Heather Kenny

Uniform Essay

by Heather Kenny

I have always been drawn to avant-garde fashion, clothes that drape and wrap daringly and imaginatively around the body. Asymmetrical silhouettes, unfinished edges, billowing fabric—these all attract me, as long as they are done well and the design makes sense on the body rather than being merely shocking or different.

Redefining the way fabric interacts with the body emphasizes fashion as art. It takes a certain amount of wherewithal and commitment to wear such clothing, as its unusual nature attracts attention, and not all of it positive. In fact, the term “man repelling” has arisen among the style cognoscenti to define clothes that appeal on an aesthetic and intellectual level rather than conventional ideas of what makes women’s clothing—and women themselves—attractive (i.e., what men find attractive). I theorize that avant-garde clothing is provocative and daring in part because it is a way for women to dress for a purpose other than to be on the sexual marketplace. Fashion often uses a vocabulary that not everyone understands or appreciates. It’s a secret language, and among people who understand it there is a definite frisson of complicity and pleasure. Those who don’t get it—and feel insecure about it–sometimes respond defensively and angrily because they’re left out of the club.

The grey dress is modeled on a “robe,” as it’s described in a photo caption, by the menswear designer Siki Im. It’s worn by his girlfriend in a short piece in the New York Times style magazine early in 2012. It was exactly the kind of piece that catches my eye—asymmetric and wrapping around the body in a way that confounds casual attempts to figure out how it’s done. In some ways, it’s the simplest idea ever—like a 21st-century version of the colorfully swathed and draped women from the New Testament as depicted in Renaissance paintings—but hard to pull off. It takes talent, expertise and effort to design and manufacture pieces like this, which is why they tend to be so expensive.

It’s also a dress, the simplest answer to the vexing question “What should I wear?” And yet the mood can be dramatically changed with different shoes and jewelry. The dress is perhaps the ultimate women’s uniform—a socially acceptable and instantly recognizable signifier of femininity.

As I get older and the prospect of spending hours in stores grows less and less appealing—and I don’t feel like I have to reinvent the wheel every time I get dressed—this kind of easy, elegant dressing is my frequent answer to the never-ending question “What should I wear?”

Bio Heather Kenny is a former fashion writer for the Chicago Reader and has contributed to Eight Forty-Eight, Chicago magazine, Women’s Wear Daily and many other media outlets. She loves clothes but hates shopping.


Photo by Alix Lambert, Artwork by Damon Locks

Pattern & Sewing  by Orchid Tailors


Sketch by Jamie Hayes

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