remove her headscarf. But she supports the ban on the face veil. “I’m disappointed with the left wing in Europe for not speaking up and declaring that the niqab ban has everything to do with women’s rights; we are fighting against an ideology that does not believe in women’s rights. This is why I support the bans on the face veil that have been imposed in France, Belgium, and some parts of Barcelona, Spain. It is why I question why so many Muslim men jump to defend the niqab and the right to wear it.” (pp. 62-63) “The veil,” she writes, “be it the hijab or the niqab, is a white flag raised to signal our surrender to the Islamists and their conservatism.” (p. 47) “When Westerners remain silent out of ‘respect’ for foreign cultures, they show support only for the most conservative elements of those cultures. Cultural relativism is as much my enemy as the oppression I fight within my culture and faith.” (p. 28) “Implicit in the criticism of my essay was the charge that I want ‘the West’ to ‘rescue us.’ Only we can rescue ourselves. I have never implored anyone else to rescue us from misogyny; it is our fight to win. I implore allies of the countries in this part of the world to pay more attention to women’s rights and to refuse to allow cultural relativism to justify horrendous violations of women’s rights. This is very different from calling on anyone to ‘rescue us.’ I insist on the right to critique both.” (p. 28-29).
Eltahawy quotes the feminist Khadija Riyadi: “Laws help to change mentalities. We don’t wait for mentalities to change on their own.”
Some years ago I was in Turkey in a place called Patara, a beautiful beachfront wildlife preserve where sea turtles came to lay eggs. It was a somewhat depressed area, unlike the fancy Russian and English resorts further down the coast. On the beach at that time European women went naked, American women wore bikinis, wealthy Turkish women wore burkinis, and the poorer local women went in the water fully dressed in their long skirts and blouses and headscarves. But the men all wore little black speedos, no matter what the women with them were wearing. If there was something liberating about being completely covered up on a hot beach, wouldn’t men leap to it?
In Patara we stayed in a little pension run by a wonderful man named Kazim who spoke excellent English; his wife and mother wore headscarves and did the very delicious cooking; unfortunately (and this speaks to the different education and status of women all over the world), unlike Kazim they did not speak English. It was 2008, when Erdogan was Prime Minister and not yet President, and at that time, as a holdover from the days of Kemal Atatürk, women were not allowed to wear headscarves when attending university. Kazim said he thought it was important that the rule be kept. Because, he said, once headscarves were allowed, it would soon be taboo not to wear them. Kazim was right. Under Erdogan the rule has of course been changed and photos show most of the women in classes with hair covered. In the past five years, secular Turkish women say they find themselves judged by an increasingly conservative society.
This is of course true in many places. The nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy tells us that in Pakistan, “Increasing conservatism among Muslims has led to uncovered faces being regarded as sinful. Once upon a time there was no burqa on campus except maybe the odd one here or there. But today most women at my university – where I have taught for 44 years – are either in burqa or hijab.” He also mentioned an incident in which the head cleric of an institution next to his University – “our ex-student – had threatened that his female students would throw acid on the faces of QAU female students unless they covered their faces.” https://newint.org/features/2018/05/01/pervez-hoodbhoy
In America I’m sure this austere covered up look will be just a phase, and probably not a popular one.We’re too used to our streamlined, comfortable, efficient clothes, and we spend far too much on hair products, on exercise, on learning to appreciate women’s bodies of all shapes and sizes, to start to hide everything. I personally don’t know any women who would put on a prairie dress, but I live in the sticks, and ironically it is city dwellers who have apparently taken up the look. Though on a recent trip to New York I didn’t see one woman covered head to toe in ruffles and gingham. I recently had coffee with a friend, a beautiful, very politically active woman in her mid-sixties. She was wearing a simple short sleeveless dress in a deep purple t-shirt material. It was comfortable and elegant and revealed legs, arms, and neck. It set off her white hair and she looked stunning in it. $10 from Costco, she said. I mentioned how the fashion now seemed to be covering women completely. “You mean those prairie dresses,” she said. “Give me a break.”
This year there were “sexy” handmaids costumes advertised for Halloween, though they’ve since been removed from the websites. Great, a sexy keep-me-as-a-slave-and-rape-me-until-I’m pregnant costume? We are, I think, very confused. But, more to the point, the women protesting Kavanaugh included women who were appropriately dressed as handmaids. And, on a somewhat optimistic note, the majority of the women—angry, vocal, distressed—who were protesting Kavanaugh wore t-shirts and jeans, clothes that aren’t about hiding, but rather about freedom of movement. These women aren’t going back. They aren’t embracing patriarchal religions that find women’s lives secondary to those of their husbands and offspring. Instead, these women are exposing the truth, and are in the front lines fighting against those who want to cover it up.
 Yaeger, Lynn. (2018, September). “Cover Story,” Vogue, September, p. 587.
 Eltahawy, Mona. (2016) Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.