Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hey. Remember What You LOVE

Today i'm bringing up a sensitive topic. It's sensitive in our culture generally, and even more so in the style blogging community. Recently i've been noticing a number of conversations about our society's ideas of 'dressing in proportion', or more precisely how to dress so that your figure more closely resembles 'the ideal'. I surprised even myself by how strongly i reacted against this enterprise.

I do realize that bucking the norms we've been raised with is so much easier said than done. And i do appreciate that canny deployment of clothing can lessen the appearance of saddlebags, floppy arms, a flat yet saggy butt. In fact, i use many of these 'proportion tricks' myself, and have no qualms about it. I'll happily share and explain these principles with friends and on my blog.

But i do have qualms about how this approach to dressing can dominate all other concerns. It so easily becomes another way to criticize, to measure ourselves and find we are lacking.  How quickly this approach metamophoses into, "We know you're just this side of deformed, everyone is noticing it, but use these techniques and you may succeed in masking your ghastliness..." We're presented with ways to find out exactly where and how we don't match what is normal or pleasing, and fix-it tricks so that we can 'pass' (as long as we keep our clothes on).

I concede that here i'm taking the concept to an intellectual extreme. But, because these techniques are so powerful, because the social pressures for women to be pleasing and to fit in are also so powerful, this approach to dressing is not an extreme in real life, in conversations between friends, between women and their mirrors. And i hate that anyone would think and feel about a person this way - that people should be measured and judged by how they contrast with some vitiated ideal. Doing this to yourself isn't any nicer than doing it to someone else. You're a person, too.

So how can we use these techniques, these magic tools of proportion and color and texture, without being caught in a horrible machine, stripping us of all that makes us beautiful and unique?

Remember What You Love

That's it - remember what you love and concentrate on that, first and foremost, while you dress. I love to wear flower prints and pins because i love flowers of all types: cherry and plum blossoms with petals scattered by a spring rain, huge clumps of fairy lanterns cascading down a meadowed hill, mimosa blossoms which start out perfectly symmetrical being mussed by a busy honeybee. My rugged boots and cargo pants recall my family's long history of wild and wooly exploits in the Californian countryside.  Combining these rugged pieces with feminine, womanly skirts and blouses reflects my obsession with finding the middle ground between extremes, a trend made that much more emphatic by my history with Buddhism.

I loved the way this look echoed a tree in bloom - dark, sturdy trunk (shoes and stockings); branches and twigs up higher (sakura knit top); flowers and leaves at the top and at the 'ends' of the branches (Pleione blouse). It was so fun to be showing the world a pattern-mixing fashion fiend, while inside i knew my arboreal secret.

Using style to tip your public to these inner parts of yourself, your personality and passions, can be incredibly creative and engaging - for you and for the people around you. What's more fun than spying a friend's love of gardening in her rain boots colored to match her trademark tulips, or asking a friend to tell you about the fly he tied and is wearing on his lapel? Happily this type of play with clothing is well tolerated in our society.

 But i am going to come out of the closet, right here and now, and confess to a taboo practice. I also dress to deliberately play up my favorite physical features.  I love the blue of my eyes, the curve of my brows and hair. I get a kick out of the straight and strong lines of my shoulders, the ways they play off the curves of my legs. I will tell you from experience that it is so much more fun and inspiring to dress to perfectly frame my favorite features than to hide the bits labelled "not up to snuff", worrying all day that someone will guess the horror underneath it all (gasp!).

I firmly believe that these attitudes come through in the final outfit. The thoughts and feeling with which you start your day will certainly color your mood throughout that day. Honestly, do you think Anna Piaggi worries about the size of her butt when she's dressing? It sure doesn't look like it - i dare say Ms. Piaggi has a lot more interesting things on her mind!

Which brings me to a final observation about the 'fix it' approach to dressing yourself. It's boring. You risk coming across as thinking that you're not good enough, you have nothing to really say, you don't find anything in the outside world all that exciting........You Have No Passion. What a sad and colorless place to live! The shame of it is that it's not even true.

All of us inhabit amazing and beautiful bodies, creative and unpredictable minds. I am surrounded by luminous complexions, lyrical coloring, hair with a complex life of it's own, startlingly unique proportions. You have gorgeous parts as well. What are they? How would you dress if your only goal was to show off that rambunctious hair, those golden-green sloe eyes, your delicate long boned fingers. Not if you suddenly had 'the perfect body'. No one knows what that may be, and even if you lived in one, your same brain and habits would get down to their project of formulating new flaws. Go to your closet and pick out the pieces that really spark your coloring, that get you glowing incandescently, that call to mind your favorite things to do.  What happens when your clothes tell you "Remember that time we spent in Venice, the glow of the setting sun on the buildings...."  "Cannot wait to get out in the garden later today...."  "heehee, my hair goes it's own way - just like my cousin's....."

These ways of dressing yourself are two extremes. Dressing strictly to hide or compensate "flaws" vs. dressing to celebrate your body, your life, your passions. The tricky thing is that dropping a curtsy towards 'figure flattery' can open the door for wilder exploration of your loves. But i find myself more and more on the side of celebration and passion, caring less and less for common 'shoulds'.

My question today - if you had to choose between the two extremes: Who would you want to strike up a friendship with? Who's head would you want to live in? Who do you want to be?


  1. Hear Hear!!!!


  2. Wonderful post! I couldn't agree more.

    I know for a fact that my proportions are sometimes 'off' in that they don't make me look as though I have an hourglass figure, but I generally wear what I love. Sure, I'll tweak some things, but the fact of the matter is that I have more to take into consideration when getting dressed than how shapely I look or don't look. I take into account what I love, riding my bike, the weather, all of it and that's what forms my outfits, not the social ideal of what I should look like.

  3. "These ways of dressing yourself are two extremes. Dressing strictly to hide or compensate "flaws" vs. dressing to celebrate your body, your life, your passions"
    This was such a brilliant post and it's so refreshing to have someone express a different viewpoint to the accepted norm. You hit the nail on the head on many things! I for one agree with you - the whole dressing to tweak yourself closer to some visual ideal of the female body (its touted as the hourglass in the UK) can become a bit like following doctrine and strip the creativity, passion and fun out of dressing. It gives others a yardstick (or excuse!) for their criticism. I'm short and sometimes I just throw out the rulebook and wear things I'm not supposed to and guess what - I enjoy it and the heavens don't come crashing down and I may even score a compliment along the way. I really like your suggestions of approaching dressing from the more positive mindset of flattering your best features.

  4. oh, thank you all for your positive responses!!! i was nervous to be so outspoken about this, i've been sitting on this post a couple of days....i am very happy you responded to the love part of what i had to say.

    Welcome Georgia!

    Hi Gracey! ah, it's hard to see whatever is behind that kleig light smile of yours, i have to say :) i think that is part of what makes your looks so fun and interesting, that so many aspects come to bear on them and you come up with interesting and creative ways of accommodating all of it. it's very engaging!

    Hi Veshoevius! "...wear things I'm not supposed to and guess what - I enjoy it and the heavens don't come crashing down and I may even score a compliment along the way." yes! i love this, and it's good to hear you saying it in public, too, because the first time or three you decide to take the leap it's easy to wonder if the heavens might actually fall.

    your passion for life, including clothes, is incandescent!

    Happy Evening, steph

  5. Your post was thought provoking so I had to think about my reasons for dressing. I have fun with the 'rules' trying to figure out what applies to me, so narcissistic. My fashionable quest is new and fun at this time of my life. I never thought I could look good in the past so I gave up trying during my 30's, I had no clue how to put together a look on me that worked. Doing a lot of reading and experimentation has worked and I feel like I look a lot better now than I did in my 30's and 40's. When I was younger my friends always catagorized my style as 'teacher clothes'.
    Playing up my assets is where I always start when contemplating a new style. Knowing what will work on my body type is empowering. I have several neighborhood ladies that think "I dress to the nine's while walking my dogs"(t-shirt,jeans,hat and scarf maybe) I am flattered by their comments. That has always been my goal. To just look good as I am regardless of my current weight or age.

  6. Loved, loved, loved this post, Steph! I've gone down the road paved with shoulds entirely too often in the past, and I'm now having trouble learning to remember what I used to enjoy about the physical presence of me. The hobbies and interests and political attitudes are just that bit easier, so I better start there...

    THANK YOU for this very inspiring post. And I *need* to add: fabulous pattern mixing there! Especially with the way the floral prints echo your luxuriant curls!

  7. Adrienne, what a truly wonderful story you tell. "Doing a lot of reading and experimentation has worked and I feel like I look a lot better now than I did in my 30's and 40's." This is really at the core of what i find so exciting about style - since it is about personal expression you can get better and better at it the more you practice!!

    I was very lucky as a young girl because i was surrounded by a number of older (late twenties up through maybe mid fifties) women who all had very unique, gorgeous personal styles. Sporty, classic, boho, eccentric (i'm looking at a certain someone who absolutely rocked a duck-print dress) - they all were quite individual. It made growing up look so exciting, with so many possibilities for freedom! No 'one way', no age cutoff, no particular hair or face or figure.

    Adrienne i am very glad that you are finding out the same thing - even better that you're living it out there where you can inspire other ladies, young and old!

    Thank you so much Manidipa!! interests are always fun and less emotional than physical flattery, so they can be a less fraught area to start with. If you don't mind, i'll just point out that you have bountiful amounts of gorgeous hair, and your eyes are riveting. You can also say that getting people to focus on your eyes is a good idea job-wise (to talk yourself into it ;)

    Thank you - i had fun in this look!

    Happy Evening, steph

  8. Well said! I couldn't agree more. I'm completely bored with the fashion world's obsession with the ideal figure. "Conform and Consume" is the mantra (they're brainwashed!). What a great post!

  9. Yeah, I loved that duck dress. So did the summer school kids!

  10. I agree that I would dress for my "spirit" as you so eloquently describe in this post. I have always admired your looks with your hiking boots (and wondered where you got them, as they are reminiscent of the logging boots logger friends wore in western Montana). I don't think I have really fallen into this dressing to hide my flaws abyss yet, but just tonight I left a comment somewhere suggesting that I needed to measure whether I had a long torso or not...

  11. Thank you Joy! How about 'Savor and Enjoy' instead? :)

    That's funny, mom - i ended up talking about that dress on YouLookFab yesterday. the blog topic was 'conversational prints' and i commented about how well that dress worked in that setting and with your personality - loving to talk to people, with a sense of humor and fun. You are the style idol of the moment!

    Hi Terri! yes, your spirit, interests, and relationships really come through in your dress, especially in your pins, necklaces, etc. Actually those boots are from Bass, i got them online (where mr.e found a great discount!). ay, 'abyss' is sadly what that place can feel like!

    Happy Friday! steph

  12. What a beautiful gift you have for writing. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, its truly appreciated by me. xxx Jenny

  13. Oh so sweet pattern mixing!

    Great post as usual. As you know I've struggled ever so much with body image, and an unfortunate side effect is forgetting what I enjoy about style. I had some fun this week with outfits, and yesterday's was inspired after reading this post. :)

  14. I realized yesterday why those lists of Must Have garments never work for me, nor can I devise one of my own. It's why your post on analyzing the features of your favorite items works for me so well. It's features that I like and not garments entire.

    I've been trying to decide whether I'm keeping a black cotton lace skirt - with pockets! - that's banded at the waist and pocket edges with black satin gros grain and a wider band at bottom. I removed the black lining it had and have been experimenting with different underlayers (slips). Including black but a separate layer has different possibilities than one that's cut to fit.

    After trying it in a zillion outfits and placing and removing it on a reject pile many times, I hit on black underlayer that doesn't go all the way to meet the ribbon, black cross strap heels, black and olive/khaki medium large stripe tee with black banded vee neck, bronzy metallic big hair barrette put on dark navy ribbon around my neck (like that 'spensive bow tie jewelry I saw in a magazine), bronzy lightweight shirt-cut "jacket". And it hit me: black bands. I love black bands. It's why I think a summer sandal (for me) has to have black bands. I see, again, that I love things that are emphatic.

  15. Welcome Jenny, and thank you for your generous words :)

    hullo P! i'm glad this sparked you to have some more FUN!!! it can be easy to get sucked into the more 'punitive' side of fashion, there's so much focus on it in the culture at large. And if you're struggling with issues, it's difficult cause you can't just leave it alone and go around naked. Luckily there is so much fun and creativity to be had as well! And it IS possible to develop the habit of focusing on that :)

    Vildy, whenever i read your descriptions of your outfits and realize that i can't see a picture i just want to cry!!! ;) We are fortunate that you have a very descriptive way with words.

    "It's features that I like and not garments entire." oh, what a great way to put it! i find i like a lot of features myself. It also helps when your 'fall back pieces' aren't around, since you can look for features you like and that work for you in the things that ARE in the shops.

    That outfit sounds so just AWESOME! * le sigh * And your point about wearing a black skirt that doesn't hit at the hemline of the skirt is brilliant - that's the type of styling and attention to detail that really makes a style unique and individualistic. It also points up how much of a person's style depends on HOW you wear your pieces. It doesn't have to be super fussy, just precise.

    Happy Sunday!!! steph