Lessons in Fashion and Fatness from ‘Absolutely Fabulous’
Absolutely Fabulous celebrated outlandish women behaving badly, usually in outlandish, high-end clothes.
Absolutely FabulousAbsolutely Fabulous
Absolutely FabulousAb Fab
Eddy is also obsessed with her weight. She constantly compares herself to her best friend, Patsy, a leggy blonde who fits into bouclé Chanel suits thanks to a liquid diet of Stolichnaya. Patsy blithely notes that she hasn’t eaten since the mid-’70s. This is a dark exaggeration of the twisted,restrictive diets of many fashion models; it’s the kind of fantastical, astringent humor that makes Ab Fab such a resonant satire about fashion. It’s an industry that inspires women while insisting they torment and deny themselves in order to participate in it. Ab Fab is also a darker and poignant comedy about mothers and daughters: what they wear, and what they weigh. Eddy’s teenage daughter, Saffy, bookish and hyper-responsible, dresses primly. She favors buttoned-up button-downs, wooly sweater vests, and those high-waisted ’90s khakis. “Why does everything you wear look like it’s bearing a grudge, darling?” Eddy asks her. Saffy, resentful that she has to parent herself while her mom has all the fun, retaliates by calling Eddy “a mad old, fat old cow.”
My mom and I loved watching Ab Fab together. First we wore out those VHS tapes; then we’d tune in when it was syndicated on cable. It aired after dinner, and on the nights that Dad worked late, we’d curl up on the couch under a green chenille blanket and make a significant dent in a tub of Edy’s low-fat ice cream. (Late-night ice cream binges are a habit neither of us has been able to break.) “Don’t tell your father,” she’d say. I was never sure if that was about the TV or the ice cream. We’d pass the spoon between us and sip cups of tea (another thing I was allowed in abundance when it was just the two of us). Mom loves sitcoms, and this was one of her favorites. I loved hearing her laugh—an infectious, mellifluous cackle. “It’s so ridiculous, isn’t it?” she’d say.
It was, and it wasn’t. I sensed that the show—exuberant, candy-colored, and full of wild women—was a kind of fun-house mirror that distorted in a way that clarified. My mom took to calling me “sweetie darling” (what Eddy calls Saffy). I saw myself in Saffy, a frumpy girl trailing in the wake of her more glamorous mother. I dressed in her same grudge-bearing style. Where my mom was gorgeous, beautiful as Natalie Wood in her high school photo, I inherited lumpy thighs and a beaked nose from my father’s side.
As I watched, entranced by these fun-house reflections, Saffy started to terrify me. The similarities between our wardrobes was like an alarm bell. She made me hyperaware of myself: a fat, frizzy-haired nerd stuck on the sidelines of life. I wanted to be more like Eddy, who fretted over her weight but never let it stop her pursuit of the fabulous.
I started poring over fashion magazines. They offered a delicious escape from my button-downs and frumpy khakis that just barely zipped up. I dreamed of garments that would reflect my inner self. I craved the preppy-mod looks of Marc Jacobs, but I knew my hips would test the strength of those pencil skirts.
My kinship with Edina deepened. She was a woman who loved fashion but was too fat for it. I should say that Eddy, by any rational standards, is not fat. She’s got a tummy and is a smidge too big for the restrictive sizes of the high fashion labels she loves so much. But Eddy is a child of the ’60s. She grew up with rail-thin models like Twiggy and Jean “The Shrimp” Shrimpton as beauty icons. In their photos, they bend their legs and arms at dramatic angles, forming trim, clean lines. In comparison, the very fact of her breasts and hips makes Eddy feel like a lump.
My teenage experiences with fashion were acutely embarrassing. I tried to avoid shopping, but when I needed new school clothes or a party dress, my mother was heartbreakingly careful not to mention my weight. But her constant comments about her own made me wonder if my size was a source of shame for her as much as it was for me. When I was alone, I followed Eddy, buying the largest sizes at the French Connection store and squeezing into them.
Eddy is a label whore: She wears whatever is “in,”even if she has to squeeze herself into it.At one point, she says her fondness for labels helps her dissociate from her body: “Dolce & Gabbana fat thighs, not mine!” The high fashion labels can be extremely important for fat women: There’s that detachment, sure, but they’re also the single most motivating goal for any diet. They seem to offer the promise of pride and belonging that comes from literally “fitting in” (even if that fit is a bit of a squeeze) to those brands deliberately built to keep you out of them.
College and the possibility of a new start led to my first major round of dieting, and my motivation was to be able to fit into the kind of high fashion labels Eddy adored.I took my cues from her, scouring eBay for good deals and for larger sizes, which were still hard to find. My first big score was a purple velvet vest from Eddy’s beloved Vivienne Westwood. I felt a giddy euphoria when it actually buttoned up. The “it fits!” moment—the frictionless fastening of a button, the zipping up of a vintage dress when you don’t have to suck everything in—was an addictive high.
While I indulged in some of Eddy’s favorite brands in college, I also realized something: Eddy is not a blind follower. Her tart eviscerations of insipid trends and the industry’s clichés are always on the mark. When Patsy is assigned to do makeovers for the fashion magazine she works for, Eddy describes them aptly: “Public humiliation, darling.” She’s very clear-eyed about the ways commerce strangles its creativity; advertising has “taken anything that was ever real and genuine and honest and original and attached it to a toilet cleaner.” She loves fashion while knowing it’s a huge con, cynically and frivolously changeable, and designed to exclude her.
Eddy’s outfits satirize the fashions of the day: multi-patterned bell-bottom pants with mismatched stripey vests are a test-pattern version of the ’90’s retro ’70s look: It’s like past and present are warring on her body. During one of her diets, Eddy does her sit-ups in a T-shirt emblazoned with the year: “1992.” It’s a great joke about the rapid cycling and disposability of fashion. (The shirt is totally “in” now but will be “out” in just a year.) When she goes to the hospital (for an ingrown toenail), she wears a Moschino shirt with a pointillist trompe l’oeil print of a slim but shapelynaked torso. Another great joke about her swings between shame and exhibitionism, a contrast between the ideal and the real body, the smaller printed breasts stretching awkwardly around Eddy’s bigger real ones.
She loves fashion while knowing it’s a huge con, cynically and frivolously changeable, and designed to exclude her.
In a strange way, Eddy’s over-the-top fashion-victim outfits make her an avatar of feminine resistance to society’s expectations for how fat and aging bodies should be dressed: apologetically and unobtrusively to the point of invisibility. She dresses loudly and flamboyantly, with a comical indifference to what actually “suits” her shape: frilly and patterned pants that accentuate her thighs, body-conscious athleisure outfits that barely zip up and bunch around her stomach.
And Eddy also has some genuinely enviable numbers: a bronze lamé blazer, a quilted jacket in a puzzle-piece print, a floor-length fuzzy leopard-print coat. You can’t spend so much time obsessing about your body and the ways it doesn’t belong without developing a keen eye for clothes. Like fashion itself, she’s both alluring and a big joke.Eddy’s constant attempts to lose weight and fit into certain clothes is balanced with a defiant urge to thumb her nose at the limited, bland, and nondescript clothes available for bigger and aging bodies at the time. And she does so with clownishly glamorous flair. She refuses to be invisible. Throughout the first season, Eddy wears a necklace with a giant pendant of the “female” symbol: a bold assertion of her femininity to a world that’s starting to tell her that she’s losing it.
When the pandemic hit, I moved away from New York City to small-town Colorado.
It was liberating to have no one really look at me. I taught remotely wearing stretchy pants on the bottom and a Saffy-esque button-down on top. A few months later, I had knee surgery. When I could move again,I resumed checking the scale every morning, and I weighed more than I ever had.I dithered between defeat and acceptance. I exercised with the goal of making my leg strong enough to walk again, abandoning the dream of thinner calves. I got a pandemic-induced clarity about how I wanted to spend my time: Did I want my mood for the day to be automatically set by the number I saw on the scale?Was trying to drop weight yet again worth what Eddy calls the “horrible, painful, funless grind” of dieting?Day after day of waking up to gnawing hunger and an answering urge to scarf down carbs? My tentative no, strangely, led me back to Eddy.
“Darling, all I want is a few little things, a few little pleasures, a few little crutches to get me through life,” she tells Saffy when her daughter criticizes her diet. During lockdown, I was as flummoxed and bored by everyday domesticity as Eddy. “Little crutches” seemed not only permissible but necessary: There were worse ways to get through it all than that pan of Julia Child’s brownies, trays of crumbly-sweet Christmas cookies, and, when you could get them, Eddy’s favorite, chocolate croissants.
I had assumed that “giving up” on your weight (I didn’t yet have the strength to call it “body acceptance”) meant retreating back into sartorial obscurity: baggy linen shirt dresses, wearing dark and dull colors in tentlike shapes so no one would really look at you twice.Maybe you’d wear a big turquoise necklace, just to show you still gave half a damn.As I trawled through my closet, through the hangers full of dull, “grudge-bearing” button-ups, I had a “fuck it” moment. For so much of my fat adolescence, I tried to shrink into invisibility. I didn’t want that anymore. I’d spent decades developing my own ideas about style, and I wanted to use fashion as an exuberant kind of self-expression and a truly fabulous form of rebellion.
When I finally accepted that I needed bigger clothes, I was drawn to Eddy’s looks.(It’s much easier now: the ’90s are back, and you can buy cool clothes in bigger sizes.) I’ve embraced the comfort of neon-colored leggings, and I browse for blousy tops in paisley prints and burned velvet. I pile on big gaudy jewelry.
When the first boxes arrived, I felt a euphoric glee at all the patterns and textures and all the ways they could chicly clash with one another. It felt fun—like fashion should be when it’s not a series of ruthless decisions about what makes you look the smallest.
I’ve been happier and happier in Eddy’s boho-clown wardrobe.I’m almost the age that she is at the start of Ab Fab, and embracing her style affirms both her love of fashion and her rebellion against it.Her wild colors and wilder prints boldly accentuate her body’s size. They defy the increasing invisibility of a woman’s body as she ages. When I look in the mirror and see myself in black, brown, and yellow trousers, all in a swirling art nouveau pattern, my first thought now is to pair them with a clashing green leopard-print sweater coat. (Nowhere near as fabulous as Eddy’s own coat, but I’ll take it.) When I put on a pair of purple ikat-print flared pants, I’m reminded of Eddy’s mantra as she hoists up her own frilly bell-bottoms. It’s half affirmation, half aspiration: “Looking good, feeling great!”
Julia Sirmons writes about style and excess in film, television and performance. She has also written extensively about crime fiction. Her work has appeared in Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Crooked Marquee, among others. She has a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Columbia University.