Politics & Policy

At Home With Style

The Fab Five & their foremother.

I have no patience with people who accuse me of homophobia just because I’m against gay marriage. I used to write about fashion, many years ago. So, as I like to point out, I was surrounded by the boys in the band when you guys were still stealing your sisters’ Barbies.

My position against gay marriage is essentially libertarian, although I’ve never managed to convince my libertarian friends of this. But really, why is expanding the state into private living arrangements something that libertarians should wish to do? In any case, declining to legally recognize gay marriage may be right or it may be wrong, but it doesn’t take rights away from anyone, despite rather hysterical current arguments to the contrary. You can’t take away something that has never, in the history of the human race, existed in the first place.

One argument for gay marriage, though, might be that gays often seem to have a better idea about what makes a happy, heterosexual home than many straight couples. There just seems to be something about that queer-eye style. Almost a century before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and its five bossy gay-style police began de-schlumpifying America, there was The House In Good Taste, a bossy book about interior design by Elsie DeWolfe, decorating’s first grande dame and also, as it happens, its most famous lesbian. And both DeWolfe and the Queer Eye guys continue to influence media institutions from staid shelter magazines to the current slew of home-makeover shows.

A former actress from a socially prominent New York family that had fallen on hard times, DeWolfe “set up bachelorette residence at the historic Washington Irving House with her friend, Miss Elizabeth Marbury, a prominent theatrical agent,” as Elsie DeWolfe Foundation president Hutton Wilkinson puts it delicately in the Rizzoli edition’s new introduction.

The publishing world has also taken note of the Queer Eye team–food expert Ted Allen, grooming guru Kyan Douglas, decorator Thom Filicia, fashion maven Carson Kressley, and culture adviser Jai Rodriguez–who collectively got $1 million for their new book, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: the Fab 5’s Guide to Looking Better, Cooking Better, Dressing Better, Behaving Better and Living Better, released in time for the Bravo TV hit’s new season. Also new is the reissue of DeWolfe’s The House In Good Taste, which for years collectors could find only in antiquarian bookshops, priced at several hundred dollars per copy.

Elsie DeWolfe’s style innovations extended beyond the home. She came up with the Pink Lady cocktail as well as the notion of blue rinses for gray hair, and liked to stand on her head for exercise. But her new ideas about interiors are why many consider her the woman who invented modern decorating. She replaced Victorian fussiness with clean, simple lines and light-colored rooms that were often daringly monochromatic. Reportedly when she first saw the Parthenon, she exclaimed, “Beige! It’s my color!”

Although DeWolfe’s mandate was not quite the same as the Queer Eye guys, who declare in their book’s intro that “horrible hetero habits will be exposed and eradicated,” she took a similarly dim view of what she described as “the useless, overcharged house of the average American millionaire.” The rich were about the only people who could afford DeWolfe’s services, although her theories did reach the masses via her Good Housekeeping decorating columns, from which The House In Good Taste was derived.

The Queer Eye cases, on the other hand, are all just regular Joes. But bad taste is bad taste, whether it’s the “indiscriminate inheritance of Victorian rosewood…your pickle-and-plum colored Morris furniture” as DeWolfe described what she had to contend with, or the Queer Eye guys’ pet peeve: “Piles of porn, right out there on the coffee table,” as they complained at a Bravo news conference.

Unlike the Queer Eye TV series, which takes on one slobby straight man at a time, the book is built around general tips (mostly, as in the show, quite useful) and advice on how to work with what you already have. “It’s not about spending money, guys: It’s about spending thought,” the introduction admonishes. But as with the show, the horrible specifics are what make the whole concept irresistible.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a beautiful painting of a dead pheasant,” decorator Thom Filicia writes about a man fond of taxidermy married to a woman with daintier tastes, “but you don’t put it in the baby’s room.” Filicia adds: “He didn’t like her doilies and quilts and such, and she didn’t like his stuff because it was all dead and had faces and eyeballs.” The solution was to combine “her love of quilts and his love of roadkill, and the love child was patchwork leather.”

It’s clear from The House In Good Taste that DeWolfe would have understood the problems Filicia and friends encounter. “This is what I am always fighting in people’s houses: the unsuitability of things,” she writes, with a nearly audible sigh. Sad to say, it’s a fight that hasn’t been won. I share DeWolfe’s annoyance with harsh, unflattering overhead lights hung directly from the centers of ceilings. But a century after she began complaining about them, they are, unfortunately, still common.

While DeWolfe had to caution against pretentious interiors and the snickers they inevitably inspire–”We may talk of the weather, but we are looking at the furniture,” she warns–the Queer Eye gang usually encounter the opposite situation: The guy mysteriously without shame when it comes to home décor. Some of these places are really fantastically untidy.

Clutter and disorganization, however, seem to be eternal problems. “How many rooms have I not cleared of junk–this heterogeneous mass of ornamental ‘period’ furniture and bric-a-brac bought to make a room ‘look cozy,’” DeWolfe writes. But remember when Queer Eye invaded the Staten Island home of Adam, a sweet but unkempt family man, and his wife Karen? The couple hadn’t even unwrapped some of their wedding presents, although they’d been married for years.

And Karen was just as culpable as Adam. He may have had a unibrow and bad habit of storing his shoes under a pile of sweaters on his closet floor, but she’d allowed the living room to be taken over by their kids’ plastic jungle gyms.

“Karen, they make these for outside,” Filicia announced firmly as the Fab 5 arrived. But in just a few days, the team transformed Adam’s and Karen’s house from a sty to a remarkably stylish nest. Mostly this was just by rearranging existing furniture, some clever use of paint, and discovering items the couple hadn’t even realized they owned.

Queer Eye approaches all aspects of lifestyle, but it’s the home makeover–or as the team clarifies, make-better–element that often seems most dramatic. You can see in their homes how so many people become prisoners of their own inertia (not to mention surrounding mess) and need help to realize the possibility of a more comfortable life. A limited decorating budget is no object, or excuse, as the mass-market shelter mags always remind us. And they’re right.

“First of all, clean the damn place up, which is pretty close to free,” Filicia writes. Or, as DeWolfe put it: “It isn’t necessary to live among intolerable furnishings just because we cannot realize our castle.” It’s an essentially conservative message of realism and responsibility: Just because something is difficult is no reason to argue that it’s impossible.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.


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