Talbot's goes girly: What is this?

When the latest Talbot's catalog arrived, though I only buy their jeans, I flipped through. I had the strangest reaction: grief rose in my chest, tears came, and I felt the intense and particular melancholy that infuses me when I recall lost loved ones.

The layout had carried me back to our family kitchen, in the evening in 1958, this time of year. I saw my sister, Jane, drying dishes. Her back is toward me, and she is wearing these clothes:



These exact pieces are in the catalog, nearly sixty years after she wore them. Though Talbots shows the trousers with block heels, Jane would only have worn Bass Weejuns.  She has been dead for over forty years now, but her wardrobe tumbled from the pages: cardigans, circle pins, flannel full-length trousers.

I saw, on nearly every page, the clothes of women I've lost—my sister, mother, aunts.

The catalog featured so many scalloped hems (skirts, dresses, jackets) that there must have been a design decision to dress grown women like Tricia Nixon in her White House years. Prints feature motifs like penguins, toy soldiers, wreaths, and none of it looks modern whatsoever.

Many women buy Talbot's classics because they can get useful pieces like tees with three-quarter sleeves or pencil skirts that are not too short, and they appreciate the size range. Their jeans stayed high-waisted enough during the years when everything was scarily low-rise; I buy multiples on sale.

But their current fascination with ultra-girly puzzles me. There does not seem to be a garment this season that Talbot's did not ruffle, embroider or gather. The blouse at bottom left is entirely printed with...bows.



I don't mind a small touch of femmy detail (though I don't wear it), but when damn near every piece of outwear from a down vest to a denim jacket is ruffled, what's going on?

Even the more tailored clothes are styled to look time-warped. This sweater is shown with scatter pins:



Could we attribute these clothes to the mood of a country dealing with both interior and exterior troubles, and a growing disparity between rich and poor? France has that too, and I don't see their designers sticking bows on every possible item.

Other American companies have veered toward this sweet stuff.  The Ann Taylor windows I walked by in New York last fall looked like the Swarthmore parent's weekend circa 1964. Are these brands trying to channel a past when post-war prosperity buoyed the garment industry? (Isaac Mizrahi tried the same retro look when he briefly designed for Jones New York, a line that failed spectacularly.)

To be fair, if you wade through the girly gear, you can find a black cashmere v-neck from Talbot's that's austere as Everlane's (but not cut the same).

Opening their catalog was like opening my sister's old Love Pat compact: a whiff, powdery and cloying, of certain feminine image now a half-century old.

I wonder if the Talbot's customer, long told she can count on them for classics, will want to take such a frou-frou trip to the past.




30 comments

CK said...

I've depended on Talbot's for years for my "better" clothes--but I had the same reaction you did to the ruffle & bow invasion. I blame Melania who appeared in that awful bell-sleeved dress at Inauguration. Now those are everywhere. Why anyone would want to dress like her, I can't imagine. I simply wouldn't on general principle. This year I've stuck to L.L. Bean.

Duchesse said...

CK: I find the bows and ruffles infantalizing; my usual standard is if the garment could be worn by an eight year old, a woman past 50 should pass it by.

Unknown said...

As always, you hit the mark. I also thought that the Talbots current line is something between a girly and infantile retreat. It's not much better across the other retail lines I've looked at lately. I spent two hours at a large mall this past weekend and found exactly two blouses that had some style and would be appropriate with a blazer or a suit. The sort of clothes an adult woman with a job that takes some brains and experience could wear. Two. And they were nothing to get excited about.
At least in the U.S., for a long time the mission has seemed to be finding garments that are so generic that many will buy them. Now, with sophisticated algorithms, I see clothes that are the lowest common denominator, and made as cheaply as possible. I keep hoping my old stuff won't wear out, there isn't much of anything to buy.

Duchesse said...

Unknown: I get no joy from malls, even the high-end ones are hit and miss. If I were looking for traditional shirts, I'd order from Thomas Pink. I have long bought knits from Europe (Brora, Bompard) and the outstanding Canadian company ça va de soi (who now have an online boutique.) Sometimes the prices really hurt, but I am writing this in a raspberry Bompard sweater I bought 20 years ago and still looks great.

Between the girly styling and lower fabric quality, Talbot's has had its brain removed. May be because the new private equity firm who own them- Sycamore- are sourcing goods from the same producers who make for their other companies: Hot Topic, Nine West.

The more "business formal" your job requires, the more you're faced with limited choices in better-to-bridge lines. One of my executive friends found an expert local designer to make her suits (June No of Studio No, Toronto) and another shops consignment for Armani, etc.

Noelle said...

I say just wait it out. I don't need to buy anything when either the styling or colors of the year don't suit me.

lagatta à montréal said...

Oh dear. Yes, Melania and Ivanka...

First of all, I'm very sorry to learn that your sister died so young.

I didn't like that clothing even when I was eight. I wanted to be an artist, and in my youthful imaginings, painters and writers didn't dress like that.

Bell sleeves are everywhere. And in some fields of work, they can be a seriouus hazard; I'm thinking for example of the hospitality industry in which many workers have to dress up but still face risks such as fire (candles, grills) and kitchen machinery.

There are even scallops at the hems of tartan skirts. How twee...

I'm sure the new mayor of Montréal, Valérie Plante, had her swearing-in dress made. Probably her deep pink coat as well.

Laura Jantek said...

The infantile styling would be an odd choice considering what's going on with sexual abuse revelations. The power patriarchy concepts of the 50s and 60s! And would women want to dress like that era??? But it may be a sort of retreat to an airbrushed past like much of the retro looks one sees around. Hmm let me see if this circle pin fits on my Peter Pan collar. Aargh!

Evelyn Cushman said...

My 25 year old daughter says she doesn't want to look like a Flamenco dancer, with all the ruffles and bell sleeves. I'm with her - hate the ruffles on puffy coats and vests (and everything else).

Venasque said...

To your Canadian suggestions, I would add The Cashmere Shop and Black Goat. Both have online shopping (as well as actual shops) and the quality is outstanding.

Melissa Hebbard said...

I think that Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge is the one to blame for this. I think that the Trump women are taking their style from her.
If you look at her recent clothes, you will find puffed sleeves, pussycat bows and other frumpy fripperies.

LauraH said...

Agree, the new Talbots catalogue was amazingly odd. I'm sticking with very simple clothes, dresses up by jewellery and scarves. Thank goodness I no longer gave to dress for work.

LauraH said...

Apologies for the spelling mistakes...autocorrect strikes again.

Mary said...

I felt like I was sitting at the kitchen table with you, watching your sister. Your description was so striking and heart-breaking. And your pain so vivid. How sorry I am for your loss which sometimes must feel as though it just happened--especially when memories are evoked.

The cause provoking those memories is disturbing for grown women everywhere. The 1950's most childish fashions re-imagined--with no imagination at all--by folks who seem to think women want to return to the status of "the little lady" - please, no. Never wore frills in the 1950s as a child, and I'm certainly not about to start now. I do appreciate the listing of some places where fashion and fully-operating frontal lobes combine to provide decent, (somewhat) affordable clothing for those who prefer not to revert to the worst of the 50's fashions now that we ourselves are well past our own 50s.

satsumi said...

A fine example of your most interesting posts! I parse this aesthetic as a symptom of the Trump era, namely an unabashed nostalgia for "better" times, i.e. times when white males could count on unearned supremacy, the affirmative action program that refuses the name. It pains me that even innocuous Talbots has debased itself in the [Michelle] Obama backlash and pines for a time when the "ideal" woman was an expressionless Stepford wife like Melania.

Jeannine said...

I simply put this down to the cycle coming around again. Looks from the past always come back in some form. Soon the shoulder pads will return again! I was pregnant in the late 80s and very early 90s and was happy to see some (only some) maternity clothes which weren't childish looking - more tailored and simple lines, rather than puff sleeves and silly bows and fabric patterns that seemed to be the only kind of maternity clothes one could ever find. What I'm saying is, we've been here before and likely will be again.

susie @ persimmon moon cottage said...

Wow, those styles are channeling old style, and not in a good way. And here I thought that the overabundance of bell sleeves, strangely cut cold shoulder, overly long hi lo, shark bite hem tops and tunics that I see in the lower priced catalogs that I shop from were getting tiresome. I guess the catalogs that I get in the future will probably sooner or later catch up to the style trends you showed us. Those styles aren't going to work for me either. I think I'm going to start hand washing every clothing item I currently have to extend its wearable lifespan.

Adele said...

Thank you, Duchesse, for saying so articulately what's been on my mind for a while. For me, the absolute no-no's are sleeves that are puffed at the shoulder, empire waistlines, anything ruffly and cold shoulders. Funny, there was a Talbot's store in our town that closed several years ago and has recently re-opened in a different location in the same shopping area. I haven't been in there yet, and don't have high hopes (though perhaps I should check out their jeans). I used to love their boatneck, three quarter sleeve tees tops when they were made from a nice heavy cotton-lycra blend but those haven't been available for at least a decade.

Laura Jantek said...

I ended up sewing a couple of things for maternity wear as I wanted a black dress and navy and NO bows ruffles or (gasp) Rickrack C1981

Barbara Schieren said...

Does Fashion Industry want us to look like "Stepford Wives"?
I loathe ruffles and bows, an most of the prints too.

I'm with Karl Lagerfeld who recommends women of a certain age to add a bit masculine elements to their clothes.

A simple V-Neck sweater, a good pair of trousers/jeans with modern shoes/boots give a modern and current look.

As always, thank you for your thoughtful writing.

Duchesse said...

Noelle: I agree, and I can't imagine this season being a resounding success for them!

lagatta: My neighbour in the building suffered 2nd degree burns when when her bell-sleeved sweater was set ablaze while cooking.

LauraJantek: These clothes are too girly for me, but I do like some vintage styles like Fair Isle sweaters and sharp tailored jackets versus the modern ones without darts. But this would not be the retro I'd like, with its disturbing presentation of women (Talbot's core client is 40 and over) as a young girl.

Evelyn Cushman: Flamenco dancers look sexy to me, in their form-fitting dresses- ruffled, but a whole different register. And they are communicating something quite different via dance. Ans I get your daughter's perception. Ruffles on a tartan down vest are just weird.

Venasque: Thanks! I have bought from both at their boutiques and am very happy with quality. but if a woman wants colour, the two B's have them beat. ça va de soie have only a bit of colour; I find the styling more intellectual and modern than the other Canadian boutiques you mentioned., though it all comes down to what you want. Also, for cashmere accessories in gorgeous colours, there is Golightly Cashmere, the US company. They have just introduced a woman's sweater. Have not seen that but I have one of their watch caps which is luxuriously thick.

Melissa Hebbard: Oh, I hadn't thought of her but she does have some very girly ensembles. However, she is still young, couldn't Mrs Trump be her mother?

LauraH: If I had to dress for work, I would be desperate, or broke!

Mary: Thank you, it is remarkable how certain sensory inputs bring her back. Maybe such purveyors of the frllly/girly just are not thinking of 50+ women much.

satsumi: Notice there is never a name attached to Talbot's> And- I think this has to be the work of a man. I know that sounds sexist but I can't imagine a woman thinking that other women in the Talbot's demographic want to present themselves like cupcakes.

Jeannine: When we were pregnant then, women covered their bodies loosely. There were those stupid smocks with bows ("I am pregnant so I guess I'll dress like a toy") but also if you really looked, some simpler things. Since maybe 2000 I began to see pregnant women in tight tees or dresses that clung. A big shift from pretending nothing has changed with your body.

Wonder if we'd wear shoulder pads again? I had them in everything, even wore those camisoles with built-in ones. Now, hmm- but at least they aren't girly, they just change the way clothes fit.

susie @ persimmon moon cottage: Ha, you're on to something. Given the shortcuts re thread and finishing it is even a challenge to preserve clothes.

Adele: Talbots' closed here maybe 6 years ago, but Montréal is not a Talbot's kind of place. The whole Talbot's assortment, laid out on their tables, was laden with garish green, screaming orchid and jolting prints in mostly fair to middling fabrics and things like gingham- just not the aesthetic here. (You could find exceptions but had to dig through a lot of eyelet and poly-blend tees that used to be nice cotton.)
Though I missed an easy way to get my jeans, I could see why the Mtl boutique was closed.

Laura Jantek: Rickrack! Yes, I tried to find a black maternity dress in that Yorkville boutique that had the nicest maternity clothes available in 1987 and all they had was pink.

Barbara Schieren: Thank you for pointing out, it's the shoes. Iris Apfel (not a style model for me but applaud her élan) said, If you have good shoes and a good haircut, you can wear anything."





Laura Jantek said...

Really appreciate the conversation here! Thank yo!

Mardel said...

I really find this obsession with bows and girly things does a disservice to women, infantilizing, as you point out above, and I have long objected to it. But right so much clothing everywhere seems to be cheaply made and so focused on the idea of women as girlish or a decorative object. I'm really surprised that women buy into it, even young women, although I understand their wish to be feminine at least some of the time. I wonder if my generation has failed

Deana Sanders said...


Thanks for putting into words what I felt about the Talbots catalog and offerings this year. Not much was appealing to me — no bows, frills, etc. I am still wearing pants and sweaters to work from 3-4 years ago, and I hope I can get through this season with them. It’s tough to find good work clothes and quality T-shirts for casual wear these days.

Duchesse said...

Mardel: Not sure if your last sentence was cut off- but I think we ought feel no Frill Guilt. Once a woman buys her own clothes, all girly choices are on her shoulders.

Deane Sanders: I miss those "better dress" departments, the time when Evan Picone, Anne Klein and the original Peck & Peck made tailored clothes in good fabrics, made in the US. There are a few decent brands left, like Lafayette 148, but pricey. Talbots filled a useful niche: big size range including hard to find ones like Woman Petite, and some actually very good fabrics like their double-faced wool. Not the most exciting styling, but for work, very useful.

une femme said...

There were a few years in the mid- to late 90's where I relieved heavily on Talbot's suiting pieces for work (more affordable than Lafayette 148, and one of the few lines available in Petite cuts), and they actually had some stylish, if conservative, choices back then. This current stuff is pure nostalgia. It's almost as if they're trying to channel Lanz.

Duchesse said...

une femme: Le Duc calls Lanz nightgowns... birth control.

Susan said...

I had the most lovely silk dress from Talbots when I was 39. It was a soft white and navy with a tripe tiered skirt and short sleeves. Somewhere there is a photo of me wearing it at the Commander's Palace for my husband's 40th birthday brunch. These days, I don't find things of the same quality or chic design at Talbots.

Duchesse said...

Susan: Even five or six years ago they sold good "Equipment-style" silk blouses.Now look!

In its beginning era, Talbots sold clothing made in the US, of good quality fabric. Then they sold the firm and poly blends came in. Several years ago, in financial straits, they were bought by Sycamore Partners, a private-equity firm who also own The Jones Group.

Another dive in quality, which includes fabrication, not just materials. I noticed, for example, that shirts and blouses are often made with cost-cutting techniques, like no plackets on sleeves or at neck. IMO horrible strategy, because Talbots' demographic, especially women over 45 or 50 are just desperate for good clothes and know them when they see them.

Some women I knew in the '90s who could buy anything they wanted would still shop at Talbots for casual basics like t-shirt dresses and bermuda shorts. Now they would not enter the door.

lagatta à montréal said...

How about LL Bean? More basic, and sporty more than classic office wear, but has their quality remained? I'm thinking about items such as their sailor-type Ts and similar pima-cotton Ts (3/4 sleeve, rather long).

Duchesse said...

lagatta: I find Bean's styling for things like coats to be generic and functional, which can be OK- or disappointing if longing for more cachet. You or others may find something you really like. A quality assessment should be applied garment to garment, with comparison to competitor's and I don't buy enough there to do that. For instance, I have no idea about Bean's cashmere or pima cotton tees versus Talbot's, Land's End, etc.

I buy their sailor tees and the silk pointelle long underwear, that's it.