from the archives

The Politics of Sex and Fashion

Photo: New York Magazine

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the March 16, 1970, issue of New York. We are republishing a selection of Gloria Steinem’s writing from our archive to celebrate her 90th birthday.

Years ago, in some otherwise forgettable political science class, we spent a whole day watching Nazi propaganda films — the sort made in the early ’30s when many German students were still rejecting Hiter’s Youth Movement as over-regimented and boring.

The stories varied, but the images did not. Party young people were always pictured as idealistic, respectful toward their elders and the flag, friendly toward each other, modest (the girls wore little make-up, and skirts below the knee), neat (the boys’ hair was short, their ties impeccable), and devoted to such pursuits as helping each other with studies or camping in beautiful German forests. Non-party youth, lumped together as “Communistic” in those days before the Hitler-Stalin Pact, were long-haired, messily dressed, violent, self-indulgent, disloyal to each other as well as to the country, and usually photographed in some scene suggestive of overeating, drunkenness, or group sex, not always heterosexual. Furthermore, it was always the anti-Nazi youths who shouted and provoked incidents while the starched-brown-shirted majority worked on with quiet purpose.

The films were well made and affecting. If it hadn’t been for the convenient Nazi label — and childhoods full of newsreels that showed the glorious red and black swastika flag flying over concentrations camps and the like — I’m sure we would have signed up for one of those idealistic, campfire-building groups on the spot. The films forever shook our faith in how easy it was to recognize repression and regimentation when we saw it, which was exactly what the professor, a German refugee, had in mind.

What now makes the films echo in fragments, like a dream, are the anti-dissenter phrases of Mitchell and Agnew and Kleindienst, all delivered from clean and somehow similar faces, and all having as much to do with dress and morals as with political belief. U.S. Attorney Thomas Foran, the prosecurator in the Chicago Seven trial, was even franker than most of those films when, unaware that his suburban Chicago audience also contained a reporter, he celebrated the conspiracy conviction by saying the defendants were probably all fags anyway. (The only one he excepted was also the only black man, Bobby Seale. Myths of potency are stronger than politics.) In fact, he favoried all the dissenting youth with phrasing like “the freaking fag revolution.”

As for Agnew, writers and television analysts who criticize him get some flavor of his support from their mail. Pete Hamill, Tom Wicker, Walter Cronkite, and even one Agnew column I wrote for the supposedly “Eastern liberal” readership of this magazine, have elicited record numbers of letters with words like “Kike,” “homo,” “Jew bastard,” “N—— lover,” and “Commie” in them. (The favorite in my case was “long-haired Commie slut,” with variations, even though most of the column was an affectionate comparison to W.C. Fields.) If Agnew wants to know who some of his most loyal supporters are, he should read our mail.

Not that we are beginning a pre-fascist decade in the ’70s exactly like that in Germany 40 years ago. To throw around words like “fascist” is as much an excess of the left as branding dissenters “Commie” and “misfit” and “pervert” is of the right. (Actually, as Washington Post columnist Nicholas von Hoffman pointed out, “The road to revolution hasn’t been paved with mattresses.” The Nixon administration would have much more to worry about if dissenters suddenly became as puritanical as Robespierre or Lenin or Mao.) But William Shirer and other scholars of German history warn that parallels exist, including an insistence on “American” lifestyles and the condemnation of short skirts and long hair. In a recent interview, Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, said he thought the election of some fascist regime was now quite possible here.

So it’s a little chilling to open up the pages of Women’s Wear Daily and find them full of the new knee-concealing garment called the Longuette, a skirt anywhere between calf-top and floor that, WWD proclaims delightedly, comes straight out of Visconti’s Germany-in-the-’30s movie The Damned. Suddenly, this dowdy skirt length and shorter hair are all over the fashion pages of the New York Times, women’s magazines, and society reports in the Washington Post. It’s as if the Silent Majorities of France and America had got simultaneously fed up with styles dictated by what were, according to both haute couture and suburban standards, the outcast groups: the poor, the young, and the black. Manufacturers are hurrying back to styles set by the affluent, the perpetuators of Conventional Wisdom, and, though fashionable women may continue to have more than one skirt length in their wardrobes, the miniskirt and lovebeads trend seems to be reversing very fast.

American political analysts have always assumed, if they considered fashion at all, that it simply reversed itself every year in order to promote buying, like the built-in obsolescence of Detroit automobiles. But historians and anthropologists know better. In periods of great freedom and cultural blooming, women’s clothes have always been more revealing: in the Renaissance, it was the bared bosom; in the 1920s, the legs. Since skirts left the ground in the 19th century, they have been the single best indicator of change: short when women are working and independent, often during wartime; long again when men come home and take their jobs back, father babies, and revel in postwar conservatism, as in the ’50s.

James Laver, a London museum curator and analyst of fashion, says that women’s clothes indicate current degrees of sexual repression because, historically, women have tended to dress on the Seduction Principle. When skirts are up, repression is down. Men, on the other hand, dress less to attract the opposite sex than to enhance their social status, a phenomenon called by Laver the Hierarchical Principle. But principles are mitigated by the Utility Principle — climate, necessity of movement, and the like — but even the most primitive society is likely to put more invention into social indicators than into comfort.

Add to this anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer’s discovery that the more peaceful the society, the less polarized the sex roles (women needn’t stay home gestating to be women; men needn’t go to war to be men), and the society with the most individual freedom turns out to be the one with the least regimentation — according to either sex or status, or to social notions of decency in dress. Combine freedom with affluence, as we did in the ’60s, and the result is clothes of a great personal invention.

At the end of Laver’s most recent book, Modesty in Dress, there is a photograph of a boy and girl holding hands (circa 1966) with matching sweaters and longish hair, the assumption being that all those Principles — including the Theory of the Leisure Class — could be forgotten. “We, as children of an age which values equality above everything else,” wrote Laver, “must congratulate ourselves that all these frivolities are no more … that the Socialist Paradise has been reached at last, and Thorstein Veblen can lie quiet in his grave.”

Well, he reckoned without a group of men in Washington two years later whose greatest personal invention is an occasional shirt with stripes that one would have to be on LSD to see. And they are not on LSD. Richard Nixon, having always dressed himself according to the strict Hierarchical Principle, or at least his understanding of it, likes to see the men around him do the same; hence the protocol of white-tie dinners, the protocol seating that the Kennedys had done away with, and the innovation of status-conscious, Banana Republic uniforms for the White House guards. It is unkind but irresistible to quote Carlyle: “The first spiritual want of a barbarous man is decoration.”

Laver reckoned without the revolt of the bourgeoisie in France as well, without the general Western reaction to student riots and youth-dictated styles. Mme. Pompidou arrived here with 22 outfits, all of them in the knee-covering lengths dubbed Longuette by the Franglais-speakers at Women’s Wear. Ask about the Longuette by a Women’s Wear reporter, Nixon said firmly, “I like it. I also like color and high style.” Mrs. Nixon added, “It’s always been my favorite length.”

The important question, though, is not what the so-called Silent Majority wears, but the pressure put on others to conform. It’s those Germanic, stick-and-carrot urgings toward “Americanism” and propriety that will be the test. The Nixons can’t do too much but set an example of kneeless women, faceless men. (Though Mrs. Nixon — after the famous photograph of her glaring at mini-skirted Joan Kennedy — did issue orders for long skirts at the White House.) But the Chicago Seven, whose hair was cut off “for sanitary reason” two days before a bail appeal released them from solitary cells, or the “suspiciously dressed” of any age, who are still more subjects to busts and harassments, or the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography — which may equate skin exposure with anti-Americanism — these may be the straws we should watch to see which way the political wind is blowing.

The Politics of Sex and Fashion