Triumph of comfort over style [Commentary]

In an essay for the New York Times, retiring fashion editor Cathy Horyn, a powerful commentator on the industry for 15 years, wrote in praise of "practical dressing."

She began by saying that she is freshening two bedrooms in her upstate New York house but is going to paint them exactly the same colors — light green and "ballroom blue" — rather than drive herself crazy with too many choices.

This decision, she said, "sums up everything I feel about style and comfort. Or should I say the revenge of comfort over style."

Ms. Horyn has never been a mannequin for the fashion houses she chronicled. And she understood that runway shows, such as those going on during New York Fashion Week this week, are about entertainment and art and about promoting a brand. They are never about what real women wear.

Who, she asked, had the time, the money or "the will" to wear such outrageous creations?

And she quoted Coco Chanel who, when she arrived in New York in 1931, said that the fashionable woman "dresses well but not remarkably." She is not eccentric. She is restrained.

Ms. Horyn said that the women she observes, many of whom are balancing New York careers with family, favor a utilitarian uniform of flats, slim trousers and some kind of pullover. Ensembles that can move with her from office to car pool. And she said that this sensible kind of dressing down was not simply the purview of older women who have given up.

She was describing a kind of modern informality, crisp and clean and almost sporty. Clothing that can be made with luxurious fabrics but which is not a distraction from the life we are living. Clothing we can move in, shoes we can walk in.

Ms. Horyn is talking, she writes, about "a woman of an indeterminate age who knows what she likes and has shrugged off what she no longer has any use for." Clothing that is restrained but self-assured.

I am still looking for my personal style and, although I am pretty sure it isn't the mismatched nightmare from the window of Anthropologie, I am also sure it is not the aging cruise ship traveler from Chico's.

I have often wished that women's clothing choices could be as unremarked upon as men's. Khakis and a crisp shirt gets it done most of the time. Or a dark suit, a white shirt and a nice tie. I am not sure men even have to think when they get dressed in the morning.

Like Ms. Horyn, I don't want to spend all that energy on all those choices. It is not that I aim to look effortlessly fashionable; I want to be fashionable, without effort. I don't want to look like my daughter, but I don't want my daughter to look at me askance.

Fashion, Ms. Horyn writes, has over the last couple of decades become conceptual, inspired by art. "Extreme" is a word used to describe it, and it is considered a compliment. She talks about the moral consequences of that kind of extravagance and what is says about Coco Chanel's fashion virtues of seriousness and self-control.

She has never been the target consumer of that kind of clothing, she says, and she wonders who, exactly, is.

The essay, published during the peak of the show season, is a brave confession from a woman who has left such an indelible mark writing about something she now considers, at the end of her career, to have been silly, or at least illusory. But only Cathy Horyn could give the rest of us permission to choose comfort over style.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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