Magazine | September 9, 2019, Issue

Behind the Times

Women workout on the beach in Solana Beach, Calif., March 5, 2015 (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Call me cis-male. I sing the body eclectic, appreciating women of many ages and shapes. I have standing as an expert witness. What I have been seeing for the last few years on the city sidewalks, from April to October, is butts.

The first to foresee this, as he foresaw so much else, was the Southern Gentleman. When he died, some obituarists called him a New Journalist (his preferred self-designation); others focused, as if it explained him, on his love of punctuation (!!!!!!!!!!!!!). What he really practiced was turn-about. He was a son of the Old Dominion, who, instead of being looked and gently laughed at (how many Richmonders does it take to change a light bulb? twelve: one to change the bulb, the other eleven to say how nice the old bulb was), decided to look around and describe what he saw. What he saw 55 years ago was “buttocks décolletage, . . . a form of sexually provocative dress” in which “a woman wears bikini-style shorts that cut across the round, fatty masses of the buttocks, rather than cupping them from below, so that the outer-lower edges of these fatty masses, or ‘cheeks,’ are exposed. . . . The euphemisms” of fashion writing, he noted, “have not been established and I have no choice but clinical terms.”

That was then. Now we dispense with the shorts and substitute a coating — the language of paint seems appropriate — of fabric. Women as old as middle age seem to think they are properly dressed to work out, or shop, or go out to eat or drink, or who knows maybe go to work, in tights paired with some ordinary garment above. If they have a yoga mat slung under one arm, the relation between appearance and purpose is at least plain. (Though would the world like to see me on the street in my gym clothes — black sneakers, tube socks, black shorts, tank top? I didn’t think so.) Otherwise, the look simply says, Oh look, I forgot to put on my pants — but who needs pants anyway?

Here is the result. A new order of column: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, meet Spherical: a smooth widening shaft topped by a sphere; always paired. Moguls from a ski slope, in mid summer. Beach dunes, stranded. Kettles. The backs of marmots. The heads of babies. The fenders of Hudsons and Packards. The Blue Angel, as street theater. Everybody talkin bout a new way of walkin. We thought mooning was gross? A curve in spacetime. Snow globes, shaken, not stirred. Bells of cymbals, bowls of lutes, tubing of euphoniums. Fruit (all), vegetables (many). Instead of a yoga mat, the women so garbed might be carrying any number of other things: the leash of a French bulldog; a bag of groceries; a pair of sunglasses; always and everywhere, a smartphone. But they have left their pants at home.

Why are we here? The Ubiquitous Armenians no doubt played a role. Their ubiquity, I suspect, is ending. Their stepfather, an Olympian no less, could assert himself only by cutting off his penis and infecting us all with trans madness, and by a kind of PR bank shot boosting his daughter, who has the looks of a sylph and the business sense of Cornelius Vanderbilt, to billionaire status. But until that happened, the Armenians ruled. And the best foot, though it was not a foot exactly, that they put forward was their backsides. What the mighty Instagram, mortals copy.

Possibly also at work: cultural appropriation of blackness. As a man of pallor, I tread lightly. But as the song says, baby got back. And where did this emphasis come from? Africa? Or minstrel-show mockery of bustles and hoop skirts? Down the hall of mirrors the appropriations run.

Another possible cause of the rear march: cultural appropriation of gayness. Where does the queer eye fall? As a man of straightness, see above. If my hunch is right, this raises the question, why would women, most of whom are, by the law of averages, not gay, adopt such an aesthetic? But we are all all genders now, so why not?

Lest we start sounding like a college seminar, never underestimate the pull of sheer convenience. If you could get away with choosing and putting on one fewer thing in the morning, wouldn’t you? Men: When was the last time you buttoned a vest? Applied a stickpin to your cravat? Surely women also deserve to have their daily burdens lightened. Fifty years ago began the move away from spending an hour in curlers under a hooded hair dryer. Now we have the move away from pants.

Finally, never underestimate the push of commerce. Hearing the distant thunder of cultural change no less than the Southern Gentleman had, the fashionistas with their runways in old Europe and their factories in its old empires began turning out athleisure wear. They understand that fashion is aspirational. Although you are not gay, black, or a mega celebrity, you can dress in a way that suggests these things. More important, you can dress in a way that suggests fitness. Suggesting fitness is more important than suggesting other qualities because it is actually possible, though onerous, to become fit. Do the cardio, lift the weights. But if, instead of spending all that time at the gym, and all that energy once you were there, you could dress as if you were about to go to the gym, or had just come from it, so much the better.

The other day I saw, in a young woman on the sidewalk, the endpoint. She was pretty, above average height without being a model, blonde, short-haired. Her look was hippie-ish, though if she had ever met any hippies, they were her grandparents. She was wearing cut-offs that were more like a wide belt. The fatty masses were visible above and below. I wanted to say, Young lady, dress up, but of course I did not. Winter might teach her.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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