Are designer duds necessary?

Maureen Dowd doesn't know what to wear to Dick Cheney's house.

Published November 18, 2005 8:40PM (EST)

Now that she has set us straight on the state of male-female relations in her controversial treatise "Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide," Maureen Dowd turns to another subject close to her heart: outfits. The cultural critic-cum-fashion plate ponders women's unspoken professional dress code in December's issue of Harper's Bazaar, in a piece titled "What's Appropriate Now?" But don't think you'll be getting any tips on how to dress because, Dowd explains, nothing is appropriate now. Nothing. We might as well all go naked.

The piece kicks off with one of Dowd's trademark juicy openers: "This is the story of how I almost caused a riot by wearing a Burberry kilt and black boots to the vice president's house." (Designer name-dropping, Dick Cheney intrigue and a schoolgirl costume -- Dowd has something for everyone.) Of course, the incident Dowd describes is more minor than her lead suggests -- what really happened was "some conservatives" later said that Dowd's outfit was inappropriate for the venue -- but Dowd's point is that women get judged on their outfits all the time.

She cites Harriet Miers (too frumpy for the Supreme Court), Condoleezza Rice (too shoe obsessed to be secretary of state) and Howard Dean's wife, Judith Steinberg (not feminine enough to be first lady), as examples of women evaluated based on their threads rather than their credentials. Now, Dowd is hardly the first to lament that femininity is an unfairly "damned if we do, damned if we don't" proposition. And most Miers and Rice detractors would likely argue that their criticisms of these women are actually based on substance, not just style. But if Dowd's observations aren't exactly breaking news, that doesn't make the question of why women are held to ever-shifting appropriateness standards any less valid. Why do we care so much what Condi Rice is wearing?

Trouble is, Dowd's piece doesn't answer that question. Or, really, any question. Instead, she cobbles together some quotes from the usual small sample of her friends, family and New York Times co-workers to complain that it's impossible to dress to please everyone. We learn that, in the words of Fannie Mae executive and Dowd pal Amy Overton, "women have an edge if they've got their look together, but they get penalized if they look too slutty." And while men can just wear some pants from a chain like Banana Republic and look respectable, Times editor Ariel Kaminer finds that "women need a wardrobe large enough to sink a small seafaring vessel."

Quippy stuff, but does the readership of a fashion magazine like Harper's Bazaar really need to be reminded that women often have large wardrobes, or of the perils of being "slutty"? Professional women might enjoy a follow-up piece exploring why many women feel they must invest in expensive duds to succeed socially and professionally, or why the public seems to care so much about how a woman presents herself. Or why some women feel they must dress to please everyone. Dowd's piece has the opportunity to investigate those questions, but she and her Burberry kilt just walk on by.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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