Dave Barry

Hung by your threads

(This Dave Barry column was originally published June 14, 1987)

I see trouble ahead. Big trouble. Because of the fall hemlines. They're going to be shorter. This has been decreed by Paris, France, and ratified by New York, New York. You should be receiving your formal notification via mail within the next few weeks.

The new hemline will be implemented via the Standard Fashion-Trend Geographical Dissemination Procedure:

1. It will start in cities that are considered major cultural centers, defined as "cities where the police occasionally find unexplained human heads";

2. It will proceed to the second-echelon cities, defined as "cities that have slogans, " as in: Fort Wayne -- City of Several Tall Buildings;

3. It will gradually seep outward to (a) suburban shopping malls with fountains, followed by (b) suburban shopping malls without fountains;

4. Finally it will reach totally agricultural areas, where three years from now shorter hemlines will appear at the Pie Eat or the Cow Shoot, or whatever social events agricultural women wear fashion attire to.

By this procedure the entire nation will be brought On Board, hemline-wise, which will be the signal for Paris, France, to issue a new decree, such as ratskin jodhpurs or gym shorts with bustles. But for the time being, the word is shorter hemlines. And in a way, this is good, because, speaking strictly in terms of the aesthetic dynamic created by the linear tension between limb and torso, it is a LOT of fun to look at women's thighs. I'm sure I speak for millions of men when I say I would rather look at women's thighs than go to Walt Disney World. So part of me is happy about the new hemlines.

But part of me is very worried. Because inevitably, we're going to have tragic cases wherein women who are not ideally suited for shorter hemlines are going to wear them anyway. I'm talking about women who, although they have many other fine attributes, do not happen to have great thighs, or even thighs both of which you could fit simultaneously on a flatbed truck.

Now most women, when their bodily type is not suited to a particular fashion trend, have the sense not to participate in that trend. But you can bet your shoulder pads that there will be more than one case this fall where a woman will show up at a major social occasion encased in an 18-inch skirt with a "fun" flouncy hem; a skirt that no doubt looked terrific on the six- foot two-inch anorexic model with great legs who wore it in the Vogue advertisement, but which now looks more like the tutu on Francine the Ballerina Rhinoceros.

And the horror of it is, nobody will tell her. What should happen, when she gets to the social occasion, is her friends should rush up and form a protective clot around her and hiss:

"Marge! Have you gone insane? Go home and change this instant!"

But instead her friends will squeal large artificial squeals and examine her skirt as though it were the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, making remarks such as: "Marge! It's absolutely darling!" And Marge will waddle off, oblivious, to the buffet, while her friends race in groups of three or more to the ladies' room to laugh until their makeup runs down and forms stalagmites on the floor.

You think I am exaggerating, but tragic episodes like this are already occurring. I have just received a report from fashionable New York City, where a friend of mine named Kae, who is a keen observer, observed, on a public street, what she describes as "a very large woman wearing a very short skirt."

"This woman, " Kae reports, "had the kind of upper legs where you wondered how she could walk. It was so bad that even the construction workers were looking away."

There is a name for such people: Fashion Victims. This term has been kicking around the fashion world for a long time, but for the purposes of this article, we'll define it to mean: "A person who wears a fashion that either (a) looks good in some cases, but just looks silly on this person, or (b) would look silly on anybody." Of course I realize that "silly" is a vague word, so in the interest of precision, fairness and -- above all -- objectivity, we will define it as: "Whatever we think looks silly."

I would estimate, from walking around, that there are several million Fashion Victims in greater Miami alone, making this, by extrapolation, one of our leading causes of national embarrassment, outranking even Wheel of Fortune, or the House of Representatives. It is so serious that somebody should probably set up a charity to raise money for these unfortunate people via formal balls. Except that formal charity balls happen to be a major contributing factor in fashion victimization.

Even as I write these words, I am looking at an edition of the Palm Beach Post featuring an explicit black-and-white photograph of a prominent wealthy socialite woman somewhere past age 60, at a charity ball, wearing a gown that by itself contains enough lace and frills to supply the total lace and frill needs of several royal weddings, a gown that might look appropriate in some circumstances, but only if worn by a younger woman, and only if she had a good reason, such as she was appearing in her preschool play as the Good Witch of the North. And yet here is this poor unfortunate victimized woman, smiling brightly out from the pages of a newspaper, as if to say: "Hello! I am the silliest goose in all the land!"

And I don't mean to suggest that women are the only Fashion Victims. Have you ever been to a party where a man is wandering around dressed normally except that his collar is carefully turned up, apparently because he thinks it makes him look like the sullenly handsome brooding model staring out from one of those vaguely threatening Calvin Klein leisure-wear advertisements in GQ magazine, when in fact what he looks like, more than anything else, is some weenie who forgot to put his collar down? This man is a victim. So is the man who goes around with several days' growth of beard, thinking he is reminding everybody of Don Johnson, although he is actually reminding everybody of Yasser Arafat.

Who is to blame for fashion victimization? It would be easy to point the finger at the fashion industry. There are elements of this industry who obviously feel a deep-seated hostility toward the public, especially in the case of women's fashions. Each year, we see new women's hair and clothing styles created by people who clearly have become fashion designers only because it would be illegal for them to go out and strike women directly with mallets.

You take the "asymmetrical" hairstyle, which is now, fortunately, Out. This was the style where the woman had gobs of hair on one side of her head and almost none on the other, causing her to look as though she had been standing sideways next to an improperly maintained nuclear reactor when it suddenly spewed out a cloud of depilatory radiation. Now whoever injected this particular toxin into the fashion mainstream obviously did not have the best interests of women at heart, but I feel that the ultimate responsibility has to lie with the women who voluntarily walked into styling salons and paid money to have this done to themselves, the women who said, in essence, to their hairdressers: "Make my head look like a tragic genetic defect, and I shall give you as much as $100 plus a nice tip."

The point being that we, as consumers, must always bear in mind the following: The fashion industry does not have the interests of regular people at heart. If you doubt this, you should get hold of a serious fashion-industry publication and read it cover to cover, issue after issue, and you will not find a single picture of a regular person in it. You will find hundreds of photographs of very thin, very tall, very high- cheekboned models who look absolutely nothing like you or anybody in your entire geographical region, wearing outfits that would look silly on a person who was shorter, or heavier, or -- above all -- was not being paid to wear them.

Sometimes even these models look too normal for the folks in the world of serious fashion, so, in their advertisements, they use drawings of biologically impossible women, 12-foot-tall women with eight-foot legs and heads the size of Tums. And even these are too conventional for some members of the fashion industry, who have taken to running large expensive advertisements that no regular person could possibly understand. These are the advertising equivalent of the "club scene" in New York, which consists of a group of late-night establishments whose sole reason for existing is to keep regular people from getting in. Similarly, these fashion advertisements convey the message: "OK, regular people! Just try to guess what we are advertising here!"

For example, right now I am looking at an enormous and no doubt very expensive advertisement, which takes up an entire eight pages in W magazine and which contains, among other mysterious things, the following dramatic sequence of photographs:

Photograph 1: A man and a woman are sitting at a table in a restaurant. The woman is looking down at the floor. You can see very little of her outfit. The man, who looks like the Marx Brother who spoke with the comical Italian accent -- Zippo, I believe -- is wearing what looks like a suit from about 1957, a Fred MacMurray model. He has a lei around his neck. He is playing a ukulele. Neither of them appears to notice that a second woman has climbed up onto their table and is squatting there, staring at the camera, with her dress, which in the photograph is too dark to see clearly, hiked up around her thighs. There are no words on the page.

Photograph 2: Now Zippo and his date are at the beach. The woman is lying on her back in the sand. You can see her outfit better, but you can't tell much about it because it's soaking wet. Her eyes are closed. She could be dead. Zippo, wearing baggy, sand-encrusted pants and a sleeveless undershirt, is looking down at her. He is frowning with concern, as if he is thinking: "Why was that woman squatting on our table? And what has happened to my ukulele?" At lower left, in smallish print, are the words:

TONI GARD Dusseldorf

Does any of this make any sense to you? No? Of course not! You're a regular person.

You're not supposed to get it. I'm sure that Toni Gard, whoever he is, would be appalled if you got it. And if you, in response to this advertisement, go out and spend good money for a sleeveless undershirt and then wear it in public, you will have only yourself to blame. You will be like Flounder, the pathetic fat freshman in Animal House who lets his fraternity brothers talk him into letting them take his brother's new car on a road trip. They destroy it, of course, after which they tell him, "Hey, you screwed up. You trusted us."

Never trust the fashion industry, that is the key to avoiding Fashion Victimization. Also, remember the immortal words of Maurizio Donadi: "Fashion has no brain."

Maurizio Donadi is a buyer for a number of fashionable clothing stores. I was talking to him because I wanted to find out about "destroyed" jeans. I discovered these one day while I was wandering through the extremely fashionable Mayfair shopping complex in Coconut Grove, where I was struck by a display of blue jeans that cost $55 a pair, which is not unusual, except that these jeans had holes in them. Every single pair. Two or three holes apiece. And yet the store people had not said: "My God! All these jeans have holes in them and must be returned to the manufacturer immediately!" No, they had said: "Let's put these on display! They should fetch $55 a pair!"

And they do. People buy them. They are part of a raging international trend toward wearing prescuzzed ratty clothing that a less-fashion-conscious generation, such as your mother, would have wiped the toilet tank with.

Maurizio Donadi said destroyed jeans are considered extremely fashionable over in Italy, where they were invented by mistake when somebody left the machine that "stone-washes" jeans (so they will have a look and "feel" previously available only to the rural poor) on too long and actually destroyed some jeans, or so they thought, until they discovered that people would pay for them. And so now they deliberately, by hand craftsmanship, put holes in the jeans.

"In Italy, " Donadi says, "you see people with a white shirt and tie, very professional, with a blue jacket, and destroyed jeans. That's the look in Italy."

I assume it will eventually be the look here, too. And the question is: Why not take the next logical step? Why not hand- rub Italian dirt into the shirt collar? Why not hand-paste flakes of Italian dandruff onto the jacket? Why not actually set fire to the jeans, right at the factory, and simply sell, for $55 each, wallet-sized certificates stating that a pair of jeans has been hand-destroyed in the bearer's name?

Ridiculous, you say? You're right. Your true Fashion Victim would pay a lot more than $55 for such a certificate.

* * *

The question is: What should be done? One proposed solution that has been kicking around for some time now is the Fashion Police. The way I envision this working is, you'd have people in very tasteful uniforms patrolling public places, monitoring the clothing of civilians and taking whatever corrective actions were necessary. Usually this would consist of a simple polite oral warning, such as:

"I am sorry, sir, but the 'muscle' shirt is designed to be worn by people who have actual discernible muscles, as opposed to rolls of fat large enough to break the falls of world-class pole vaulters."

Or:

"Madame, we do not wear fake-leopard-skin hot pants and very high heels unless we are a 15-year-old girl who cannot even pronounce the word 'cellulite.' "

If warnings failed to bring the fashion victims to their senses, the Fashion Police would be empowered to fine them for Fashion Violations, or even, in extreme cases such as the woman I saw at a recent charity function wearing a garment that was designed to maximally display the wearer's frontal charms, if you get my drift, but was actually displaying in brutal detail what decades of continuous gravity can do to a person, the Fashion Police would simply hurl a blanket around the victims and rush them off to the Fashion Victim Re-Programming Center, which would be surrounded by a very tasteful electrified fence to prevent the inmates from sneaking off before their treatment was complete to purchase, say, gold lame stretch pants.

Of course to put this program into effect, we would have to make some sacrifices, such as suspending the Bill of Rights. But it is a known fact that you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. And I think we can agree that if this program would help just one person -- if just one otherwise rational middle-aged woman with grown children could be stopped from going around in public wearing the full Flashdance ensemble including the tights and the leg warmers and the $50 preripped upper sweat garment sliding off her shoulders every 15 seconds to reveal the strap of her Maidenform Oprah Winfrey Model Extra Support brassiere -- then losing the bulk of our civil liberties would be a small price to pay.

Are You A Fashion Victim?

Probably you have been reading this article and chortling to yourself, thinking: "Yes indeed! Some people do not know how to dress!"

And yet you yourself could be a Fashion Victim. The tragic nature of this affliction is such that the very people who suffer from it are the least capable of realizing that they do.

This is why we have developed the following Self-Help Quiz, which will enable you to look at yourself objectively so that, if it turns out that you are indeed a victim, you can kill yourself.

Please note, however, that you do NOT need to take the test if you fall into one of the three Fashion-Exempt Classifications:

1. People whose jobs require them to wear comical outfits. This means Burger King employees, junta members, Prince Charles, Prince, Pee-wee Herman, the pope, etc.

2. Teen-agers. Teen-agers can wear absolutely anything. This is nice for teen-agers, but it creates problems for certain older people who, in an effort to look younger, go around dressed like teen-agers, apparently oblivious to the fact that the reason teen-agers dress the way they do, the entire goal of teen-agerhood, is to look ridiculous.

3. Extremely rich older men who inherited their money. I don't know why this group should be fashion-exempt, but it is. Go to any important social gathering, and look for a man dressed like a drug-induced hallucination -- pink jacket, green shirt, magenta tie, red pants, yellow shoes, orange socks, old wrinkled bait-stained fishing hat -- and ask somebody who this person is. Inevitably the answer will be something like: "Oh, that's Harley Baxter Worthington 'Pokey' Davidson-Gravure IV. He is such fun. His family owns Brazil." The other guests will think nothing of the way this man is dressed, although if they saw a person of normal income out on a public sidewalk dressed exactly the same way, they would naturally assume he was a deranged self-peeing street person.

* * *

If you belong to one of the above three groups, you are excused. Otherwise you should ascertain your gender and take the appropriate quiz below, which will scientifically measure the extent to which you are capable of protecting yourself from looking silly.

Women

1. Have you, in an effort to disguise the fact that your hair has turned gray, dyed it a bright reddish-orange color that is not associated so much with the human body as it is with marine rescue equipment?

2. Have you ever, without a good excuse such as that you were about to perform a ritual tribal hunting dance, worn a garment that had the actual head and claws of a deceased animal on it?

3. Have you ever worn harlequin-style glasses? Are you aware that these glasses are an important comic element in many Far Side cartoons?

4. Do you hobble around in four-inch spike heels that are causing serious permanent damage to your feet, although you can't feel this because your ludicrously tight jeans have cut off all circulation below your waist?

5. Do you attempt to wear the type of virtually nonexistent bathing suit featured in photographs of famous politically active model Donna Rice? Do you have a body like Donna Rice's? Do you think it's fair that anybody should have a body like Donna Rice's?

6. Did you, after several magazines ran articles claiming that tattoos for women were "in, " actually go out and get one? Do you realize what kind of shallow irresponsible people put out magazines?

7. Have you ever owned a hat with fruit on it?

8. Have you grown your fingernails so long that you can no longer eat a cheeseburger without risking severe eye damage?

9. Did you have your nose surgically changed to the terminally perky Debbie Reynolds Model currently worn by two- thirds of the population of Los Angeles?

10. Do you put on your makeup with an ice-cream scoop? Speaking of which, do you think that if somebody sprayed Tammy Faye Bakker with a hose, her entire head would wash away except for a thumb-sized nubbin of tissue, and that this would explain many things?

11. Have you carefully plucked out your natural eyebrows and replaced them with Magic-Marker-like lines that theoretically represent new eyebrows except they're too far up on your forehead, so you look like one of the more entertaining variations of Mrs. Potato Head?

12. Have you ever spent $40 or more for an article of "leisure wear" fashion that a less-fashion-conscious person, such as a child, would describe as "a sweat shirt with paint spilled on it"?

13. Does your nightgown have shoulder pads?

14. Did you get a "punk" style haircut? Did your friends and co-workers tell you it looked "cute"? Did you believe them? Would you like to purchase some prime vacation property via mail?

15. When Calvin Klein came out with boxer shorts for women that were just like boxer shorts for men, including the fly, except they cost more, did you buy a pair? Ha Ha! Sorry.

Men

1. Do you now own, or have you ever owned, a leisure suit? In pastel colors? In mint green?

2. What about a suit where the stitching is a different color from the rest of the suit?

3. Do you ever wear Bermuda shorts with dark knee-high socks? And wing-tip shoes?

4. Do you ever wear socks with sandals?

5. Do you own white shoes? Do you ever wear them with a white belt? Are you aware that this is now the international symbol for "bozo"?

6. If your belly is so large that your belt cannot go across it horizontally, do you position your belt above your belly? Do you sometimes clothe yourself in such a way that there is a Demilitarized Zone of flesh between your shirt and your pants?

7. Do you feel that your armpits are a source of visual pleasure to those around you?

8. Urban Professionals: Do you wear suspenders, which have lost any trace of originality and have now replaced those yellow ties festooned with blue goobers as the key identifying characteristic of the fashion-enslaved male career person? Do you also lie about your suspenders? Do you tell people: "It's not a fashion thing! I wear suspenders because they're comfortable!"? Have you also replaced your cheap and reliable digital watch with a more-expensive and less-reliable old- fashioned one? Do you tell people: "It's easier to read!"? How far are you willing to follow this trend toward nostalgic business attire? Straw hats? Canes? Dentures? ("They're easier to clean!")

9. Do you have a normal haircut except for a little tail of hair going down the back, so you look as though you were at the barber school on Prank Day?

10. Do you go around with your sports-jacket sleeves uncomfortably shoved halfway up your arms, as if you are just about to clean a mess of fish?

11. Do you wear a bad hairpiece? Do you believe there is such a thing as a good hairpiece?

12. Do you wear shiny shirts unbuttoned to the navel? Would you unbutton them to below the navel, to your ankles, if only somebody would manufacture a shirt long enough?

13. Do you agree that wearing a lot of gold jewelry is a good way for a man to make the fashion statement: "You see this? This is real gold."?

14. Do you wear bikini swim wear? Do you have a Jim-Palmer- quality body? Do you agree with the words of noted fashion critic Jane Wooldridge, who said: "Fat hairy men should not go to the beach."?

15. Do you feel that monograms add an air of "class" to a man's socks?

HOW TO SCORE: If we have to tell you, then you are in deep trouble.

(c) Dave Barry

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