Fashion crimes, like many other crimes, begin innocently enough. A few influential designers send a quirky and impractical article of clothing down the runway; high-fashion magazines enthusiastically push it; a celebrity is photographed wearing it; lower-end lines begin mass-producing it; suddenly, women are buying it in shrieking colors and synthetic fabrics, and what started as a harmless act of whimsy has become a widespread aesthetic offense. So it has gone with the poncho—that rectangular piece of material resembling a small blanket, with a hole in the center for your head. The style, now at its apogee, appears both in mainstream stores like Ann Taylor, the Gap, J.C. Penney, and Macy’s (which offers 43 options in a ponchos-only department) and in high fashion magazines like Vogue, in which New York socialite Plum Sykes sports a fringed, yellow, off-the-shoulder number, and Bazaar, where a $1,500 Chloe “horse blanket poncho” is deemed one of the season’s “must-haves.” Recently, during a 20-minute walk in Midtown Manhattan, I counted 18 ponchos—averaging nearly one per minute. Ponchos have become this season’s Ugg boots: unsightly and overexposed.
Is there anything to like about the poncho? Apparently the look is “comfortable and comforting.” Some writers have said that we’re in a post crop-top and low-rise jeans moment, in which women are demurely wrapping up rather than baring all. Happily, these fans claim, the poncho “covers all the right areas,” hiding the most worrisome midsection figure flaws. They also say that the sleeveless poncho is easy to whip on and off as the temperature demands; and some propound the mitten philosophy—arguing that ponchos are warmer than coats because they trap heat by keeping the arms close to the body. A recent article in the New York Times “Circuits” section, which recounts the author’s quest to find a poncho for her daughter online, sums up the garment’s appeal even among adult women, “[T]he poncho is popular simply because it’s so easy to wear. It goes with everything. One size fits all. It’s never too tight.”
All of these arguments can be dismissed as Poncho Myths. First of all, mature, non-sweatpants-wearing adults can agree that security blankets are supposed to be “comforting”; clothes are not. Ponchos are not “comfortable,” either. Try carrying a purse while wearing one: hang the purse over the poncho, the ample underarm fabric bunches up; carry it beneath and it creates a tumorlike protrusion. As for the mitten theory, the real way a poncho resembles a mitten is that both items partially incapacitate their wearer—try fixing your hair, say, while negotiating the poncho’s billowing folds. Finally, in response to the easy-to-wear line of reasoning, I have only one question: How hard is it, really, to button and unbutton a coat?
So, you can’t quite call the poncho practical. And all too often, it just looks ridiculous. Most ponchos you see on the street are flimsy, assembly-line creations of “crocheted” rayon, nylon, acrylic—often bordered by a clumpy, tangled fringe—that make a woman appear as though she is dressed in a doily. These are neither fabulous Mexican handicrafts nor your grandmother’s thick, hand-knit works of art. (You know that skill is not required when instructions for creating a “paper bag poncho” can be found on the Web.) And a few words about fit: It’s a simple rule of fashion that one-size-fits-all, like elastic waistbands or pantyhose with sandals, is never a good idea. Unless the fabric is exquisite or the wearer excessively thin, the poncho’s room-enough-for-two cut, rather than hiding figure flaws, makes most women look bulky and misshapen—like “loose, baggy monsters,” to borrow a quote from Henry James. A woman dressed in the sartorial equivalent of a burlap sack isn’t fooling anybody. All Things Animated, a cartoon Web site that contains a nostalgic thread on fashion history, aptly remembers the childhood allure of the poncho as “your own traveling fort.” Exactly: A poncho makes a woman resemble a massive, impenetrable edifice.
The poncho, of course, is hardly a new phenomenon. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a ponchoed Clint Eastwood, swaggering through spaghetti westerns, elevated the look; Frank Zappa sang about issues of poncho authenticity in “Camarillo Brillo” (“Is that a real poncho … I mean Is that a Mexican poncho or is that a Sears poncho?”); and Susan Dey (as Laurie Partridge) popularized the poncho among teenage girls desperate to emulate her laid-back, sleepy-eyed beauty. This invasion of the “South American cloak,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, was a symptom, along with embroidered kaftans and macramé belts, of a new American fascination with ethnic clothing and crafts. (Ponchos were originally hand-woven and worn by Incans and Aztecs and later donned by the conquering Spaniards, who, wanting to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi, preferred unpatterned ponchos to the traditional broad-weave stripes.) After its initial appearance, the poncho largely disappeared until 2002, when designers like Christa Perrin, Mark Montano, and Dolce & Gabbana sent retro versions of the wraps down the runway; it was not long until boho-chic style icons like Kate Moss and Sienna Miller adopted them. In August 2003, Jessica Simpson wore a yellow crocheted poncho on Newlyweds, and in February 2004 * Kid Rock pranced about on stage at the Super Bowl halftime show swathed in one made from the American flag. During the past eight months, the trend has spread like a communicable virus.
But in the end, the poncho craze cloaks, as it were, a larger issue. As Vogue’s Sally Singer recently said, women throughout history have hungered for new forms of the wrap—a lightweight, attractive alternative to the heavy and cumbersome coat. The Victorian cape, the ‘60s stole, the ‘90s pashmina, and the poncho are all attempts to solve an old and ongoing problem: how to stay fashionably warm without completely obscuring one’s clothes. This means that the wrap’s next incarnation is just around the corner. The October issue of Vogue shows “capelets” by Jill Stuart, Behnaz Sarafpour, and Ellen Christine Millinery, suggesting that these minicapes will inherit the mantle. They may make you look like a superhero, but in my opinion, that’s far preferable to resembling a fort.
Correction, Oct. 14: The article originally stated that the Super Bowl took place in January. It was actually on Feb. 1, 2004. (Return to the corrected sentence.)