The Risk of Overdressing

By Robin Givhan
Friday, August 17, 2007

It has become common practice among the self-righteous burlap-and-sandals set to indict a woman for being too perfectly turned out. Interest in fashion, at its highest and glossiest level, is seen as shorthand for self-absorption, vapidness and thoughtlessness.

The sideways glances and tut-tuts are not aimed at Hollywood's stars. By cultural agreement, it is their job to look stylish. They are given a verbal lashing only when the public detects a nick in their glossy coating.

The disdain for fashion exhibitionism is reserved for the less famous, for women that folks assume should be occupying their time with more socially meaningful pursuits than getting on the waiting list for a Marc Jacobs bag. And certainly, if someone at home is going hungry and unloved because a woman is stalking handbags, that's a problem.

The demonizing power of fashion is used to great effect in "The Nanny Diaries," a film that takes a satirical look at the hothouse flowers of New York's Upper East Side: the pampered, impeccably groomed, so-wealthy-they-do-not-need-to-work-and-so-they-don't mothers whose children still require live-in nannies.

The film, which opens Aug. 24, stars Laura Linney as Mrs. X, a woman whose days are consumed with selecting hors d'oeuvres for charity functions, ignoring her wealthy husband's infidelity, shrugging off her young son's desire for her attention and . . . shopping. Mrs. X is a mere sketch of a woman. She is rendered with the broadest strokes and one of the most devastating is the depiction of her style.

She is first seen in Central Park, having lost control of her son, who is almost struck by a man on a scooter. Mrs. X dashes into view dressed in a tightly cinched python trench coat and heels high enough to make a podiatrist blanch. Her clothes, so out of sync with the informality of a park and the impetuous scampering of a child, speak so loudly to her rigidity, selfishness and aloofness that she might as well be wearing a sash identifying her as "Worst Mother of the Year."

There are numerous ways in which Mrs. X reveals her obliviousness to her child's needs and her own narcissism. Most are outrageous -- such as when she blithely dismisses the fact that her son had a temperature of 104 while she was at a spa ignoring the nanny's numerous telephone calls. But Mrs. X's style is the quietly damning detail. She is showy in her fashion sense -- and thus in her wealth. How callous! She does not dress in an understated way that might leave a viewer guessing as to a frock's cost. She's not one to slip on an Hermes sweater set, for instance. Instead, she pulls out a red Christian Dior cocktail dress for a special dinner with her husband. (She announces the designer to the nanny.) At a Fourth of July party at her husband's company, she is decked out in a bejeweled satin dress and a fur-trimmed bolero. Her hair is not merely professionally blown out but twisted into elaborate up-dos. How high maintenance!

She is not one of those sad caricatures immobilized by Botox and puffed up with Restylane. Besides, dabbling in fillers is not about fashion but about beauty, the culture of youth and the uneasiness of aging. A woman -- or a man -- who indulges in potions and plastic surgery may be judged harshly, but more often than not, the folks pointing the fingers empathize, if only a little. People who overindulge in plastic surgery tend to be pitied, not vilified.

Fashion is different. There is something audacious about a woman who works at being stylish. What is she neglecting in order to focus so much attention on herself? Whom is she ignoring? Who does she think she is?

Looking effortlessly chic is applauded. A smidge of imperfection -- bed hair with a cocktail dress, trainers with a nice pair of pants -- goes a long way in defusing an encounter that can be fraught with issues of class, self-indulgence and self-importance. But looking as if both care and consideration were used in getting dressed, that requires nerve.

The September issue of Vogue thudded onto doorsteps filled with articles under the heading: "No Fear of Chic." One essay has the author lamenting her "uneasy relationship with the idea of elegance." The clothes for fall celebrate a more polished sensibility. Messy hair will not do. Many of the jackets are not meant to be paired with jeans. It will require fearlessness for a woman to go out in public looking completely pulled together, looking like she's trying.

One of the fears is that all the polish can leave a woman looking fake -- like a wax figure from another era. There is always that risk. The greater risk, however, is that instead of celebrating one's fashion equity, the race will be on to devalue it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company