Such was the case with the December issue of Harper's Bazaar. Scads of beautiful women – decked out in some of the world's most fabulous fashions – had been gathered together, with commensurately flashy advertisements placed at strategic intervals. But then I tripped over Maureen Dowd's incisive and screamingly funny (but in the end, quite sobering) article titled "What's Appropriate Now?"
The piece was about the "fashion tightrope" women walk every day, especially in the work world: Overdo and you risk ridicule; downplay and you're just as likely to be condemned.
Dowd, a New York Times columnist, noted: "The rules about what to wear to be taken seriously are more muddled and confusing than ever. You just have to be extremely careful about whether you stand out in a positive way, a negative way, or even a debatable way."
The underlying problem here, as Dowd suggested, is that back on that distant planet once known as Feminism, "women thought they wouldn't have to worry about how they looked or be slaves to fashion anymore. The important thing would be how we thought about the world and what we did in it."
That, as she put it, was "piffle." Feminism has been defeated by "narcissism."
The most recent example is Harriet Miers, President Bush's beleaguered and doomed Supreme Court nominee. From the moment this 60-year-old lawyer from Texas became news, "people focused on three things: her lack of judicial experience, her heavy eye makeup, and her weird wardrobe. Her debut appearance was in a frumpy blue suit, festooned with brooches, and for a trip to the Hill to confer with senators, she teamed a turquoise jacket with a zebra-patterned scarf. This was certainly the first time the words animal-skin print and Supreme Court had been used in the same sentence in newspaper stories, and it raised the burning question: Do we really want a swing justice who can affect women's rights for a generation who, as Jon Stewart joked, has never been a judge but 'has clearly been a Talbots frequent shopper?' "
Dowd then turned to the case of Howard Dean's physician wife, Judith Steinberg, who had similar problems with dowdiness. And yet, on the flip side, Dowd pointed out, when someone like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice looks fashionable, it's talked about incessantly on the news – as if it were news.
"It's still a catch-22 for women," Dowd wrote. "If you pay too much attention to fashion and looks, you may be deemed superficial; if you don't pay enough, you may be deemed sloppy."
Dowd, unfortunately, didn't provide any ideas as to why we've come to this impasse or what we might do to reverse it. But she's not a sociologist, just a forthright columnist. And bravo to a fashion magazine for allowing her to point out this eternal conundrum in such an entertaining manner.