Prim & Improper

For about half of my life, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a button-down collared shirt. That item simply didn’t go with the many hats that I tried on in my teens and early twenties. Why, I wondered, would anyone purposely adorn herself in such a bland uniform, so lacking in originality and excitement, so completely devoid of sensual appeal? It allowed no hint of shape, no intimation of cleavage, no revelation of back arch nor glimpse of shoulder blade. It rendered woman, so I thought, colorless, sexless and humorless.

In recent years, I have begun to recognize the appeal. I would occasionally encounter an outstanding shirt that defied my instinctual rejection and forced me to look again. Perhaps it was my 30s coming on. Perhaps I could better understand the freeing properties intrinsic to an unvarying uniform. I could certainly better understand the sensual appeal in not revealing too much skin, and in celebrating the masculine appeal inherent in the garment. Still, though, I was recently a little shocked to find myself gamely appreciating the volume and variety of button-front, collared shirts on the SS 2011 runways in New York.

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Nicole Miller (Egle Tvirbutaite), Proenza Schouler (Daria Stroukos), 3.1 Phillip Lim (Renee van Seggern)

These shirts were buttoned completely up, all the way to the very top button. There were precious few relaxed, boyfriend’s-shirt-the-morning-after moments here. No, these were tailored and precise and fastidiously fastened around the neck, and the blandest of them were my worst fashion nightmare. But I noticed that it was exactly the tailored precision that allowed the best designers to then experiment around the edges a bit, playing with the concept of prim and proper while providing little intimations of wit and provocation.

At Nicole Miller, the collar of a shirtdress was artfully deconstructed so that only half of it remained conventional, and the entire businesslike impression was undone by the addition of a sheer, flowy overdress. At Proenza Schouler, the boys managed to make modesty fabulously cool. The shirt was buttoned up to the neck and the skirt was nearly to the knees, but an untucked slouchiness combined with the incredibly textured and dyed skirt fabric to great effect. At 3.1 Phillip Lim, the collars seemed to be floating in midair, barely attached to sleeveless blouses hidden under layers. The illusion of the collar standing alone allowed it to be seen as more of a design element, as a sort of accessory to frame the face.

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Rodarte (Auguste Tomasuite), Peter Som (Kristy Kaurova), Michael Angel (Yulia Lobova)

And then, an onslaught of color to breathe some joy into the minimalist landscape! Rodarte, Peter Som and Michael Angel were among the best of those collections that gave new life to an old concept through bright hues. These three also revealed new erogenous zones that filled in for the complete lack of breast interest on the New York runways. The necklines on Rodarte’s incredible California Coast-inspired collection were extremely modest, which allowed for exposure in other areas. The Mulleavy sisters kicked off a bare shoulder craze which has persisted throughout the collections. Peter Som’s vivid sleeveless shorts suit provided some propriety around the neckline while revealing bare arms and legs. And at Michael Angel, gorgeously draped and layered pastiches of impressionistic color opened into bare flesh at the midriff and upper leg, where another strong spring trend, the skirt slit all the way up to the thigh, took hold.

I’d hazard a guess that I’ll never be one to button up every day. But there is a certain clarity and sharpness that attaches itself resolutely to a neatly pressed collar, providing roughly the same effect on the brain as a shot of espresso. And for those moments when I need crisp, clean, caffeinated and professional, I’ll certainly also take a little bit of fun irreverence designed right in.

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