Thursday, April 11, 2013

Some Thoughts About How I Dress

The seasons are changing and with it my outfits, which has gotten me thinking about my clothes again. Believe it or my wardrobe (my clothing, shoes, accessories, jewelry, and outwear) is something that I've given a lot of thought to, in ways that may not show, so this post is an attempt to clarify why I dress the way I do.

I was a late bloomer, and subsisted happily on unfitted tshirts and jeans until 10th grade, when I got involved in theater, got a boyfriend, and realized I wanted to dress more like my peers. The first time my mom took me to the mall and I cared about what I was buying instead of going "yeah, whatever" I was quickly overwhelmed by the number of options out there and how to choose and combine them when I hadn't developed a sense of style and didn't have any female friends I felt comfortable asking to help give me one, and to boot all of it was SO expensive - especially the accessories. For $100 (an enormous sum when I was 15) I was going to end up with just a few outfits, not a whole wardrobe. About an hour in I shut down, much to my mom's disappointment, and never really recovered.

Since then I've gone about building up my wardrobe on MY terms, not the mall's or what's in style. In building up a wardrobe I've considered several factors - 1. body type, 2. price, durability and comfort, and 3. personal style, which I will explain below.

To start with, I pick clothes that will flatter my body. I am 5'6, very thin, flat chested, and have a small waist and big hips. There are a lot of styles out there that don't look good on me, and I simply refuse to wear them. For instance, most women have breasts, and most clothes are made with this assumption in mind, while clothes made for the fashionably anorexic set are often cut for women without curves on the bottom. I don't have breasts and rarely wear bras because I don't need to and find them uncomfortable, so I have to be careful when I pick my tops: no halter tops, no plunging necklines, no tops with built-in areas for busts that I can't fill. I also avoid knitted tops - they just don't look good on me unless I wear a bra, and if I don't wear a bra I have to worry about my nipples showing (which I think is ridiculous). So as a result I overwhelmingly wear blouses, which can sometimes be a bit tricky because I have large shoulders and muscly arms but on the whole it's relatively easy to buy ones that fit or tailor ones that are a bit big in the waist.

On the bottom half I tend to wear skirts or jeans. I have a hard time finding dress trousers that rise high enough for my butt to not fall out of them without strangling my crotch so I don't own many, but I don't have much trouble with jeans. My pants are usually jeans or men's wool dress pants, though I do own a solitary pair of capris.

For skirts I like them knee length and full: I have a hard time finding pencil skirts or A-line skirts that don't sit weird on my waist or wrinkle in some way so I avoid them, and I think skirts made full with pleats or gathers at the waist, widening panels, or gores show off my rather feminine bottom half where my chest can't. I don't own shorts because I think they look undignified - either I'm doing something physical, in which I wear pants, or I'm doing something that doesn't require pants, in which case I wear a skirt. I own athletic skorts for weight lifting, biking, and kayaking.

Moving on to price, durability, and comfort: there are all things that are wrapped up with each other, and probably the main motivational forces behind designing my wardrobe. I don't have a lot of money to spend on my wardrobe so most of my purchases are second-hand and limited to what I can find in thrift stores, and I want to buy things that will last for years instead of wearing out in a season or two. I try to buy high quality brands: they tend to be better made and the design of the clothes is often more stylish, subtle, and keeping with my taste. After working on my wardrobe carefully for five years I can afford to be choosy about what labels I pick up, and at this point a lot of my wardrobe is high end brands, all bought second hand - Banana Republic, Ralph Lauren, Black House White Market, J Crew, Brooks Brothers, and United Colors of Benneton, to name a few.

To that end I try to minimize buying knitted fabrics, especially printed knits (I don't think I own any printed knit clothing outside of tshirts): knits have often already had a lot of wear by the time they end up in thrift stores so they can wear out quickly if I don't choose well, and printed knits fade in the wash and rarely look the better for it. When I do buy knits they tend to be camisoles that I wear next to my skin in fall, winter, and spring to keep my torso warm and protect my blouses from wear; sweaters, either pull-over wool sweaters to be worn over a blouse for winter; or knit cotton sweaters to be worn over a short sleeve blouse in summer.

I commute primarily on foot, on bike, and by public transit (which necessitates waiting in the heat and cold), and I live in a house without AC in the tidewater so I avoid knits in the summer because they don't breathe, including my underwear - I wear men's woven cotton boxers under my skirts in the summer. In addition to wearing out after a few seasons a fashionable knit skirt or top in the heat feels like wearing a sauna: the heavy fabric clings to me and doesn't let my sweat evaporate. I've been just as comfortable in a long-sleeved linen shirt, cotton trousers, and a wool uniform coat as I have in a knit dress. Along with avoiding knits in summer I avoid synthetics year-round: in the winter they tend to get damp and clammy and make me feel cold; in the summer they don't let my sweat evaporate as effectively as fast as linens or cottons and grow damp and unpleasant.

I tend to run colder than most people and like having something to wear around my neck against chills and a lot of my outfits are rather drab, so to give myself some color and variety I coordinate a lot of my outfits with large scarves and shawls that compliment my outfits: richly-patterned cashmere and silk pashminas elaborately-draped over my shoulders in the winter to give my otherwise grey and black outfits some variety, and lighter acrylic and cotton shawls in solid colors in the summer to go with my often brightly-colored skirts and blouses. While I have to dress to be comfortable for a two mile bicycle commute when it's 95 out I also have to bring something to be comfortable when I go into stores or restaurants, which are usually chilled to a nearly-intolerable 65, and shawls pack neatly into a bag.

Finally, because I get around by bicycle a lot so I need skirts that are neither too short to easily ride in, nor so long that they'll get caught in my rear brake - maxi length skirts are out.

Emphasizing quality, durability, and flexibility, my jewelry is mostly antique, and generally quite simple: gold or silver with stones or pearls. I own the basics, and they are all very well made: large and small diamond earrings, large and small diamond rings set in gold, plain gold wedding band, large and small silver hoops, white pearl earrings and necklace, black pearl necklace, a cameo and gold necklace, an amber and gold necklace, and a few precious and semiprecious stone pendants on gold chains. I also own some pins made of enamel or rhinestones to put on my blazers.

Shoes are something I'm willing to spend a lot of money when I buy them new: I want them comfortable and long-lasting, so I'll drop $50-$100 because I don't buy that many pairs of shoes - at that price point they're staples, not fashion accessories, so most of my shoes are black leather and completely undecorated so they can go with a maximum number of outfits. In the winter I wear ballet flats, black, tan, or oxblood red wingtips, or mary janes with tights or wool socks; in the summer I wear pale green birkenstocks, black flip-flops, or black ballet flats.

I haven't thought a lot about purses (okay, I have thought a lot about purses but all the ones I want to buy are way too expensive), so for now just I prefer ones I can put over a shoulder so I can bicycle with them. I have a cute black canvas messenger bag for every day use, a plain black shoulder bag for nicer events, and a small shiny red one for evening events.

I also wear hats to protect my skin and keep myself cool/warm - broad-brimmed straw hats in summer, black wool cloches and pillboxes in winter. oh, and my winter coat is a US Navy surplus black wool women's peacoat.

As we get to personal style a lot of it has been summed up already: I like well-made clothes that will last a long time and thus need to not go out of style. Also, I'm really bad at accessorizing (also also, accessories cost money), so I don't own a lot of belts, big jewelry, shoes that make a statement, and so on. So on the whole I have a wardrobe full of staples: mostly woven, mostly solid-colored clothes and shoes in a variety of weights that can be easily combined into a lot of different outfits to meet the needs of the season. It's not always exciting, and it's definitely not trendy, but I think that because my wardrobe is well-tailored and neat it's flattering on me, and I do get complimented on my outfits sometimes.

Over a decade of wearing historical clothing has worn off on me: historically people wore regularly-washed cheaper cottons or linens next to their skins and more luxurious woolen outerclothes, and I tend to structure my winter outfits similarly: inexpensive cotton camisoles or v-neck tshirts under blouses, and cotton underwear and tights under woolen skirts. Most of my winter blazers, skirts, and scarves are woolen and dry-cleaning is expensive, so I try to protect them from my skin and spot-clean them.

My basic outfit paradigm is either a plain skirt with a patterned (floral print, check, striped) blouse, or a patterned skirt with a plain blouse. In the cooler weather I wear a lot of heavier-weight sweater tights under my skirts, which is another way I can add color and variety to my outfits. I like argyles, and solid colors that I can coordinate with my blouses and shawls. Because my winter tops are mostly blouses I stick to blazers and jackets, or pull-over sweaters. In the summer I wear mostly knit cotton shrugs in solid colors to compliment my blouses. My casual dresses are usually shirtwaisted, and my fancier ones have well-fitted bodices with straps, and full skirts.

There's a lot of embellishment out there in the way of ruching, sequins, embroidery, laces, and trims but I mostly avoid it - I don't like the way a lot of it looks and it makes it harder to coordinate outfits, or wears out.

Here are a few sample outfits:
Winter, really cold: oxblood red wingtips, black wool dress socks, long underwear, cotton briefs, men's wool striped morning dress trousers, white v-neck undershirt, white and pale green striped cotton blouse, pale green wool sweater, silk green tie, tweed jacket with rhinestone pin
Winter, not so cold: black ballet flats, black and red argyle stockings, calf-length pleated grey wool skirt, cotton briefs, white camisole, white blouse, purple wool sweater, black blazer, purple and pink pashmina shawl, pearl necklace and earrings
Spring, cool: black leather ballet flats, black shoe liner socks, black leggings, cotton briefs, black camisole, green shirt-waisted dress, green and orange plaid fabric belt, grey cotton shrug, black pearl necklace, silver hoop earrings
Summer, hot: black flip flops, printed knee-length cotton skirt, cotton boxers, blue blouse, small silver stud earrings.

Since my teens I've admired Christian Dior's New Look and my wardrobe at its best is an homage to that style: woven blouses, full woven skirts, and tailored jackets. I really think it's a beautiful look that makes my figure look good and sexy and feminine, and when I see yet another year of maxi-length skirts, shapeless drop-waisted dresses, and baggy tunics - all cut from cheap cottonpoly jersey - I despair. Why would I want to spend $100 to look like a sack of flour while shivering in the winter and sweltering in the summer?

Finally, as an after-thought, I think that good clothing is worth buying, worth paying for, and worth caring for. I line-dry my nicer clothes, take things to the dry cleaner, keep my leather shoes soled and polished, and mend tears and lost buttons. I've invested a substantial amount of money in my wardrobe over the years and have acquired some things I really like, and I very much want it to last.

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