I revisited this old New Yorker profile of the fashion designer Eileen Fisher and found much of it relevant to our class discussions. Fisher describes herself as “leading from behind” since she stopped designing her clothes 20 years ago, but it’s clear from the article that her leadership style — and the leadership style embraced by her company — is much more specific than that.
In addition to the way leadership is gendered, I think the article opens up a conversation about vanity and self-effacement. The writer, Janet Malcolm, notes in the opening paragraph,
There is a wish shared by women who consider themselves serious that the clothes they wear look as if they were heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected. The clothes of Eileen Fisher seem to have been designed with the fulfillment of that wish in mind. Words like “simple” and “tasteful” and colors like black and gray come to mind along with images of women of a certain age and class—professors, editors, psychotherapists, lawyers, administrators—for whom the hiding of vanity is an inner necessity.
At one point, the article quotes Hilary Old, the vice-president for communications at Eileen Fisher, describing the clothing’s aesthetic as a “totally radical feminist project.” But it’s unclear exactly what’s radically feminist about it.
A few questions this article prompted for me: Is there more to be said about the way leadership is gendered? What are the rhetorical choices (particularly the visual rhetorical choices of fashion) that are equated with women who are “serious”? How compatible is communicating one’s seriousness with communicating one’s caring-ness?