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A Dress Is a Dress Is a Dress

The fashion question.

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Portrait by Geoff McFetridge  

My mother believes our new First Lady should wear shorter skirts. A nice pair of legs is a sight to be seen. We have many conversations about this, and very few about veterans’ affairs, and we feel kind of bad about this, but not too bad.

Our friends are also having conversations of this type. As are our friends’ friends, and our friends’ friends’ friends. Talking about Michelle’s clothes now feels kind of like talking about the weather or the current price of crude oil; we all seem to agree that our new First Lady’s hemline isn’t just a hemline. And, furthermore, that the whole hemline conversation, compared to a sleeve-or-no-sleeve conversation, is child’s play.

How should our new First Lady’s fashion relate, my mother and I wonder, to Serena Williams in her not-exactly-a-tennis-skirt skirts, or Jackie O. in her A-line dresses, or Phylicia Rashad in whatever it was she used to wear on The Cosby Show? (And there we find ourselves stumbling again on whether we feel bad, on account of these being the first comparisons that come to mind.)

When our new First Lady wears a white, sparkling, fluffy one-strapped ball gown designed by the 26-year-old Taiwanese-American Jason Wu, does this mean she is Cinderella? Our nation’s bride? Unfairly biased against black designers? Dismissive of older Americans? Promoting female upper-body strength?

It seems possible that, given the variables of sleeves and hemlines and fabrics and price tags and the nationality/ skin tone/gender/ age of our new First Lady’s favored designers—that given all this, and then depending on the algorithm deployed by particular observers to “solve” for the “meaning” of any one outfit, our new First Lady can, all at once, be transmitting a message of love, hate, irresponsible socialist tendencies, evidence that the market eats everything, and the insufficiently acknowledged truth that if we believe in the goodness of the American people, anything can be ours.

It’s tempting just to say that since each fashion choice can mean everything, it means nothing. And it’s amazing, once you give yourself this out, how many meanings can comfortably fit into nothing! Since, say, every fabric choice can be a comment on all fabrics—a comment on, in fact, the fabric of America itself—in the final analysis, there is no comment at all. Which makes Michelle’s hemline … her hemline. Her sleeveless dress … her sleeveless dress. Her legs … a sight to be seen. It’s simpler that way, my mother and I think. We feel not that bad. If not that honest, either.


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