Kennedy Fraser's The Fashionable Mind is a collection of columns that appeared in the The New Yorker between 1970 and 1982 under the now quaint-sounding title 'Feminine Fashions'. In fact her introduction states that she took over the column, "at the very moment feminine fashions ceased to count." Though the columns cover a myriad of topics - with names such as "Hail, covered knee!", "Denim and the New Conservatives" and "A Woman's Age"- organised chronologically, the pieces seem to chart a movement away from the dictates of fashion houses to a more democratic way of dressing (though perhaps designer fashions are given a brief reprieve in some of the final essays about "The Executive Woman" and "Architectural Fashion"). Neither is the book's tone as timid and simpering as the name of her column might suggest. Fraser writes smartly and succinctly and with an authority that's impressive given that she was only 22 when she took over the column.
Each essay turns a critical eye to fashion, and the wider scope of what it means to be stylish. There are reports on collections, reviews of exhibitions and thoughts on more mass market fashions, such as in an essay covering the opening of Big Biba in 1974 ("the only department store in the world daring enough to offer us life, spoof, and romance, too"). I like her writing best when she explores the details of what people are wearing - to shows, to walk, or in the case of one of her columns "On the Avenue" what people are wearing as they walk past her on the street. Of her time wandering down Fifth Avenue, she notes she "was struck by a mere handful of costumes that had any semblance of dignity, simplicity or taste." The piece showcases the secretary, militantly asserting her right to wear shorts to the office, girls grappling with the challenges of summer shoes (Fraser is "curiously encouraged" by the fashion of wedgies) or summer dressing in general. For me, as someone who spends the summer ranting about the seeming inability of woman to dress properly in the heat, it was interesting to see that she observed, 40 years ago, that "the appearance of bare backs and midriffs this summer marks the death of the principle that clothes appropriate to city life are quite distinct for those for the beach".
The Fashionable Mind is fascinating reading and a great glimpse into the minutiae of fashion in the 1970s and early 80s, especially now it can be read through the glasses of retrospect. However, the things that I remember the most from the book are descriptions or ideas that transcend periods, such as in her discussion of what it means to be truly stylish. She writes, "there is a cult of luxurious simplicity which is often mistaken for style, but this is only a sophisticated level of good taste. The woman who extols perfectly plain white silk shirts and perfectly plain black cashmere pants and who expresses utter loathing for frills and ruffles almost never has real style. Her kind of simplicity is costly, and it is usually timid."
I'm not sure if the way I dress could withstand Fraser's critical eye, or cutting descriptions. The book is saved from fashion snootiness by her encouragement of exploration and experimentation in the way women chose to dress themselves. In her words (and for the word "style", you could sub in "this book"), "style must never allow itself to be a bore, and reserves its most virulent contempt for anyone who is."
(I found the middle image over Christmas in my suitcase, I'd obviously torn it from a past issue of Lula. I thought it fitted rather well with some of the writing in The Fashionable Mind - and that Kennedy Fraser might approve, judging from the author shot that sits neatly below the book blurb).