On the Offensive


“I’ll go to parliament dressed as I was during my campaign, in an overcoat and a head-scarf. No way will I put on the chador.” Elaheh Koulai, a university professor elected to parliament as a representative of Tehran in the February 18, 2000 legislative elections, unleashed a political storm when she made this quasi-revolutionary proclamation. Since the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979, all women holding official positions have worn the chador, the long black fabric covering that conceals the entire body from head to toe. —UNESCO Courier, June 2000


Had Ms. Koulai found herself at Miguel Adrover’s hot-ticket fashion show at the Essex Street Market last Sunday night, in the midst of the New York fall 2001 fashion collections, she would have seen models swathed not just in caftans and djellabas but in grim, face-covering chadors, the very garment she is fighting so hard against. Adrover, the darling of the fashion press, who last season made a coat from the late Quentin Crisp’s mattress, in fact left no head uncovered, offering gear that ranged from turbans to veils to black hoods that entirely hid the visages of the mannequins, just like the fun outfits the women of Afghanistan, who aren’t allowed to hold jobs or go to school, get to wear.

Political correctness, unfashionable as it is, may mark one as a bore, but can the only alternative be an unqualified, slavish acceptance of a fashion designer’s reverie, no matter how dopey or repulsive? Adrover, with his casual disregard for the actual function of the chador, might have been the worst offender, but he was hardly the only culprit.

At John Bartlett’s menswear installation, staged in preference to a runway show (it’s cheaper and he’s looking for financing), models lay prone on rows of army cots, barely visible under flickering lights, in a room silent but for a hideous wheezing sound that might have been the exertions of an iron lung. They were shoeless, with their eyes closed, and were roughly the same age as the young men who over the centuries have been unfortunate enough to end up in field hospitals. Clad in heavy army overcoats and other ersatz bits and pieces of soldiers’ uniforms, they seemed to be waiting for Vera Brittain to bring them a cup of water, but all they got was a photographer leaning in for a closer shot. The reaction to this spectacle by those in attendance was an unqualified rave for the clothes, a peculiar response since Bartlett’s coy lighting made it almost impossible to see them. At any rate, no one in attendance was overheard musing about Flanders field, the Marne, mustard gas, or any other less than stylish subjects.

Shows with less blatant references to the winds of history nonetheless also embraced an inchoate militaria. At Marc, the junior (read cheaper) line by Marc Jacobs, a group of sullen teenage girls who looked like they’d rather spit at you in the school cafeteria than speak to you, ever, rushed down the runway in naval pea coats, officer’s overcoats, and band majorette uniforms. Ozwald Boateng, a British designer, produced beautifully tailored Savile Row suits in unlikely color combinations accessorized with paramilitary berets, then walked the runway himself waving a Union Jack as if he’d just won the Falkland War. At Vivienne Tam’s strangely hard-edged show, the program notes claimed the collection was about “east west techno fantasy, urban patchwork cultures, matrix meets crouching tiger, hidden dragon.” This turned out to mean, among other things, that green and brown camouflage-printed leather was employed in ’80s-ish dresses, asymmetrical skirts, and T-shirts. (Candy and Tori Spelling—the latter in a California-appropriate one- shoulder glitter halter and pale leather pants—occupied two front seats at the Tam show. After a week of anemic runway collections, one was tempted to ask Tori if she could whip up a Donna Martin original.)

Sometimes it was the war at home that occupied a design house’s attention. Those lucky enough to snag a much coveted seat in Bryant Park for the Sean John show, a multimedia event lamely entitled “Revolution” and putatively designed by Sean “Puffy” Combs, joined Puffy’s mom, Johnnie Cochran, and other luminaries to watch a line of swaggering mannequins festooned in Persian lamb-paneled chinos, curly goat-trimmed corduroy coats, leather trenches embellished with ostrich piping, sheered mink kimonos, and other such outfits. (One model was dressed like King Arthur, in a coat that sported a long court train—an item that, while glamorous, was surely not intended for the court where the designer is currently a defendant.) Not content to create atmosphere with music and lights, the admittedly spectacular presentation lifted fashion-show stagecraft to a new level, mounting a giant video screen at one end of the catwalk that offered a variety of vintage film clips, including footage of “colored waiting room” signs, fire hoses knocking down civil rights demonstrators, and Malcolm X giving a speech. If anyone was taken aback by the blithe juxtaposition of bare-chested guys in crocodile patchwork jackets parading in front of some of the most powerful images of degradation and triumph of the last 50 years, they weren’t showing it—the evening ended with a standing ovation from a hysterically enthusiastic audience.

There were, of course, lots of collections where less potent fantasies held sway. In the case of Cynthia Rowley and Betsey Johnson, soldiers and street fighters gave way to the more benign if durable daydream of running away with the circus. Rowley rented the New Victory Theater, hired professional jugglers and an accordion player in a derby hat to warm up the crowd, and sent out harlequin dresses, scalloped dance skirts, and a number of garments decorated with sequined elephants. It was hard not to like the Pierrot hats and the wide white satin pants trimmed with pom-poms so silly they seemed intended for entertaining the troops. Entertainment of another sort came to mind at Betsey Johnson, where the models were dressed like sexy acrobats, decked out in tiny teddies, tutus, corsets, knickers, striped bloomers, crinolines, slip dresses, bias-cut gowns, and other lingerie-informed garments that fell somewhere between a Latin Quarter bordello and prom night in Piscataway, New Jersey. Chinese deco rugs carpeted the catwalk and a single chandelier hung high above the old-fashioned doorway from which the models emerged. If only poison gas hadn’t felled those doughboys at John Bartlett, they could have spent one last evening with Betsey’s girls before returning to the front.