Sunday, August 24, 2008

Second Thoughts about Style

When I first began, tentatively, to write here about what I wore (starting with shoes, a safe place for me), I was pleased to find a community in which chatting about contemporary fashion and personal style was accepted and encouraged. In my blue-colourcollar-roots small city, in my field of work (academic), and in the small dirt-roads-and-slippery-docks island on which I live, a predilection for pointed toes and high heels, for designer jeans and French scarves, for fabulous coats and sassy hats places me on the margins -- I'm often complimented on my clothes, but the compliments can carry a hint of bemusement, at best, and occasionally, I suspect, of dismissal or even disdain (the wastefulness, the impracticality, etc., altho' I may well be projecting like crazy).

I've become as dependent on as I am appreciative of my fashion-blogging friends, all better informed about fashion than I am and from whom I learn so much. They reassure me that, as The Thoughtful Dresser states, "you can't have depths without surfaces" -- that it's okay to care about, and write about, clothes. I check their various sites daily and admire the way they interpret the world of fashion and style with wit and a clear sense of self. I've only met one of them in person, but I'm sure they would all be as instantly recognizable as Duchesse, their on-line fashion sense a direct reflection of their personal style.

I envy and am drawn to that sureness, that conviction about style. I suspect it's a central element in why I keep those blogs in my feed, why I want to read them regularly. But more and more lately, I've been noticing that I feel uncomfortable with some aspects of this conviction, and I feel myself once more on the margins of a community. Dare I admit that sometimes I just don't get the outrage? I quite like the smock or empire-line dress, for example, and I don't mind a dress that's a few inches above the knee. Some of these I'll wear myself, while acknowledging that I may be committing a style faux-pas, but some of them I just love on the hanger, and I love to see them on the gorgeous slim young woman who wears them best. So far, while I'm not thrilled to have to give up certain styles and cuts because my middle is thickening, I'm still able to find many clothes that suit. And, of course, at my age, I've finally got more resources to throw at the clothes-finding problem -- I can spend more money than my daughters, for example, and I actually find it harder to stop buying than I do to find suitable choices for my age.

Perhaps it's because I feel so fortunate at this stage after decades of penny-pinching, after all those years when looking after everyone else's needs in the family meant that my clothes and grooming could often be "relaxed," shall we say, that I also sometimes have misgivings about a propensity we fashion-bloggers have to make our point by denigrating others' dress. While I haven't myself found Crocs appealing, I know too many young moms who find them cheap, cheerful, and eminently practical. And while I do keep my guy looking pretty sharp, I secretly admire (even while they frustrate me terribly) the values that would allow him to wear a style or wash or length of jeans one or two seasons too long. You and I -- and we know who we are -- love fashion and understand how important an investment in personal style can be, but for those who don't or who are not yet in a position to make that a priority, I'm sometimes uncomfortable that I seem to be adding one more pair of judgmental, scrutinizing eyes.

As much as I love, and love to celebrate, fashion, I also think a healthy distrust of it needs to be cultivated alongside. As much as wearing Birkenstocks with my Paris-worthy clothes might offend my fellow style-bloggers, if my Birks take me across that city hand in hand with my husband, letting me impress him with my indefatigability, they're my shoe choice for the day! (Last night, in Vancouver, I hobbled painfully home from the restaurant, a 2k walk, in my high-heeled red Fluevogs, on a day when I'd already run 14K and walked another 6 -- I would have killed for my Birks!). While I know how to do summer-cool and elegant in pale linens or sophisticated black, if my casual white Gap cotton T and bright blue cotton ruffle-tiered Gap skirt make me feel like I'm walking barefoot on a just-sprinkled lawn, that's the combo for me! I can look at the photos of me wearing a just-a-bit-too-short white-and-black-floral Cotton sleeveless smock in Lisbon and groan "what was I thinking?" -- those middle-aged arms, those too-pale legs -- but then I remember how festive and Mediterranean and beloved I felt walking in the shade of the Avenida da Liberdade, and I get past the superficial to the depths. Fashion and style can't always be seen from the outside, if that makes any sense, and while you can't have depths without surfaces, neither should you get stuck at the superficial, right?

Any thoughts? Do you ever have misgivings about your investment in fashion and style? Or am I just overthinking (again!)? Aging daily as I am, you know--and damn, I must be old, today's our 34th anniversary!!! -- I'm trying to quickly acquire some wisdom!! So help out if you can, and leave a comment . . .


  1. When on my own I don't, but I am aware on occasions when I feel judged for my interest in fashion and it is seen by some as frivolous. But, I think this anti-fashion sentiment in academic/intellectual circles from a Cartesian split that idealizes mind over body. But, I thought we all have gotten to the point of understand that there is no separation of mind and body. I have peers and coworkers who have made a commitment to looking like brains at the expense of their beauty---and I can tell you that it ain't pretty.;-)
    I enjoy reading great books and I love a great handbag. We can be smarties and fashionistas; these identities are not mutually exclusive.
    The other time I have misgivings is when I am using a purchase as a means of trying to fill an emotional or psychological need---but that is a topic for another post.;-)

  2. Materfamilias, you are so damned articulate! What a wonderful post, I have many of the same thoughts and doubts as you do (but not as clearly put).
    Its two of your values colliding isn't it? 1) your knowledge and love of fashion and 2) being fair to everyone. They are hard to combine and its important to question sometimes whether or not your values are serving you well. If I saw a lady looking happy and being herself, I would never judge what she is wearing. Its when someone is trying to be something they are not, they don't cause me to judge but they do cause me to think.

  3. Oh and Happy 34th Anniversary!!

  4. Yes, Happy 34th!!! I meant to say that! Hope you are out celebrating big.

  5. Thanks, Cybill and LBR, both for the anniversary wishes (we celebrated well) and for helping me think this through.
    LBR, good point about the academic/intellectual and the mind/body split, altho' if we really pay attention, we see that fashion is as much about mind as it is about body -- and, truly, it often subordinates the fleshly to an idea, no?
    Cybill: thanks for calling me articulate on this one -- I fretted as soon as I clicked on publish, 'cause I really feel as if I'm groping my way here. But I like the way you've summarized: yes, often I feel a conflict at a basic level between a love for fashion (and thus an impulse to critique at times) and a wish to be kind (or even more, on a bigger scale, a concern with social justice). The two don't have to be incompatible, but sometimes I feel they are. You also make me feel better with the way you characterize your own scrutiny of others' style: you're only drawn to critique when someone seems to be claiming something they're not achieving, trying to be what they're not. If they're just going about their life, you'd never mentally chastise them for wearing this with that. I think that's true for me as well (altho' sometimes, I do catch myself . . .)

  6. In my latest interview with enc of observation mode we talk about this very subject. I noted that she tended not to denegrate the looks of others, leaving such assaults to other pens.

    I find attacks on style often go too far, but attacks often do. However, when I call Alex Rodriguez the worst dressed millionaire in the world...I mean it. Does it need saying? Perhaps not, but whether or not anything needs said is a different subject entirely.

    I don't like Crocs and do find them ugly, but that alone is not my problem with them. It is their ubiquity, and our easy acceptance that there is style, there is comfort, and never the twain shall meet. Such is my problem with Uggs and men in track suits.

    Is it possible that someone finds Uggs attractive? Certainly, and I welcome anyone to state as much. There is a marketplace of ideas and every idea should be tested there. However, to the extent that we are simply abusing people for their dress we are all guilty. There is no need for that. As funny as the Fug girls are, there are just as often cruel and unnecessary. Like 10 year old boys we all seem to be obsessed with bra slips. We are a culture of children, and hyper children at that.

    And so, perhaps we can all learn from this, not to not criticize, but to do so with a mind that these are real people, regardless of their status.

  7. Ha! I am wearing Birks today. But they are orange - so I feel slightly less crunchy in them.

    I often fight the line between comfort/personal style and fashion/trend. Most of the time I will land on the side comfort/personal style. I am generally very pragmatic about my clothing choices. I always admired Kate Hepburn's style especially because she insisted on wearing pants because they were more comfortable for her!

  8. Again, congratulations on your anniversary, that's quite an achievement!

    I agree with those who rate comfort highly. I'm someone who loves to read about fashion, but unfortunately just can't translate it into my everyday life. I tend to walk or take public transport (as someone who hates to drive - I got my licence 3 weeks shy of my 40th birthday, and only then 'cause we happened to be living in a prairie town with one traffic light and a stop sign on every corner!). Thus the high-heeled shoe is a rarity for me. However, as Jillian implies, you CAN have personal style with comfort. Nowadays I would like to aim for the 'Carolyn Bessette Kennedy taking the dog for a walk' look - that's not too shabby, is it? ;0)Patricia
    P.S. Not that I look anything at all like her!

  9. Thomas: I hope you didn't feel targeted by my musings. I was thinking very generally, although your examples are helpful for thinking through. Re Alex Rodriguez, since he's a millionaire, he's not going to be a big beneficiary of my sympathy, but I will wonder why he should care about someone else's judgement of how he dresses. Does he set himself up as someone who knows fashion? tout his personal style as something others should follow? Being interested in fashion, I'm amused and entertained by bloggers who make clear, informed pronouncements about it, but do UGGs or CRocs bother me as much as, say, lack of day care facilities in BC? Not so much. So it's a combination of the ridicule AND the assumption that these matters of what we consider poor taste are important that I question. Even as I indulge. Thereby my qualms.
    Jillian: A perfect example of what makes me feel squeamish -- that I'm part of something that makes someone like you feel apologetic in any way about footwear. You (and your knitting) rock, as your blog clearly shows, and your Birks surely rock as well. As for Katherine Hepburn, how brilliant was she to come down on the side of comfort and practicality and then get to look stunning as well!
    Patricia: Thanks for the anniversary wishes -- and yes, I agree with you and Jillian that comfort can be achieved without losing any sense of personal style. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy out with the dog -- a worthy model indeed!

  10. Setting up a polarity (If I care about style THEN I wont' care about comfort, or If I have an opinion about how I or others are dressed THEN I can't be fair and kind) paints me into a corner.

    There is a difference between choice and ignorance. You know your Birks may not be your most elegant footwear, and you chose comfort first. You can have it it both ways, though sometimes not simultaneously.

    I appreciate men and women who put some thought into their presentation, because I enjoy the beauty they add to the world. And I don't mean a young, thin In Style magazine beauty. I mean the beauty of the 80-ish Portuguese widow I see on the bus in a beautifully fitted plain black dress and pearl button earrings. That she cares gives me hope.

    Happy Anniversary!

  11. Duchesse: Well put -- I absolutely don't want to set up an either/or. I think what sometimes disturbs me is a certain tone that creeps in (and that I often find amusing, engaging, convincing) which critiques others (and gets a laugh at their expense) for choices they make in favour of comfort. Even critiquing them for ignorance seems unfair to me. In the word's true meaning, it simply indicates not knowing, hardly something to be faulted for.

    And I'm not wanting to be tiresomely righteous about this because I acknowledge that these critiques, usually marked by humour, sarcasm or irony are part of the liveliness and appeal of blogs I return to regularly. Excepting celebrities (who some might argue choose to put themselves in the public eye, 'tho I might quibble that they don't thus deserve constant surveillance), individuals aren't specifically targeted for their style errors so no hapless, humiliated victims.

    I suppose the problem for me is that my blog isn't primarily about fashion/style. Those who do write about it fairly exclusively that those who come to visit at their sites DO agree that fashion/style is very important. I think I have a number of readers who don't necessarily, and I feel uncomfortable that I could seem to be scornful of their choices -- because while I do care about these matters and feel comfortable with that care, I also respect people who focus their energy elsewhere.

    As I said above, I'm just groping around on this one. Thanks for helping me think it through. And thanks for the anniversary wishes.

  12. Psychologists will argue that laughing at the sartorial mistakes of others, helps us to cope with some of the sartorial slip ups we make ourselves. However I agree that I am often uncomfortable with some of the down right agressive persoanl attacks the press and some blogs make on the style of others. I enjoy dressing for places and occasions, I make a lot of mistakes and much of my wadrobe is governed by the comfort & camouflage mantra. But the fun is in the dressing and wearing, I think it is inate in us all.
    Fashion blogs for me are part of the jigsaw that influences my dress. I have a scrap book of pictures I like, of clothes people wear, most of them are from blogs and flickr they help to put together what I have, not what I buy.
    Your blog is a great example of how mercurial fashion is to pin down and better written than most because you write with a sensitivity that many do not. So for the sake of our sanity you will have to keep going!

  13. Alison: I love what you say here, that you make a lot of mistakes and much of my wadrobe is governed by the comfort & camouflage mantra. But the fun is in the dressing and wearing . I think I'm rather leery of the occasional meanness and mockery because I, too, make many mistakes, so I want us to remember that it's supposed to be fun, this dressing and wearing. Thanks for helping me think about this and thanks for the blogging encouragement.

  14. This comment is woefully late, but it took me a while to try and formulate my thoughts. First of all, on the matter of compliments, I believe that people don't comment sarcastically, or bemusedly as a rule. Generally, if I take the time to compliment someone it's because I really like what they're wearing, and I hope this is true of others. Is it possible that what may seem to be bemusement is actually a genuine delight or appreciation of whimsy?

    I can empathize with your conflicted feelings about commenting on fashion, or assuming a position of authority on the subject. My own fashion issues are somewhat different. I don't have a problem with appreciating fashion on others, and my friends rate me an excellent "personal shopper", but I feel like I'm never pulling off anything very good myself. I don't feel confident enough to put together anything but basic combinations. Also, I have a hard time spending money on clothes. As such, I applaud you for taking any risk you do. Better to take a risk and develop a fashion identity than to be dull!

  15. Miss R: Thanks for this -- definitely much better late than never!
    First, the compliments: you're probably right and I'm just having difficulty accepting the compliments for what they are because of my own issues. I did say I might be projecting like crazy!
    And it's exactly that lack of confidence that you express, particularly in contrast with your recognition that you're good at shopping for, and appreciate style on others, that makes me feel as bloggers that we want to applaud success and avoid being too judgemental about what we see as errors. Risk-taking is tough, and while some of us are able to ignore criticism, secure in their own choices, many of us quickly learn to judge through other eyes.
    One last thing: Just as you suggest that my disbelief in compliments extended might not be justified, so I wonder if you actually do "pull off" some pretty decent combinations yourself -- or perhaps accent your basic combos in quirky, interesting, inspired ways yourself. Some of that interesting thoughtfulness that comes through in your voice here must surely find its way into your fashion style as well, no?

  16. i have the most beautiful pair of birkenstocks. the style name is "paris" i think. i have butter-soft black flats that i can easily walk 2 miles in. i have roomy men's suede loafers - soooo comfortable. these shoes are not departures from my style, are not compromises in the name of comfort. my aesthetic is not a choice, it's just a part of me, just as the books or films i like are defined by who i am. style is not a forced pursuit. why would i not make as conscious and... effortful a choice in what i wear as i do about what i eat or read or even say (rhetorical question). the things i look for in my shoes are the same things i look for in my clothes - the style/design must touch me, must stimulate me, must delight me 100%. the quality must impress me. the reality (living with them) must satisfy me (washable, wearable, durable, comfortable). my standards are not flexible. i wore my birkenstocks yesterday with a beautiful (to me) dries van noten dress. i felt good. (that, by the way, is always paramount. how i "look" is merely the result of how i dress. how i "feel" is the leading factor.)

  17. Editor: Your comment really resonates with me -- this is very close to my own style aesthetic, although I haven't yet worked out how to articulate it and I don't, for whatever reasons, have your apparent confidence and conviction in it. But yes, I've recently been thinking and preparing to write about how congruent my personal style is with the decor in my home, the way I cook and eat, etc. Your blog has become an inspiration for extending thinking about style into how it works with one's life overall, and I'm hoping to do more writing here on this topic.
    As for your remark that how you "feel" is the leading factor -- I think this is what I'm pointing to when I speak of the depths behind the superficial, some kind of integrity that makes personal style convincing.

  18. :)
    when i see someone good at what they do, exhibiting a skill or talent, or even dedication/effort, i am dazzled (such an unbelievably corny word. forgive me). same too when i see someone dressed authentically. authentic to who they are. i respect that tremendously. think of clothing as architecture. you have particular buildings/design that appeals to you probably. there are bazillions of homes. not all are good. go into some horrible department store (i'm allergic to them) and you'll find racks of tract homes. does clothing say less about us than our homes? i don't think so. i wouldn't put less thought into my clothes than i would my home. i bet you have more conviction about clothes/style than you think, but it is hard to weed through all the junk (sooooo much junk), and also to realize that it can be serious. it is your body, and you are moving and living in it every day. the clothing you put on top of it, i think you should enjoy, should appreciate, should care about - about what it is, how it looks, how it satisfies something in you.

  19. Editor: I'm borrowing this word "dazzled" but I'll be sure to credit you, first time at least.

  20. when the word fits, and all that.

  21. I think you're right, at times I have a fashion success with a piece or two. This whole discussion has gotten me thinking about the nature of creativity and self doubt, whether it is creativity in fashion, or other milieus. Perhaps it's time for me to stop the self abuse! Hairshirt going in the garbage, check!

  22. Oh, I don't know, Miss R. I keep mine around for special occasions, but then I have a good grounding in Catholic guilt;-)
    And yes, self-doubt: crippler of, or motivator behind, creativity.
    Celebrate your style -- I'm sure it's successful more often than you think -- it pleases you, doesn't it?!


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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