Another Bastheva prairie dress----this one is from Oroboro
Laura Ashley dress photographed by her daughter Jane Ashley - for more more of her photos, visit the Laura Ashley Archive
1970s Laura Ashley prairie dress (sorry, I can't find the original link)
Velvet prairie dresses by the Vampire's Wife, also known as Susie Cave (photo found on the Red Carpet Fashion Awards website)
front and back of a vintage Gunne Sax prairie dress from the FIDM blog
Lately I've been reading some of the many many articles popping up across the internet about the revival of prairie fashion: like this one from the NYT ("Pioneer Women Are Roaming the City"), or this profile of Batsheva Hay by the New Yorker, or this piece by the Washington Post. The Washington Post article, though short, is also the most positive and thoughtful. Robin Givhan recognizes why prairie styles are so surprising to so many onlookers, and also so intriguing to the women who wear them: ". . .there's no hiding in these clothes. They are provocative but only because they are so darned civil and precious and sweet. They don't swagger. They don't brag. Their power is in everything that they refuse to be."
The New York Times piece is more biting, making references to the Donner Party, the TV show Big Love, and "Amish dowdiness," but it is also perceptive, making connections between the resurgence of prairie style with current political and economic anxiety, and also the the fluctuating relationship most women have with modesty during a moment when sexual injustices against women are being exposed in the news. Still, my overall impression of Chloe Malle's article was one of ambivalence: a mixture of mean jokes with genuine interest and curiosity.
The article on Batsheva Hay in the New Yorker is interesting, too, not least because it profiles a woman living in an Orthodox Jewish household who is now one of New York's most popular new fashion designers. Her interest in prairie styles is also not without conflict---a mixture of affection for the modest and feminine looks and rebellion towards the way they have been presented and perceived as restrictive and repressed.
It's this recurrent theme of ambivalence towards historical women's clothing as being symbols of repression and oppression, and the association with "cults," that makes me a bit puzzled. When and where have women ever held equal social status with men? We are still striving for that elusive equality today. What is left for women to wear if we don't wear clothing that references the past?
And what clothing of the past can be more associated with feminine strength than prairie dresses, which are named after the garb of the pioneers? Pioneer women of the mid-1800s were the Victorian counter-cultural rebels: they walked from one side of the country to the other to follow dreams, opportunities, the chance to have more choices than many of their female peers and to be respected as essential members of their households and struggling communities. Pioneer women were adventurers; they showed courage by facing hardship, disease, and hunger on the trail and in their new homes on the very edge of the known world.
I can't really see how their clothes can be used as particular symbols of female oppression, given that the women who wore them were straining against the bounds of what the "gentler sex" were thought to able to accomplish at that point in history.
When I was in college I wore a long calico dress with puffed sleeves to school and got teased by one of my classmates that I looked like a fundamentalist polygamist cult member. Historically, this is an exaggeration, too. Some of my ancestresses were polygamists on the Mormon trail, but some of my husband's ancestresses were pioneers on both the Mormon and Oregon trails, and they were adamantly monogamous. Whether or not I agree with the choices my predecessors made in regards to marriage, I'm proud of their strength and courage to leave what they knew behind and make new lives out of scratch in the desert and the mountains.
I like the historical associations of prairie dresses. I also like the way they look: they have a wide, feminine, and varied vocabulary of print, pattern, ruffle, and puffs. Prairie dresses aren't boring---they are individual, and interesting, and brave, and sometimes bold---much like the women who wore them in the 1800s and again in the 1970s-1980s, and now.
What do you think about prairie styles? Did you wear them, and do you wear them still? Are you interested in trying them for the first time? Do you find their historical associations troubling, or interesting?
Photo of the Crisman sisters taken in 1886. They were homesteaders in Nebraska. Photo from the Denver Post website.
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew.