Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What I Wore: Self-scrutiny in Paris

Over at Retail Recovery, yesterday's post asks what fashion tyrannies rule in our individual worlds, prompting me to write finally about something that I've been thinking about ever since the day I wore this in Paris:

(First, I must insist that this is not an exercise in getting reassurance. I don't need you to comment positively on how I look in this outfit -- you'll see, as you read, that this is about me seeing me, as much as it is about anything at all. Read on.)

It's a dress I bought at Biscotte in Paris last year and I love it not only for that reason (what, this dress? oh, I bought it in Paris . . .) but for the tightweave, fine polished cotton, the pintucks across the yoke, the capacious yet cunningly-shaped pockets, and yes, the rich blue. Catching sight of it in windows on the Paris streets, though, all I could notice was how, well, squat it made me look, and how poorly it worked with the extra horizontal line formed by the cardigan hem. The flat, antiqued gold shoes (by Cydwoq), funky though they may be, contribute to an inappropriately "little girl in a smock" effect whereas I've always before worn the dress with black tights and black shoes with a pointed (lengthening) toe and a short heel. The blue was too bright and weren't the leggings either too young or too last year? And much as I hate to admit it, I'm wearing a few more pounds than I was last year, as I, like Une Femme adjust to the vagaries of menopause.

My husband, dear man, couldn't see the problem, especially since he thinks my legs are great and that I should show them off more often -- which is a sentiment I should appreciate, except that perversely I interpreted it to mean the dress showed my legs off too much, making my unfortunate choice even worse. I did know enough to stop the boring soundtrack (after a while) and concentrate on enjoying being in Paris having fun with someone who thinks I look gorgeous and was willing to take in the exhibition of Kiraz's "Parisiennes" with me -- that's the poster in the background, behind me as I pose in the courtyard of the Musée Carnavalet (lovely, reasonable-sized museum to visit in a beautiful historic building, right in the heart of the great-for-shopping Marais).

Those gorgeous, elongated, oh-so-chic young women that Kiraz depicts didn't make me feel any better. But the real fashion tyrant is in my head, not hanging on a wall. And I have to say, I have very mixed feelings about her: on the one hand, her continual scrutiny and her list of rules to dress by keep me from making horrendous errors (come on, I said horrendous -- I'm not conceding this outfit as such an error, it could have been so much worse -- think flip-flops!); on the other hand, said scrutiny and rules can interfere with expressing myself through my dress and with enjoying life in my dressed body (does that last phrase sound as odd as I think it does? It seems to be the best way here of saying what I mean).

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that while I occasionally achieve something approaching "sophisticated and chic," such dress doesn't express my personality nor, really, my lifestyle (I live on an island, for heaven's sake, where I ride a bike along a dirt road daily in order to work my way down a ramp and into a small passenger ferry -- I often get to work to find dirt splashed all the way up the back of my coat, despite the bike fenders!). My inner tyrant could make sure I hit her idea of "chic" more often -- she'd make me edit much more ruthlessly -- but her list of rules make me chafe. The list is one that has us asking if the skirts we love are too 90s or unsure if we can trust our own fashion instincts or need to be talked out of them. While the list certainly exists for younger women, the Great Mutton Debate means that we women of a certain age must watch every fashion step lest we trip into pratfall. There seems to be general disdain among "mature" women across the fashion blogverse for the smock (and perhaps I should have adopted it, says the photo above) yet for whatever reasons, I love this shape -- I feel good when I wear it, happy and, well, a bit sassy, if truth be known.

The phenomenon of catching sight of myself in street windows and wanting to go home to try again is not limited to Paris, of course. I remember a conversation with my much-better-edited daughter, my most helpful shopping companion, once when I was second-guessing what I'd worn, and she pointed out that making mistakes occasionally was a reasonable corollary of being able to take risks, to try out new things, and that she thought that was an important part of me (how lucky am I -- a husband who likes my legs, a daughter who applauds my fashion errors!). In Paris, of course, the problem is exacerbated by the city's reputation for chic-ness (and by the limitations of what I packed into that wee carry-on). So when I started thinking of writing about this, I thought of Une Femme's post last fall asking what "chic" is? At the time, altho' I spent some time thinking about her question, I don't think I responded, because I wasn't at all sure that "chic" was indeed something I aspired to. I still worry that it might have too much to do with class, perhaps even with power. (To be really honest, I wonder if I worry it might be too close to how my mother would like me to dress and whether I still harbour a bit too much 70s anti-fashion sentiment -- now those would be some inner demons to exorcize!)

But when I go back to re-read Une Femme's wise post, I find these words: it also seems like trying consciously to achieve it undermines the effect, much like a cat chasing her own tail. Perhaps we try too hard. Perhaps it's a question of putting yourself together to suit your own taste and then letting go. Perhaps chic is as much a result of attitude as anything else. So perhaps I can wear my smock and be chic too, if only I have the right attitude.

Or perhaps not. My inner tyrant and I will be debating the issue for some time, you can be sure.

Meanwhile, my twin 8-year old nieces arrive today, accompanied by their big brother (14) to spend several days with me. Of course, a big thunderstorm last night dramatically announced the arrival of cool, rainy days that are forecast to last the duration of the kids' stay, so we'll be out and about trying to entertain ourselves. Paris and chic-ness (achieved or not) are quickly becoming a too-distant memory.


  1. Interesting topic. I've been giving something similar some thought. All of the talk about the chicness of French women... well, yes, but... what if you find a monochromatic/limited hue uniform and a few accessories to be limiting? Perhaps some of us need more color, more patterns, more more more.

  2. Lose the leggings. I love the blue - it's not too young. And seeing your bare legs will lengthen the entire line of your body.

  3. Gina: sounds as if we've been thinking along the same lines -- it's worth reading Une Femme's take on chic, and I also think it's about that age-old value: balance!
    Eve: Welcome, it's always great to have a new commenter. I forgot to mention why I'd decided against bare legs (which I've worn at home and found more flattering, if bolder-feeling for me) -- with the cooler weather we had this spring and which followed us to Paris, my legs were far too pale for baring -- if I'd thought ahead enough, they'd have taken on an artificial tan, but no such luck. So I might have created a longer line, but then I'd just transfer the fussing to the yucky whiteness of my legs!

  4. I have to commiserate on the 'few more pounds'. At almost 48 I guess I am what they call peri-menopausal. I have ALWAYS been thin and looked younger than my age (not necessarily in a good way) and am finding it strange to be losing my waistline. I've never had to diet or exercise to lose weight, and I don't think I can overcome the habits of a lifetime -I'm too lazy! Looking at holiday snaps of me wearing floppy linen trousers and loose blouses, I think I look a bit frumpy. Hmm, this calls for more diligent reading of the fashion and style blogs! Patricia

  5. I actually love that dress on you, but what about incorporating some more "vertical" elements? Maybe some dark grey or black tights, some funky platform shoes with a bit of a heel, a long rectangular scarf draped around the neck with the ends hanging down in front?

    I have some more thoughts about your post overall, but want to spend some time on a response, perhaps after the distractions have been put to bed...

  6. Patricia: sounds as if you've been doing some tussling with your own inner tyrant!
    Pseu: Yes, this is exactly what I would normally do, but I was obviously too cavalier in my packing (and for the days we do in Paris, a heel just isn't on, altho' I bring a pair for evening outings). I'll look forward to hearing your further thoughts about that post if you do get a minute.

  7. Now that I've had some sleep followed by some caffeine :-) I feel I can do this thoughtful post some justice.

    First, the reason I like that dress is because from what I've seen of you and your style through your blog, it's very "you." To my eyes, your inclination is toward the whimsical-yet-practical which that dress (you had me at "pockets") fulfills. The color is great on you, too.

    You take risks, you let the "should's" go when they conflict with your inner vision, and that's a good thing. To my mind, chic is as much about attitude as attire, and I think the key is to wear what you like, and OWN it. Doubt is the killer.

    Look at some of the best of the Sartorialist's subjects. They wear styles and cuts and colors that would make Trinny and Susannah cringe, but they look fabulous because they're expressing who they are, and taking no prisoners.

    And aren't we fortunate to have men in our life who think we look fantastic no matter what? Certainly helps to keep that inner tyrant at bay, at least a little bit.

  8. interestingly, i think this post might be more relevant to what is going on here:
    Inside out

    identifying your tyrants is the next step after identifying which you you dress for. i do not have tyrants because i dress for the inner me. the result will not always satisfy those looking at the outer me, but i'm rarely among that audience in the first place (just the occasional photo or reflection) - and i only surround myself with people who know, respect and interact with the inner me anyway.
    anecdote: i bought a scarf 2 years ago and the sales assistant asked if i wanted to try it on to see how it looked on me. i already loved it and had chosen it for the design, for how it appealed to me not whether it would make me looking appealing. i told him no, as that hardly mattered since i wouldn't be the one seeing me in it. ;)
    for what it's worth (and frankly, it shouldn't be worth much at all), i think the outfit is great, and if i walked past you, i would mentally admire you.
    now i'm off to spend the day adding tulle layers under a skirt i already have, because i feel the skirt needs tulle, and i need tulle.

  9. Pseu: Thank you for taking the time to give me such thoughtful feedback. It seems to me that you're offering some of the same advice as Editor does, and both of you are helping me to move past the killing Doubt imposed by that inner tyrant. And since I'm not quite at Editor's place of dressing only to please myself, yes, I consider us very lucky to have men who find us attractive no matter what (actually, that should still work in my favour if I ever do get to Editor's level!).
    And you're also right about what best captivates me in Sartorialist's work, and it's not necessarily fashionistas who get it all "right."
    Editor: I'm so glad to have your comment -- I've only recently discovered your blog and love the angles you offer and the questions you pose. I admire and envy your commitment to your inner vision. Sadly, that sureness is not a part of my personality (and, at 55, I doubt it's arriving any time soon!), but I always find it inspiring and I do work towards dressing to please myself first and foremost. Hope you find your tulle!

  10. oh, don't worry, i have the tulle. :D choosing a color was difficult and i may have to find a way to make it an interchangeable insert so that i can alternate colors according to my whim.
    as for the inside out post that you visited just now (thank you for your comments, by the way), think in more simplistic terms, think very very basic. your inside is what responds, intuitively to things. you like this dress, you like this shape. adding the leggings put your mind at ease and allowed you to move about more comfortably, physically and psychologically. your critique of your outfit is based on how it looked on your outer you, whether it flattered this or that physical attribute you have.

  11. Editor: A great big ah-ha, I see! Thanks for taking the time to explain. Now what I'll spend some time thinking about is how much I would trust my inside me to dress my outside me! Some of the time, all of the time, with editing or not . . . And if the inside responses are the intuitive ones, does that leave room for educating them? Fascinating . . .

  12. :)
    the example that i used in that other post was the haircut i chose. the one i had at the time was "pretty" or "flattering" but i wanted to have that sharp bob. i may not look as good, to others, now but it was the hair that the inside me wanted. i swear i do not have a split personality problem, but in a way, we are all split, to an extent. when i get a compliment on a physical attribute, long eyelashes, for example, what can one say to that? 'thank you' assumes some credit for that which is utterly beyond my control (of course i say 'thank you' to be polite, but you see that i am no more clever for having my eyelashes than someone is guilty of failing to have ones that do not garner praise). people spend a great deal of time shaping their outside to conform to expectations or standards as dictated by others. i do feel that there is a personal style that is independent of what flatters our physical selves. at least there is for me. people avoid shapes that i adore and embrace, for fear of 'looking pregnant.' well, looking pregnant is not exactly an insult. i'd rather 'look' pregnant than 'look' unintelligent. i'm not going to avoid certain things because they happen to make my behind or middle or whatever, look larger than i happen to know they are. my body is relatively healthy so that is the extent of my concern for that. how i choose to dress that body has little to do with how i can make the body look, and instead how i can satisfy my love for certain colors, color combinations, materials, shapes, etc. and that comes from within (for me). yes, i take my flaws into account, but i do not let them have priority over my style and being faithful to it. i don't have any answers on my blog, by the way, just sharing the thoughts and questions as they occur to me.

  13. ma, I knew you were in trouble when you posted that you'd only take a carry on (LOL). You just can't be hard on yourself from a PHOTO. All the animation, soul essence, the "you in you" is nearly always leached out of a posed-tourista photo. (Only the pros know how to fake it.)
    If I mentally remove the cardi (which cuts you and probably across the back view is not a great line) I think the entire outfit makes you look insouciant and ready to take on Paris in style.

    Another thing: with a great haircut you can wear a freakin' Glad Bag and look good. I cannot really see your hair in that photo but would the coiffure pass the more rigorous standards of Paris?

    If you have great legs, you lucky, lucky woman, it does not matter if they are white. Did you notice the women there, bare feet stuck in shoes from oh, late March on? I like the tights- just don't worry about being tan.

    I loved your daughter's comment about risk! You have a very cool family.

  14. Oh, if only the mirror reflected what my mind sees. Photographs suck the life out of people. 2D will never really reflect he whole you.
    I am lucky, in many ways. First, I have from childhood developed a skin as thick as hide.Thank you mother.
    Second I went to art college in a very rough poverty stricken area which in the early 80's was not always safe. We all dressed to not only please ourselves but to almost court the double take. The Kings Road was my catwalk and gave me the life confidence to wear what I want how I want. Third I have an expressive look/glower honed through years of teachng unruly children that stops negative comments from all but the man I share my house with. Editor is right you are luckiy to live with a man who is so lovely

  15. Duchesse, Editor, Alison: Thanks for these are thoughtful, helpful, (and affirming) comments. They deserve a longer reply, but I'm chasing around trying to keep my visitors (twin 8-year old nieces and their older brother) happy. Wouldn't it be great if we could all (including the earlier commenters today, as well, of course) sit around with glasses of wine to do this occasionally -- meanwhile, I really appreciate this virtual version!

  16. A little late to the party here. I understand about the inner tyrant, mine is quite active and I often need to avoid glimpses in mirrors or windows on an almost daily basis. That said, I think dressing in what you love and which makes the statement you want to make is more important than any "rules". I can say that even though I have just been grumbling on my blog about the image my clothes make and some of those same "rules", rules I often break because in the end I am more interested in the look I have in my head. Just because I often break the rules doesn't mean that my inner tyrant stops rearing his ugly head. I wish I could offer advice on how to squelch yours, but I am sadly unqualified in that department.

    That said, what I see in the photo you presented is an attractive woman who seems to have some artistic sensibilities, or at least a love of art. I see a person who looks comfortably attired for a day of walking and touring, and I see someone who puts herself together with some creativity. The color is fabulous on you. The dress, the shoes, and the person wearing them all look like they belong together. So what, if it wasn't perfect, call it training for next time. You still look fabulous.

    I am sure there are many women in Paris who are more chic. But chic can also be limiting as in find a pattern and stick to it. And many of the women in Paris are HOME running errands, not out all day touring a lovely city and living from a small suitcase. If the goal of packing is to take things that are convenient, versatile, and express some part of the person who is traveling, I think your combined travel photos show that you have achieved that.

    Yes the cardi is perhaps not the best length with the dress and the leggings. Perhaps the leggings could be soft pants, a little longer would be more lengthening, but leggings might put the mind more at ease for a long day out than bare legs. And I assume the pieces all worked with multiple outfits, so of course each piece might be better in some ensembles than others. Still, the fact that you are you, and not just some nameless tourist in a tee shirt and nikes, is abundantly clear.

  17. Mardel: Late or not, I'm so glad you posted. Although I'd love to dress only for myself, following Editor's inspiring example, I am susceptible to other opinions. So I hope that at least some of those who notice what I'm wearing are as generous and perceptive as you are. Given the limitations and demands of travel, I am, retrospectively, pleased that my outfit that Paris day expressed me, even if it might not have been Paris-chic.

  18. Truly, I would love to dress only for myself also, but my inner demon is really far to wrapped up in ideas of how I am presented to the world and how said demon thinks the world "perceives" me. Of course said demon's view may or may not be a true reflection of the world; more likely, the inner demon capitalizes on a host of insecurities and issues brought up by whatever fodder has been provided on any given day.

    I can fully understand the Paris angst, as well as the idea of achieving some kind of image of "sophisticated chic", as I often wish I could pull off this image, but am coming to terms with the idea that it is not a good fit for me. But realizing what works in our lives and for our physical persons does not quell the urge to occasionally step outside ourselves and, for a brief bit at least, appear to be something else.

    Still, I think you really managed an eloquent and touching analysis of how what we wear affects how we perceive the world around us, and how sometimes well-meant actions (packing, trying a new combination) have unexpected, and not always happy results. Your daughter is right though, taking risks is an admirable quality, and far better than a life of boring sartorial convention.

  19. Mardel: You seem to understand exactly what I'm trying to write about and I thank you for taking the time to really engage with the issue. Like you, I'm not sure "sophisticated chic" is even something I want, but in certain contexts, I feel vulnerably gauche when I fall short. Like you, though, I do think my daughter's right (altho' her risk-taking is minimal, ironically!)


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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