Friday, November 2, 2007

Writing about the Superficial -- that's me!

When I began writing this blog, I was modelling it primarily on the many knitting blogs that first enticed me into this corner of the cyber-world, but I anticipated writing about my many other activities and interests as well: gardening, reading, interacting with friends and family, cooking, eating, watching movies and television, and teaching, among others. I felt a bit uncomfortable when I first wrote about shopping and fashion, though; while there are numerous style blogs on my daily reading list, blogs where good writing, wonderful photography, and, often, astute cultural analysis happens regularly. I suppose I worried about being perceived as superficial and narcissistic. Showing people one's library and telling them about books read; showing readers accessories one has knit and telling them about that process; taking viewers on a virtual tour of one's garden and telling of the latest horticultural delights; these all seem somehow morally or intellectually superior in ways that I don't quite understand although I have internalized the strictures rather thoroughly.
This perhaps began with my mother. While she delights in finding couture wear at consignment shops, and dresses beautifully at 76, she aspired to the "culture" denied her growing up in a large, working-class family. While raising 12 of us (yes!), she insisted on the pre-schoolers among us having an afternoon nap each day so that she could read through the stacks of books borrowed that week. When she put us to bed, she turned off the lights and turned the radio on to the classical music station. We were allowed to watch Funorama after school only because the soundtracks to the cartoons were so often drawn from opera. And I remember her telling us once at dinner that she'd read or heard of a way to rank people's intellectual level according to what they were discussing: Those who discussed Ideas ranked highest; those who discussed People were second; and those who discussed Things third. Of course, this is too simplistic even to consider for very long -- discussing "things" is so often synonymous with discussing "ideas." But I was only 9 or 10 at the time, and although it probably had little significance to my mom (in fact, who knows, she may have been wishing for someone to challenge her on this, trying to sort her own priorities, trying to reconcile her domestic materialism with the claims of intellectual superiority that denied the daily), that kind of ranking took up residence somwhere in me. Teaching piano/music history and theory for many years, then going back first to complete a degree and then do graduate work in Canadian literature, and finally, teaching at a university-college: these pursuits have kept me in an environment which reinforces this defensiveness about my enjoyment of the supposedly superficial world of fashion and style.
But a few years ago, at my 50th birthday, a very, very wise older woman, a neighbour and dear friend, gave me a gift of fridge magnet words. Only partly intended as a joke, these were intended to form Affirmations. My neighbour urged me to own my many strengths rather than focusing on insecurities, and I took her advice as a really productive starting point for this half-century. Not that I'm saying my love of shopping and dressing stylishly is necessarily a strength, but it's clearly a part of me, and rather than being apologetic about it, I'm feeling more and more comfortable about celebrating and having fun with it -- I think this love is congruent with the rest of me--a bright, caring, moral, socially engaged, thoughtful person (sorry, but I've been practising those Affirmations!), so a love of style can potentially carry and/or reflect those qualities as well.
Last week, I began a conversation with numerous thoughtful commenters by referring to Manolo's weekly column, one which recommended fighting the small-town powers and wearing the fabulous shoes. This week, Manolo's latest weekly advice again resonates with me: He summarizes the advice-seeker's dilemma as a "change from the mock-free-spiritedness of the academy to the more regimented setting of corporate employment." I think this characterization of the academy's attitude to dress as being "mock-free-spirited" is so apt; so often, this supposed "anything goes" translates into "anything goes as long as it's not in any way suggestive of formality, the kind of good quality that suggests paying for value (and thus smacking of the bourgeois), or corporate in any way. My husband, who is a fairly senior civil servant and must dress for work in dress shirts, ties, sports jackets and slacks or suits, has occasionally met me at some academic event after his workday is over, and I have seen (and overheard) him assessed as "a suit." This sort of judgment is tiresome and provincial, and I'm realizing more and more that post-50, I am not going to pay it much mind.

Through Manolo, I have also discovered the wonderful blog of Linda Grant, The Thoughtful Dresser, the header of which features this pointed epigram: "Because you can't have depths without surfaces." Grant demonstrates daily that an interest in style and fashion does not preclude an ability to think productively about culture, politics, ideas. In short, she deconstructs the hierarchy my poor mother has judged herself by for many decades and which I still have time to break free of!
The photos accompanying this post exemplify my approach to dressing for academe: I'm loving the new high-waisted, full-legged pants, accented by a red belt, accessorized with a small-heeled pump and this gorgeous shawl I could not resist when I checked out a local store (A to Zebra) the other day. Sixty-seven dollars for this much colour and texture (and it's reversible to an aqua base with red accents) in 100% wool, with some elasticizing stitches that allow it to grip rather than slide off coats and sweaters. I hope this is more "bohemianosity" than "creeping bag-lady-ism" to echo Manolo; I think the basic black and the classic cut of the pants keep it from being too goofy. Whatever, I was warm in my drafty office, and could lose the shawl when I got overheated in my passionate performance at the front of the classroom (don't laugh, it could happen!).
I'm sure your relationship with style and/or fashion is also an evolving one, and I'd love to hear your comments on the topic. Now I'd better go mark papers!


  1. Hi mater, thanks for the compliment. I certainly hope I'm competent...sometimes it feels like frantically trying to remember from one minute to the next where I'm at re. childrens' needs...daughter's nebulizer, boys' pajamas, teeth brushing...and not losing my temper. I'm used to the frantic pace; I think it comes from working outside the home, too.

    Today I got everyone up, the boys (age 1) in their high chairs, daughter (age 4) in her seat, made scrambled eggs, cleaned up, got boys changed, daughter nebulized and tooth brushed, lots of recycling into the minivan, then continued cajoling daughter out of her dancing costume into her day clothes. Then boys in their jackets, in the van, out to the recycling center. Then a blessed stop at my folks' house where I had some team members to help corral and amuse the boys, and some coffee. Home, lunch, change, and nap for boys, enforced quiet time for daughter. This was all preceeded by a 5 a.m. up, exercise in the basement, tea, unload diswasher, prepare kitchen for onslaught. (Saturday's my single mom day, as husband teaches brass instrument music lessons all day.)

    I know that sounds deadly dull, but my point is, when all you have to yourself is a few minutes with the dvd running and kids in playpens, getting dressed for comfort and something that makes you feel good is important. It's not frivolous. Yes, everything I wear these days is flat (shoes), machine washable (clothes) and non-revealing (no skirts or low necklines). But within those parameters, as long as I have to dress myself, why not make it something that visually pleases me? I've got on my old red three-quarter sleeve tshirt with a fuzzy applique in light blue that looks sort of like Indian filigree jewelry. The yuckiest old faded black knit pants (ack) and one of my favorite pairs of running shoes: Pearl Izumi Synchro Seeks from a few seasons back, grey mesh with lavender accents (a steal from Sierra Trading). I've decided that even though I'm not a real runner, that real running shoes are required for making it through a day like mine! Oh, and hair unwashed, my weekend watch (men's Timex with white face/black strap), and minimal jewelry (so as not to attract grabbing fingers. My glasses are temptation enough!).

    Your shawl is beautiful. Do you have a simple dark button down shirt under? A wonderful, understated, dramatic backdrop for a show off piece. I am discovering scarves this year, with jackets, as layering pieces that function yet still make me feel semi-professional. I love also being able to throw them off when I'm inside or hot or whatever. Unfortunately, I'm lousy at tying scarves, and always have to resort to the loop-through muffler technique. Oh well.

    Fortunately, on my campus, I'm a staff member, not faculty, so I don't rate in the hierarchy at all, and can comfortably slum along in jeans and tennies except for when I have a meeting.

    sorry for the rambling and run-ons. I've got limited time here, what with stuffing daughter back in her bedroom periodically and hoping the guys don't wake.

  2. wow - i'm impressed with your ability to reveal so much of yourself, very cool.
    I also love your scarf - i have a couple new ones that i really love this season too. I invested in a new winter coat and the look totally changes with a different scarf.

  3. Rachel: is that suspiciously like "delightfully eccentric"?
    Yes, I love the way scarves transform outfits -- I'll have to check out your new winter coat. Coffee/lunch soon.
    Dana: Really, you should start a blog!
    Under my shawl, a long-sleeved black v-neck t-shirt. I buy 4 or 5 inexpensive but reasonable quality ones and wear them 'til the black fades!

  4. Wise words and what a beautiful shawl!

  5. I feel like Mark Twain, as in, "sorry for the long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one."

  6. I think I could have written this post myself. My blogging started out several years ago to be about our homesteading experience. It's evolved into numerous style posts, and many more that are in my head that I haven't written down - for fear of being superficial just as you mentioned. I think we need more style posts from older thinking women living real lives-- I'm tired of celebrity fashion.

  7. Dana, I'm continually trying to convince my students of precisely this point. You, with 3 young'uns, are excused, though.
    Polly, thanks for stopping by -- I've had a quick peek at your blog and love the way you integrate style with all the other elements of your life.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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