The Return of the Muumuu

You suck in your tummy and hold your breath while your husband zips you and tries not to grunt with effort. Then you slip on shoes with heels like icepicks and take tiny steps to the car. Halfway through the evening, all you want to do is kick off your shoes, take off the heavy jewelry, and get that goddamned dress unzipped, which will require a sweaty, panicked wait while the husband struggles even harder because you braved a few crostini, a martini, and a breath mint.

Feminine fashion was never a recipe for fun.

And though we all bitched about the heels and the shapewear, it was reflexive patter, more commiseration than revolt. I only fully realized the oppression when, in cheerful acknowledgment of an extra twenty pounds, I bought a silk dress with accordion pleats. It. just. falls. Hides everything. And works fine with flats. The first time I wore it, I had so much fun. Moved like I was on a playground, not at a party. Laughed all evening. Did not want to go home.

Comfort is underrated.

We all know that now, because we are dressing like centaurs and mermaids, letting the lower half of the body return to nature.

A fashion professional and scholar, Dr. Mary Ruppert-Stroescu is on the faculty of Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. I expect her to be dismayed by the pandemic, but nope: She has been thinking a great deal about loungewear—and housedresses. Housedresses! My grandmother used to wear them, and to my delight, she called them muumuus. Breezy cotton, pastel, and often floral, they snapped open and closed and hid a multitude.

“Er … just how do you define a ‘housedress’?” I ask Ruppert-Stroescu, afraid she has something different in mind. But no, we are on the same page.

“They need to be very comfortable,” she says. “And they can be a whole look very easily.” What my grandmother had going on was not exactly a whole look. But women have made progress since then.

“I have found myself wearing dresses more than anything else,” Ruppert-Stroescu continues. Better yet, those dresses had color, and pattern. After years of black and neutrals, quarantine left us in need of a little self-care, she explains, prompting me to wonder why we deprived ourselves of visual stimuli in the first place. To prove we were serious? “A housedress would be comfortable fabric—sustainable natural fibers like cotton, linen, silk—and easy to pop on,” she continues. “Good fit on the upper body, a nice collar or neckline that will look good on Zoom but also be easy to transform. And for me, a good dress has got to have pockets.”

Mention pockets to a woman, and you unleash torrents of frustration. We used to have deep pockets, or tiny, tied-on purses called reticules, until designers decided to make us lug large leather purses around instead. Poor Queen Elizabeth looks dreadfully awkward holding her handbag at state occasions. And surely manufacturers are not saving that much on fabric and production by giving us pockets barely deep enough to hold a crumpled tissue? Did they really think we were so vain that we would not abide that extra eighth of an inch on our silhouette?

The truth is starker. They wanted us to suffer. Since we began sheltering at home, though, we have been free to wear whatever we like. “We went through a phase of I don’t care what I wear as long as it’s comfortable,” Ruppert-Stroescu remarks. (It was not pretty, at least not at my house.) “Now we can really think about what we wear. Comfort is important. But we also want to be able to express ourselves, to feel fresh and new.” One of her colleagues puts on perfume for her Zoom class because of how it makes her feel: “Fashion is more for yourself now.”

This is a more radical statement than it sounds. More radical than the apocryphal bra-burning or the pants suit. (Why do we always prove our independence from men by copying male stuff anyway?)

In the painful days, women dressed for men. Then we realized men did not much care, and we began dressing for the people who gave us compliments—other women. Now, at long last, we are doing what every three-year-old demands to do: dressing for ourselves.

“So many of these things, the pandemic has just amplified,” says Ruppert-Stroescu. For several years now, high school kids have been saying, when she asks their definition of fashion, that it is just a way of expressing who they are. “A lot of social psychologists who think in the fashion space have wanted this to happen for a long time, because people can get into a conundrum trying to keep up with everybody else, then feeling bad because they don’t look good in the clothes they see on the runway.” (Or cannot afford those clothes—which is what gave us disposable (and incredibly wasteful) chic.)

This new definition is quite cheerful, and it gives me courage to poke about in a few scholarly databases. My mood sinks fast. Try, just try, googling “women” and “fashion design” and “comfort.” My first hit, pages in, was an article about “comfortably fitting sari blouses.” The second was “Effects of Different Dispositions of Resistance Exercises on Subjective Perception of Effort, Discomfort and Affectivity in Older Women.”

In the popular press, I found a 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal that hailed sneakers and “pajamas as evening wear” as harbingers of a comfort revolution, crediting the earlier influence of tech gurus’ jeans and hoodies. So Zuckerberg freed us? Not quite. Eight years later, Vogue’s street-fashion trends for fall 2020 include knee-high boots and head-to-toe leather.

Forgive me if I stick with the pajamas.

A stricken thought: “Will the pendulum swing back to discomfort and high-pressure fads when all this ends?”

“I bet it will,” Ruppert-Stroescu says, her tone so matter-of-fact, it crushes me. “In the ’40s, women started wearing jumpsuits to work in factories, so they knew what it was like to not be so constricted, but after the war they went back to tight corsets, waists, skirts, and jackets.” It had happened before: The loose, elegant slit sheaths of the ’20s freed women from foundation garments, but in the ’30s, they handed back that freedom. We will, too; she is sure of it.

“But,” she adds, “there’s never going to be a universal ‘everybody’s got to do it’ again. I think those days are gone.”

Why does fashion need to keep changing anyway, I ask, grumpy about my gender’s masochism and sick of swatting away all those buzzy “what’s in this season” lists.

“I think it diverts our thought process from things that are pulling us down.” (Ruppert-Stroescu has, after all, just confided a tiny splurge, her first since the pandemic: buying a little dress at Target that perked up her mood.) “It lets us fantasize a bit”—like, I might go to a party again someday. “It’s another facet of self to play with. An escape. A relief.”

As a reporter, I often wound up writing about the horrific, and after the most wrenching interviews, I often did something inexplicable even to me: I went shopping. A young woman in Oklahoma lost both breasts—while pregnant and looking forward to nursing her first child—because somebody read a slide wrong. In the hour before I had to head to the airport, I wandered, dazed and depressed, into a country-western store—the least likely place I have ever patronized—and left with a small, surprisingly pricey purse. A woman pretended to be pregnant, then killed a pregnant woman and removed her unborn child to present as her own. After interviewing the baby’s widowed father, I stared dully at a catalog all evening, flipping pages until I found a dress to order.

I was appalled at myself—until I realized it was therapy. Frivolity acts as a counterbalance, a reminder that life is not entirely grim. A new outfit can be an act of hope.

But let us throw down a challenge—a gauntlet, but softer, maybe Italian kid leather—to designers: If you are truly creative, you will draw clothes our bodies want to wear. There is enough suffering in the world. It is time to let what comforts us be comfortable.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.