And who gets to say? As the latest list of lauded style-setters arrives, it may be time to say goodbye to the whole concept.
Once upon a time the crowning of a new set of style royalty was so newsworthy that reporters from The Rocky Mountain News to The Daily Mail in England would vie for the scoop. And yet this year, the announcement that Cate Blanchett and Roger Federer had taken top honours, that Janelle Monáe, Zoë Kravitz, LeBron James and Zac Posen (among others — 30 in all, from 16 countries) had also been recognised, feels more anticlimactic than edge-of-the-seat anticipatory.
Despite our seeming unending appetite for "best of" lists (which this year has taken an even more extreme turn thanks to the end of the decade), all of them apparently read and pored over and shared until they trend on a variety of metrics, are we, actually, over the best-dressed list? The one that was among the first of them all?
I am beginning to think the answer is yes.
In our fractured world, where the individual has become ascendant and the digital sphere has elevated the obscure to the influential, where trends have devolved into everything you want all the time, and formality has become a choice rather than a professional diktat, the idea of an unnamed group of people ruling on who is "best dressed" seems increasingly as anachronistic as "no white after Labor Day." (Tell that to Nancy Pelosi.)
"Best dressed" has become an empty term. This is a time of "viral dress" and "influential dress," ideas that often have little do with the subjective value judgment attached to the word "best," and which are measurable in some objective way.
But "best," with all its implications of a certain elite and ineffable — what? style, good taste, elegance? — seems tied to another era, one in which a small group acted as gatekeepers of power, not to mention of social and cultural capital.
It is an era chronicled extensively in a book by Amy Fine Collins, a journalist who is herself in the Best-Dressed Hall of Fame, published earlier this fall by Rizzoli (and who is part of the governing body of the current International Best-Dressed List).
Though it is not the first book about the list — in 2004, Eleanor Lambert, the founder of the list, was a co-author of Ultimate Style: The Best of the Best-Dressed List — it is the most comprehensive.
The International Best Dressed List: The Official Story is filled with swanning, swooning pictures from the 1940s to today: of Babe Paley, Jackie Kennedy and Bianca Jagger; Sidney Poitier, Rihanna and Lady Gaga.
It also includes gossipy tidbits about how the list was made, how it evolved to reflect the society it chronicled, and a relatively convincing case for why, though it has been debated and dismissed and decried almost since its inception (in 1999 The New York Times called the list "absurdly quaint"), it is still going.
Founded in 1940 by Lambert, a publicist, as a scheme to draw attention to the American fashion industry, the best-dressed list aimed to celebrate both individual style and those who invested in a more classic elegance: the looks of singularities like Diana Vreeland and China Chow, as well as famous designer champions like C.Z. Guest and the Duchess of Windsor.
They were women (and latterly men) who went to the sort of events that were often photographed, thus putting them in a position to influence other people's choices.
It has changed with the times, no question. Attempted to stay current. Diversified. Youthquaked. Celebrated celebrities who became style setters when, as Fine Collins said in an interview over tea at the Carlyle, "the fashion and entertainment industries began to converge."
As you go through the decades, you see figures emerge on the list as they emerged on the pop culture scene: Mary Tyler Moore, Diahann Carroll, Rudolf Nureyev.
The list tried to fight against some of the worst evolutions in fashion. In 2003, after Lambert retired and "bequeathed" her invention to four editors — Carter, Fine Collins, Reinaldo Herrera and Aimée Bell — it moved, with some fanfare, to Vanity Fair.
At the time, Bell told The Times, "Those who are dressed by stylists are banned from the list." (That notion obviously didn't last long, since it would have taken every celeb off the table, which was not a tenable proposition for the magazine.)
But as much as it has changed and been, as Fine Collins said, "elastic and flexible and able to adapt to what is happening in the zeitgeist," it has also relied largely on certain commonalities: access, privilege, the ability to go out a lot.
Even as it became more diverse, it became more diverse within certain very limited paradigms, chief among them fame and money.
And it has spawned an entire sector.
We can thank the International Best-Dressed List for Blackwell's Worst-Dressed list, founded in 1964. For the fact that almost every magazine now has its own best-dressed list, including People (Best-Dressed Stars), GQ (Best-Dressed Men) and Sports Illustrated (Best-Dressed Athletes). For Vogue one-upping them all with Best-Dressed of the Week and for Vanity Fair further clouding the issue by continuing to curate its own best-dressed list even after Carter, Fine Collins and Bell left in 2017, Lambert's list in hand.
For the Oscars and the Met gala getting their own best- and worst-dressed lists — multiple versions. For Roger Stone, the clotheshorse and political operative convicted of witness tampering and lying to Congress, creating his own: Mr. Stone's Best and Worst Dressed List (presumably not anymore). For the fact that there is now a best-dressed list for pretty much anyone's liking.
Indeed, if I were making a list, it would include, say, the women in white at the State of the Union. The woman in Sudan (also in white). The yellow vests. Billy Porter in a dress at the Oscars. Lizzo with her little bag. In other words, the moments in fashion this year when dress became a symbol of social and political change. But that's me. You try! (It's both a fun and difficult exercise.)
And though the caretakers of the International List claim theirs is the only true list, since it was the first, there's nothing that says primogeniture equals ownership in this particular case.
Which is why, though the book was conceived in part as an argument that said list — the original one, with past and pedigree — can be seen as a mirror held up to society, a history in chiffon and silk, it functions less as a case for the list's continued relevance than as a very well-accessorised memorial.
That's why the unveiling of the latest iteration of the list seems like the echo of a coda to a symphony heard long ago.
After all, if there is one truism of today it is that everyone can take pictures of themselves in their bedrooms (or on the street or outside a space they may not actually have access to) and have their photos reach 1 million people — thus, potentially, changing how others dress.
And those people don't need the approval of the insiders to do it. In fact, the lack of approval of insiders is part of their appeal.
So if the International Best-Dressed List really is a reflection of the times, perhaps the only way for it to truly represent where we are now is for it to acknowledge its own natural, gorgeously appointed, demise.
Written by: Vanessa Friedman
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES