Looking at Museums, from the Outside Now

I love quiet places. Even as a fourth grader, I wondered if all that yelling at recess was really necessary. So I hid in cardboard box forts with library books. I hid in the back seat of my parents’ Dodge van. And whenever I could, I hid in museums. I’ve loved them ever since for their quiet treasures, for their patience and safety, for their endless surprises hidden in plain sight. Even, I have to admit, for their unwillingness to evolve.

With only the loosest of career intentions—dusting mummies? wearing chunky necklaces while herding school children?— I moved to New York in 2005 to get a Master’s degree in Museum Studies. I had failed to get into the same program at San Francisco State, where the director explained that the primary issue facing contemporary cultural institutions was keeping teenagers from spitting on things. That conversation was my first lesson: museums are, historically, places where old white people clutch ill-gotten treasures to keep them “safe” from the masses.

My education was quick. I cranked out a thesis on the national Museum of Iraq (founded by a female British colonist, sacked during the U.S. occupation, etc.), then jumped squarely into the mess as a communications assistant at a respected institution on museum mile. Here it all was: educators working in the shadows of curators, who were inextricably entwined in grotesque pseudo-romances with board members, and of course, artists themselves. Everyone, it seemed, was vampirically sucking up something from somebody else. For the board members, it was the cultural capital of the museum and the cleansing effect of having done something nominally philanthropic. For the curators, it was the thrill of being near the artists and their work, and of having their interpretations of art held up as art itself. For artists, it was long-awaited vindication (but not necessarily a paycheck) after years of substandard living and general societal sidelining. For me and the other thirty-thousandaires I toiled alongside, it was cheese cubes left over after press previews, and the occasional hushed tour of a gallery after closing. Which was lovely, but didn’t pay the rent. I ate from tupperware containers and glued my shoes back together against the backdrop of million-dollar fundraisers and Oscar-worthy red carpets. Some people, as it turns out, do quite well in museum economies.

None of this is news to anyone who has ever torn a ticket, planned a gala, served a cup of coffee or drafted a press release in a museum. But now it’s real news. News news. The money and the power in our spiritual bathhouses, our monuments to the cleansing property of high culture, are filthy fucking crooked. Everybody knows it, or everybody should. It’s suddenly very visible.

Nan Goldin’s recent protest against the Sackler family drug cartel was a good old-fashioned, ACT UP-style party, big and bold and gorgeous. It loudly outed the drug money that fuels the “good” that the Guggenheim does (among other museums), which, as one shells out more than three hours’ worth of the Federal minimum wage for admission, feels increasingly unclear. Downtown, the Whitney has faced a different PR disaster as Warren B. Kanders, the vice chair of the board, was outed as a dealer of tear gas implemented against migrants at the U.S. border.

Of course, there’s progress too. Workers at the New Museum, which is planning an $85 million dollar expansion, recently voted to unionize. And these days the Brooklyn Museum turns out a steady stream of smart, beautiful, radical exhibits of work by and for people of color. Art in the Age of Black Power. Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985. The list goes on, but the museum still backs itself into incredibly obvious corners. How hard is it not to hire a white person to curate African art?

I’m watching all of this from the outside now, because five years ago I found I could no longer afford to work in museums. The industry, after all, is build on a scaffold of labor abuse. It has undervalued or outright stolen the works of artists, known and unknown, particularly and most egregiously from indigenous people. It was founded on, and is still largely propped up by the unpaid and laughably-paid labor of women who are often partially supported by their parents, partners, or second jobs (I took restaurant reservations). Today’s museum laborers do battle with this long-established system every time they open their paychecks.

Solving the problem frightens those in power because it wouldn’t just transform the museum’s labor structure. It would lead to the reimagining of the museum itself, by removing economic barriers to participation. With the promise of a living wage, workers of any background could contribute their vision and their labor. Priorities would shift. Exhibitions would look different. Power would be redistributed. But for now, low salaries make it difficult or impossible to sustain a career in the field for those who are unsubsidized. Heavily in debt and demonstrably underpaid, I left my last museum job for a nearly fifty percent pay raise at a social service nonprofit doing identical work.

So. There is not enough money in museums. Or there is enough, but it’s from the wrong places. Where, they will say, are we supposed to get the money, if not from the Sacklers? If not from the tear-gas makers? It’s a good question. Maybe museums can reconsider the necessity of multi-million dollar salaries for executive directors. Maybe they can redirect the funds tagged for monumental, self-aggrandizing expansions and record-setting acquisitions that make news, but don’t mean much to anyone living next door. Maybe museums should ask the neighbors what they think. Maybe the point is to be quiet and listen, after all.

17 Things North Carolina Should Ban from Restrooms Instead of Trans People

1. Brazilian wandering spiders

2. Harpoons

3. Fruit-scented body sprays

4. Trepanning

5. People who stand very quietly examining themselves in the mirror two feet from your stall while you're trying to poop. 

6. Ritual sacrifices

7. Deep-fat fryers

8. Negative self-talk

9. People having spiteful, intentionally demeaning conversations with their exes in the stall next to you while you're trying to poop.

10. Acro-yoga

11. Pizza, unless you brought enough for everyone. 

12. Nail guns

13. Communicating with the dead

14. Polychlorinated biphenyl

15. Body shaming

16. Small children who peek under partitions

17. Eels

The East of the West

It always happens this time of year. It's late in the day here in New York. I'm at work, hearing the radiators ticking and drinking the day's 5th cup of tea without much interest. Something's nagging at me, like a hangover from a dream that lasts all day. It's a longing for California, but it's more complicated than homesickness; it feels like an inevitable, magnetic pull. I'm not fantasizing about Malibu or Napa or San Francisco. It's the Eastern part of the state I'm missing; the part that's wild. The part that once crippled westbound wagons seeking paradise. The part where even a plane crash can go overlooked for months or years. 

I find myself staring at a Google map of the Sierras, wondering about all that soft green space that looks so deceptively empty on the screen. A few clicks later I'm gazing longingly at pictures like this, in the same way other people drool over shots of Caribbean beaches:

Near Benton, CA

Near Benton, CA

I miss the flat heat, but not in the way that you miss a dead dog or an estranged sibling. I miss the way that everything stills in the dry, dominant wilderness out there. The way that the land is still something to be reckoned with. The way that the drowning expansiveness of these places starts to feel normal after a few days. The crunch of gravel, the rustle and evidence of non-human creatures going about their business, outnumbering us by far. They feel very, very far away now. 


Thoughts on Rain

Can't stand it against their windows: Ann Peebles, the Commitments, Missy Elliot, Seal
Enjoy singing in it: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra
Want to go outside in it: the Dramatics, Keith Sweat
Would like to know if you've ever seen it: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Tells them just what a fool they've been: the Cascades
Can feel it on her fingertips; her love comes down like it: Madonna
Wants to see you bathing in it (purple): Prince
Has seen it (as well as fire): James Taylor
Thinks it's going to, today: Randy Newman, Bette Midler, Joe Cocker, Dusty Springfield, Norah Jones


Keeping Home

For most of my life I've felt guilty about the pleasure I get from homemaking. According to many feminists of my mother's generation, it's the work that was put before women to keep them from rising up and claiming power. And recent reclamations of homemaking seem to be undertaken largely in the spirit of bourgeoise distraction or the mormon faith. (For the record I don't object to either of those things, I just don't relate to them. Well, sometimes the bourgeoise distraction bit if I'm being honest.)

Homemaking is Labor. It's real work: sweaty, intellectually and physically demanding. When done well it reduces waste, keeps people feeling healthy and loved, reinforces basic dignity, binds communities together. Good, important stuff. 

No surprise that given this, I'm enchanted by women's media of any era. I picked up American Woman's Home recently. It's a stout little book written in 1869 by Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame). I expected a flowery, effeminate thing. It is absolutely not that. 

An illustration describing the process of ventilation in American Woman's Home.

Actually, it's almost 500 pages on how to do everything: build a daybed, an "earth closet" (toilet), or a flour bin, propagate plants, cook healthy food, take care of old people, prevent cholera. With a very hearty dose of Christian propaganda. It is exhausting just reading this thing. And in case you weren't taking this work seriously, the authors note that "The chief causes of the disabilities and sufferings of their sex are [due to] the fact that the honor and duties of the family are not duly appreciated." And you know what? If we de-gender this thing and take out the frowning, wrathful God, I'm inclined to agree with at least half of that statement. 

Time went by. It's safe to assume everyone was unanimously pleased to cross "preventing cholera" off their to-do lists. In October 1949, Family Circle suggested that harvesting, prepping, and freezing garden vegetables would be "fun" if you did it with your mom. Debatable. But why did it have to be "fun" in the first place? Was her husband's postwar job "fun"? Probably not. It was work. It is work, even in 2015. And it's worth doing. 

Definitely not having fun on the right, there. From the October 1949 Family Circle. 

In my 20 years of devouring these magazines, none have been nearly as delightful as Sphere, the short-lived 1970's Betty Crocker Magazine. Pictorials with titles like "Chili for Chauvinists" and instructions on how to throw an African-themed dinner party, make a faux-suede wrap skirt, or get a dozen friends drunk on negronis are pretty irresistible. All this in the midst of the battle for the ERA, no less! The work here seems based, still, on an intrinsic moral need for wholesome-ness, but it also seems...optional. I get the sense that Sphere's audience read Gloria Steinem, but mostly opted for talking about her over Sanka, rather than taking the struggle to the streets. 

Apparently women used to exercise while wearing pantyhose? Pictorial from the January 1973 issue of Sphere. 

Now we're going to skip ahead to the Reagan administration. Again, homemaking is work here, and it feels a little less like a fun way to get creative and express one's identity, and a little more like a thing you can fail at if you're not careful. Here are the mauve throw pillows, floral-print comforters, and white lace tights that were so conspicuously absent in 1973. Still! There's a whole page devoted to replacing a light switch, which any homemaker will tell you is some pro-level shit.   

These days they're working on the Hilary Clinton campaign. From a pictorial in the October 1983 Better Homes and Gardens. 

Recently I subscribed to a couple of present-day homemaking magazines (of the Ladies' Home Journal variety). Eventually I lost interest--something about the present-day versions just didn't quite enchant me. They focus mostly on ease, convenience, and product recommendations. I want to hear more about the hard work of homemaking. The stuff that Harriet Beecher Stowe demanded respect for. 


While I have a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to contemporary fashion, some new Rachel Comey stuff in my inbox today was just delightfully refreshing.  Which is ironic given that it is mostly the color of a raw-mushroom-and-protein-powder-smoothie . It's just so lovely to see clothes that are intended to do something other than desperately, pathetically re-interpret the female body for random passersby.  

Comey's clothes say don't bother me I'm reading or my body is a cherished vessel that's none of your business. At its most friendly, it might ask: would you like to meet in an anonymous chain cafe near Penn Station and discuss Agnes Martin? In any case, it never says I need you to like me, or here is what I have to bargain with

Further on this theme: the New York Times and many of its female readers are embracing comfortable, authoritative cotton underpants. May this new fascination usher in the quick yet excruciating death of the thong. 

Bodies are about SO many things. They're public, but only incidentally. Unless you're someone who introduces herself to the world via her sexual abilities or interests, in which case, Brava, Your Body Your Choice, etc.,  why should your clothes be about sex? 

Things They Like

  1. To make it with you--Bread, 1970
  2. The way your sparkling earrings shine--The Eagles, 1972
  3. Big butts and I cannot lie--Sir Mix-a-Lot, 1986
  4. The way you let me come in when your mommy's not there--Gerry and the Pacemakers, 1963
  5. Rap music--En Vogue, 1992
  6. The way you comb your hair; those stylish clothes you wear--El Debarge, 1982
  7. It Raw--Ol’ Dirty Bastard, 1995
  8. The Sunrise--Nina Simone, 1962
  9. To eat apples and bananas--Barney, 1993
  10. It like that--Pete Rodriguez, 1967
  11. Men--Peggy Lee, 1959
  12. Candy when it’s wrapped in a sweater--Bow Wow Wow, 1982
  13. The cars that go boom--L’Trimm, 1988


Things Zelda did

From Nancy Milford's Zelda, a Biography of Zelda Fitzgerald
  1. Lived almost completely without physical fear
  2. Fully expected him to perform manfully
  3. Chose basket therapy
  4. Was very plain
  5. Flapped her arms and looked uncouth while she talked about her ballet ambitions
  6. Revealed her pantied posterior
  7. Was unwilling to give up the bright & irrevocable dreams that possessed her
  8. Lived on the festival conception of life
  9. Smashed victrola records over his head
  10. Set out to be as impossible as she could be
  11. Cuttingly referred to his father as an Irish policeman
  12. Dressed in men's clothes with no money or jewelry & prowled the haunts of Jack the Ripper
  13. Had a manner of becoming personal which wasn't really very amusing

A Sharp-Dressed Man

My first family portrait was taken in 1976. A lot of the photo is timeless: smiling young parents and grandparents gathered on a sofa around a bundle of wrinkly new baby. But a few things are classically 70's--specifically, my dad's shirt. Cresting waves of beige, mauve and periwinkle on a shiny poly fabric are crowned with a collar wide enough to take flight (my mom's isn't bad, either).

I can't take my eyes off that shirt, pops!

Unfortunately, the decade was wrapping up and the men I grew up knowing began dressing with increasing anonymity: cargo shorts. Polo shirts. Khakis. Shoes so boring they're invisible. Sunglasses on neoprene holders. These clothes are more genderless than masculine, really. Their purpose is only to protect the modesty of the wearer. They whisper, they sag, they don't make an impression. Ironically, they take up a lot less space than their feminine counterparts.

The generic man-uniform is so ubiquitous, it's tough to believe that boys and men ever wore anything else-- but they did! We seem to go through cycles of flashiness and elegance in men's fashion every so often.

Their mothers clapped with glee. 
In 1908, the soft androgyny of children was reinforced with lace collars, ankle straps and wavy bobs. Can you imagine sending little Cody off to pre-school in one of these today?

Just a few years earlier, freewheelin' Victorian guys went about their boyhoods in jackets with heavily ornamented asymmetrical plackets, poufy berets, stockings and kitten heels.

This ad from 1915 features the heterosexual masculine ideal of the time: graceful, elegant and poreless in skinny trousers and blinding white waistcoats.


In February 1935, the New York Times wrote that "Fun clothes for men have never before been so free, so gay, so startling." I went looking for examples. These "peppy styles for gay hot-shots" will do quite nicely.

Elegance exemplified in pleated trousers, t-strap sandals, and a sensible valise/handbag c.1947. This gentleman wouldn't have been caught dead in an Angry Birds t-shirt.

Aside from the wild terrain of the International Male catalogue, it seems like men's fashion hasn't had much fun since the 70's. Maybe fashion--like some of its wearers from those days--is still recovering from that decade of overindulgence. Relatively speaking, my dad may have exercised some restraint in his sartorial choices.

Why doesn't *my* blouse match my knickers?!

frocks with jams

Soundtracks for dresses from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Call Your Girlfriend", Body Talk, Robyn, 2010
Waited alone on the cusp of disappointment, disingenuously. Really believed she'd done nothing wrong because love is something that just HAPPENS.

Versace c.1991-92

"Putting the Damage On", Boys for Pele, Tori Amos, 1996 
Hobbies: psychoanalysis & sad sex.

Zandra Rhodes c.1995

"Genesis", Visions, Grimes, 2012 
Petted her New Age philosophies too hard and killed them, then wrote a beautiful, weird eulogy.

Madame Grès (Alix Barton) c.1960's-1980's (dig the 20 year margin of error)

"Big Mouth", Master of My Make Believe, Santigold, 2012
Already has enough friends.

Geoffrey Beene c.1972-73

"You Belong to Me",  Boys in the Trees, Carly Simon (1978)
Has tried every drug; no one knows how she makes money. Utterly inept but surprisingly great at communicating with small children. 

Chloe c.1980

"Baby's On Fire", Here Come The Warm Jets, Brian Eno, 1974
You're worried about her, but she'll be fine.

Halston c.1975

The Working Woman's Wardrobe

I enjoy the notion that the first professional women were  late-60's second-wave feminists in suntan pantyhose and polyester skirt suits, setting out for the office en masse one crisp September morning, heads high and briefcases in hand. But that's just not true, is it? Women have been earning paychecks and paying bills since the first landlord overcharged the first tenant for a dumpy studio with bad light and mice.

And what have we worn? Some of the best things. Shirtwaists and femmey neckties and uniforms. Oh! The uniforms!

From Ladies' Home Journal, 1910

And what about your feet? Pair your one-piece work dress with shoes that are both hygienic and sanitary! (Incidentally, when was the last time you used either of those descriptors? They've gone the way of "wholesome" and "unseemly". It's a shame.)

Proto-Easy Spirits c.1910

Mrs. Morton wore them with spats.
Mrs. Morton, "First woman letter carrier on the job", 1917

As women entered the workforce during World War II, their wardrobes got an upgrade and a little more authority. If you Google image search "working woman", Rosie still pops up first. 

Rosie the Riveter

Charity Adams, First Officer in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, c. 1943

From Ladies' Home Journal, 1942

Then there are the women who figured so heavily in my first understanding of feminism, and in my first fashion crushes. I never cease to love the way that wild, hippie aesthetics sometimes bled into mainstream fashions.

From Sphere Magazine, early 1970's 

Mary Tyler Moore, 1970's

Let's close with the "I'm trying to be a grown-up lady" suit worn by a teenaged Mariel Hemingway in the last scene of "Manhattan". It speaks volumes. It perfectly frames her as the precocious ingenue and sets up a compelling bit of cognitive dissonance (it's ugly! it's ill-fitting! it's the most beautiful thing ever!) that jams with her character (we love her, we pity her). The whole thing just zings.

Mariel Hemingway in "Manhattan", 1979

On Vanity

I rode the B train from Bryant Park to Grand Street across from a teenage girl today. She was very young, maybe 14 or 15, no jeune fille aching under the weight of her virginity in a French memoir, but lovely and awkward all the same in her contemporary American-ness. 

Her forehead was decorated with acne and she picked at her bangs, maybe trying to cover it, for most of the ride. She looked at a mirror while she did this. No big emotional scene going on, no grimaces or practice smiles. This girl was a New Yorker, used to being visible most of the time, used to a life lived in public.  

I did what I do most mornings with people within my field of vision on the subway: I judged her. I thought, so vain, teenagers, especially teenaged girls, blah blah blah, criticizing completely reflexively because I am a former teenage girl myself.

Then I thought: you know, you'd be self-obsessed too if your entire paradigm shifted within a few short months/years; if you'd had a sense of foreboding since age 11, and now everything you'd hoped/feared regarding your body was suddenly coming to pass; if you were now subject to entire planets of judgement/visibility previously unknown; if your face was different every morning when you looked at it, zits tracing their life-cycles, baby fat thinning and rearranging, weird hair experiments wreaking havoc.

The visibility part was really painful to remember, in particular. That sick mix of hope/fear, constantly pulling in either direction, the potential for sexiness, the fear of its realization, the fear that it wouldn't be realized. The   weird inability to be anonymous, suddenly. We slip under the radar as plain, mismatched, sneakered 10-year-olds, observing, THINKING, our intellects luxuriously occupied with imagination and strange enthusiasms; we are overlooked as Potential People, To Be Determineds. Forgiven or at least ignored. At 14 that's all over, or at least considerably thinned, depending on who's watching. 

99 Cent Store Review: Sen Li

The Sen Li 99 Cent Store at 211 East Broadway has one star on Yelp. ONE. Ok, granted, the reviewer was literally spat upon, but still. Let's not dismiss this place out of hand. Time for another look. 

That thrilling moment of anticipation.

Though it's just a dead cat shy of a "hoarders" episode (I came upon a very recently vacated bed with rumpled covers in the back row), Sen Li is everything that is great about 99 cent stores.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery award goes to: SHOUPIES!

The Why Not award goes to these tiny tasselled hats with hair clips attached!

You'd have to be a COOC to spend more than $2 on perfume!
(This won the award for Thing That I Narrowly Avoided Buying)

I'm unclear about this large domed object hanging over a shelf of candles.
If you can weave through Sen Li's perplexing obstacles, you'll be richly rewarded.

Overall score: 4/5 stars (point deducted for not having a shop cat)
Selection: 4/5 stars; a rich tapestry of the weird, lacking only fashion options.
Prices: 5 stars. The Chamele was literally $2!

What to Wear on Ice

Ice skating  triggers some pretty outstanding sartorial choices. We've all come to expect faux-nudity, spangles, airbrushing, fluttering polyester, more spangles, body glitter, blah blah. THEN in 2009, a Russian team felt like maybe it was selfish to only embarrass themselves with their costumes, and decided to embarrass the entire world instead. Hence, costumes "inspired by" Australian Aboriginal traditions.

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin

Of course there's a historic precedent here. Spandex blackface bodysuits don't just "happen". Something about this sport makes people put a little extra effort into their wardrobe.

Here's the kind of c.1899 nonsense that makes every garment I wear seem like it's made out of stapled-together grocery bags fished from the garbage:

"Of mouse grey cloth. Zouave of red velvet with bold embroidery in gold and colored thread, sleeves and skirt similarly decorated, vest of chinchilla with fancy gold buttons. Grey fur tocque and muff"

Here's a comparatively practical option from 1909. Please note how her lovely celery turtleneck complements her pea-green complexion (those were the Fun early days of color printing)

Yay for self-belts, matching hats and the debut of creepy nude-colored skate covers! Norwegian film star/skater Sonja Henie was clearly overjoyed by her frock in this cigarette card picture c.1936:

Here's skating legend Janet Champion in the 1960's, wearing a Wild West saloon girl spangled thingy that is pretty much meaningless compared to WHAT SHE IS DOING WITH HER BODY IN THIS PICTURE. Oh my god. (Janet Champion is still active as a figure skating coach. Go Janet.)

Loving her for a lot of reasons, not least of which: the opera-length gloves seem like a totally practical choice in this scenario.

You're Unique, Just Like Everyone Else

Uniformity can be convenient: it keeps the schoolchildren passively un-individuated, helps you find or avoid the cops, and visually distinguishes meter-readers from axe murderers knocking at your door.

Truthfully, I used to long for school uniforms. They would have allowed me to avoid so many problems: how to afford guess jeans, how to tuck or not tuck in my shirt, how to out on three pairs of brightly colored slouchy socks in alternating order (shit... does it go melon/fuschia/mint, or mint/melon/fuschia?) I've often associated fashion with the mean, clever people in your social circle you wish you didn't like. They're just available enough to make you long for more. Better, I've often thought, to put on a navy cardigan and be done with it.

Uniformity is also useful for adding an exciting twist to your cult suicide event (everyone wear black nikes and get a short haircut! the media will LOVE IT!) or dictatorship.

As it turns out, I think there's actually a crisp distinction between UNIFORMS (comforting, sexy?, mysterious, weighted with symbolism) and MATCHING OUTFITS (stupid, vulnerable, hilarious, funfunfun!).

But some things that I love live in the gloriously ill-defined space between the two.

Girl Groups (specifically., the Marvelettes)

Cult Members (specifically, Rajneeshees)

Bridesmaids (specifically, someone I wish I was related to)

Celebrity Twins (specifically, Alice and Ellen Kessler)

Tiny Flowers on Rayon

I saw my first ironic navel piercing the other day. It was stuck in the middle of a retro-90’s outfit that involved a cropped purple lace top and some high-waisted black jeans—and something else, but I don’t know what. I had to look away.

Alicia Silverstone, early adopter.

Back in 2007 i had nice chat with a stranger on the subway about fashion. She was about my age. We both could sense the impending movement of the 90’s revival into the mainstream. It was palpable, really. And while certain women I know (ahem, Chelsea Starr), nailed this moment with impeccable accuracy and effortless aplomb, acheiving an ironic, self-consciously sexy interpretation of the Matte Era with breathtaking ease, I knew I could never follow suit.

I would have killed for Janeane’s dress.

I’ve loved my secretary dresses, my tiered coral prom dress, my hip huggers, platform shoes, 2nd wave feminist t-shirts, but I could not, will not, go back to the 90’s.

I’m from a family of anachronists. My sister can tell you why the triangles on the cotton print of your dress suggest that it was made in 1943 rather than 1938. She and I spent years scouring the largest salvation army in northern california. When eva and i started thrifting in the early 90’s, there were still 1940’s cardigans, not in bad shape, handmade, tiny, with self-buttons. There were still pucci bras!

We’d take the loot home to our mom, who’d give us a sartorial history lesson: ”oh we wore those like this…no like this! no, you would never have worn it with those shoes!” And then once the clothes went on, there was an inevitable pained groan as i sauntered by in my father’s belt, my high-waisted white twill flares, my “a woman’s place is in the house…and the senate” t-shirt.

Now, as the 90’s aesthetic wanes for the second time in my 34 years, I understand her response. It was so, so embarassing for her.

From the Fall '11 Urban Outfitters Catalogue.
The model on the left is wearing a t-shirt that says "Nirvana", which was a band in the '90s, or something?
Because really, who wants to see a teenager wear what you wore, ironically? Teenagers are already terrifying. I think when i’m 65 I’ll still be afraid of teenaged girls. We all feel awash in shame when we see 15 year olds prancing by in the same ill-chosen costumes we were once so proud of. They are fearless, strange, awkward. Deliberately ugly or clumsily sexy, but never elegant.

The process has changed, though. It’s unfair (and i should probably be embarassed) but I feel compelled to judge the reprocessed, too-easy reprise. When I was a kid this stuff stank. It was too big, had to be cut up and put back together. It was off-putting, a lot of the time. But vintage clothes aren’t sifted out of foul-smelling bins any more.  They smell great. And they have floral patterns. Lots and lots of floral patterns.

The Trouble With Bustles

I may have first become aware of the relationship between fashion and gender while watching Disney’s Pecos Bill cartoon*. Bill’s true love, Slue-Foot Sue, is real dagguereotype girlfriend, with bow lips and a long red braid. She rides a catfish instead of a horse and enjoys life as a freewheeling wild-west adventurer until she falls in love and decides to settle down.

Sue takes a break from steer-ropin' to powder her nose.

Sue's wedding dress is buttercup-yellow, topped off with a veil on her big white stetson. A fine new bustle props up the whole thing. While the result is quite fetching, Sue’s great fashion sense leads to her demise. Her beloved’s horse, Widowmaker, is a jealous nag who bucks Sue and her bouncy bustle up into the heavens. Sue spends eternity on the moon, and Bill pines for her every night as he gazes up at the sky.

As a kid, I was puzzled and intrigued by this. What was this bizarre thing Sue strapped to her ass, anyway?  Even the most ridiculous contemporary fashion is a taupe turtleneck by comparison. These were CAGES, made of metal, bone or wood, strapped around the wearer’s waist for the sole purpose of making the booty look bigger (and by extension, the waist smaller). According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they were also thought to “stabilize women’s frail and weak forms” (Which is ironic, because I imagine these things weighed the wearer down by a few pounds).

Worn from the late 1860’s to the late 1890’s, bustles were central to Victorian-era fashion. Their shape changed in the later 19th Century, evolving from a round bell shape to become flatter in front and more prominent in the rear--the wild-west saloon girl look.

Victorian culture is of course synonymous with cultural repression, and arguably the female form has never been more fully contorted and exaggerated in mainstream culture. Wikipedia even compares the bustle’s profile to the famous posterior of the “Hottentot Venus”, Saartje Baartman, a South African native who was displayed throughout Europe in the 19th Century.

Despite the obviously horrifying inferences one can draw here about mobility and comfort and the literally “caged” woman (second wave feminism, yawn dullsville but we’re probably due for a refresher…anyway), they look AMAZING. I’m sorry. You really only need one dress when it’s this one:

Sporting Dress c.1885, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

BUT! A Word of Caution: When bustles get too big, the wearer looks a bit like they’re in a horse costume. In fact, maybe that’s what pissed Widowmaker off so much. One hopes it’s more plausible than interspecies romantic jealousy (which gives me the heebie-jeebies).

*When I say this, I mean i literally may not have been 100% clear on “boys where x, girls wear y” prior to this. My mom did a great job of degendering my wardrobe before age 6 via corduroy overalls and striped t-shirts.