by Frank Kogan
Taylor Swift. Teenager, country music. She always wear dresses. But what do the dresses mean?
I’m impaired talking about women’s dresses, impaired because I’m a guy and impaired because I developed a habit early on in my traumatic adolescence of not comprehending what I was seeing, of turning off the brain inside my eyes: The way I dealt with fashion was not to think about it.
So, last Friday night I was in a coffeehouse, sitting across from my gorgeous friend Keenan, who’s never heard Taylor, but I nonetheless wanted her to explain Taylor to me. I’m trying to describe Taylor’s dresses, that they don’t simply go down to a hem, they flow down, some of them with vertical folds … is the word “pleats”? … sometimes one part of the dress going down to here and another part in back going down farther. There must be a word that describes this look, a term that everyone knows but that I don’t. This dark glowing bohemian coffeehouse, strong passionate music in the background, half the people here sitting with their laptops, even though it’s Friday night, doing their schoolwork or creating their masterpieces, other people chatting with friends, contributing to the Friday night roar, and through the roar I’m trying to describe dresses. Why does Taylor Swift always wear dresses? Pink ones, or light blues, she’ll wear them, not necessarily “elegant” dresses, but not homey or homely or plebian or workaday, either, but bright with a sexy flow. Keenan, comprehending what I could not, hearing my description, says, “They’re summer dresses!”
She’s right, of course. So I try to describe the adventure I’d discovered that afternoon on YouTube: Taylor Swift coming onstage, whether it’s in the bright daylight of California’s Central Valley or in the dark red nighttime light of an Alabama concert hall, and Taylor is thin and slight and pale and beautiful in her summer dress, wavy blond hair flowing down beyond her shoulders and the light bright dress flowing down her body, the announcer having finished his introduction, she’s onstage and the guitarist is playing these hard, suspenseful, dissonant chords, Taylor joining in with her own guitar, her giant acoustic, the guitar bouncing against her thinness, its motion bouncing into her motion, insistent beats from drums and from her jagged guitar chords; and this girl—teen country singer, sudden superstar, just 16 when the album comes out and climbs the country charts, 17 when “Teardrops On My Guitar” jumps from country to Top 40—this girl is there in the spotlight, starlight, slight girl but insistent, speaking, talking, half in rap and half in vulnerable excited white-country-girl speech, these words of terror and ambition, “There’s vomit on his sweater already/Mom’s spaghetti/He’s nervous but on the surface he looks calm and ready/To drop bombs.” So this country singer in girly brights is taking hard hip-hop words from Eminem, words of fear and force, terror girl, waving with energy animating her thinness, strong in her slightness, “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes ONCE IN A LIFETIME,” she raises her arm, crowd cries out, she continues, “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go.” Then she ends it, calls out, “Y’all ready to hear some country music?” as if to half negate what she’s done. (All right. Back to reality, back to Taylor, back to what you expect, though she’s in effect told you not to know what to expect. Crowd seemed fine with the rap, actually.)
My friend Keenan has the sort of fierce high-toned beauty you find in Italian films of the early ’60s, as if she’s stepped out of L’Avventura, except her jeans are casual and her manner is sweet and hesitant and emotional, more like she’s in Annie Hall, and she grew up in the forests of Minnesota and lived most of her adulthood in the mountains of Colorado—she’s helping me to understand summer dresses. “Summertime dresses … You can whip ’em off in a second, go in a creek, or even go into the creek with the dress on. Wearing a dress like that is like wearing a cloud.”
So in effect she’s telling me that Taylor’s summer dresses can be freedom dresses. Not that Taylor Swift restricts herself to summer dresses. There’s this blue glitzed-up glittery thing Taylor sometimes wears, and in her “Our Song” video she’s incongruously wearing a super frilly prom-type dress, seemingly the opposite of a freedom dress. But what I get from this isn’t so much high style as super playfulness.
Obviously, Taylor looks great in dresses—really fetching, and the way she moves within them gives her a sense of rippling motion—but who’s to say she wouldn’t also look great in a tank top and jeans, or a cowboy blouse? Why have dresses become a signature for her? And are they really a signature specific to her? Plenty of country women—all of them except Gretchen Wilson—will don dresses and go femme. But dresses are indeed a Taylor signature, whether she planned this or not. A quick Google search produces this: “Results 1 - 10 of about 1,260 from answers.yahoo.com for taylor swift’ ‘dress’. (0.10 seconds).” Compare to 557 for Carrie Underwood, 222 for Faith Hill, 152 for Martina McBride, and a paltry 84 for LeAnn Rimes.
That’s pretty definitive, especially given that those other singers have all been around longer than Taylor. And what clinches it for me is that on another search I found a picture entitled “Bella as Taylor Swift,” a puppy up on its hind legs stuffed into a cowboy boot and wearing a lacy pink doll dress. If a dog in a doll dress signifies “Taylor Swift,” then dresses are a Taylor Swift trademark.
I’d searched “answers.yahoo.com” because when I’d done my original search for “Taylor Swift” “dresses” I got scads of hits from that Web address, usually questions such as “Anyone know where I can find sundresses like Taylor Swift wears with her cowboy boots?” Helpful answer to that one was “i would try any place that has sundresses. maybe forever21, charlotte russe, macys. you should look online at different stores, too. i would look at target first, though.” This isn’t remotely my area of expertise, but my impression is that Target and Forever 21 are known for giving you “cheap chic”—brand-name elegance without the brand name (a New York Times piece described Forever 21 copying $400 fancy dresses and selling them for $40).
So, a thought here is that Taylor is dressing up but in a way that’s in the range of her fans. And who are her fans? Country’s audience is reputed to be more female than male and more adult than teen, though I haven’t seen specific demographic figures so I don’t know. And I’d expect Taylor to bring in a crowd that’s younger and even more female. Actually, the best social commentary I found was on a blog by a mom of four in Ohio, whose little girl asked Santa for—and got—a Taylor Swift dress for Christmas (including a black headband and black gloves like Taylor’s and even a pair of black Taylor-style cowboy boots that the little girl “didn’t order”; “it took her a minute or two to grasp the concept that they were hers even though she hadn’t included them in her list of what her dad has dubbed the Taylor Swift starter stalker kit”) and a Taylor Swift guitar (“covered with Swarovski crystals, it was first seen in her most recent video for ‘Our Song’ and made an appearance at the recent Country Music Awards”): “Taylor Swift is everything a little girl would appreciate. She’s cute, has long blonde hair, wears cool cowgirl boots and has the girliest dresses going.”
No doubt Taylor has personal reasons for the dresses. I found a CMT interview where she says, “Dresses are my weakness, seriously,” and declares her love for Forever 21 and BCBG, but she doesn’t say why. One reason for the dresses might be that she’s tall for a woman—5'11"—but the way she’s proportioned you don’t particularly notice her height in photos unless she’s standing next to someone, and maybe (this is entirely speculation on my part) she thinks that pants make her look too leggy. (Kat Stevens, a Livejournal friend of mine in London, wondered if Taylor “just had a phase of wearing dresses for a few months, happened to get super-famous then and was stuck with the perma-dress look as her recognisable image?” But then when I told her that Taylor was 5'11", she said “Ahhhhh she’s tall? Well that explains it, dude. I dunno about America, but British girls over 5'10" with long legs generally have to go to specialist clothes shops to buy posh trousers that fit. Long-leg jeans are easier to acquire but you’re stuck if you want something ‘pretty’… So I don’t really blame Taylor for sticking to something that makes her look good.”)
And no doubt Taylor also has personal reasons for covering an Eminem rap—it means something to her, not just “Oh, hear me rap,” but this rap, the one telling her it’s her moment, she owns it, she better not let it go. But what I’m thinking here is that the blatant girlishness allows something to happen. It’s girly girl Taylor rather than tough girls Miranda or Gretchen who latches onto flame-thrower, button-pusher Eminem. Maybe Taylor is less threatening doing it ’cause she’s such a girl? But her way of being a girly girl is far from passive. I’m thinking of that little kid who demands and gets her Taylor Swift guitar. That little girl—and Taylor—don’t come across as pushovers. I saw a clip of Taylor introducing “Should’ve Said No”: “Basically, this is a song I wrote about a guy who cheated on me and shouldn’t have because I write songs.” Introducing her version of Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” she tells the audience “I think one of the cool things about being able to play the guitar is that you can play whatever you want” (subtext: whether or not it’s what you want me to play).
Smart cookie, and not an untough one, either.
Taylor doing “Lose Yourself,” blue dress:
Taylor doing “Lose Yourself,” violet dress:
Bella as Taylor Swift
Keep the conversation going at koganbot(at)gmail.com
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