In my rough and leafy corner of the universe, a promised land called West Philadelphia, I have noticed something new taking hold. It is a sensibility like Sontag meant it — “a logic of taste,” a new way of seeing bodies and objects in the world and figuring out what to think about them.
Of course it is not new. It surged online in 2006 when Erin McKean declared, “You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone...Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female.’” It was the engine of Janet Malcolm’s 2013 profile of Eileen Fisher in which Malcolm declared she is part of the “growing cadre of women who regularly shop at Eileen Fisher and form a kind of cult of the interestingly plain.” It flavored a 2014 cover story on the new Cèline line which declared, “The clothes are quiet and not meant to make a statement. And so you look invisible. Able to be viewed for more than your surface appearance.” It sat under the surface of a T Magazine feature this March called “In Praise of an Aggressively Unfashionable Shoe” which declared, “At a time when every article of clothing seems to communicate information about the wearer’s class, status and personal taste, Dansko clogs are reassuringly neutral.”
It is what allows me to feel OK with wearing high-necked black dresses even though I have large breasts and am told this pairing is “unflattering,” and more and more I feel it is also a noun, a gender identity, my gender identity.
It is Frump.
The dominant sensibility of femininity, which we will call Sexy Adult Woman (SAW), values flattering-ness, attractiveness above all else — pleasing the eye. In common parlance, “frump” is the defective result when a feminine person tries and fails to achieve SAW. Frump is not. Frump is a whole sensibility in and of itself, entirely distinct from, and in valid alternative to, SAW.
To be both feminine and unattractive is so unilaterally condemned in this life that to dream outside SAW can feel like madness or an exercise in utopic futility. Yet there might be another way.
1. To start very generally: Frump is a way of being feminine.
The way of Frump is not in terms of attractiveness but in terms of freedom, comfort, and self-delight. It can be observed in objects, structures, and people of any sex, but because it was born of the machine of patriarchy and male domination as a way to shame the feminine for failing to subscribe to SAW values, it is a sensibility most fundamentally of and for the feminine.
2. While Frump is a new-ish sensibility, it has been a long time growing.
Though the roots of Frump are unknowable, suffragettes who took the streets and gathered in groups in attire that was comfortable and appropriate to the occasion of walking for miles and distributing pamphlets for hours seem to be among the first public displays of Frump. They raged, they screamed, they withdrew hammers from their large floppy purses and smashed storefront windows. Then they were punished: a more “refined” and “feminine” appearance was deemed to better serve the cause, so Frump went underground. But it did not disappear. Frump burbled to the conscious surface again in radical second wave feminism. They tossed high-heels, curlers, girdles, and bras into a “freedom trash can” outside the 1968 Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. Yet, also, Frump has always existed more sneakily and less politically: in feminine farmers and working people, in the personal tastes and choices of a femininity deemed second-rate.
3. There are two kinds of Frump.
First, a Frump that is not conscious of being Frump, but rather simply — due to class or biology or culture — cannot be any other way. The second is conscious that it is Frump, is even perhaps trying on Frump because of a radical politics or simply because the Frump aesthetic pleases their eye. Some Frump knows how SAW is accomplished but chooses not to engage; other Frump is more “pure,” more “naive,” could not play at SAW even if it wanted to. For some people Frump is a way of life, for others it’s a thing they as a fashion-interested person can try on. Both are equally valid strands of Frump.
4. Not only is there a Frump way of looking at things, but Frump is also a quality in objects and humans.
There are “Frumpy” movies, clothes, furniture, songs, novels, people, and buildings.
5. Random examples of items which are part of the canon of Frump:
Mid-wash mid-rise jeans (neither acid light nor dark or black, also called “mom jeans”)
Heavy thighs, large breasts, rolls of fat, foldy belly button
Brooches and pins (all except political and American flag)
Athletic pullover sweatshirts with pouch
Dansko clogs (all colors except white, which are for nurses)
Staying in on a Friday night
Heavy dictionaries, monocles, trappings of the old guard feminine intelligentsia
Anne of Green Gables
Full-fat dairy products. Dairy farmers
Baking a pie from scratch
Yard sales, second-hand shopping
Little House on The Prairie, books and show
6. Frump pools around the extreme poles of feminine life.
The beginning or the end, little girl or old lady, rather than occupying the middle or the prime of beauty, sexuality, and fertility as SAW does. It is characterized by aesthetics we associate with times gone by or a style we consider “outdated.” Even little girl Frump, pulling in plastic beads, bright colors, My Little Pony, etc., evokes cultural cues from a time gone by that are considered no longer appropriate by SAW. Frump as a sensibility does not get married or get pregnant, though Frumpy people no doubt do. Frump may be partnered to a man or to a woman, but it is a quieter partnership of mutual respect, work, reading, laundry, and Sunday walks in the park. Frump does not want to be on sex display all the time—think Sandra D in Grease, pre-leather transformation. Frump does not have a baby shower, an ostentatious wedding. Frump attends a funeral, sits shiva, brings a covered dish.
7. “It was not so long ago,” reads a 1908 editorial in a suffragette newspaper, “that, in the popular mind, the woman who wanted the popular vote figured as that extremely unpleasant person, a ‘frump.’” Frump embraces this accusation that the aesthetic penetrates beyond the exterior and infuses a person’s very being and character.
Frump is characterized by being committed and active in many realms, most notably work, community, social justice, child-rearing, and friendship. Think Grace Paley writing her luminous stories on scraps of paper stuck in her apron as she makes dinner and returns anti-war organizing calls. Frump has its fingers in many pots and doesn’t have time to iron the shirt or press the pants or schlep to the store to buy the current shade of lipstick. Yet it has to wear something. Also money — Frump either lacks the money or doesn’t wish to allocate it to achieving a SAW look. Some Frump style is the result of sheer utilitarian practicality, the right outfit for the job, whether that be training a horse or writing a novel. “Why can’t I just put on some weird pants and do my shit?” asks my friend Amanda. Why indeed.
8. Frump is a little dirty.
As in, lacking cleanliness. Think farmers, people tromping through the woods, picking the Cheerio up off the floor and eating it. One cold season in Virginia I was smooching a Frump who had long hair, dark and very dry, which she often wore in a single thin braid tossed over her right shoulder, and who, instead of taking a shower would incline her crown towards her mahogany wood desk and sprinkle cornstarch there. I myself have been known to skip a shower, to embrace the grease, to watch the way it tightens the hair and brushes against the forehead instead of the way clean hair moves invisibly. Frump is the valuing of physical presence, where SAW is the valuing of absence. Frumps may have armpit hair, leg hair, maybe even a beard. Where SAW values lines, a smooth tan and hairless body, “sharp” or “tailored” or “stylish” clothes, Frump values curves, bumps, incoherence, discord.
9. There is something a little mismatched and “off” about Frump.
Things do not quite “fit,” they do not quite “work.” Things are a little unruly, cannot quite be contained, cannot quite be controlled. SAW requires things be hoisted, strapped in, and smoothed out. In Frump, fat slips out, curls slip out, skin grows red and scratchy. This is OK with Frump.
10. Yet Frump is somewhat devoid of, or detached from, the body.
Frump does not play sports, nor will they be spotted holding the tools and trappings of sport — gym memberships, sneakers, locker locks, portable shampoo, towels, clean changes of clothes, Fitbits, stopwatches, hair ties, tennis balls, squeezy water bottles. Athletic wear is anti-breast and Frump embraces big, lolling breasts. Frump does not do yoga, nor does it associate with yoga culture — Lululemon, spongy mats neatly rolled and latched or tucked into a canvas tote, cropped or paneled stretch pants, studio membership exchanges, rusted iron chimes, sleek white boomboxes filled with the sounds of rain. What happens when all that fat is inverted? Gravity. Frumps encounter their bodies in three main ways: 1) walking; Frump loves to walk, to see what is going on in the city or at the country store 2) accomplishing tasks — hauling stacks of protest fliers up and down from a fifth floor walk-up, driving the van to the conference and holding the big wheel tight, moving around the room talking to each participant about their project and 3) sex. Frump likes sex.
11. Men and maleness can be a part of Frump.
Take Quoyle in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, who feels his breasts are too large and who likes to make knots out of string, or the Baker in Into the Woods who wishes for a child, or Biff Brannon in McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter who tries to feed Mick Kelly his love and has a soft, white body. Little boys who prefer to stay inside and read their books are a little Frump. There is some of Butler’s “gender trouble” in Frump. When it occurs in men or maleness, it is usually about longing for but not quite having femininity.
12. Not all Jews are Frump and not all Frump is Jewish.
Not all fat people are Frump and not all Frump is fat. Not all queers are Frump and not all Frump is queer. Yet there is real overlap between Frump and all these communities. “Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture,” writes Sontag. “Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities.” I’d add that because of anti-Jewishness, anti-fatness, and anti-gayness, all of these communities have been more oppressed by SAW sensibility than others and have been forced to find other homes. Many have found such a home in Frump.
13. There is a certain rebelliousness and giving no fucks attitude that is integral to Frump.
“I liked the word frump because it embodies everything that women should not aspire to be,” writes Becky Haltermon Robinson, who started the fashion blog “Pump Up the Frump” in 2011. “Frumpy is a state to be avoided, and it connotes a certain lack of interest or understanding about sartorial choices and personal style. If you google ‘frump style,’ you find post after post of sanctimonious screeds detailing all the choices to avoid, lest ye look frumpy. I love the idea of reclaiming frump as a deliberate decision to ignore the confines of good taste and simply wear what brings you joy.” SAW dictates that your every aesthetic choice expresses your “true self,” who you as a feminine person most truly are. Frump rejects this in kind, asserting that there are more powerful places to express the self, most notably through work, thought, experience, and relationships.
14. It makes a kind of serendipitous sense then that Frump has also been repurposed as a sly rallying call for the annihilation of Trump.
In a moment where our president is an icon of male violent gaze, surveillance, and rape culture, Frump, which rejects and denies the male sexual gaze, is more relevant than ever.
15. There can also be a note of sadness or melancholy in Frump.
“I didn’t buy these pants so I could look like a fucking idiot,” my friend Amanda laments. “Along the way something happened. Did I dry them wrong?” Frump wants to feel beautiful too sometimes. Sometimes Frump wants to be tamed and can’t. Sometimes Frump wants to pick a side and stay there. “I tried to have a gender for twenty-seven years and I failed at a) having a gender or b) being either of the genders I tried to be,” writes Amo, an agender blogger who used to identify as Frump. Pain is always a companion to failing and loss. Rage and gentleness go hand in hand in Frump.
16. Frump can give its wearers a kind of wholeness other sensibilities lack.
“It’s not that aesthetic choices don’t express the self or the magazine articles that say that are completely wrong,” Amanda says. “We don’t want to denigrate our high fashion sisters. It’s just that the primacy of that view is oppressive. You don’t need to be wearing a particular kind of pants to write, but it’s that same yearning. I just want my body not to get in the way of the work I have to get done. Yet I love this body I am in. It’s a paradox.”
17. When I was a child I wore my short hair in two pigtails on top of my head that I called my antennae.
I wanted to see what would happen, plus I liked the feeling of brushing my palms across my hair’s air-splayed ends. I wasn’t a tomboy at all, but I did this. Also pinafores, aprons, muffs, and other weird and fun feminine fashion shit. For a year of my 20s in Charlottesville, Virginia, a place where SAW style dominates with an iron-pearled fist, I gave up on my closet. Closed the door and wore sweatpants. I thought there was something wrong in me that I didn’t or couldn’t be that way. There is not. Sometimes it can feel like my every choice is loaded — move this way and I’m a hipster, that way and I’m a femme, a butch, a punk, a basic white girl. Frump is not the answer. But Frump grew out of the knowledge, as Kate Bornstein writes, “that the direction to move in is the one marked, ‘This way delights me.’” Welcome.
This post was originally published on Alma and is reprinted here with permission.
Alma is a new publication for ladies with chutzpah.
Top photo: Eileen Fisher
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Emma Copley Eisenberg writes about gender, queerness, Appalachia and crime for places like The New Republic, Granta, Slate, Salon, The Marshall Project, and others. Say hello @EmmaEisenberg or at emmacopleyeisenberg.com.