Proud to Be Dowdy

It’s an insult, but it’s also a superpower. Let’s reclaim it.

Dowdy defenders: Lady Edith, Louis C.K., and Mrs. Weasley.
Defenders of dowdiness: Lady Edith, Louis C.K., and Mrs. Weasley.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via PBS, Warner Bros. and Aby Baker/Getty Images.

Like every neurotic patient, I’ve wondered what my shrink really thinks about me. Does he find me shallow? Boring? Self-absorbed? Cruel? What never occurred to me is that he might be thinking about my shoes, and whether they are “too-sensible.” New York psychiatrist David Hellerstein recently confessed in the New York Times about his lovelorn patient, “Greta.” She had Ivy League degrees, a Wall Street job, and a downtown loft, but she couldn’t find romance. Lexapro and Klonopin weren’t doing the trick, so after a year, he suggested an alternate therapeutic path: Drawing from years of psychiatric training at the school of Tyra Banks, Dr. Hellerstein asked if she had “considered getting a makeover.”

Greta, you see, was “not exactly alluring.” She sported “homely dresses and an unstylish hairdo,” like “someone you’d see in a 1950s Good Housekeeping magazine.” Her looks were “fine,” he hastened to add; the problem was her “unfashionable dress and grooming.” Putting aside whether we trust the fashion sense of someone who uses words such as hairdo and grooming—for all we know Greta was sporting a consciously retro look—we will accept his professional opinion that poor Greta had an intractable disorder: She was, he concluded, “dowdy.” Or, to use the DSM-5 clinical term, “staunchly dowdy.” (The headline on Hellerstein’s piece: “The Dowdy Patient.”)

If there were such a book as Our Bodies Ourselves: Psychology, this might be the opening anecdote, wherein Dr. H gives patient G a diagnosis that makes her uncomfortable. “When I eventually tried again to discuss the issue of her appearance … Greta began to find me slightly creepy,” Hellerstein writes. “She came to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with me for mentioning it.” Well, trust your intuition, as the Boston Women’s Collective would warn—disregard his phallocentric take on your so-called disease.

Greta, if you are out there listening, take note: Dowdy is not a death sentence. It can be a superpower, and it’s about time we reclaimed it.

 Frumpy, and even its less popular sisters shabby and frowzy, are much more shallow than dowdy. They could be used to describe your outfit, or how you happen to look in it that day.  You can almost imagine Kim telling Khloé she looks “frumpy” in some particular frock and forbidding her from attending North West’s Disneyland birthday party. But dowdy is more potent, implying not just a momentary fashion faux pas but a complete lack of awareness that such a thing as a trend exists. Dowdy is a hole you fall into because you are old or sad or hopeless and from which it is very difficult to escape. For a young woman, it implies dangerous affinity with the elderly.

If you are truly dowdy, a makeover won’t help you. It’s like spinster or barren, not a passing phase but a permanent damnation of your broken female soul. From that place—where the patriarchy has given up on us—is where we find liberation.

There are many ways that women profess indifference to fashion, but they are pretty much always lying. Beyoncé did not really wake up like that. The DGAF nightgown Rihanna wore to the World Cup—“the same outfit she slept in!” Hollyscoop gushed—is sexier than most cocktail dresses. Normcore always required an acute understanding of trends in order to steer clear of them (and in any case, the artless style has already made its way into Vogue Paris). With its plain, intentionally ill-fitting clothes, Eileen Fisher is a brand that flirts with dowdy, but in a New Yorker story, Janet Malcolm dissected what the label was really about: a way for women who consider themselves “serious” to transmit that their clothes were “heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected,” conveniently concealing the underlying vanity. (Plain, shapeless white cotton tank: $98.)*

When a young female character in the movies or TV is veering toward dowdy, it’s generally temporary. Ugly Betty never needed much more than a trip to the orthodontist. Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada was never going to wear that “lumpy blue sweater” for more than one scene; soon enough she submits to the hegemony of fashion, making it safe for the rest of us brainiacs. Big Betty Draper—by that point Francis—was only going to mope around in that housecoat for one season. These protests against fashion oppression are always revealed as short-lived folly. This is why we need to embrace the permanence of authentic dowdy. Someone needs to take it all the way. Someone needs to stand alongside Greta and shout, “I can wear sensible shoes and still be worthy of love!”

In children’s literature, it’s the dowdy who are the heart of every household: Mary Poppins, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Mrs. Weasley. Actress Imelda Staunton says she prefers playing dowdy characters because “their lives are rich and difficult.” Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion has to pass through dowdy before she can appreciate love. In her 2015 novel The First Bad Man, Miranda July’s heroine is an aggressively dowdy woman, Cheryl, who’s rewarded with a thrilling sexual encounter and the novel’s only genuine, miraculous love, between her and her ex-lover’s baby. We should aspire to be dowdy, because it allows us to breathe in our own secret garden before we have to present to the world and all its artifice. Would you rather be Downton Abbey’s pointlessly bitchy Lady Mary, or her dowdy sister Lady Edith, who has a fling with a journalist, writes under a pseudonym, and vows to raise her baby alone? Would you rather be Steve Carell’s character in Crazy, Stupid, Love before or after Ryan Gosling makes him throw away his New Balance sneakers?

Yes, men, can be dowdy. Albert Einstein was dowdy. So was Abraham Lincoln. And Louis C.K. And Mike Birbiglia. In men, an inattention to personal grooming is assumed to be a result of a fully occupied mind. In women, though, it’s wasted potential. Men react badly to dowdy women because they feel the women are robbing them of something, misrepresenting themselves as older or more sexless than they really are. Calling a woman “dowdy” says much more about the sexual resentment of the man than it does about the woman.  

It’s very possible that Dr. H has entirely misread Greta, and she is in fact intensely romantic. In many classic versions of Cinderella, the heroine doesn’t go to the ball in a beautiful dress; she remains a servant girl, dumb and crippled and wearing a sack, and it’s the prince’s mother who sees through all that to her radiance. In these versions Cinderella insists on the same right as the Frog Prince—or the Beast, or Clark Kent, or perhaps Greta—which is the right to first repel her suitors, so that she can identify her true love as the one who is able to look beyond the garment and see the true beauty inside. 

*Correction, June 19, 2015: This article originally misstated that Joan Didion wrote a New Yorker story about Eileen Fisher; the author was Janet Malcolm. (Return.)