Ode to Eileen Fisher & “elegant plainness”
When I think of the “Eileen Fisher aesthetic,” I picture Dr. Helen Levy, one of my favorite fictional characters, in Jane Smiley’s 1995 novel Moo. She’s a cultured, maternalistic professor of foreign languages at a Midwestern university who gardens and composts and manufactures elaborate holiday meals yet still manages to maintain an immense store of patience for idiots and middle-aged men. That is, a grownup—one who’s also having a secret affair with the university provost and not at all eager to be married. The lesson you take from an Eileen Fisher Woman is be more interesting than your clothes.
While ostensibly the design ethos is timeless, trendless, its appeal to my peers probably runs counter to that: We love it because it is the epitome of momwear from the era when our own moms loomed largest. It is absolutely wedded to a specific time and image.
Another friend, Eliza, told me that when she remembers the way her mom looked to her as a child, she pictures a big black rectangle. “Just a big rectangle made of elegant linen,” she said.
There is a wish shared by women who consider themselves serious that the clothes they wear look as if they were heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected. The clothes of Eileen Fisher seem to have been designed with the fulfillment of that wish in mind. Words like ‘simple’ and ‘tasteful’ and colors like black and gray come to mind along with women of a certain age and class — professors, editors, psychotherapists, lawyers, administrators — for whom the hiding of vanity is an inner necessity.