“The Woman who is chic is always a little different. Not different in being behind fashion, but always slightly apart from it.” Emily Post
Galena Illinois, Spring Break 2006. I am binge watching Stacy and Clinton with my daughter, Marie. It is late on a Saturday night, during her junior year of college, and the family has rented a house for spring break. It is hardly spring, and everyone else is sleeping. We allow ourselves to sit in front of the big screen TV. Makeovers make for wonderful viewing.
Within the space of one 45 minute episode on “What Not To Wear,” we couldn’t recognize the mousy woman we first met in a baggy sweatshirt who was now a confident beauty in a fitted skirt and smart sweater–stunning her family and friends who keep holding hands to their faces and screaming in disbelief. Ugly duckling to swan. Cinderella goes to the ball.
It was so satisfying to watch these changes right before our eyes and shop in New York boutiques with Stacy, imagining if it were us starting over with our own wardrobes. Our closets would contain only the right pieces, that in a matter of minutes could be combined in to perfectly coordinated outfits to fit our bodies and our lifestyle. They would flatter our strongest features and tame the not-so-good ones.
The part I didn’t like so much was spying on the person’s fashion don’ts around town, while being secretly followed and videotaped in their unflattering pieces. And Stacy’s insistence that each article in their current closet be thrown into an oversized trash can! You had to promise to get rid of all of your clothes in exchange for a $5000 wardrobe IF they followed the rules Stacy and Clinton laid out for them while shopping. Fitted jackets only for an hourglass figure. Flared jeans need to be paired with heels not flats. V-necks are a better choice for a large bust.
I don’t need this kind of help, fun as it is to watch the before and after. A wardrobe I can handle, and no way would I get rid of all of my clothes to get new ones. I like the pieces I have, and it has taken me a while to “curate” the mix. I like making my own rules now.
Wow, there have been a lot of theories about what to wear! At this point in my life, I know what works for me, and what I should avoid on the sale rack. It wasn’t always this way. In 1975 John Malloy’s Dress for Success made brown garments the kiss of death. His landmark book used scientific evidence to calculate the hazards and benefits of wearing particular colors and styles in the world of business. As a result we all had a navy suit in our closet. It became the uniform of flight attendants, school principals, sales executives, politicians. In fact I wore one on the first day of my first job at a utility company. The JH Collectible suit was made of hop sacking fabric and the mid calf skirt had a slit up the front for comfortable walking, but not too far up to invite suggestion at the office. I paired it with navy Famolare platform shoes and a peter pan collared shirt under a semi-fitted jacket. This was before the small ties became popular for women, which we can also thank John Malloy for, in the pages of his sequel–Women Dress for Success. Pretty much the same message but for she and he. Luckily we have wised up and wear what we want to work.
The other big influence on fashion choices was Color Me Beautiful–a color themed concept, named for the four seasons, that established an individual’s color palette that would be most becoming. The process was like going to a Tupperware party to “get your colors done.” The consultant would hold swatches of fabric up to your face to determine which season and its associated color palette most flattered your skin, eyes and hair. Winters could wear cool, bold, brilliant shades. Springs like me should choose warm tones in softer shades of peach aqua, and lavender. Color theory alone would not hold much weight now, but has stuck with me all these years– enough so that it steers me clear of some shades and attracts me to others.
Women want fewer rules about what to wear.
Some days it takes me way too long to get ready for work, sliding the hangers along the rod in my closet to look through the hanging blouses, the neutral shades of slacks and skirts as Sabri Ben-Achour is talking stock futures on Morning Marketplace. That means it is almost 8:30 and I should be at work by now. Instead I am still trying to decide what to wear.
At the food coop, a woman stops her cart where I am studying a display of goat’s milk products. “I have to tell you, you look so smart in your outfit, so snappy in fact.” She is about my age and I feel a little embarrassed. I am wearing a favorite black skirt that flares out, black leggings, a green motorcycle style jacket, a print scarf, black shoes with a strap around the ankle.
I thank her for her kind compliment and tell her she made my day. I think to myself, I feel good in these clothes. They are comfortable and soft and on the edge of “maybe I am too old for this.” It sounds vain I know, not something I should be focusing on. I will never stop loving clothes, getting dressed for my day. Feeling in tune with both the outside and inside of me makes me feel better. Some of it is tactile, how it feels on my body, and some of it is how it looks in the mirror. The soft drape of a favorite dirndl skirt, the flattering lines of princess seams, the familiar threadbare flannel of my red plaid robe. Who doesn’t want to be wrapped in puffy down, soft woolens and fleece to be warm? Cool linen and soft silk on a hot day?
I am trying to say I am still me by what I wear. The me who feels good when I take care of myself, wear the clothing I like, some pieces decades old. My floral Laura Ashley pants that qualify for vintage, my white smocked night gown of organic cotton, the gray cashmere sweater and camel coat I have had in my closet since Becka was a baby. And of course my winter uniform, a short black down-filled wrap skirt.
I will continue to say goodbye to the things that no longer serve me well. My friend Jean gave away the blouses that revealed too much of the parts she didn’t want exposed, shoes that pinched her feet to put her off balance. Walking safely is more important.
Our appearance, and how we present ourselves to the world is just another challenge to an already changing image of ourselves. So little of it is within our control. I want to think of it in a broader way –the relationship between attire and how we feel. Dawnn Karen, a brand consultant at the Fashion Institute of Technology examines how color, image, style and beauty affects human behavior. Why do we choose what we wear? What am I trying to say about myself by my clothing and appearance? Karen suggests that styles shape attitudes. Fashion Psychology Success.
It’s also a way of self-expression, a personal brand, a style that stays with me, no matter how old I am. Paying attention to what my body needs for cover, but “not letting myself go.”
Lauren Shields, former seminary student and blogger chronicled her year of living modestly, in her article for Salon called “My Year of Modesty.” She didn’t wear tight fitting skirts and heels or invest in time-sapping beauty routines like hair coloring and makeup. She refers to the package as the “beauty suit.” She traded makeup, short skirts, and heels for loose fitting skirts and jeans and a head wrap. She was surprised at the blowback for this choice. Her readers argued that Shields had merely replaced old rules with new ones for herself about acceptable public dress. That her objective, to free herself from the conventional western beauty ideal was a criticism of those who did fuss with their clothes, hair and makeup. She went on to write a book called “The Beauty Suit: How my Year of Religious Modesty Made Me a Better Feminist.”
Shields was asked if her experiment and research position has permanently changed the way she dresses. She wears jeans and graphic t-shirts most days, no head wrap, not unlike her contemporaries. She said at 35 you start to see aging happen and that making yourself (sexually) attractive becomes harder to do in to your 40s and 50s. And you begin to ask yourself “Who am I?” Your appearance changes, yes. But she admits some days she misses “the suit.” But it just doesn’t function for her the way it used to. She just wants to get on with her day without thinking too much about what to wear.
I just learned that there is actually a look that defines the style I am talking about. Menocore. Clothes favored by menopausal or post menopausal women. Think loose garments you might wear to the farmer’s market or to dinner with friends, made of natural fibers, i.e. Eileen Fisher. The term menocore was coined by Harling Ross a fashion writer, who put a name to this style aesthetic we didn’t know would be a thing! Especially not for young women. Fashion has long been about youth and sexualized culture. But women are saying with their clothing choices we no longer need to be reflected in this mirror held up for us. We are finally comfortable dressing ourselves in a way that satisfies us and expresses how we want to be in this world.
What do you think about this? How has life experience changed the way you present yourself? What makes you feel the best? And how comfortable are you standing out in the crowd with your choices, even if that means wearing your well-worn jeans and favorite sweater, or the sparkly evening dress you have been saving for just the right moment?