Pack your axe, Brooklyn lumberjack. Pick up your caftan, Silver Lake shaman. There’s a new throwback fashion icon in town. She is the “urban pioneer girl,” and she may be distinguished by the presence of a bonnet.
The urban pioneer girl, or “U.P.G.”—coined by The New York Times’ Chloe Malle—was all over New York Fashion Week, thanks to designer Batsheva Hay’s two-year-old dress line, Batsheva. Hay’s dresses—which might be described as Laura Ashley-meets-Laura Ingalls Wilder, with a touch of Upper West Side orthodoxy—are distinguished by their abundance of ruffles and frills, stiff fabrics, and modest cuts that cover wearers’ elbows and knees.
In a fascinating profile, the New Yorker dubbed Hay’s designs “at once beautiful, sometimes stunningly so, and unsettling.” The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan declared the prairie dresses, rendered this season in fabrics both retro (a red checkerboard print that might appear over the table of a restaurant in Little Italy) and contemporary (metallics in spumoni shades), “the most provocative thing in fashion right now.”
“They are modest, in that they are high-necked and reveal little skin,” wrote Givhan, of the collection Hay showed on Sept. 12 in a Tribeca diner. “But they are so out of the ordinary and visually jarring that they immediately draw attention to themselves and whomever happens to be wearing them … there’s no hiding in these clothes.”
Indeed, some highly visible women have been wearing them: the actors Gillian Jacobs and Natalie Portman, Vogue’s digital creative director Sally Singer, the singer Erykah Badu, and Vice State of Undress host Hailey Gates, among others. Speaking to the Times, Gates compared the dresses to the Lincoln Plaza Cinema—a defunct indie movie house in Manhattan—making the case that they have as much to do with a New York-y nostalgia for the late 1970s and early 1980s as they do with the actual prairie.
And while the urban pioneer girl may feel akin to the Silver Lake shaman—the earth-toned Instagram goddess of Los Angeles we wrote about in 2017—there’s a distinction to be made, which involves a sense of subversion. If the S.L.S. looks to Georgia O’Keefe and Stevie Nicks for inspiration, the U.P.G. might find hers in Cindy Sherman and Courtney Love—both muses Hay referred to when speaking to the New Yorker. (The styling of Hay’s spring 2019 look-book, which includes necklaces made of sticks that recall the first season of True Detective is slightly more inscrutable.)
But as any woman whose boyfriend has compared her wardrobe to that of a cult member can attest (ahem), these aesthetics share a sense of eschewing the male gaze and dressing for oneself and other likeminded women.
“They’re expecting to just do their stuff and not be noticed,” Hay told the New Yorker, pontificating on the confidence projected by Amish and Hasidic women, and the offbeat clothing combinations of moms who have rushed out the door. “‘It’s about freezing that ‘Don’t look at me’ moment and being, like, ‘Maybe that looks cool?’”
Apparently, it does.