§ Perhaps it’s not always about race. §
In a recent casual conversation with a friend, we discussed the many over-the-top gowns worn by celebrities at various award ceremonies through the decades. I mentioned that I seemed to recall a dress worn by Oprah, perhaps in the 1990s: the most stunning, classic, utterly gorgeous gown I had ever seen. It was a confection of satin and chiffon reminiscent of a bygone era; sophisticated and elegant. Although I couldn’t be certain,
I also thought I recalled this to have been the year that the news rags, reporting on the award ceremony the following day, had savaged Oprah’s gown in their descriptions. They disparaged the elegant simplicity of the dress, which stood out in such direct contrast to the exaggerated, ridiculous apparel being worn by other female celebrities that year. Oprah’s superb gown was described contemptuously.
“Well, of course they were rude,” my friend commented. “Oprah’s black.”
I didn’t respond, but I thought to myself, “No, I really don’t think that was the reason.”
You see, in the early 1970s, I’d become heavily invested in reading women’s magazines. I was young and perhaps trying to define a style for myself while overcoming debilitating shyness. Reading articles about dress, hair, makeup and women’s issues became my passion.
Unfortunately, the 1970s, although a turbulent time for societal changes, was also the decade of books such as The Total Woman (yes, after discovering magazine articles about it, I read the absolutely-dreadful book itself. It should have been titled: How to Reverse 100 Years of Women’s Progress in Six Easy Steps). Consequently, looking back now, I can’t say that all the periodicals I read actually did me much good toward my defined goals! But they did, conversely, give me a bit of instruction in critical thinking. During the five or so years that I read these publications, I began to note a relentless trend: the very advice, recommendations, and endorsements from one season or year were totally invalidated in subsequent issues.
I recall precisely when I first noticed this conundrum. I’d read an essay enthusiastically endorsing heavy, kohl-style eyeliner in dark colors of navy blue and black. The accompanying photos were striking, but I, not being skilled at all with eyeliner in any case, and particularly not with heavy liquid eyeliners, quickly dismissed the idea. But in the next seasonal issue of the very same magazine, I was astonished to read a makeup article stating that “thank heaven”, the kohl-lined, Egyptian-style eyes had gone the way of the dodo. Since I had a habit of keeping old editions, I rooted around and lay hands upon the earlier issue. Yep, there it was: praise and approval, advocating thick, dark eyeliner. Yep, there it was again: a whole article devoted to whisper-thin, lightly lined eyes.
I began to read my periodicals with a far more critical eye, realizing that, be it fashion, marriage, makeup, dating, hemlines, children, work, or any other aspect of life and behavior that the articles might address, this repetitive conflict appeared. A bold reversal of everything stated one year cropped up the next. Sometimes the instruction changed even between spring and fall!
Of course, in one aspect this made sense: How could the fashion houses keep women buying new clothes and makeup if everything didn’t constantly change? But advice on marriage, children, dating? How could that alter so rapidly? There was, I realized, no logic to the stuff I was reading. Right then and there, I gave up on turning for life advice to whatever nonsense popular journalism was spouting at any particular time. I read for entertainment, not instruction.
I carried this knowledge regarding editorial inconsistency away with me and thereafter applied it critically to every advice book or magazine article I read. So it was in this light that I now considered my memory of Oprah’s gorgeous-but-maligned brown satin gown. For you see, as much as I remembered the articles lambasting her dress, I also clearly recalled what the periodicals said the very next year following that same annual award ceremony. “A Return to Classic Elegance and Timeless Grace!” the reviews trumpeted, one after another, ad infinitum.
Oprah, it seemed, had actually been a trendsetter; a woman ahead of her time. Now every celebrity was jumping on the bandwagon of good taste and sophistication, rather than attempting to discover who could rack up the most points for appearing in a garish, vulgar outfit.
Decades later, not wanting to turn our lighthearted conversation into a deep discussion, I remembered all of this but said nothing about it to my friend. But I thought at the time, and still think, that it’s not always about race. Often, yes; even, sad to say, commonly–but not always. Sometimes it’s just about the way life and the world and the news media machine functions. Sometimes it’s just about fashion houses trying to palm off new styles in dress and makeup and hair on a foolish public which embraces such nonsense–because if no one buys anything new, they are out of business.
But no matter what the truth of it all, I will never forget Oprah’s perfectly stunning brown satin gown.
(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like these posts in the Archives: “The Slave Cabin”, on 02/28/18; “Amosandra”, from 06/01/2018; “You Dirty Wop!” , 02/01/2018; “A Bra of a Different Color”, posted 10/02/2019, or “Racism Knows No Logic”, from 06/10/2020 )