Life In the Front Row

Question: Why are people so fascinated by the fashion industry?

Harriet Mays Powell: Well I think fashion has gotten to a point where it’s sort of like mini-Hollywood. It’s actress light. It’s melodrama small. It’s a sitcom, it’s not the full-length feature movie—fashion provides a certain drama. It’s got the ego, it’s got the beauty, it’s got the glamour that Hollywood has, and because it’s not Hollywood—we can’t get in behind Meryl Streep’s dressing room. We can’t get backstage at the filming of that. We can’t see when Cameron—who was just on—Charlize Theron just did a nude scene and they did it at night or at 4:00 in the morning because they didn’t want anyone to know, and only the director and Charlize knew, and da, da, da, da. And we can’t get behind the scenes on that, you can’t do that. The celebs won’t let you do that. Hollywood won’t allow us. So, fashion is sort of Hollywood-lite on some level and you can get into a bit of the drama and the glamour and the beauty that Hollywood provides, and it’s also a lot of ego. So, you get a little bit of the story line as well.

Question: Why are celebrities so attracted to the fashion world?

Harriet Mays Powell: Well, they’ve got to look great and that’s their image. And similarly, John Galliano made it out of the slight obscurity when his dresses were worn by actresses on the cat walk—on the red carpet, I mean. So, it’s a great symbiotic relationship. Actresses need to look glamorous, they need to be photographed and similarly designers want to keep their street cred with the general public who is watching the Oscars, who’s watching all of the celebs, reading all the weeklies, looking at all the online sites to see what they’re wearing when they go out, when they go to award ceremonies. So, Hollywood and fashion has gotten into bed together and it’s working nicely actually for both of them.

Question: Which celebrities have the best style

Harriet Mays Powell: I’m always riveted by Madonna. She continues to morph even at age 50, 51. She was backstage at Marc Jacobs. I’m just slightly speechless because I think she’s got great style and if not, she’s got unbelievable balls to have the style that she wants to have when she wants to have it. So, think she’s someone that I’ve always found to be interesting. I think occasionally, Katie Holmes has had great personal style and is kind of gracious in the way she gets dressed. Uma Thurman was a model. I love her style all the time. She looks just great in clothes. You know, Beyonce is sexy and beautiful and round, and I love the way she looks too. Very, very different.

Questions: Who sets the trends in fashion?

Harriet Mays Powell: Well, I think of a generation, the blogs are—I like to consider ours, The Cut, which is going through the roof in its record-breaking numbers during New York fashion week last week, that people are coming more to the blogs and good smart ones that have a point of view, that tell them the news, that synthesize it, also have a bit of a cutting edge, shall we say, not to use the pun of cut. I think that a generational change that really is happening. I don’t think that celebrities are in general—you know, I think the Olsens have great style and that’s an exception to the rule, and they are also doing a great line of clothing, kind of cool classics called The Row. But in general, no, I think it comes from the designers. They’re the ones that set the trends, they’re the ones that create the desire, create the passion, create the whole aura around what you want to get, or wear, or see in any given season. And fashion traditionally goes from yin to yang. Last Fall, this Fall, it was about 80’s and leather and tight and sequins and shoulders and belts, or 40’s and more conservative version of that same silhouette, and for Spring, so far, it’s very romantic. It’s quite loose, enormous amount of texture to fabrics and ruffles and pearls, or ruching, or right strong color, things that are very eye-popping. So, again, you are seeing the antithesis of what came before. Fashion designers tend to be tired of what they’ve just seen for six months and they want something completely different and fresh. So, if you see a season of black, you can bet the next season is going to be white. If you see a season where it’s short and tight, you can sort of put your money on it might be long and loose, or looser and slightly more poetic in its point of view.

Question: Who has the best eye in fashion?

Harriet Mays Powell: I think the designer today that really designs for women. That’s leading the pack on that with that in mind is Alber Elbaz. I think his ability to design, his technique, his literal ability to design a dress and know how to technically do that hasn't got many peers.

I think Alber really understands a woman, I think he understand not only her body, but her psyche, how she wants to be alluring, how she wants to feel, I think he’s really entered into that space and therefore I think he designs with that in mind along with an unbelievable technical ability to make perfectly beautiful clothing seem effortless and have a great ease and sensuality that’s very, very accomplished and difficult to come by. So I would have to give my stars to the man with the most style, or ability to create that style ultimately a woman’s got to have that style because she is putting on something that somebody made and I think Alber Elbaz would be my vote for today for that.

Recorded On: September 22, 2009

Lady Gaga at Marc Jacobs, wearing…Marc Jacobs—Harriet Mays Powell explores the symbiotic relationship between fashion and celebrity.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.