Prairiecore Style: Ironic, Frumpy, or Cultural Appropriation?
You have seen the dresses even if you don't know the brand that made them trendy. They remind you of Laura Ashley, if you're of a certain age, ahem. They are prim, old-fashioned looking "frocks" with puffy shoulders, high collars, ruffled hemlines and a fitted waist. They seem like dresses you would wear to play the schoolmarm in an old Western, or an Amish lady in a sepia photograph.
They seem like dresses you wouldn't even want your dolls to wear, and yet here they are, sold at Opening Ceremony and Matches dot com. Garage magazine says they're really cool. Now, designers not known for modest designs are jumping on board the trend. And its popularity is saying something about this cultural moment, although I'm not exactly sure what.
First came the ugly trainers, now comes the ugly dress. Just bear with me if you don't like the word ugly here, okay? Let's say "ungainly" if you prefer. Ungainly as in awkward, clumsy, ungraceful, graceless, inelegant, gawky, gauche, lumbering, you know. And funnily enough, the dress is often styled with the shoe!
Maybe the shoes are there to underscore the ironic intent, to assure your audience that you're just kidding. If you wore an appropriate shoe, like a Mary-jane, or pointy lace-up boots, people might think you were headed to a costume party.
I went to the website of the style's self-proclaimed originator (although I’d like to point out that The Vampire’s Wife brand was on to this in 20014) where I learned this:
"BATSHEVA plays with American styles of feminine dress – from Victorian to Pioneer; from Housewife to Hippie – by taking elements symbolic of restraint and repression (high collars, voluminous sleeves and skirts) and giving them a modern inflection. By retooling historical looks, BATSHEVA explores how to extract the strong and beautiful aspects of those styles while rejecting antiquated notions of womanhood."
It's a good enough Mission Statement, but I can't see how this form of dress rejects antiquated notions of womanhood when it exemplifies antiquated notions of womanhood. I don't see the modern inflection, unless it's the irony.
Is mocking another culture's form of dress "modern"? The prim prairie dress that The New Yorker celebrates as "subversive and coveted" is still worn by Amish and Hasidic women who are following their communities’ traditions. Presumably, they sew these dresses and hand them down in their families. I'll bet they don't feel empowered or witty in the summertime, when these garments would be a nuisance they aren't at liberty to reject.
Never mind the cultural appropriation. The New Yorker goes on to reveal that the brand is "coveted by an artsy set of women who appreciate the subversive allure of designs that might appear comically conservative to some." A journalist who likes to wear the dresses on the subway enjoys the side-eye she receives from people who assume she needs rescuing from a cult.
Naturally, everyone is free to wear what they want without having to explain their motives. We can dress for comfort or for self-expression, to win compliments or to offend, to make a statement or to just fit in. The woman who wears these dresses is buying into something, that goes without saying; but the price and discomfort suggest it's a trend for the moneyed classes. These are women who can afford to look eccentric, and even a little nuts.
Here's how the Garage journalist describes her first reaction to the frocks:
“These dresses looked zany, appealing (and are about $400, which isn't bad for New York-made designer clothes). They looked just right with sneakers. They looked cool with baseball caps. They looked sexy and smart, like those librarians people are always fantasizing about. At first this seemed like the kind of wonderfully niche thing that fashion needs more of.”
Apparently, Chloe Sevigny Herself is wearing them along with Nicole Kidman and Lena Dunham. Say no more! These dresses are The Thing, and in less than a year they are spreading to the masses, who can now enjoy the discomfort endured by Victorians, Amish, and Hasidim as well as those unfortunate Sister-Wives. Historically, this is the costume of deeply oppressive societies; if wearing them today connotes power, we might look next to burkas to express our freedom as women.
This is not a trend for everyone, but the fashionistas among us must take a stand on how we wish to be identified. Proportions and fit are constantly evolving, but fashion is essentially a social signifier. Do you want to look like a human doll, masquerading as an Amish granny? Go right ahead then. This is your time!