The Ann Taylor ethos rubs me the wrong way for the same reason I don’t like white women singing “Summertime” or winos drinking cooking extract: Too much vanilla will make you go blind. But the brand is the retreat position for the schizophrenic D.C. work environment, where female sexuality is both an asset and a liability.
Washington’s permaclass of wealthy Georgetown-establishment socialites has always ruled the roost on D.C.’s domestic front. The older rich ladies are the keepers of the social rulebooks—and the keepers of all the best HUMINT (human intelligence) and RUMINT (rumor-based intelligence) in town. These are the Mean Girls who make or break political aspirations, who get to wear big hats at polo matches, make disparaging comments about social climbers, and police the actions and/or styles of younger, more fertile women.
For a large part, the formalwear created for these women (one of the global teaspoonful of humans capable of affording such garments) is girdled and privileged, highlighting a state of voluntary submission to the patriarchs of their tribe. Their look is an orderly, anger- and yang-free approach to the complex abyss of femininity, drawn from the late 1950s to mid-1960s, when husbands were playboys and closet homosexuals and wives attended luncheons and kept up with correspondence until trotted out for state occasions.
Rich Georgetown ladies tend to drift into that Pat Nixon look that denies that the late sixties ever happened. Their clothes evoke a demure, under-control, decidedly non-rowdy, submissive type of woman who appreciates her role as an ornament of great value, and sits prettily and quietly in Gulfstream jets. It is the look of mothers of brides, and Hong Kong billionaires’ wives. The hard hair and brocade jackets are a throwback to the freeze-dried, declawed, prim, undersexed, shellacked, deodorized, imperial-establishment matron style that always seems to crawl back into women’s fashion during Republican administrations, and tends to coincide with tighter restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, upticks in racism and Bible thumping, and the economic rape of the middle class by “unforeseeable” stock-market calamities that still somehow always seem to massively benefit the nation’s richest 1 percent.
During the darker years of the Bush administration, it struck me that the cut of most women’s clothing in retail fashion inventories eerily evoked Rosemary’s Baby. It was all baby-doll dresses and little pastel blouses with Peter Pan collars and smocking over the collarbones. Child-women were infantilized and bowed up until they resembled decorative, virginal Easter eggs. All the high heels seemed to evaporate from department stores in favor of quiet little ballet shoes that might enable a wife to tiptoe out of the dining room so that the men, freshly cigared, could talk like grownups.