Style Over Substance: How Clothes Can Work For And Against Us

Jan 13, 2015
Originally published on January 13, 2015 6:28 pm

New York city's first lady, Chirlane McCray, is being publicly dressed down for not dressing up enough when she attended the funeral of slain NYPD officer Wenjian Liu on Sunday.

McCray, who is married to Mayor Bill de Blasio, came to the ceremony in a nubby, French blue coat that stopped just above the knee, and wore black boots. It was what showed between the coat hem and the boots that riled a lot of the rank and file: blue, patterned pants that bunched at the knee and above the ankle — and that looked like denim.

"NOTHING SAYS DISRESPECT LIKE ROCKING JEANS AT A FUNERAL" blasted a poster on Twitter over a photo of McCray and de Blasio after the services.

Several de Blasio critics hammered McCray in tweets for what they considered to be inappropriate casualwear. The pants turned out not to be jeans, but part of a pantsuit by local designer Anni Kuan in what The New York Times' Vanessa Friedman called a degradé pattern. In other words, it looked like distressed denim.

The outrage was relentless: "My kids know what to wear at funerals," tweeted @jsls315. "No excuse for her. Sorry. My kids knew this at 8yo."

Many posts were not as civil.

Teri Agins, who covered the fashion industry for The Wall Street Journal for two decades and now gives fashion advice in her "Ask Teri" column, is a McCray admirer. But Agins says the first lady's funeral attire was unfortunate, "especially given the current relationship between the mayor and the police department.

"The police — many of them — feel they're not respected by her husband's administration," she says. In response to the backlash, McCray wrote an essay for Essence, in which she expresses support for the police and the dangerous job they do.

Agins says McCray's ensemble was particularly jarring because of the people around her.

"The mayor wore a dark suit," Agins explains. "So did Police Commissioner [Bill] Bratton. And here are all those police, in their dress uniforms, with white gloves."

Against that sea of somber formality, McCray's choice stood out.

What puzzled some observers is why McCray, who is of West Indian ancestry and grew up in a New England family, would make such a mistake in the first place. For decades, black families in this country dressed to the hilt for funerals to give their loved ones a proper send-off.

Karla F.C. Holloway, who wrote a landmark study of African-American funeral and death traditions called Passed On, says that people used to dress more formally for funerals.

"That began to change when funerals began to change from weekend to weekday," she points out, "and when the ceremonies began to change to the graveside or funeral home, rather than the church."

Some people would take time out of their workday to attend services, and the nature of their work would dictate how formally they dressed.

As both Holloway and Agins note, life has gotten much more casual, even for this significant, final event. Casual Fridays have for many become casual every day. According to Agins, even morticians began to feel the effect.

"Some talked about the trend of relatives requesting to see their loved ones in the casket in their favorite track suit," she explained. "They thought that was more like their everyday image."

Agins says she's noticed that many people no longer wear black at funerals, but a spectrum of dark neutrals, and sometimes even prints. At her mother's service, Agins chose to wear "a very loud black-and-white graffiti print, because I wanted to celebrate her life."

Others might wear bright hues for the same reason, or choose to honor a loved one by wearing his or her favorite color. That's the mourning family's choice.

But when representing an entire city, as New York's first lady does, attire has more meaning — and is given less latitude.

Holloway says McCray has been the frequent target of vicious, often racist remarks from the outset.

"Her normative posture has got to be defensive," Holloway says. "Every time she steps out, there's been withering public scrutiny that I think has been, most of the time, repulsive."

Holloway says the offensive remarks focus on "her hair, her color, her marriage [and] her children — but these are the politics a black woman encounters every day, especially in public."

Certainly some of the comments — then and in the current controversy — are fueled by race. And some of them have roots in the fact that McCray is strong, smart and powerful, which has gotten other prominent women in trouble.

Just ask Michelle Obama, who is fashion's darling now, but received reams of criticism for wearing shorts on Air Force One to visit the Grand Canyon in 2009 while on vacation in 102 degree heat. It was a rare misstep. In an interview, she later told BET she regretted it because her shorts caused a "big stink."

Or ask Hillary Clinton, who eventually settled on the pantsuit as her go-to uniform. She's the only first lady to ever wear a pants suit in her official White House portrait.

Not that anyone is carping about their husbands' choices.

"Is it fair?" Agins asked. "No. Guys throw on a suit or tuxedo and they're covered."

Women don't have that luxury. As John Kennedy once quipped, "Life is unfair."

Agins' advice for Chirlane McCray: Get a sharp black coat, tall boots in polished leather (low or flat heels are fine) and a dress in a non-wrinkle fabric in black or navy. They come in all price points and allow you to dress up or down. And it removes the distraction factor.

Is it a shame that any of this has to come into consideration? On the one hand, sure, Holloway says. On the other, she says, "You always want to control the narrative, even if it means giving in to a standard that you feel is none of anyone's business."

In responses to media inquiries, de Blasio's office says those focusing on the first lady's outfit were being "petty," when they should have been considering her substance instead. But the style she chooses can affect how her substance is perceived.

Clothes matter, Agins says, because even when you say nothing, outfits telegraph a message — or people believe that they do.

Holloway says that's especially important for people of color, for whom there is often a double standard.

"Clothing has such a political value," she says, "especially when attached to black and brown bodies — whether you're wearing a hoodie or a hijab."

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