Culottes: In Short, Disaster
By Robin Givhan
So it has come to this. Culottes.
Fashion critics have found plenty of fodder in the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton/Paula Jones vortex. There were the ties, the parade of hairstyles, a magical make-over, a mysterious little black dress, a designer beret. Now the dialogue has bottomed out.
Culottes are mentioned, seemingly without shame, in Paula Jones's deposition taken last fall by President Clinton's attorney Robert Bennett. They are described in enough detail to make the aesthetically sensitive cringe. In the modern age, culottes should not be worn by anyone. Alas, Jones wore them not once, but at least twice, and as recently as 1991. And now they are part of the historical record.
Culottes are a garment that looks and hangs like a skirt, but is actually a pair of pants. They are knee-length. They are noncommittal. They lack a raison d'être. They were billed as the perfect garment a couple of decades ago because they could be worn where a skirt was required or preferred, yet they were as comfortable and practical as a pair of trousers. Designers and manufacturers in the '80s tried to convince businesswomen that a pair of culottes and a matching jacket were just the things to wear to the office. Most working women across America did not believe Seventh Avenue. Jones, however, apparently did.
Where is the rich ideological subtext here? If only Jones had been wearing a bustier, which Madonna transformed into a post-feminist badge of honor. Bluejeans would have raised interesting questions given their iconic, multi-generation, cross-gender appeal. We're not even talking about a pair of high heels, which would at least have provided material for a debate on gender politics. Culottes are the fashion equivalent of processed cheese or mini-marts. They are banal. If we believe Jones, what are we to make of a man who loses all sense of discretion at the sight of a woman in culottes?
In the deposition, Jones recalls wearing culottes when, she says, then-Gov. Clinton was moved to compliment her appearance. Here is Jones's description of the ensemble in question: "I think it was an Easter outfit I had. It was a white, like a long culotte thing. Those were in style then and it was made out of like a silk type of material. It was a dressy outfit. It was long, about down to my knees."
Go ahead, Ms. Jones. Say it. That "culotte thing" was polyester, wasn't it?
No doubt, folks were indeed wearing culottes in the early '90s. But were they in style? Oh, honey, no. I am not here to malign Jones's clothing choices. I am here to protect fashion from insult. Do not let culottes stand as the fashion symbol of the first half of this decade. Fashion was better than that.
The early '90s signified a retreat from the hedonism of the '80s. People were downscaling, simplifying. Minimalism was the rage. The fashion world was pingponging about from grunge to Gap simplicity to monastic chic. If Jones had been paying attention to the looks of the moment, she would have been wearing something nondescript, such as chinos and a black turtleneck. Or she might have chosen a dour and unrevealing outfit, such as a black nun's-cloth dress accessorized with a giant jeweled cross. She might have been attired in the slovenly grunge style and worn a pair of faded corduroy pants and a flannel shirt.
But Jones was a culottes kind of gal. She was also wearing them, she says, on the day of the alleged sexual advance from Clinton in Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel. From the deposition: "He pulled me over to him while he was leaning up against the wingback chair and he took his hands and was running them up my culottes. And they were long. They were down to my knees. They were long, dressy culottes."
Those with a legal or political bone to pick will notice the loaded nature of Jones's description of her fashion choice. Long culottes (so demure). Dressy culottes (so professional). White culottes (so pure). A wardrobe fit for Easter morning services!
Do not confuse culottes with gauchos, which generally are longer about mid-calf and are not masquerading as skirts. Gauchos look like the full, flowing, cropped trousers that they are. Fashion tried gamely to revive the gaucho trend, dead since the '70s, several seasons ago. The notion was relentlessly ridiculed until it was driven from the runways.
The skort (a name that reminds one of an involuntary sound made after a particularly spicy meal) is a distinctively different garment. Skorts are shorts masquerading as a miniskirt. They generally fall to mid-thigh and still are favored by young women who want to show off their legs without worrying about flashing the world if they sit down or are accosted by a stiff gust of wind. A skort has sizzle.
Culottes do not. But they do have a history of political symbolism. During the French Revolution, those who were opposed to the monarchy were referred to as the sans-culottes, which literally meant "without breeches." Members of the aristocracy wore breeches tight, fancy below-the-knee pants. The common people or revolutionaries wore trousers.
The Jones case is not exactly one in which a commoner is trying to overthrow the aristocracy. But it does seem to boil down to a sad twist of history. Wearing culottes might be a grave fashion faux pas, but being sans-culottes, if true, could turn out to be a much more serious offense.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company