Fashion and politics have an uneasy relationship. The fashionable are usually politically naive, and the politicians, with few exceptions, are dull dressers. It's one of the differences between New York and Washington: New York naive, Washington drab.
But in the world where image is all and the politics of protest race across page and screen, the fashionable are targets, too. How embarrassing for Anna Wintour, editor of the American edition of Vogue, to be smacked in the face with a cream pie by a protester for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The pie splattered across her black fur-trimmed jacket, enlivening the spring couturier shows in Paris, the crossroads of high fashion and haute cuisine, and her only consolation was that the cream was made of tofu (good), and not butter (bad).
Protest against cruelty to animals has been fashionable in certain precincts since at least 1896, when a Boston society lioness crusaded against feathers on hats. The crusaders were more ladylike then. They fashioned "Audubonnets" decorated with ribbons and flowers, and their protests led to the formation of the National Audubon Society.
Modern fashion, if there can be any other kind, has been a target in the culture wars, where models and the advertisements they live in are subject to the pressures of cultural conservatives to preserve certain values. When Kate Moss, one of the world's most beautiful and recognizable models, was revealed to be a cocaine junkie, H&M, Europe's largest clothing chain -- with 78 stores in the United States -- cancelled her contract to be their representative. She was scheduled to go global next month with the introduction of a new collection designed by Stella McCartney.
"If someone is going to be the face of H&M," a spokesman for the chain told reporters, "it is important they be healthy, wholesome and sound." Healthy, wholesome and sound is not what either Miss Moss or high fashion brings first to mind. It was Kate Moss, in fact, whose anorexic thinness with dark shadows under her eyes was the face of "heroin [not heroine] chic" in the 1990s.
While many in high fashion continue the never-ending search for avant-garde shock, there's nevertheless a recognizable yearning today by young women for fashion both feminine and romantic. Certain shows in Paris are responding, for better and sometimes worse, to satisfy wishes for ruffles, pompoms and bows, something described as "girlie-girl frilly" and "powder-puff prettiness." One New York buyer at the Paris shows harrumphed: "But what if you're not a virgin?"
This is not, to be sure, the fashion that feminists burnt their bras to achieve. But feminism as we have known it is in its descendency, and it's just possible that the fashion now emerging reflects the old allure that aims to attract a man for keeps, rather than for a fleeting "hookup." When The New York Times reported that certain Ivy League women say they intend to set aside a career in favor of raising their children, the newspaper was bombarded with angry letters of feminists decrying a return to a '50s mindset. Nevertheless the examples spoke eloquently. In interviews, considerably more than half of 138 freshmen and seniors at Yale said they intend to cut back on work, or quit entirely when they have children.
A decade or two ago, it was the professional woman who enjoyed status at high-school class reunions. Now it's often the full-time mothers who dominate the alumni websites with news and photographs of their babies. Professional achievements are often the footnotes.
Many women in their late 30s have experienced pangs of regret for having put motherhood on hold, and feel betrayed by their bodies and by the feminist rhetoric that didn't warn them that by waiting they would find it more difficult to get pregnant. When Shirley Tilghman, the president of Princeton, welcomed incoming freshmen this year, she emphasized that the goal of education was for men and women to be leaders in the broadest sense, including careers in education, medicine and engineering. She later found it necessary to expand the description of leadership to include "stay-at-home parents" who can make an impact in the community.
The day-care debate has morphed into a concern for the importance of sustaining parental support for children in the adolescent years. The "home alone" experience is now considered as treacherous as the years of the "terrible twos." The pendulum of feminism, like that of fashion, describes a wide arc. We've come a long way, baby, but that means it's a long way back.