I Cannot Lie: I Love Eileen Fisher

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Photo: David Turner/Corbis

Eileen Fisher, I love you: Clasp me to the tan shoulder of handsome middle age and swathe me in the most sumptuous of natural fibers.

I’ve said things along these lines before as jokes, because it’s a useful category of joke to have when you often wear calf-length sack dresses. But I mean it now as a confession, one I’d like to make in earnest and then examine a little more closely.

Draping cashmere cardigans; loose, silky tanks; pants that billow; kimono sleeves; felted wool jackets without collars or closures; boxy sweaters with boat necks and open knits; linen and jersey in neutral hues — oatmeal and gray — giving way to occasional flashes of bold, rich color.

When I see these things I think: moms. But also I think: looks good.

First, let me say that I am not alone. Eileen Fisher, the three-decade-old retailer of sensible casualwear, is a very popular and successful brand. It is most popular and successful among women twice my age, women who have made NPR donations and conscious decisions not to heed trends. But when I do my little dance of sack-dress self-deprecation for the right audience — the right audience of my peers — it’s usually met with conspiratorial enthusiasm.

Perhaps in part that’s because (while Eileen Fisher makes no effort to follow fashion) fashion has drifted her direction. Céline and The Row sell clothes devoid of irony and adornment, simple and willing to explore the border between effortless elegance and careless dowdiness. The Row even has a predilection for older models (Lauren Hutton in their first look book, Linda Rodin more recently) who evoke the same austere dignity associated with Eileen Fisher. For these choices, they win praise.

“Invisible. That is what Phoebe Philo’s clothes for Céline make you feel,” began T Magazine’s February cover story on the designer. “And oh, what a relief!” It went on:

We don’t have time to consider whether our prints match or our buttons align. To try on different outfits each morning, like so many personalities. To fuss and preen. That seems silly, somehow weak … There is a Céline uniform: large, slouchy trousers; a collarless shirt; flats, a tuxedo jacket — preferably in navy, black or cream. The clothes are quiet and not meant to make a statement. And so you look invisible. Able to be viewed for more than your surface appearance.

Compare this to the opening of the Eileen Fisher profile that Janet Malcolm wrote last fall for The New Yorker:

There is a wish shared by women who consider themselves serious that the clothes they wear look as if they were heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected. The clothes of Eileen Fisher seem to have been designed with the fulfillment of that wish in mind. Words like ‘simple’ and ‘tasteful’ and colors like black and gray come to mind along with women of a certain age and class — professors, editors, psychotherapists, lawyers, administrators — for whom the hiding of vanity is an inner necessity.

Céline and Eileen Fisher cater to the same fashion instinct, even if one brand is beloved of fashion editors and the other of 55-year-old arts administrators. (An Eileen Fisher ad actually appeared on the inside back cover of that issue of T; both groups are buying the Sunday Times, after all.) In the New Yorker profile, Malcolm goes on to write that she herself is a member of the “growing cadre of women who regularly shop at Eileen Fisher and form a kind of cult of the interestingly plain.” I remember reading this and experiencing, to my surprise, great relief. It would have pained me had Janet Malcolm disdained Eileen Fisher.

And disdain is an easy default response to tasteful clothes for middle-aged women. “The Row is getting awfully close to Eileen Fisher territory,” a style writer I know tweeted dubiously during fashion week, after The Row showed a collection of enormous turtlenecks. "When you start wearing Eileen Fisher, you might as well say, ‘I give up,’” says a character in Nora and Delia Ephron's play Love, Loss, and What I Wore.

On the other hand: “They’re essentially beautiful clothes,” said my friend Emma. “Why not wear them now when everything underneath them is also beautiful?” This is the opposite of the attitude implied in the Ephron line toward fashion, bodies, and age. “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six,” Nora Ephron wrote elsewhere (in I Feel Bad About My Neck). “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.”  Showing that you can look good wearing a bikini is one kind of accomplishment, though, and showing that you can look good without wearing a bikini is another. Blithely assuming you have nothing to prove is definitely a privilege of youth. And it’s interesting that T chose “invisible” as its term of praise for Philo, when invisibility is the classic lament of women aging into Eileen Fisher’s target demographic. Such is the difference between choosing the sack dress because no one will notice you anyway and choosing the sack because you can look good even in a sack, or, for that matter, because you just like the way sacks look.

Finding Eileen Fisher–ian garments in the wild, at age-appropriate retailers, means paying a premium for the assurance that you are deliberately choosing this look, that of course it is not your look of last resort. A few weeks ago, at Creatures of Comfort, I tried on a brown wrap shirt in a silk-linen blend whose shape evoked a kimono, a boxy cotton-silk baby-doll dress, a black smock in washed linen, and a cream-colored roll-neck cashmere sweater. While I was in the dressing room, I overheard a girl browsing outside describe the prevailing style on view as "art teacher/mom." EXACTLY, I thought, with relish.

While ostensibly the design ethos is timeless, trendless, its appeal to my peers probably runs counter to that: We love it because it is the epitome of momwear from the era when our own moms loomed largest. It is absolutely wedded to a specific time and image.

Another friend, Eliza, told me that when she remembers the way her mom looked to her as a child, she pictures a big black rectangle. “Just a big rectangle made of elegant linen,” she said.

“When you’re 12 and you’re wearing Gap jeans with flowers on them, Eileen Fisher is the opposite of what you want,” Eliza explained. But after college, when she got her first job, her mother made an offer: “I will, as your graduation present, take you shopping for work clothes,” Eliza remembers her saying. “And we’re going to Eileen Fisher.”

So they went to the Eileen Fisher store in the East Village and they shopped, and Eliza recognized the kinds of things that she liked anyway — soft shirts in nice fabrics and loose sweaters. Was it unlike T by Alexander Wang? It was not.

“Something had already changed inside me regarding Eileen Fisher,” Eliza said, “without me realizing it myself.”

Eileen Fisher is the irresistible comfort of familiarity. Eileen Fisher is the fundamental uncoolness of desiring this comfort. Eileen Fisher is the sense memory of a childhood home, a song whose words you never realized you knew. Eileen Fisher is Paul Simon’s Graceland as heard in the backseat on a family vacation. The upholstery is sunny and you have every reason to believe you all will be received wherever it is you are going, someplace where a linen tank dress is always in season and everything in your closet matches everything else.