The Feminine Mystique


“These are absolutely the dresses those bitches would wear!” giggles Linda St. John, proprietress of D.L. CERNEY at 13 East 7th Street, pointing to a rack of cotton jacquard frocks lavished with cherries and sporting red-and-white checked bodices. The bitches in question are those maniacally—dare we say robotically?—content housewives known collectively as the Stepford Wives, who returned to theaters last weekend in their trademark saccharine dresses and sweetie-pie hats.

Our quest for Stepford-worthy outfits in the East Village is not as ludicrous as it seems: It’s been a season, after all, of the proto-prissy. The trick is to make these sticky florals look stylish by adding what true Stepforders avoid like the plague—a strong dose of irony.

The offerings at D.L. Cerney straddle with grace the sarcasm-sincerity line: Though they would look fine over ripped jeans, they also display a fetishistic attention to detail—pearl buttons, tiny vents—to satisfy the starchiest suburban matron. (St. John says some young shoppers, unfamiliar with full linings, have asked if the clothes are reversible.) Usually these sorts of flourishes guarantee a high price, but Cerney is currently conducting a mammoth clearance sale, which means a rose shift with a black-and-white polka-dot top, or a lavender geranium-print pima cotton dress with its own little bow, is each $40 rather than the near $200 they usually cost.

Though this neighborhood fairly groans with vintage shops, we pass most of them by, since we think a Stepford feeling, no matter how campy, is best rendered with a certain crispness. Still, it’s hard to ignore CIRCA NOW (238 East 6th Street), especially since a big sign outside says “brand new vintage.”

“No, it’s not really true yet,” confesses Chrissy Wright, one of the shop’s owners, explaining that the store, which is as pristine as a Madison Avenue boutique, plans eventually to sell exact replicas of classic vintage garments. In the meantime, there are plenty of old dresses in uniformly wonderful condition, among them a full-skirted, tight-waisted white piqué sundress with a square neck and rows of rosebud decoration ($75). Wright, who has Louise Brooks bangs and is wearing a striped skirt that is more Spring Street than Stepford, can’t resist showing us a photo of the first dress the store is reproducing: a 1930s bias-cut chiffon with a fluffy collar set to cost $295, which seems hefty until Wright suggests that it would make “the ultimate wedding dress.”

At our next stop, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY (437 East 9th Street), we see an item so goofy even a mechanical housewife never thought of it: a terry-cloth romper suit, just like a two-year-old wears, only here it has a bra top. “It’s for lounging around the pool, like, drinking mojitos!” says the designer, the jauntily tattooed Judi Rosen. “You have to be immaculate to wear it,” she claims, and she’s right—plus rail thin, plus not afraid to flaunt a snap crotch on the street. To make it even more seductive, the romper comes packaged in a zippered gnome that Rosen calls the “little dude.” “He’s huggable!” she laughs, a fact that, at least for us, greatly helps to ameliorate the $150 price.

Of course, it’s possible that you’ll want to just trail a finger in this Stepford business rather than shoving your whole hand in the lace glove, so to speak, in which case you could just wear your normal clothes but stick something fruitily feminine on your head. At THE VILLAGE SCANDAL (19 East 7th Street), a pink cotton sailor cap is $30; a big-brimmed chapeau made entirely of ribbon is $38.

If even that’s too pricey, there is, believe it or not, something even on St. Marks Place, right alongside the obscene T-shirts, the skull bandannas, and the Gomer Pyle camouflage hats. At ARIA, in the same building as the historic St. Mark’s Hotel, a necklace of oversize pink pearls ties on with a pink ribbon and comes with a pair of matching pearl button earrings, and the whole set is $12.99, cheaper than a round-trip ticket to Connecticut.