Fashion Bytes — What does “worst dressed” really mean?

Travel & Leisure recently held a poll which asked readers to assess which cities in the United States ranked as best- and worst-dressed. Anchorage, AK “won” in the category of “worst dressed”. According to the NPR blog post discussing the results, this rating seems to stem from the fact that the residents of Anchorage dress for the climate in which they live: down parkas, fur-lined hoods, “bunny boots”. As one of the Anchorage-natives being interviewed said, you can’t really expect someone to wear high heels when it is snowing ten to twelve inches outside.

The results found me wondering why the residents of Anchorage were, essentially, being penalized for dressing in a way necessary to survive the climate in which they live. Does living someplace that has extreme weather excuse you for dressing in a way that others might consider “ugly”? And more importantly, what qualifies someone as being well or poorly dressed? Designer names, or how the person puts together the total outfit? French women are popularly considered to have “more style” than their Anglo-Saxon and American counterparts, is the reputation warranted? Vanity Fair releases its own best dressed list every year, but the selection criteria is never revealed. Is style, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, or are websites like “Look at this Hipster”, and “People of Walmart” justified? Do these blogs, polls, and shows like “What Not To Wear” make people more aware of the message they send through their clothing, or work against self-expression? What effect do polls and blogs like this — or the “catty” tone frequently found in some newspapers’ fashion sections — have on public perceptions of fashion? Does it make it harder to justify the study and love of fashion? 

Please share your thoughts.

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  • EmilyKennedy June 12, 2012 08.14 am

    If you think about it, definitely “Look at this Hipster” and “People of Walmart” are operating on what is essentially a class-based criticism. I think it would be fair to lump Vanity Fair and Travel & Leisure in there as well. I would wager that proxies for money and access would be noticeable in their judging criteria as well. Glamour magazine’s Do’s and Don’ts often fall into that trap as well. “What Not to Wear” is any interesting case because I think it is a show that became self-aware over time and tried to steer away from the cut-and-dried you-dress-bad-because-you-can’t-afford-better.

  • Roxane June 12, 2012 01.27 pm

    I haven’t seen _What Not to Wear_ in 5 years or more, but around 2005 or so when I was watching it, I was always frustrated by its narrow definition of femininity and policing of gender expression in the name of “style”.

    In the world of fashion blogs that I follow, there’s a strong movement toward the use of fashion for self-expression and self-empowerment while rejecting a lot of the assumptions of mainstream fashion media (about age, about size, about figure flattery, even about gender expression, though that is less in evidence). My favorite blog in that regard is Already Pretty by Sally McGraw.

  • jacqueline June 12, 2012 02.52 pm

    As someone gearing up teach teach another session of Dress In World Culture, it seems funny to think that dressing for the environment could put you on a worst dressed list. One of the things we cover in that class is how environment is a major contributor toward dress practices. To me, Alaskans probably should be on the top of a best dressed list, seeing as how dress is about the additions and modifications you do to your body, and they seem to have mastered the component about dressing for outdoor conditions.

    What this poll was really asking was what is the most and least fashionable or stylish city. They weren’t asking about dress; they were asking about fashion and style.

  • Arianna June 13, 2012 08.40 am

    Oj, what a useless poll: what does Anchorage care? But what a great conversation can come out of it. So glad to read others’ comments on this.

    Sweden is generally considered to be pretty fashionable, right? While there is certainly a split between fashionable and practical here that seems to fall on the same rural/metropolitan lines as Anchorage/NYC, the weather forces these to merge when it gets down wayyy below zero even in the schmanciest sections of Stockholm. It seems the number one tip or key to staying warm is animal furs or fibers, of which many are handmade, secondhand, and/or vintage.

    Even when practical, traditional clothing has a twist (see: Lovikka Mittens, folk dress). Most modern knitters all over the world will have come across hundreds of beautiful, colorful traditional Scandinavian patterns, and many centuries-old techniques (felting, knotless knitting, twined knitting, etc) are still used in everyday outerwear to keep out those Nordic winds. My boyfriend is an avid knitter, and our winter hallway is overflowing with accessories that are both warm AND look lovely on us both. Although, of course, the beauty of handknits is certainly a subjective topic.

    People layer up–I’m talking three pairs of socks–and in the winter often don’t bother with pretty shoes, even to change into inside. But if no one does, it feels less unfashionable, and creates new arenas for constructing ideas of fashionability: what socks do you wear to New Year’s Eve? And really–no one who knows how far you walked from the subway to their apartment at -20 C is going to grudge you the extra wool sweater.

    Comparing all of the states in the country is silly–each state values their unique climate, rights, culture, etc, and as suggested above, practicality can be a rather attractive trait.


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