PRINT March 1992


Bad-Girl Boots

LAST FALL I TOOK to the streets. My hair still damp, I rushed from my haircutter’s loft in SoHo burning with consumer want, and not a little envy. For as I’d watched her cut my hair it had seemed to me that my haircutter, crowned by pre-Raphaelite ringlets and weighted down by massive Na Na engineer boots, had somehow triumphed over the contradictions of femininity. She was ethereal and earthy, at once beautiful and butch—but only a little butch. In her, the alchemy of desire that has plagued me since adolescence had found its essence. I craved her boots.

The search that afternoon was tedious. In one store after another I soon found that every variation on the engineer boot, the motorcycle boot, the harness boot, was out of stock for my average-American, 71/2-sized feet. Indeed, with a mounting sense of humility, I realized that virtually every other woman passing me by was already purposefully striding about in these same robust signifiers. I flushed shame. I’d coveted a commodity already stale, common. Seduced by the allure of the Bad Girl, I had forgotten that the vanguard never merely buys fashion, it just rips it off from the unsuspecting.

In months since, what’s caught my eye in ads, editorials, and department-store aisles is a column of butchoid biker caps, biker boots, discreet tattoos, and ubiquitous black leather jackets for women. Although now de rigueur accoutrement for Sassy and Vogue readers alike, the leather jackets on sale this winter at emporia like the Wild Ones Shop in Bloomingdale’s are emphatically not cheapies. Instead, in a sumptuary twist, this renegade classic has been profitably recast as something buttery, quilted, candied, luscious. Motorcycle soigné has reached beyond the flesh, too, since Madison Avenue spun into hog heaven: in page after glossy page, life-style tableaux peddle diamonds, jeans, and eyeshadow through images of women draped over Hell’s Angels’ signature chrome, the Harley Davidson.

Viewed from the street, the spectacle of thousand-dollar motorcycle boots is ridiculous, galling. Especially since—for me, anyway—dressing the part of the Bad Girl was, flatly, a means of rationalizing both poverty and powerlessness. The Bad Girl is independence, sexual ferocity, savagery. She is power, but in the killer silhouette of Honor Blackman or Mrs. Peel, swinging her fists as fast as her hips. On the wilder side, she is Tura Satana and Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Ann-Margret and Kitten With a Whip. On the blander side, she’s the ’70s Cher and ’80s Madonna, though never with much conviction. Better and with far more purpose, she is all the women with a will to power in Alice Echols’ chronicle of radical feminism, Daring to Be Bad. She is at once the Redstockings, Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Davis, Ida Lupino, Valerie Solanis, Marnie, Monique Wittig, bell hooks, Thelma & Louise.

Over the years, my cherished Bad Girl finds have included durable, mod-type jackets bought on the cheap at secondhand dives and paratrooper boots dug out of the trash. For me, the potent, tactile memory of plowing past the racks of double knit, scavenging through other people’s castoffs, always made a mockery of the standard take on punk—that it was political in the UK but merely fashion stateside: as if the terms are ever mutually exclusive. Outfitted in decayed leather like some latter-day Natty Bumppo, I relished the pose of outsider. With my snarled hair and shaggy clothes, I hoped I looked tough and mean and somewhat scary, for uptown and downtown audiences both. Now, though, the leatherette originates above 14th Street. And the footwear of the rich is very different from mine: not only pricier, it’s actually bigger, more brutal to behold than the battered combat boots or pervasive Dr. Martens that were the favorite ’80s stompwear of skins and queers alike. Indeed, these new boots and jackets signal a completely different cult of resistance, born not of poverty or politics but of excess. Fashion editorials in Elle and Vogue tell the story: “Proletariat Chic,” “Cloak-and-Dagger Chic,” “The Nineties Cave Woman,” “ Wild at Heart.” The buzz is tough, strong.

During the ’80s, movies like Married to the Mob and Slaves of New York traded on an image of Downtown as a frontier outpost of the white avant-garde. It was a pastiche of desperate living in a time of simulated abundance. In the early ’90s the gentrifiers have sputtered to a halt in their over-leveraged tracks, but the posture of bohemian dissention endures. The vanities, the traders, the Lacroix luxe are gone, banished from the zeitgeist by the crash and its fallout. In their place, enter the Urban Survivalist. Roaming the city like a cyberpunk phantom, this new woman warrior folds herself into animal skin and pulls on her shiny shiny, steel-tipped boots of leather. Casing the streets, she maps out her new strategies.

The ads for Revlon’s new fragrance, Downtown Girl, warn, “It’s everything Uptown isn’t.” But what should smell like piss, beer, and rot, say, a kind of eau de F train, is instead Charlie for the ’90s, distilled in a mat-black bottle and topped by an artfully battered gold cap. In case anyone should whiff something butch in this setup, moreover, the Downtown Girl’s carefully coiffed mannequin wears pearls above her sleek black-leather jacket (and apparently, like Calvin Klein’s bare-assed motorcycle mama, little else). The details speak Bad Girl, but the image is diluted and degraded.

If fashion is born somewhere between the street and the high tower, then the new butch look is neither false consciousness nor true free play, but something vague, liminal. For even if women are merely striking poses of resistance, fashion remains one of the areas in which we loudly stake claims to subjectivity. This winter the hot white-girl looks on New York streets are riffs on the Motorcycle Chick and the Urban Cowhand, distinctly nostalgic refrains on collective myths. Freedom and mobility fuel these profoundly masculine mythologies, the resiliency of which is evident virtually everywhere you buy. It’s why every 30-second car commercial is a road movie in vitro. Why George Bush plays it Texas-style, not Maine.

American women are gobbling up the trappings of these masculine hieroglyphs at a particularly cruel moment. Last year was the year of Clarence Thomas, William Kennedy Smith, and the gutting of Title X, a year in which individual women’s rights, their sovereignty, were traded upon in what can only be described as a true, integrated, to lift the title of Susan Faludi’s bestseller, Backlash. One strain of the ’80s Bad Girl was a memorable circle of the wicked, with names like Imelda, Leona, and “First Lady” Nancy, the very models of a vicious conspicuous consumption, taking the fall for their more powerful spouses. The ’90s bad girl is more confusing, more contradictory, less one-dimensional: at once Camille Paglia, Thelma and Louise, and, yes, Anita Hill. So what to make of the young debutantes in Chanel leather or the anorectic model lounging on a hog? The appearance of the paramilitary style so soon after the Gulf War and its orgy of patriotism surely raises a question: despite her appeal, the refurbished Bad Girl, groomed and sleek, is suspiciously revisionist in spirit, a throwback to ’50s masculinity. I can’t reconcile her with the brute material of everyday life in the ’90s.

At the same time, statistics tell me that there are more women riding motorcycles and shooting guns, even arrows, than ever before. It sometimes feels as if women are desperate to shape new mythologies, to fashion new images for a new millennium. The question is what will those images be. One of the hottest Bad Girls on the circuit is Camille Paglia, who has gotten a lot of steam out of her stance as an antifeminist superbutch. It’s a timely and apparently lucrative pose: conservative establishments like the New York Times and Esquire gladly coddle Paglia because she doesn’t disturb their world view. Without question, the rabid froth of her antifemale line is in keeping with the postfeminist spectacle of the Thomas/Hill hearings. For in the end the problem with Anita Hill (Bork supporter, Reagan-era appointee) is that she was simply too good for her—and our—own good. Anita Hill needed to be bad.

Reader, I bought the boots.

Manohla Dargis lives in New York and writes about film.