Monday, 8 April 2013

Do Clothes Make the Woman?

Readers seem to want to read something about personal style, which makes me tremble as all my life I have loved the beautiful clothes in fashion magazines and worn hand-me-downs. I'm a freelance writer with a husband in the heritage industry, which means I still wear hand-me-downs, albeit from vintage or, as they are known in the UK, charity shops.

Yes, I have my luxury clothing dreams, but it is my belief that you can develop a pleasing style of your own without spending as much money as you might think you would have to. You don't. You just have to be willing to flip through racks and racks of rags to find what will look good on you. 

Most of the time, what looks good on you is colour. Advertisers use a lot of red because it is the colour the human eye first perceives. Therefore, I do not understand why girls on the prowl for boys do so in drab colours, e.g. black tights, blue denim shorts, tight black tops with their breasts all squished up. This overemphasis on the bottom suggests the girls think men are monkeys, and the overemphasis on the squished up breasts suggests that the girls think deep down all men want to bring a stripper home to mother. 

We can wail all day long about how it isn't nice to judge, but the truth is that everybody judges everybody by our clothes. Whole cities can get reputations for style or dowdiness based on the fashion choices of their women.  Paris has a good reputation for well-dressed women. Newcastle (aka Geordie Shore) does not. And what you wear does "send a message" whether you mean it or not, and although the message may not be "I am a loose broad," it may be "I don't belong here" or "I couldn't care less about myself" or "I hate people."

 "I don't belong here" clothes can be as dangerous as "I am a loose broad" clothes, and the best thing I ever did, sartorially-speaking, was refuse to wear my best pale blue acrylic Sunday dress to my first high school dance. Instead I borrowed grey cords and a purple sweater from a friend, which made my mother cry, but at least I did not stick out like a pale blue acrylic thumb. 

Shortly thereafter, the 1960s made a comeback, and so I saw my mother's 1960s clothes in a whole new light. Hitherto, I had worn them glumly because that's what there was, and Mum never threw anything out. But suddenly 1960s minis were in fashion, and Mum's 1960s minis were no longer knee-length on me, so I began to wear them with aplomb. I bought the 1960s revivalist message-- the pale pink lipstick, the black turtlenecks, the black or patterned tights, the big chunky earrings. (In hindsight, I should have gone with the hair, too: grown mine out and ironed it flat.) What I could not raid from my mother, I bought at Le Chateau with my allowance or birthday gift certificates or Christmas money or any money I could get my hands on, really, and Le Chateau was a great shop for teens because it copied the latest fashions and flogged them at a fraction of what the originals much have cost. 

It was all a wonderful exercise in creative experimentation, which is what your teenage years should be about: learning about stuff, experimenting with stuff, training your eye, thinking critically, asking for good advice, taking good advice. And although those grey cords were my badge of fashion freedom, I discovered that I much preferred skirts. I am a girly girl: I like skirts. I like anything that emphasizes that I am not a boy, and nothing says girl like "skirt." There is no reason to display your round bottom, breasts or thighs to get the "I'm a girl" message across. All you need is a nice skirt. Shoes with heels of any height also send the "I'm a girl" message, for men don't usually wear shoes with heels higher than an inch.  

I wore mini-skirts until I was about 30, and then I stopped.  This was mostly because I hated how they rode up when I sat down, but it was also because for years I had preferred the Victoriana side of Goth fashion and also gypsy-look stuff. Both Victorian ladies and gypsy ladies were very modest about legs, and my favourite skirt was (and is) a black velvet maxi-skirt Morticia Adams would have liked. 

In recent years, I have developed an intense boredom for women's legs. Calves are okay if they are bracketed by pretty shoes and the froth of a knee-length hem, but the constant tide of blue-denim and black-stretch bipeds that flows up and down the streets of Edinburgh depresses me. Women used to float; now we scissor. Left, right, left, right, left, right.  Zzzzzz.  It should go without saying that the only place for sweatpants or yoga pants is the gym or yoga studio.

When developing your style, it is helpful to look at fashion magazines and fashion books (e.g. about the history of Yves St Laurent) and take notice of what you like and don't like. Then ponder why you like or don't like them. (What messages have you learned about clothes, and are they valid or invalid, based on your lived experience?) Pay attention to your feelings. It is also helpful to go to galleries and look at paintings, but also to look at what the artists are wearing. (I love looking at artists' outfits at openings.)  

Also, keep your ears open. Do people tell you that you have a strong resemblance to Audrey Hepburn or some other public woman? If so, have a look to see how you resemble her (whether in colouring or shape or both) ,note what she wears or wore, and pull together versions of her looks according to your income. (To the charity shops we go!)

I suppose I should say something about modesty, perennial obsession of the Catholic blogosphere. Modesty is relative to your surroundings, and I had a reader who was targeted for rape because she was wearing an unsually modest outfit at the party. (Predators prey on those who look weak, including uncomfortable.) Remember: looking like you don't belong can be more dangerous than looking "immodest".  In the West, hemlines rose to over the knee in the 1920s, and nothing was the same again. The conservative 1940s, which were war-torn and interested in conserving cloth but also morals and morale, were okay with knee-length skirts and elbow length sleeves. Therefore, I shall make the pronouncement that if you are wearing a shirt or blouse that shows no cleavage or upper arm and skirts or walking shorts that go to your knees (or trousers that do not scream "Look at my bum!"), and perhaps a beret, hat or scarf in neighbourhoods where religious men are nasty to bare-headed women, then you are modestly dressed by any standard, and anyone who says you're not can go soak his head.

If you are at any doubt as to whether or not your outfit is immodest, go directly to the internet and look up "Duchess of Cambridge" or "Kate Middleton." Yes, she lived with her boyfriend for years before marrying him. Yes, yes, yes. Don't do that. But DO have a look at what she is wearing today because she is the most scrutinized woman in the country with the cruelest media (bar none), and she has to represent her husband, his family and the UK every public moment. As a result, she wears clothes that are classy, appropriate and modest. In terms of modest yet stylish dress, keep your eye on Kate and you can't go wrong.  Her look says "Elegant Young Princess," and frankly I think Woman's Lot would be vastly improved if we all dressed like elegant young princesses until we were forty, and then dressed like the Frenchwomen our age.

Of course, the Duchess of Cambridge is tall and very thin, so the actual clothes she wears, even when they are affordable, will not suit many of us. Just keep an eye on her hemlines and what sort of clothes she chooses to wear to whichever occasion. For advice on which clothes best suit your frame, I recommend finding old copies of the Trinny and Susannah books, which you can find very cheaply in charity shops (in the UK) and no doubt online, everywhere else. T & S are rather brash and Broken Britain in their tone, but they do have good advice. As Christians, you may prefer to keep your cleavage a little more covered up than they suggest. 

A word about British fashion: the middle- and high-end shops of Edinburgh are full of beautiful, glorious, feminine clothes. Why do so few British women seem to wear them?!?!?! If I had the money, I would frolic through the department stores like a lamb among the daffodils of spring. As it is, my purse confines me to three looks: the Racy 1930s Woman Novelist (hats, gloves, cocktails, the rarely-used cigarette holder), the Pre-Raphaelite Painting (velvet skirts and a lot of hair) and (default) the "Gypsy Witch," which is not my expression but that of a young man who dresses like a Damned Foreign Johnny of 1938.

Gypsy Witch wears long wool skirts, paisley, bright necklaces and shawls of all kinds, advises young girls on their love lives, reads young men's minds and feeds them delicious soups. Oh dear, I would terribly like to be an elegant Frenchwoman my age, but I seem to have become Gypsy Witch.

If everyone buys my Greene Tribute Novel, maybe I will be able to make the transition to elegant Frenchwoman. Everyone go pre-order! Vite! Vite!  (Here's Amazon for those in the UK, and a Polish site for those in Poland, although October seems rather late. The book comes out in the USA in July!)


Anonymous said...

Best post ever! I love your new photo too. I don't think I've ever seen Kate Middleton's cleavage apart from that nasty photographer in France. Even when she wears short skirts as she has done lately, she keeps it clean through tights and covering up the rest. Choose your one revelation if you must.

Have you seen portraits of women by Albert Herter?

The only problem with charity shops is that everyone else has cottoned on to them too.
If I were Queen of the World I would ban denim shorty shorts unless you have thighs measuring less than 6 inches each or are Daisy Duke herself. I had the horror of wearing a short jacket with trousers at Mass last week and realising the shape of my bottom was probably on show to those behind me. Aargh! Trenchcoats or coats or skirts are all I will be buying from now on, I'm still embarrassed.

I like your idea about art, I would also recommend old films too. And hats. Wear hats!


Seraphic said...

It's a good idea to make friends with the ladies who staff the charity shops; they have been known to lay good stuff aside for favourite regulars!

AM said...

Kate Middleton par excellence:

"Thrifting" is the way to go! I'm proud to say most of my wardrobe is from second-hand stores.

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

Love this. :-) Also, the song Thrift Shop is now kind of running through my head (its lyrics are not... entirely great, but the first two lines of the chorus, "I'm gonna pop some tags, got twenty dollars in my pocket..." seem appropriate here) ("kind of" because I'm actually listening to something Entirely Different).

Right now I'm always trying to build up my professional wardrobe - for which I say, OUTLETS. The town where my law school is has a lot of them, but even better, a town fifteen minutes from my parents' home north of Boston has a Talbot's outlet (a real one, where it's their real lines knocked waaaaay down, as opposed to their "Upscale Outlets" which have lines specifically for them and are actually lesser quality). I go, marvel at how many things they have in my size, try on a bunch, and come out having paid about a 1/5 of the original tags say (price tag game). :-) I've also shopped at the thrift shop here and think I may go back for some more springy stuff... they actually have a student discount as well. The only thing is it's a pain in the neck but my pocketbook appreciates it. :-)

I would love to see more of your outfits. I didn't really have much of a sense of style until the last couple years when I had enough self-confidence to be able to recognize that some things looked good on me (as opposed to just depressedly thinking nothing would), and trying out some combinations, getting advice from family and my roommate, etc. I think if I had the budget (for more fun clothes rather than dressy cas and business) and time I'd LOVE to have a steampunkish look for weekends. :-)

Maggie D said...

Sorting through things at thrift shops and finding something lovely is the most fun thing in the world. Although I don't know if it's just me and my pickiness about tops, but though I often find great secondhand skirts I have never found a top that I actually wanted to wear and which was modest enough and fitted me. I don't actually shop that often, though. (My favorite moment at a secondhand store was finding a lovely, name-brand, grey, lined, real wool ankle-length skirt in SIZE 4 that fits me! (Ok, it's slightly tight around the rear, but I only wear it with long coats and things that cover that up. And it doesn't choke the life out of me.)

Oh, and I thought this might be something you might find mildly amusing--a melodramatic warning of the dangers of confessing your love to a man before he has confessed his (and the danger of throwing hissy fits):

magdalen hobbs said...

I adore Kate Middleton's style, but she and I have very different figures. I'm still trying to figure out my personal style, but I know that when I'm older, I shall be like my mother and dress exclusively in Eileen Fisher, whose clothes are simple, flattering, and all linen, silk, or organic cotton :)

Domestic Diva said...

I too love Kate's style, and appreciate that she's made it "in" to be classy, and classic, once again.

I would add that many stores (in the US) run good sales about twice a year: when they're trying to make room for cool-weather styles (July) and when they're trying to make room for warm-weather styles (January-Feb, a jump start may be possible from Thanksgiving to Christmas). I have found high-quality, beautiful clothes at that time of year, especially for work. That may mean wearing last year's clothes for most of the season until you get to the sales, but over time I've built a professional wardrobe full of outfits I can wear for years before they wear out or go out of style.

Claire said...

I wrote my senior honors thesis on this very topic (why people dress the way they do)! I dress people for a living so clothing are something that is near and dear to my heart. Albeit they are imaginary characters in stage play but that doesn't make *too* much of a difference really.

Personally, I was stuck in a t-shirt-and-jeans rut until I was 17 or so. I thought fashion and clothing was superficial and couldn't be bothered to be concerned about them at all, even though I was beginning to learn how to sew and develop an interest in costume design. Eventually, through reading a blog about dresses, I decided to change everything up and didn't wear pants to school for an entire year. For the winter months, I bought a motley assortment of weird-patterned, colorful stockings and socks to keep warm and made a bunch of crazy-patterned kimono-sleeve dresses. Think a summery white shirtdress with pink peep-toe kitten heel pumps, a purple sweater, black belt, pink checkerboard leggings, with my great-grandmothers grey wool coat from the 50s on top. I got weird looks from the kids at the local elementary school where I waited for my bus but I was happy and I didn't care.

I've only in the past year discovered that berry tones (darker saturated pinks, reds, and purples) seem to elicit more compliments than blues and greens, which is sad because blue is my favorite color. I've also grown to love my more grown-up version of a tshirt and jeans: a colorful v-neck sweater, dark-wash jeans, and brown boots (plus a beret, tweed jacket, and colorful scarf if it's chilly). Trial and error works!

Also, protip: jewel-toned wrap dresses (or mock wrap dresses) look good on lots and lots of people :)

The Gypsy Witch sounds lovely!

c'est la vie said...

Such an interesting and important topic!! I love shoes.... shoes can make or break an outfit! You can add a pair of snazzy shoes to an ordinary outfit and feel dressed up and ready for anything.

Finding out what colours suit your skin tone and hair is very useful too.

Maggie, that link was pretty funny :D

Sheila said...

Oh, yes, Color Me Beautiful is an excellent source for the color stuff! I've looked a lot less pale since I found out I was a Spring.

Since I basically never was a teenager, and was dressed by other people in my teen years, I am spending my twenties developing my style. It's hard! But I've been getting up the nerve to approach people whose style I admire (for instance, my librarian has the most gorgeous steampunk style!) and ask for tips. Or just ogle them out of the corner of my eye and then keep my eye out for that sort of thing. I've discovered my style is mostly hippie/gypsy. Scarves are not expensive and make a huge difference.

The ability to sew is a wonderful asset for dressing yourself well while saving money. Making a whole garment is intimidating, but if you can alter your thriftstore find to fit you, or sew a little panel in the neckline to give it a layered (and NOT sleazy) look, your options broaden a great deal. There are even whole blogs about revamping thriftstore dresses to make them in style again.

Seraphic, I asked about style because I LOVE your style. It's not just "cool," it is original and says a lot about you. Every picture you've put up of yourself, I find myself nodding and thinking, "Of COURSE a person like her would wear that!" And then I look at my old jeans and enormous t-shirt and think, "What sort of person would someone think I was, looking at me for the first time?" And sadly the answer I got was "self-hating," which I'm not at all. So, to the thrift store I went, and now I'm wearing jeans with an embroidered flower on them. Baby steps.

Seraphic said...

Oooh! I love embroidered jeans! I don't know if I will ever wear jeans again (Ahhhhh....! Jeunesse!) but if I did, they would be embroidered ones, boot-cut.

Leah said...

Rachel at "Small Notebook" has some wonderful suggestions on how to utilize acessories and build a 'minimalist wardrobe.'

As I find myself usually just wearing my same few favorite outfits anyway,I loved the idea of building a small wardrobe of well made, classy pieces that I love rather than having a closet full of pieces that I sorta kinda like, too much to feel like I can throw them away, but too little to actually wear on a regular basis. She helps banish that 'closet full of clothes and nothing to wear' problem. I found her tips on how to wear acessories very helpful too, even if you don't like her particular style.

Alisha said...

Hey ladies!
I am a huge fan of second hand stores and even if I didn't have to shop there I would - I think it's great environmentally, often the stores have a charitable function, and it's simple living!
Speaking of fashion, hopefully it is ok to mention underwear here. :) I just came across this awesome campaign - underwear designed by women for women called THINX. There's a bunch of styles, including modest ones and it's leak/stain-resistant as well as anti-microbial, moisture-wicking, comfortable and pretty. They are also partnered with a cool organization called Afripads whose mission help counter is high rates of menstruation-related absenteeism among primary and secondary schoolgirls in east Africa. Girls in the developing often miss school during their period because they don't have the proper supplies and in fact use unimaginable things to manage their monthly cycle like twigs, leaves, newspaper, plastic bags or dirty rags. In Africa alone, 67 million girls have dropped out entirely which overwhelmingly leads to early marriage, pregnancy and a greater difficulty in raising themselves out of poverty.
So for every pair of THINX you buy, you help fund the production of a 7-pad washable kit for a woman or girl and the kit also helps create local jobs and empower the economy while also helping keep girls in school during that time of the month.

Basically, they are doing an indiegogo campaign to try to be able to get the production of the first line out. I ordered some; maybe Seraphic's readers would be interested!

MaryJane said...

I can't remember if someone recommended it here a while ago, but this blog is really fun for getting ideas on how to re-purpose those funky thrift stores finds!