O the Oprah Magazine sparked a minor controversy last week for a small bit of display copy: When a reader wrote in to ask, “Can I pull off a crop top?” the magazine’s advice columnist warned, “If (and only if!) you have a flat stomach.” Style blogger Sarah Conley penned a response to that piece of advice, saying, “I was shocked to see this kind of body shaming language from any magazine.” Her fellow bloggers showed their support by posting a body-diverse range of crop-top pictures themselves. (The magazine subsequently issued a statement of apology: “We support, encourage and empower all women to look great, feel confident and live their best lives — in this case, we could have expressed it better. We appreciate the feedback and will be more mindful going forward.”)
“Shocked” might have been a mild overreaction. After all, fashion publications have long traded in that kind of scolding and body-policing, and entire TV shows and best-selling books are based on telling women what not to wear. But the outrage wasn’t without merit. Could anything feel more outdated than the idea that we’re all striving to be some kind of amalgamated Average, Acceptable-Looking Woman — by disguising our “problem areas,” shortening or lengthening our torsos, hiding one feature or another?
The impulse to tell women what they can and can’t wear speaks to larger neuroses about class and weight (the idea that leggings with stiletto heels look trashy or that people with non-flat stomachs should cover them up). Sure, certain items feel like visual nails on a chalkboard to me — I’m not a fan of beige shiny platform pumps, for example. But I wouldn’t appoint myself the judge of who can and can’t wear them. The same goes for culottes, crop tops, cutoffs, or any other sartorially controversial item. The moment some fashion “expert” proclaims something gauche, it just opens up an opportunity for some cool, rule-breaking kid to show them how great they can make that item look. The style pendulum has a way of swinging wildly from one extreme to the next.
In a post–Lena Dunham–Girls era, where style bloggers of all different aesthetics and body types offer fashion advice instead of dictating to people what they can and can’t wear, most fashion publications have caught up to the fact that we are suggestion engines, not rule books. Maybe you do want to show off your thunder thighs, or your flat chest, or whatever thing you were once told was a heinous, unlovable flaw worthy of Houdini-level obsfucation. And maybe you want to do it in Givenchy.
If you’re looking for great fashion advice, you can always return to the master: Diana Vreeland. Her “Why Don’t You?” column in Harper’s Bazaar was filled with daffy, left-field prompts for readers’ own creativity. “Why don’t you … wear fruit hats? Currants? Cherries?” she mused. “Tie black tulle bows on your wrists?” Or, in a pre-Pinterest stroke of genius, “Cover a big cork bulletin board in bright pink felt banded with bamboo, and pin with colored thumb-tacks all your various enthusiasms as your life varies from week to week?” (Best of all, none of these ideas require much expenditure — though she did once suggest buying an Hermès elk-hide rug for your car.) The world would do well to follow Vreeland’s example.