Dangerous Design: Sonia Rykiel, Victorians, and Burkinis

​As the design world today mourns the loss of iconic French designer Sonia Rykiel, two recent controversies involving what one should be allowed to wear in public make me wonder what she might have made of these stories.

Ms. Rykiel catapulted to fame back in 1963, when Audrey Hepburn sought out her boutique in Paris after seeing one of the designer’s “poor boy” sweaters on the cover of Elle, and bought 5 of them on the spot. She employed a mostly dark palette punctuated by electric colors and designs from the Pop Art movement. She was particularly praised for her knitwear and for the use of unusual textures in her work; I am fortunate enough to have several somber but pleasing ties designed by her house. When it comes to style, you could not get much further away from Ms. Rykiel’s aesthetic than the prim and prudish Victorian era, even though she herself was famous for her almost Pre-Raphaelite auburn hair.

Today however, it is Victorian prudishness which is considered shocking. As this article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation describes, Washington State couple Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman recently took a trip to Canada to celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Chrisman take the idea of period living far beyond simply putting on old clothes at the weekend for something like a Civil War reenactment, and actually try to live as much a Victorian lifestyle as possible – albeit with a very 21st century divergence, in that they blog about their experiences. Thus, when the couple visited Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia during their vacation, they were unpleasantly surprised to be asked to change clothes or leave, since the park maintains a “no costumes” policy.

Then yesterday, news stories and photographs surfaced from France, in which police officers were shown asking Muslim women who had covered themselves up on the Riviera to remove their Victorian – or perhaps better put, Medieval Revival – coverings or leave the beach. The commentariat went ballistic, as summarized in this opinion piece in the New York Times. There were photographic posts of men in wet suits or nuns in their habits at the seaside, asking what was the difference between the French allowing such garb to be worn at the beach, but not allowing Muslim women in France to cover themselves up in the so-called “burkini” or similar garments.

Being French and a member of the Legion of Honor, I would imagine that Ms. Rykiel would mock the Canadians but side with her own countrymen. The French have a habit of chastising everyone else while making exceptions for themselves. Given how many times their country has been subjected to Islamic terrorism in recent years, there is a tendency even among the left-leaning French to categorize Fundamentalist Islamic forms of dress as an actual public danger, rather than as an expression of modesty.
That being said, a ban on the wearing of costumes in a park seems to me just as untenable as insisting that women remove their clothing at the beach. Do we draw the line of acceptability of either practice at whether the space is publicly or privately owned? Who gets to decide what is a “costume”, or what makes an article of clothing dangerous? I would be curious to read some debate in the comments section.

Sonia Rykiel (1930-2016)

Stupid Times, Stupid Media

Stupid Times, Stupid Media

On a somewhat regular basis, I see friends and followers on social media commenting on news stories with the observation, “What a stupid time to be alive.” Generally speaking, they are referring to policies or statements which they dislike. However what I find more disconcerting about the present state of media is not so much the promotion of views with which I strongly disagree – every dog must have its day – but rather the almost cavalier attitude that we have taken toward the media that we consume. For not only are we failing to question the basic newsworthiness of what we read, but we also seem not to question the way in which that news is being presented to us.   

Whether or not something is newsworthy has traditionally been a topic for editors and reporters to fight over, but of late the standards for what deserves both publication and promotion seem to have been largely abandoned. For example, recently an individual made a video mocking former London Mayor Boris Johnson, in the wake of the Brexit campaign, and then uploaded it to a website of ill repute. This is not newsworthy, or at least, it is a news item of such miniscule importance that it is hardly worth sharing with the entire planet. Nevertheless this story was not only reported, it was actively promoted as a leading headline on Facebook for hours.

This morning, to provide another example, the Drudge Report tells us – in that appalling approximation of English which we have come to expect from that site – that “Women more s*x with robots than men 2025…’Robophilia’ revolution…” This headline, if one can call it that without a verb, points the reader to an article in The Daily Mirror which is so outrageous that I will not link to it here. As it happens, there is no news here, only a spinning out of one individual’s bizarre theories, or more likely fantasies. Nevertheless, its presence on the Drudge site gives it a false veneer of being an actual news story.

While many news stories we read today are about utterly stupid topics, there is also a predilection for covering subjects which, heretofore, were considered too unseemly for general publication. Try to imagine your grandmother opening the newspaper in 1940 and reading, “American women groom their p*bic hair, for diverse reasons”, as Fox News reported this morning, and you will see what I mean. However the way in which many otherwise legitimate news stories are presented to us, in the same prurient style as the foregoing, ought to give us pause. Are these news outlets actually giving us the real story when they resort to clickbait headlines?

Yesterday, for example, Mashable declared that “31 scientific societies just told Congress to take their climate denial and shove it” – an occurrence which would be rather surprising news indeed, but for the fact that this headline is untrue. The signatories to a letter, which you can read here, presented their concerns to Congress regarding climate change, and urged action by U.S. legislators on this subject. The document does not contain an imperative demanding that Congress “shove it,” and in fact presents quite the reverse, i.e., an offer of assistance, rather than a statement of dismissal. “We, in the scientific community,” the letter concludes, “are prepared to work with you on the scientific issues important to your deliberations as you seek to address the challenges of our changing climate.” Whatever your views on climate change, we can agree that the letter and the news headline do not match up.

At this point, no doubt my readers will present reasons as to why one must make allowances for such things. Surely, they will argue, there are significant benefits in having a more loose, diverse way of reporting on issues of interest, particularly in areas that might otherwise remain relatively unknown to the world at large. Far be it from me to invoke the sorites paradox in this context when, arguably, I myself am taking away a few more grains of sand by simply writing and publishing this very piece.

Yet I do wonder about the net effect of such lowered standards in our news media, on both our society and ourselves. If I choose to behave like a 14-year-old schoolyard bully when I am online, I would imagine that there is a greater risk that I will start to behave like one in the real world. Perhaps the behavior pattern will start with people I do not know, such as a stranger on a train or in the supermarket to whom I choose to be rude or unhelpful. Over time, perhaps it will come to affect the attitudes that I take toward work, social obligations, or familial responsibilities.

Never let it be said that I am unaware of my own tendency to overanalyze everything, a flaw to which I freely admit. However in this instance, I do think there is something to be said for better awareness in the media choices we make, rather than absent-mindedly allowing messages of questionable merit to seep into our collective consciousness. Poor scrutiny of the stupidity now routinely trumpeted by our media, it seems to me, leaves us but one step away from making rather stupid life choices ourselves. And while all of us, myself included, have made and will continue to make some rather stupid choices throughout our lives, we certainly do not need to be increasing the frequency with which we make them.

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Detail, The Ship of Fools (c. 1490) by Hieronymus Bosch

The Courtier in Aleteia: A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Check out my latest for Aleteia today, reviewing Diana von Glahn’s new series, “A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land”, which begins airing on Catholic television networks tomorrow. In this three-part travel documentary, Diana chronicles Pope Francis’ historic visit to the Holy Land, and in her own well-informed, enthusiastic way she introduces us to the people and places of this sacred but troubled part of the world, where Christians in particular have suffered so much in recent years. Follow the link in the article for air dates and times in your area, or visit TheFaithfulTraveler.com

My special thanks to the always gracious Elizabeth Scalia and her team at Aleteia for letting me share my thoughts with their readers once again!

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