Suspend Your Disbelief

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Stories We Love: "A Change of Fashion"

Parachute dress drag performer
Yesterday, I saw a woman wearing a garment that straddled the line between shorts and panties. Her outfit was revealing, and it made me ask questions like, “how far will fashion go?” and “what was she thinking?” Perhaps author Steven Millhauser had a similar experience at some point, and that led him to write “A Change of Fashion,” a short story that originally appeared in Harper’s Magazine, May 2006.

What would happen if next season’s fashions did not favor a slightly shorter hemline or a higher heel, but hiddenness? What if dresses took on shapes larger than Victorian hoop skirts and less revealing than burkas? In Millhauser’s story, concealing is the new revealing. Fashion is freed “from its long dependence on the female shape,” as women no longer feel the obligation “to invite a bold male gaze.” Women favor dresses that disguise the body, conceal the face, and, in later incarnations, can serve their purpose at a lawn party without the wearer having to wear them at all.

Teenage girls in particular . . . embraced the [style] . . . for they could plunge down, far down, into layers of costume that sheltered them from sight, while rivers of twisting cloth allowed them to bring forth forbidden longings.

Like much of Millhauser’s shorter works, this piece of fiction is allegorical above all else. There is no dialogue. We don’t know much about the quizzical and sole character, Hyperion. It doesn’t matter. Like Millhauser, the reader delights in following the idea to its outright conclusion.

Read Millhauser’s “Getting Closer,” first published by The New Yorker (January 3, 2011).

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