Features Australia

On the cultural reappropriation of long sleeve dresses

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

As a rule, I do not write articles calling out the stupid things I’ve seen on the internet. There are already legions of podcasters, cable news talking-heads, YouTubers and anonymous tweeters who spend countless hours raging against the unfathomably vast ocean of online nonsense, and I do not envy their Sisyphean task. Sometimes, however, the internet spits out a scandal so dastardly, so viciously blasphemous against reason, that to stand idly by and say nothing would be tantamount to complicity with Satan. One such controversy reared its grotesque head last week, on a website called Jezebel—a liberal blog which, not coincidently, shares its name with the wicked Old Testament queen who ordered the massacre of the innocent and the worship of Baal. I draw your attention, dear reader, to ‘The Settler Fantasies Woven into the Prairie Dresses’, by Peggy O’Donnell. She lectures at the University of Chicago and has taken aim at, as she puts it:

2018’s most improbable urban fashion trend. Prairie dresses, from high-end designers like Doên, Christy Dawn, and Batsheva Hay, are exactly what they sound like—shapeless, high necked and long-hemmed, made from brown or intricately flowered rough-woven cotton or linen, and marketed with imagery that makes explicit references to the American West.

It’s true: cosmopolitan fashionistas are presently spending thousands of dollars on dresses that their grandmothers would have thought old-fashioned. Vogue magazine circa 2019 is starting to resemble Vogue magazine circa 1892. It’s an unusual development, to be sure, but that is, rather, the point of fashion; one of the nastiest things you can say about a designer is that they’re ‘predictable’. So, yes, the Little House on the Prairie-style dress is matronly, but amidst a glut of sheer, plunging, and backless dresses, it has found favour among stylish young women. In an ubiquitously immodest world, modesty is, perversely, rather exciting. Ms O’Donnell, however, objects:

There is a colonial settler fantasy that is woven into the sustainably-sourced and ethically-produced fibres of the prairie dress… To say that the prairie dress, and the frontier femininity it embodies, is merely ‘traditional’ elides this whole history: a history of land theft that displaced, and sometimes killed, its original occupants. It also elides the active participation of women in that history. Women in prairie dresses aren’t dressing like fringe religious groups in a delightfully odd turn of fashion. They’re dressing like their own great-great-grandmothers, in a claim, conscious or not, to a racialised and gendered history.

I’m sorry to ‘elide’ so much of her article, but you get the picture. The logic, as best I can understand it, is that since a) in the past, women wore long linen dresses, and b) many of those women benefited from racism, it therefore follows that c) women who wear long linen dresses, in the present day and age, are ‘claiming’ a ‘racialised and gendered history’—which seems to me to be a very fancy and cowardly way of saying ‘are being racist and sexist’.

But, perhaps, I have been too hasty in castigating Peggy. Perhaps, rather, we should praise Ms O’Donnell. Certainly, she should be congratulated for her creativity, for, by my reckoning, she has discovered an entirely new way to be offended.

And, well, what if she’s right? Fans of the Prairie dress, like English-Chinese style-guru Alexa Chung might think that they’re just ‘wearing clothes’, but what if, actually, they are unconsciously participating in centuries of systematic oppression?

The great evil is not that itty bitty orphan children are working their little fingers down to the nub in Bangladeshi sweat shops, but that the dresses they’re sewing are ‘shapeless’. Forget the massacres; what should really stick in the craw of the Crow Nation is that long sleeves are having a moment.

The J’Accuse could not have come at a better time for the financial future of the woke-corporate Left. Their business model is collapsing, and thousands of people are losing their jobs. Last October, the progressive website Refinery29 sacked 40 staff members. Shortly after that, the socially-just Mic.com laid-off their entire editorial staff. In late January, BuzzFeed had to make 200 employees redundant. Verizon Media, the owner of the Huffington Post, cut hundreds of employees loose. Overall, it has been estimated that in the course of just one week this year, a thousand journalists found themselves out of work. Donald Trump jumped onto Twitter, as is his wont, and twisted the knife: ‘Fake news and bad journalism have caused a big downturn. Sadly, many others will follow. The people want the Truth!’

Over the last year, the financial value of bitchy call-outs has cratered. Virtue-signalling has entered a death cross. The clickbait is still out there, but nobody’s biting anymore. The masses have grown tired, perhaps even cynical, of those who bemoan ‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘cultural appropriation’. But now, Jezebel has introduced the world to a new, potentially even more heinous crime: cultural reappropriation.

Peggy O’Donnell hasn’t just written a spiteful take-down; she has signalled a paradigm shift and opened up an infinity of new opportunities for the performative taking of offence. ‘The Settler Fantasies Woven into Prairie Dresses’ is a good start, but if Jezebel and their financially imperilled ilk are going to resuscitate politically correct hate-mongering, they mustn’t stop there.

Why not ‘The Fascist Fantasies Woven into Brown Shirts’? And, you know, Bill Cosby used to wear brightly coloured knitwear, so how about ‘The Horrific Rapes Woven into Coogi Sweaters’? I could go on and on, so I will. ‘Wearing Sandals is the Moral Equivalent of Participating in the Roman Slave Trade’. ‘Only a Klansman Would Own White Sheets’. ‘Charles Manson had a Beard, Too’. ‘People Who Wear Glasses are Counterrevolutionary and must be Exterminated in the Killing Fields’.

In her essay, Peggy O’Donnell posits that the women who wear Prairie dresses haven’t reckoned with the racism and colonialism inherent in the garment. I posit that Peggy, herself, hasn’t reckoned with where that sort of bitterness might lead.

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