Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Power Jeans, Isabel Toledo, and Christian Louboutin

Today's post is a potpourri of sorts, covering a few items of interest that have come up in the last week or so. First, some current events: on Thursday night (11/5), the Textile Museum will host a program sponsored by the Swiss Embassy called "From Switzerland to the White House: The Story Behind the Inauguration Dress." The event will focus on the creation of Isabel Toledo's Lemongrass Coat and Dress, worn by Michelle Obama to her husband's inauguration, following the garment from the fabric stage through the finished product. Toledo, her husband and noted illustrator Ruben Toledo, and the creative director of the Swiss company that produced the fabric will participate in a panel discussion moderated by the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan. The event is $25 for TTM members and $45 for non-members and will be followed by a reception with Swiss wine and chocolate (yum!). For more information, check the TTM website here (scroll down to Nov. 5 for the phone number). If I were not already speaking at a conference in Boston on Thursday, you can bet I 'd be there in a heartbeat. I think it will be a great opportunity to hear not only about Toledo's creative process but to think about the designers and creators of the fabric of high-fashion garments, something that is frequently overlooked.

Speaking of Robin Givhan, who is an excellent writer and astute observer (but who does not originally come from a fashion studies background), the Post's Style section recently featured
a short piece by her on Christian Louboutin's first visit to DC. I was intrigued by the fact that he had avoided coming to DC during the Bush administration because he greatly disliked the president-- I'm not surprised, but I do feel as though he ought to recognize that the entire city and its environs aren't governmentally owned (just most of it)! In addition, some of the Marymount students I teach were involved in his shoe-signing event at Neiman Marcus, something he loves to do and an opportunity for fans to witness his very charming (and oh-so-French) personality.

Finally, to some commentary. The Wall Street Journal recently featured a short article by Christina Binkley called "The Relentless Rise of Power Jeans." It focuses on how, in Binkley's words, "jeans are now a legitimate part of the global power-dress lexicon, worn to influential confabs where the wearers want to signal they're serious--but not fussy--and innovative." She then goes on to describe situations in which "power jeans" are successful in sending an appropriate signal, and they ways in which they must be carefully chosen and appropriately accessorized. The article does an excellent job of recognizing the power of "authoritative casual" dressing. In the right instances, a less-formal garment while remaining neat and businesslike instantly sets the tone that you are the one in charge, setting the dress code; you don't need to put on a suit to be powerful. For a man to wear power jeans among his dress-panted peers gives the appearance that he is the most relaxed one of the bunch, that he was confident in the propriety of his clothing and that the others fell to business casual because they weren't sure what the rules were.

In addition, it's a lot harder to get power jeans right than dress pants. Business casual has superseded the suit as most men's everyday workwear, so the oxford shirt/dress pants/matching belt and shoes combo is a no brainer for most guys. Power jeans, however, require more nuance-- they're not just your faded weekend jeans with a slouchy fit. Not only do they need to be dark and well-tailored, they need to have just the right shirt, belt, shoes, and perhaps sport jacket to accompany them. As Binkley says, "getting power jeans right involves lots of no's." So by wearing power jeans successfully, one not only demonstrates that they are at ease and in command of a situation but that they have good taste and well-developed sartorial skills.

One last thing to note is the menswear's gradual march from casual to formal, which has been progressing since the early 19th century. Around 1820, men wore a frock coat (with a "skirt" down to the knees on all sides) for informal daytime events, and a tailcoat for formal daytime and evening events. By the 1860s, the sack coat (effectively our modern suit jacket) had been introduced for very casual daytime wear and the frock coat had been relegated to formal daytime status, while the tailcoat was worn only in the evenings. By the 1880s, the sack coat remained informal, while the morning coat or cutaway was accepted as semi-formal daytime attire and the frock coat was worn only for the most formal daytime occasions. Tailcoats were still worn for evenings. By the turn of the 20th century, tuxedos were added to the mix as a less-formal evening alternative (a dressy form of the sack jacket). By the 20s, American men wore sack-jacket suits for virtually everything and tuxedos or tailcoats for evenings. In this image of King George V in 1927, notice that the man at the far left wears a sack coat, the man greeting the King wears a morning coat, and the King and his friend wear frock coats (extremely stodgy and outdated at this point).

As we are now, virtually no one (but the Brits at Ascot) wears a morning suit (which is a shame, because they're very nice-looking). Only conductors wear white tie and tailcoats. We now no longer wear suits for work. So the power jeans begin to work their way into the rotation. Who knows-- we may be wearing them to gala events in 50 years!

What do you think? How do you feel about the use of power jeans? Do they work in your field, or not? Do you think they'll eventually become the new suit? Would that be good or bad (or simply fashion)?

Photo by Michael Rougier for Life, March 1955.


  1. I am so glad I have discovered your blog. I look forward to reading your next. I have to agree about Louboutin- one man does not a city make, or country for that matter. I am going to add you to my bog list. la

  2. Great blog! Love your posts. Will be sure to check back soon.

  3. Hey Whitney,
    I've added myself as a follower but for some reason I show up as PA Tax List. Not sure what that's about, but I'm actually Abby - I work at Homewood. It was nice meeting you last week and your blog is really neat. I think power jeans will take the museum field by storm!

  4. Those jeans are vintage design but still fashionable.

    Laby[men suit]


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