Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Politics Of Style

There's nothing funnier than someone trying to out-snob the elite. Or sadder than someone slamming the lower classes for wanting nice things. Megan McArdle:

I’ve always had a sneaking fondness for Lilly Pulitzer’s clothes. Not to wear, mind you, because they are ugly as sin; I have never seen a woman wearing Lilly Pulitzer who would not have looked better in a ratty flannel bathrobe. But the ugliness is rather the point. Here you have an entire clothing line that exists to signal that the wearer is so young and comely, or so comfortable in her social status, that she does not need to bother finding attractive garb, and instead can clomp around in a brightly colored bag. There’s a sort of grandeur to the whole project.

Tell that to Jackie Kennedy. She wore a print designed by her good friend Lily Pulitzer and it was off to the races for Pulitzer's brightly colored Palm  Beach attire. And frankly my dear, Megan McArdle is not one to talk when it comes to dresses.

So I should not have been surprised that the company decided to partner with Target. After all, for the stated purpose, Lilly Pulitzer for Target is even better than the original: You care so little about what you wear that you bought the cheapest possible version rather than laying out $200 to look like you swiped the slipcovers from the lobby of a genteelly declining Florida motel.

The Target customers bought the dresses and products for the same reasons McArdle buys her favorite products-to be like the rich. Who knows, they might even think they are pretty.

What’s all wrong is the people who mobbed Target’s stores and crashed the website in a desperate attempt to get their hands on some cut-rate clothes. Lilly Pulitzer is, as Robin Givhan notes, the embodiment of the preppy fashion ethos. And if that ethos could be written in words rather than in the hearts of every man who gleefully pulls out his Nantucket reds and his ridiculous hats come Memorial Day, it would go like this: “I don’t care enough about anyone’s opinion to dress well.”

Of course, as with many elitist customs, it is not the truth of the proposition that matters, only the appearance of it. I was in high school during the Great Preppy Craze of the 1980s, and I can attest firsthand that the people who pulled it off most successfully put an enormous amount of thought and effort into looking as if they had just rolled out of bed that way. But here's one thing we do know: You cannot successfully claim not to care if you were up at dawn, queuing in front of a big box store or doing stretching exercises with your keyboarding fingers in order to get your hands on some clothes. Actually wearing Target’s Lilly Pulitzer line, therefore, signals the exact opposite of what it is supposed to.

The poors can buy cheaper Pulitzers in the attempt to look rich and fashionable but it'll never work, McArdle sneers. She was around real rich kids and their preppy clothes and knows that wanna-bes who ape the rich are to laugh. It's not like she buys the most trendy products she can afford.

The preppy craze was around in the 70s as well, by the way. The wealthier girls in my high school bought their bags and shoes at Papagallo and wore pastel Lacoste shirts and khaki skirts with their penny loafers. The Official Preppy Handbook, a satirical look at the old-money phenomenon, came out in 1980. (All of these kids were highly groomed; they did not look like they just rolled out of bed.)

There’s an economics lesson in here somewhere. Signaling is one of the most fascinating and elusive things that economists study, precisely because signals can be so fragile. Send too strong a signal and it can actually backfire, like a politician who tries hard to show voters that he shares their values and instead convinces them that he’s a flip-flopper and therefore can’t be trusted. Or a shopper who tries to signal devil-may-care insouciance by storming the racks at Target.

Losers. Where are sumptuary laws when you need them?


Clever Pseudonym said...

Actually, Lilly Pulitzer mAkes lots of cute, form1flattering dresses. I'm a big fan of the 60's style minis. And maybe preppies in NYC dressed differently, but the ones I knew were very well put together, as you noted SoT.

But I can see where Megan has a problem. Even though she does 't like Pulitzer's clothes, she's probably horrified that the poors can now theoretically afford the same labels as her.

Susan of Texas said...

Jackie Kennedy did not go around in ugly dresses! The prints are supposed to be colorful and fun and lots of people like them, obviously. All that sneering over a difference of opinion regarding fashion is pathetic.

Let's not tell McArdle that some people got their designer clothes at resale shops. She might never recover. I bought a haute couture purse for $9, which would probably horrify her.

Clever Pseudonym said...

There are also lots of solid colored dresses that are elegant a d stylish. Hardly the grandmotherly potato sacks Megan makes them out to be.

But yeah, I like sturdy, well-made clothes, but I'm no slave to designer labels unless I can get them at resale shops or places like Ross or TJ Maxx. Megan wouldn't caught dead in places like that.

You'd also think she'd approve of LP lines being sold at Target, since I've read a good deal of the stuff that flew off the shelves was being resold on e-Bay as the high-end, boutique quality clothes. Yay for free market entrepreneurship!

Mr. Wonderful said...

Megan seems to deliberately make herself look bad. Susan, you yourself once said (accurately) that she's quite pretty. But I've never seen a photo of her that doesn't look bad. Either she's defiantly un-made-up in a way that looks, not modest, but self-abusing, or (in an old headshot) she takes a stab at glamour but can't bring it off.

I was going to say: "Bill Maher used to have horrible taste in clothes and now he looks good. She could use similar advice." But now that I think of it, Megan doesn't need a fashion consultant. She needs a good therapist.

Susan of Texas said...

Her commenters told her that she is far more attractive than her column's photo; she said she'd get a new one.

Susan of Texas said...

Best comment ever!!!

Metrocity > SmellyMike • 16 hours ago

No. No no. I spend money on my clothes and I look good. Also, my wife dresses very well, so I should look like I fit. Right? And, I feel good when I look good. People treat me with deference. Respect. A lot of respect. And they have no idea if I'm a lousy prlck or Someone. This is typical. A few months ago I was out with the wife. Going to dinner, but the range first - I'm a member of a nice indoor gun range. Anyway, we get to our lane and my wife goes to hang up her coat. But all the hooks are taken. The guy in the lane next to us takes *his wife's* coat down so she has a place for hers. Without so much as a sideways look from his wife. It's like magic.

It's conservative cliché bingo!

nilsey said...

shorter mcmegan: those grapes over there? quite sour, if you think about it.

Skinny Little Boy from Cleveland, Ohio said...

Megan is something like 6 feet tall--bright colored prints probably make her look like wallpaper. OTOH, I think her real resentment here is that Pulitizer is taking a particular look and making it accessible to a mass audience. The thing about fancy designer clothes is that they should be recognizable without anyone having to ask or look for a label. Take that away and they lose their cache for someone like Megan. She may not buy these, but she knows them when she sees them which may be more important to her. Unfortunately, even the rich fail master the skill of recognition for designer duds. I used to cut through Nieman Marcus in Atlanta's Lenox Mall (there was always more parking near N-M. the one thing that seemed odd was the giant signs for the big designers like Chanel. Even a plebe like me knows you're supposed to be able to recognize a Chanel by sight rather than label, but southern matrons can't and Megan is afraid of winding up in the same boat.

Susan of Texas said...

It seems to offend her that fashionable, expensive clothes can be loud or kitschy. She might depend on overt signs of upper class in apparel to know what to wear; it should look a certain way, be certain colors, have a certain conservative cut. She's not sure enough in her elite status to like something that isn't overtly elite. Perhaps she is worried someone might think she is not elite if she doesn't look expensively or conservatively dressed?

If that is so, she can't have fun with fashion the way a woman secure in her position would. Or be daring and eclectic the way a poorer girl might. Which explains her "fondness" for Pulitzer while she sneers at the poorer women who wear it.