Feminist Fashion, or Dressing Like a Hyena in a Petticoat


The fabulous Mary Wollstonecraft, who 215 years ago wrote the shockingly revolutionary The Vindication of the Rights of Woman so provoked Horace Walpole that he was moved to characterize her as “a hyena in petticoats.” We don’t know how the feisty Mary reacted at the time, but this strikes us as an amazing complement. After all, when you’re confronted with second class status from cradle to grave, what is there to do but howl like a hyena?

Now, as for those petticoats. Mary, who is the subject of a new biography by Lyndall Gordon, would probably be stunned to see legions of women all over Manhattan trooping around town in skirts that look like 18th-century underwear.

Full disclosure: we love petticoats. We can think of no better summer look than a full floaty skirt and whatever scrappy little top you throw on above it. We think the fluffy tiered skirts we are seeing everywhere this spring fulfill all the requirements of modern—by which we always mean feminist—dressing: They’re completely comfortable, look great with flat shoes, you can run in them, most of them go in the washing machine, and since they are frequently almost completely transparent, no one can argue that they aren’t sexy.

On Memorial Day we took a stroll down to Soho (yes, we were in town, no snickering please), and though lots of small shops were closed, the Calypso empire that is eating Nolita was gloriously open for business. Everywhere you turn in the little streets between Grand and Houston, Elizabeth and Lafayette, another branch of Calypso seems to have opened, the way Duane Reades keep popping up in the rest of the city. This hegemony, usually so annoying, is somewhat mitigated by the fetching merchandise Calypso offers, even if the prices are sometimes less than congenial.

At 407 Broome Street, which is either Calypso Vintage (the business card) or Calypso Voyage (the window), the petticoat we like the best—a spangled, balloon-shaped affair—is a cool $615, though most others in the shop are around $300.

This particular Calypso, with its large stock of wispy garments—mostly brand new, but with a few authentic pieces of Victorian underwear thrown in for verisimilitude (they’re for sale, and, curiously, they cost no more than the new versions)—is thankfully located right next to the Calypso Outlet shop.

At the outlet, brightly colored crinolines that can be worn under other skirts or let loose on their own are a cheering $75; for $20 more, a layered pink floor-scraper makes quite an impression. But perhaps the best bargain here is the short, sleeveless cashmere-blend tank that ties over your shoulders with ribbons and is marked down to a ridiculously low $30.

Wondering if this hyena-in-petticoats business had truly permeated the mainstream, we stop in at the perennially noisy and crowded Old Navy on Broadway. Though we very rarely see anything here we would even consider wearing—we vastly prefer H&M when it comes to cheap clothes—we are gratified to see a skirt that is not just long and tiered but also batik-dyed, festooned with sequins, and tagged $34.95. It’s perfect for flopping in a field (who cares about grass stains when you’ve only spent $35) and contemplating Mary’s radical broadside, from which we offer just the tiniest taste: “The being cannot be termed rational or virtuous, who obeys any authority, but that of reason.”