Hello, friends! This month I am so excited to bring you conversations with authors I admire who have new books out this spring. It is such a privilege to have the chance to talk with them about their impressive, and very different, work; I’m grateful this newsletter affords me the space to share our chats.
First up is Véronique Hyland, fashion features director at Elle magazine and author of Dress Code: Unlocking Fashion from the New Look to Millennial Pink. When I tell you this book speaks to my SMT soul! You’re going to want to add it to your reading list immediately. Our chat, plus details on a giveaway I’m doing of Dress Code below. xx
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Dress Code delivers, mixing history with psychology to make a case for the power of fashion. Véronique deftly dives into topics that are so much more complicated than they first appear, from courtroom clothing to millennial pink (and she is an authority on the shade, having penned the viral essay for The Cut in 2016 that popularized the term). Her subjects range from the Founding Fathers to French “It Girls,” connecting the dots between a trend, the force behind it, the dialogue around it, and the person wearing it.
I caught up with Véronique recently for an insightful chat about why we still have to make the case for fashion to be taken seriously, what Princess Diana has in common with Frida Kahlo, and how today’s body standards are the new corsets. Below you’ll find excerpts of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.
In the introduction to ‘Dress Code,’ you make the case for why everybody cares about fashion — even if they don’t realize that they care about fashion.
Véronique Hyland: I am still kind of astounded that people really don’t take [fashion] seriously. Even in the process of trying to sell this book, I kept getting feedback that this is for a niche audience, or “We just don’t know who this is for.”
And I was like, how many books about sports do these publishers publish per year? Sports is a good analog because it’s also something that — well, actually, it’s even less central to our being because you don’t have to play or watch sports, whereas you do have to wear clothing. But in the sense that sports bring a lot of people joy and people like to admire from afar, even if they’re not doing it. Sports is immediately seen as this analog for the human condition and the struggle, while fashion and beauty are these things that are just seen as unserious.
I was surprised to be encountering that in 2020 when I was shopping this book around. I think maybe because I work with so many super smart women who take fashion really seriously — and take everything really seriously, are well informed in all these areas.
I hear you! I have definitely felt a need to justify my interest in fashion and beauty. I remember making the case once for why I should write a makeup trend story at the Wall Street Journal.
VH: I had the same thing. Everyone at The Cut was super supportive but there were definitely people internally, in the larger organization, who were like, “Well, this isn’t politics or news.”
I wrote a profile of Vivienne Westwood when she was being given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Savannah College of Art and Design. And I was down in Savannah, spent a lot of time with her, talking about how she is misunderstood. People see her as just this punk designer, but there’s a lot more going on; I wrote this very long-form profile.
[New York Magazine] used to have a section on the homepage called “Candy,” which would be like fun stories like: “Kim Kardashian does this.” And [my profile of Westwood] was put under “Candy.” No 2000-word profiles of a politician would be under “Candy,” you know? I raised a stink about it, but it was that kind of thing where they’re like, “Oh, this is just ‘Candy’ because it's dresses.”
You’re facing both the dismissal from outside, but also from within.
I keep thinking about the last paragraph of the introduction: “My premise here is that fashion is a key—it unlocks questions of power, sexuality, and class, tapping into history and sending signals to the world around us. It means something. Even if you’re ‘just’ wearing jeans and a T-shirt.” Did you feel like you were preaching to the choir?
VH: I was aiming it towards someone who maybe picked up the book and was like, “What's this about?”
Whether you are super tuned into fashion or not, I think there are things that escape our notice, like some of the psychological studies about perception based on appearance. I had always anecdotally seen that people in a workplace who really dressed down, that it gave them power. But I didn’t know that was backed up by science, in a Harvard Business School study about the “red sneakers” effect.
For the book, I was interested in things that fall slightly outside of our perception, or a vague idea that we haven’t really examined. I wanted to bring up things that people might not necessarily have considered.
What do you make of royal fashion? Do you follow it?
VH: It's not something that I paid that much attention to growing up, until I started working in magazines. I worked at Harper’s Bazaar during Kate Middleton’s wedding and I actually got stuck in the elevator while we were in the midst of covering it. And I just sat down on the floor with my laptop while I waited for them to come get me because it was like the biggest story of the year. Meghan and Harry’s wedding being really big as well, just these huge public moments.
When I was working on this chapter about “It Girls” and looking at Princess Diana’s style, I was thinking about why that’s always been such a touchstone. She tied into some of the other people I was talking about, like Edie Sedgwick and Frida Kahlo. Very different life experiences, backgrounds, all of that. But the through line was that these are people who had challenging lives, were in a lot of pain, and used their fashion as a way to, in some senses, cope.
You pulled an impressive range of women into your book, like the discussion of Monica Lewinsky’s courtroom style or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s YouTube beauty tutorial.
VH: Writing the chapter about politicians in fashion, it goes back to even the Founding Fathers. Fashion is used in political messaging more than I think people are necessarily willing to admit. You know how politicians will roll up their sleeves in a photo op? It’s so on the nose: I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and like get some work done.
And even people who say “I don’t care about fashion, it’s not important to me” in the world of politics are using fashion to craft some image or message or reinforce what they’re saying. It’s been interesting to see both of those fashion statements and how they have been perceived.
Is there anything that you have re-thought as a result of writing the book?
VH: When you look at what women typically wore in the 1850s, they were laid down with these heavy garments, wearing corsets and stuff, and you think, “Oh, this is a terrible way to live and how could they live like this?”
And then you look into current day standards and say, “Okay, well now you’re not necessarily wearing a corset and a heavy skirt, but you’re expected to have this exact size of body parts, you have to be both thin, but curvy.” There are these body standards that exert as much control over people as the clothing once did. Everybody is getting the same procedures and using the same filters. But it’s less acknowledged. People are talking about, “Well, all I care about is being healthy.”
Ah yes, I was struck by the description of how ‘no-makeup makeup’ exudes as ‘gentle superiority.’
VH: Right. Exactly. And it still involves multiple steps and multiple products, you know?
Everything is kind of sold back to us. When a lot of women decided they didn’t want to wear bras in the sixties or seventies, Rudi Gernreich was like, “How about I design the ‘no-bra’ bra?” People present bralettes as this relatively new thing and that it’s so liberating — which I’m sure it is for a lot of people. But this is something that has already happened multiple times before.
Was there anything that surprised you writing the book?
VH: There were certain things that definitely had been going on for even longer than I thought. For example, the chapter on influencers. You think of influencers as being this contemporary thing that are tied to a specific social media platform. But Edward Bernays was enlisting women to smoke cigarettes and cool people to carry around bananas to promote bananas.
Also the conversations about leggings and other types of garments and the controversies over them. You can look back and see the controversies over bloomers and divided skirts. We’re kind of cycling through many of the same cultural conversations across decades and even centuries — that was interesting to see. There’s nothing new under the sun.
GIVEAWAY: I’ll be sending one lucky recipient a copy of Dress Code — head to the comments on my Instagram post below to enter to win!
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1. READ / The atrocities coming out of Ukraine are just beyond horrifying; I continue to be deeply grateful for the journalists on the ground telling these stories — this live update blog is one of the best. (New York Times)
2. READ / As the U.S. Senate moves towards confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, a look at what her nomination means to Black women: “She is bringing her lived experience, what it means to be a public defender, what it means to be a judge, what it means to be a Black woman to the bench, a perspective that we have never had in 233 years on the Supreme Court.” (The 19th News)
3. READ / Are you forgetting a lot of things lately? ME TOO. My former coworker Elizabeth Bernstein explains what’s going on. (Wall Street Journal)
4. WATCH / I’m one episode into Brené Brown’s new show based on her bestselling book, Atlas of the Heart. It’s all about improving the language around emotions. One line early on that got me (I’m paraphrasing here) is how we tend to see ourselves as thinking people with feelings, when we are really feeling people with thoughts. (HBO Max)
5. SHOP / The Sephora VIB sale is upon us! Linking a few of the products I use all the time and absolutely adore (you’ll probs recognize them from other newsletters) as well as a few new things I am shopping for this week:
Note: I use affiliate links, which means that if you make a purchase I may get a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you for supporting my work!
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That’s it for me, friends! I’ll see you back in your inboxes on Friday. Have a wonderful week.