From Rags to Rags

The Woman's Dress for Success Book

by John T. Molloy
Warner Books, 187 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Seeing Through Clothes

by Anne Hollander
Viking, 504 pp., $25.00

In Fashion: Dress in the Twentieth Century

by Prudence Glynn, illustrated by Madeleine Ginsburg
Oxford University Press, 243 pp., $19.95

Mirror, Mirror: A Social History of Fashion

by Michael Batterberry and Ariane Batterberry
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 400 pp., $29.95

Avedon: Photographs 1947-1977

with an essay by Harold Brodkey
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, unpaged pp., $50.00

Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon; drawing by David Levine

As semiotics becomes fashionable, more and more writers tell us that fashion is semiotic—a language of signs. No one has yet provided the structuralist grammar of clothing I suggested in this magazine two years ago,1 or even a serious study of a single dialect. There are, of course, plenty of dictionaries of a practical, indeed a materialistic kind. For over a hundred years at least books and magazines have been busy translating the current language of fashion, telling women what to wear to seem simultaneously sexy, proper, rich, and beautiful.

The latest of these, John T. Molloy’s The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, breaks the pattern in two ways. First, Molloy claims that his “wardrobe engineering” is based on scientific research and opinion-polling; second, he is interested in telling women how to get promoted, not how to get married. The secret, it turns out, is to wear an expensive but conventional “skirted suit” in medium gray or navy wool with a modestly cut blouse. No sweaters, no pants suits, no eleavage, no long or very curly hair. Anyone interested in scenic variety must hope that Molloy is off the wall; but my own opinion-polling, unfortunately, backs him up.

A fast-rising lady executive in a local bank reports to me—reluctantly—that “suits do help separate the women from the girls—provided the women can toierate the separation, which is another question altogether.” She follows Molloy’s rules, but remarks that “wardrobe engineering won’t do much for you if your work is lousy…or if you’re one of an army of aspirants in impeccable skirted suits all competing for the same spot. As with investment advice, once everyone agrees that it’s the thing to do, it’s time to look for value somewhere else.”

If a grammar of dress is ever written, it will have to deal not only with individual items of costume (makeup, hairstyle, etc.) as words in the sentences formed by complete outfits, and with the linguistic structure of these sentences, but also with most of the problems that face semioticians: ambiguity, dishonesty, intention vs. interpretation, irony, framing, etc.

One difficult question would be how to deal with the uniform. Fashion is free speech, and to put on livery is in some sense to be (willingly or reluctantly) censored, to be reduced from a person to a thing. It is no accident that people who wear uniforms often also have to repeat mechanical lies instead of speaking to us like human beings. “It was a pleasure having you on board,” they say. “I cannot give you that information.” “The doctor will see you shortly.”

Closely related to the professional uniform is the outfit so conventional that it is informally spoken of as one—the businessman’s three-piece suit, the jeans and t-shirt of the high-school student. (Of course, the costume may only look like a uniform to outsiders—peers might recognize many subtle differences.) There seems to…

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