In 1974 Alison Lurie scored a critical and commercial triumph with her best-selling novel about the disintegration of a marriage in academia, The War Between the Tates. Only Children, her sixth and most recent novel, also examined the subject of American adultery in 1979. Now Lurie, 55, has applied her acidulous wit and unflinching gaze to fashion. The result is The Language of Clothes (Random House, $20), a lavishly illustrated, often funny social history of apparel from underwear to hats. “We can lie in the language of dress, or try to tell the truth,” Lurie writes. “But unless we are naked and bald, it is impossible to be silent.” To her informed eye, a particular color or style can be as revealing a clue to character as diction, accent and tone of voice. Lurie, a professor of creative writing and children’s literature at Cornell University, lives in Ithaca, N.Y. (she and her husband are separated) and keeps a vacation hideaway in Key West, Fla. Wearing a black turtleneck, low-heeled shoes and a beige corduroy skirt that she made herself, Lurie spelled out some of fashion’s hidden messages for John Stickney of PEOPLE.
How would you interpret the clothes you’re wearing today?
This is the Square-Dance Bohemian look, sort of serious but also arty. My clothes suggest I’m serious because I’m wearing black, but I’m not solemn because my skirt has a ruffle and my hair isn’t severely cut. I don’t dress like most women professors.
What sets you apart from them?
I look more frivolous. I’m not a scholar, so I don’t have to dress like one, and also I teach children’s literature, so I can get away with dressing in a slightly childish fashion.
Can you read men’s clothes as readily as women’s?
Yes. A red tie, for example, suggests energy, ambition and sexuality. But it’s all well controlled if worn with a button-down collar. Those drives won’t be able to escape because the shirt is keeping them under control.
What led you to investigate fashion?
About six years ago, in an article for the New York Review of Books, I wrote that clothes were often spoken of as a language but the characteristics of that language had never been outlined. When nobody took my hint, I decided to go ahead and write a book about it myself.
How did you go about your research?
I read authorities on the history, psychology and sociology of fashion. Another valuable resource was novels and plays, where dress has always been a way of telling about the characters. I also talked to all my friends about what certain costumes meant. Amazingly enough, we’d never thought about it before.
What do our clothes reveal about us?
Any outfit gives away several things at once: for starters, your age and class. It may also impart vital information—or misinformation—about your nationality, occupation, opinions, mood, interests and sexual preferences. Your clothes are speaking, even shouting, no matter how circumspect your conversation, and your clothes aren’t always saying what you think they are.
Could you give an example of crossed fashion signals?
You might see a young woman in a sober, practical-looking executive suit who is also wearing a tight, bright ruffled blouse and high-heeled sandals. The suit is one message; the blouse and heels are another. An abiding fashion principle is that clothes which make a woman’s life difficult and handicap her in competition with men, like tight skirts and stockings that run easily, are felt to be sexually attractive.
Do you see alternatives to the dress-for-success look for career women?
I’m intrigued by the new knee breeches like those in The Pirates of Penzance. The pirate look is appropriate because businesswomen, after all, are pirates taking over the ship of state or commerce.
In this time of women’s liberation, why is the lingerie look in vogue?
This is also a conservative time, when private and public lives are sharply different. The executive woman is supposed to have a very masculine shape—narrow hips and broad shoulders. But the man whose wife or girlfriend comes home in a gray flannel suit and carrying a briefcase may not look at her with much excitement until she breaks the workday spell, as it were. She has to take off her clothes, put on something red or black and fluff out her hair. She almost has to turn herself into another person.
Isn’t that confusing to a woman?
Certainly. She may not know who she is, and the man may not either. It’s no wonder there are so many mixed-up looks these days.
Why is it that today’s work clothes are so confining?
Men as well as women don’t want to let it all hang out as they used to. The 1960s had the feeling that within us all was something wonderful—you just had to free it. Now there’s a fear that what will come out might be nasty and horrid, or at least embarrassing.
How do you explain the punk look?
After the 1960s, you had to go to extremes to get a response. The original London punkers looked shocking, all right. With their pale Easter-chick hair, giant safety pins and ill-fitting clothing, they gave the effect of miserable, pathetic, angry babies.
Isn’t it contradictory that the punk and preppy looks came in simultaneously?
The preppies look like good children rather than bad babies. A hallmark of the style is an excess of straps, buckles and buttons, just as a hallmark of punk is zippers, chains and pins. This suggests that in at least one way preppy and punk are similar: Both styles convey the sense of a world or a personality in grave danger of coming apart.
Do kids influence their elders’ fashion?
The sports clothes of the adult are the everyday clothes of the child. At Key West or any other resort you see grown-ups in rompers or crawlers—now called jump suits—and loose frocks or T-shirts with alligator appliqués. In this garb you can be an honorary toddler and play in the sand, dabble in the water and eat ice cream.
What do you think of designer jeans?
For years designers tried to get people out of jeans, without success. If you can’t beat them, join them. So they combined universal appeal with snob value. But designer labels on everything are going out. They don’t work when you can’t keep track of which of them is more expensive and therefore has the most status—Anne Klein or Calvin Klein.
Your book talks about the sexual symbolism of hairstyles. Could you give some examples?
Good girls have longish hair parted in the middle; bad girls part it on the side. On TV you’ll notice that this is so. It’s a carry-over from Victorian times, when the typical matron wore her hair in two loops over the ears, which looked simple and regal.
What do colors say about us?
Warm browns suggest stability, security, domesticity. Olive drab is the standard color of army dress, so it suggests conformity and obedience; the quasi-military getups of some radicals parody that. Then there are combinations: The fragile white dress trimmed with blue suggests loyalty, the dark gray coat worn over a flame red dress shows conflict between the public and private person.
Whose taste in clothes do you admire?
Urban blacks—they’re the dandies of our day. Then there’s Tom Wolfe in his pale-colored Southern-gentleman suits. I don’t know him personally, but in photos he always looks as if he enjoys what he’s wearing. His clothes say, “I’m an original.” He presents himself as a work of art, and I wish more people would do that.
What do Nancy Reagan’s clothes say?
Notice me! That’s why they’re always red. It’s an unusual color for the wife of a world leader. Rosalynn Carter wore sherbet tones, like raspberry and blue, to show she was affectionate. Bright red suggests what people said about Nancy Reagan, that perhaps she wanted to be a President’s wife more than he wanted to be President.
How can we learn to dress in a way that says what we want to say?
Next time you’re in a large group, ask yourself whose clothes you’d be willing to wear. The exercise helps you begin to understand what you want your clothes to say and what you don’t. A lot of people are wearing something because they once were complimented for it, or because it was given them by somebody they like. As they grow older and move into different roles these garments may be misleading.
Is there hope for even the hopelessly unstylish?
Whatever happens to be in favor at the moment doesn’t appeal to every taste, thank heavens. It’s now fashionable to be flat-chested. Shops are full of “minimizing” bras, which to somebody of my generation is unheard-of. I grew up when girls were weeping because they wore an A-cup. But even at that time there were men who liked that. Any man or woman, no matter how out of step in figure or fashion, can almost always find somebody for whom he or she represents perfect beauty.