The Irony of Misunderstanding Irony


When Cathy Horyn wrote a piece in the NYT called “Irony and the Old Lady” she was complaining about women who seem to deliberately wear silly clothes after the age of 50. The complaint was picked up in The Cut, which posed the question “Can Women Over 50 Pull Off Ironic Fashion?”

I think the real question should be: Why don’t these writers know what irony is?   Is everybody Alanis Morissette all of a sudden?

Ms. Horyn seems to mean over-the-top when she alludes to ironic fashion. She cites Anna Piaggi, who is way, way over the top. But is Piaggi being ironic? She is, if she finds her own look ridiculous and isn’t letting on. But if she dresses to please herself and to make the statement that More is More, that’s not being ironic!

Then, Ms. Horyn considers socks-with-heels, and vintage straw hats. She doesn’t like them, but why does she find them ironic? Maybe she thinks ironic means, stuff she doesn’t like.

The examples of older women dressing ironically in The Cut include Cher, who just has bad taste, and Diane Keaton, whose style is extremely eccentric. Where’s the irony?! Then the author gives us Vivienne Westwood, who looks glamorous and punky as always, and decides, Yes! She can pull it off.   Again, Vivienne has a distinctive style, but where’s the irony?


A long time ago, I thought it was funny to wear t shirts advertising bands I hated. Then one day I explained to my husband that I was wearing some hideous floral printed jeans because a friend gave them to me and they were SO OBVIOUSLY something I would never wear. Haha, get it? Neither did my husband. He pointed out that I was simply having a joke with myself that no one else   was in on. Oops! I was being too ironic for my own good, at that point.

Last night I watched Ghost World for the millionth time, and even though I’ve come to accept the ending as inevitable instead of heart-breaking, I was struck anew by how much I identify with Enid. Still.

Enid’s outfits are all ironic. Each item looks carefully picked for its irony factor. She works hard at it, too. Remember when she goes to the trouble of dying her hair green, but nobody gets her ironic reference to “original 1977 punk” fashion?   Poor Enid.   “Everybody’s stupid!” is her stance toward the world, especially when they don’t appreciate her studied irony.

If what you’re wearing says “You probably think I mean this but I don’t!” then you are being ironic.   If you just look like you don’t know how awful you look (Betsey Johnson, Cher, Madonna at the Met) then you are a victim of bad judgment. Period, godammit.

For an essay on the meaning of irony, go here.


This entry was posted in Fashion, Rants, Words and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to The Irony of Misunderstanding Irony

  1. Danielle says:

    I cannot tell you how much Ghost World defined my high school and college years.

    Rebecca: Enid, isn’t that hat from your little old lady phase?

    Ironic? Yes, yes it is.

  2. WendyB says:

    Yeah, I didn’t know what Horyn was really driving at.

  3. Mark says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    And when do ironic mullets just become dated in their irony? Same goes for ironic mustaches–when?

  4. JK says:

    Uhm, I don’t know Sister,

    Cher is in ankle length white despite the “Chastity Issue” which/(whom) may/may not have a dick who’ll wear pockets which the bearer of said pockets can grab said dick. As to whether said dick is “donkey-sized” in order to satisfy an either/or – which in practical terms satisfies the requirements of jerking off or simply satisfies the requirements of the “shareholders” or whether Chastity will be able to suck dick on her own – I haven’t a clue. I trust we’ll receive “updates?”

    Actually I’m concerned (though I don’t really want to admit it Sister Wolf) will Chastity’s dick be bigger than mine? I know it won’t be as enthusiastic (oh my, assure me).

    Sister Wolf? I used to have a simple anxiety problem – but now I’ve got a white-clad Cher, Chastity with a made to order dick, and some very weirdly clad females.

    I’d appreciate it if you can find a nice pair of shoes or a handbag. I’m still buying lottery tickets. I still feel like that “…ya gotta be shittin’ me!” kid from wherever you went to pick up the Chinese fast food.

    Sister? Is Chastity gonna replace me in your ….

  5. A) I have to watch Ghost World. Why haven’t I already (this is not good).
    B) That was a fuck of a long article, therefore an essay on irony to read first thing in the morning after a bowl of cereal and before a cup of coffee.
    C) Am mighty please you have exposed bad dressing/eccentric dressing/stupid dressing for what it is.
    D) There is no irony in this comment.

  6. Lucy says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you (ditto)!! That H. article made me crazy, it was so arrogant and ignorant.

  7. cybill says:

    Remember when the mullet made an ‘ironic’ comeback a few years ago, those people didn’t look like they had an ironic haircut, they just looked liked dickheads. Perhaps the irony was on the wrong side.
    I tried to read the article, it was too long and I am too stupid. I am a fat middle-aged lady who dresses like a fat middle-aged lady and thats about as ironic as I’m ever gonna get.

  8. Sal says:

    Is it possible that “ironic” is the MOST misused word in the English language?

  9. Jill says:

    Lewis always says that the majority of people on the street have at most a 6th grade education. I’m too twee to ever be ironic.

  10. ashley says:

    Ewww, you are so right, that word is being horribly misused. People should be fined, I think! And the use of the word “surreal” to describe something that is just a little fucking strange, well that almost makes me lose my mind. Those people should be sentenced to 3 years of Art History taught by tiny Eastern European men! Yeck!

    I get the floral denim thing!. Last summer, I started wearing this hideous tye die shirt. It wasn’t done for irony. I just wanted to take it away from the hippies.

    You should be the president of all things fashion!

  11. You summarized my thoughts exactly on reading the Cathy Horyn article. I don’t think any one of those women intends to be ironic. Chloe Sevigny is ironic. Why not pick on her?

  12. Rudy Zarsov says:

    I think it’s ironic that ANY American not only understands irony but is actually able to explain it.

  13. dust says:

    I read the article and must say that the woman has no clue about fashion.
    The persons mentioned are individuals, some just with bad taste. And sometimes people wear stuff to make a statement, regardless, if the color or shape are unflattering.
    When you walk through all designer shops you’ll find lots a stuff that is unflattering and ugly and sells for a lots a money. And it’s called mainstream.

    The biggest irony is that incompetent woman wrote something that sounds more like chewing old gum AND got payed to do it. She might buy fillers for her face.
    Sister, beat her ass with your big giant irony bat and take the money.

  14. Deni says:

    I’m so happy that I’m too stupid or boring or just plain out of it to care what anyone that I don’t personally know writes about, so SW I only care what you write about. Thank you for your insightful articles that keep me clued into a world that I feel I barely belong in, with, to, apart of as in a part from, etc.
    As for Ghost World I loved it and loved its ending . . . I always dreamed of getting on a bus and riding off into the distance . . . Oh, I did that . . . but it was a plane . . . and I ended up in LA . . . sorry, you’re right it was heart breaking . . . no, not really . . . maybe . . . can I just remain uncommitted about the ending?
    Women should dress however they want to! Odd, ironic, over-the-top, youthful, out of fashion, strange, weird, clueless . . . what I can’t stand is “cookie-cutter statements.” Personal style over Vogue copy cats. Even if they want to sport a dick. Who am I to say what’s right for someone else?

  15. WCGB says:

    Bloody ‘ell. Madge is everything and anything BUT ironic.

    The whole reason Horyn wrote that article was so she could say things like this: “…I mentioned this to a friend, Luca Stoppini, the art director of Italian Vogue.”

    And the crowning glory is this quote: “The fashion message we’re so used to in New York doesn’t translate elsewhere in the country,” said Charla Krupp, a stylist and the author of “How Not to Look Old.” “People don’t get the joke.”

    Note to self: Everybody hates LA, and New Yorkers hate the whole rest of the country. Get used to it!

    As for the misuse of irony…Feh! Meh! Gah! A friend once called me the Queen of Irony, but you’ll never see my crown. And should I sport one, it won’t be on my head—but that part is not ironic, is it?

    The worst part (besides misuse of irony) is a woman in her 50’s picking on her peer group.

    I didn’t know about Anna Piaggi, but I love her look and dedication.

    I’ll wear any bloody hat I want to, Ms. Krupp. My husband says I look good in them.

  16. alittlelux says:

    blues hammer!

  17. honeypants says:

    The abuse of the the word irony has been killing me for years as well. And Ash, I’m down with your defense of surreal too! Ugh!

    My best ironic fashion statement to date: I wore a Hanson t-shirt to a Marilyn Manson show. BUT! I actually was really into Hanson at the time. So people thought I was just being funny, but the joke was on them.

    As for Ghost World, I really need to watch it again. It’s been long enough since it was in the theater (when I saw it). It hit close to home though and evokes very ugly feelings that I don’t need dredged up.

    Deni — sounds like one of my grandmother’s old chestnuts would suit you: “I am in this world, but I am not of it.” She said it regularly.

  18. omggmab says:

    I think she meant “iconic” fashion and it is ironic that she would not know what that means either. A tragic irony that anyone should get paid to write such swill!

  19. Mark says:

    Blues Hammer is right!

  20. Sister Wolf says:

    Danielle – Hahahaha! Great quote.

    WendyB – I never read her stuff before. Is she normally stupid?

    Mark – The mustache thing is really baffling.

    JK -That is Diane Keaton in the white. Are you taking your meds??

    Make Do – Oh please see it! It is a gem. xo

    Lucy – You’re welcome. My pleasure!

    Sal – Well, I think “literally” is probably the most winner.

    cybill – You are an excellent role model.

    Jill – Now Jill, you are not twee, you can’t fool me.

    ashley – You’re right, we are related.

    Iheartfashion – YES! Or MK Olsen?

    Rudy – Sister Wolf is not ANY American!


    Deni – Want me to call you Enid??

    WCGB – Charla Krupp! Her name sounds ironic! I need to go google that idiot.

    alittlelux – Yeah baby!

    Honeypants – Hahaha! Surreal is good. Has it taken over for ‘insane?’

    omggmab – Tragic, YES, when I need that facial filler!

    Mark – Great band.

  21. hammie says:

    If I think about that too much I get light headed. Maybe I have an irony deficiency?

  22. ambika says:

    This is so brilliant. Ironic fashion really is something only the wearer could know for sure. I mean, I might guess that Kurt Cobain in an old man cardigan is being ironic (isn’t it unlikely a young guy would wear an old guys garments?) but maybe he thought it was genuinely cosy. & quite honestly, given that the article only targeted women, it seems a bit b.s. anyways.

    Tagged you, btw, tho I doubt it’s needed!

  23. editor says:

    okay, NOW i know what to thank you for…
    thank you for writing this!!!

  24. Steroids says:

    Delighted i discovered , this excellent website, will be sure to bookmark it so i can drop by frequently.

  25. Francis Oliverio says:

    The human race loves to follow and followers. We expect others to conform. It’s awful.

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