Monday, September 8, 2014

Clothes make the (wo)man

There are many women (& perhaps a few men) who are far more obsessed with clothes and their appearance than I am.  I've never been overly obsessed with following trends, and when my office adopted "everyday business casual" back in the late 1990s, I eagerly embraced it. 

That said, while I gleefully abandoned wearing skirts & jackets (and -- especially -- pantyhose!) every day -- I care about my appearance. I like to look good, because when I think I look good (or at the very least, presentable), I feel better about myself, more confident and capable of facing the challenges of the day. I drive dh nuts sometimes, standing in front of my closet, debating what I should wear today: What would be appropriate for the occasion (even if it's just a brief run to the store to get milk)? This outfit or that one?  Do I feel more like purple today, or black?  V-neck or crew? Should I wear a cardigan? (Check the weather.) Which earrings to go with it?  Would adding a bracelet be "too much"?  Can I get away with wearing my comfortable (albeit beat up) shoes? 

Packing for a trip of any sort is an exercise in anxiety, because I feel like I should be prepared for any eventuality -- and how do I know what I'll feel like wearing on any given day? (Yes, you make do with what you have, and six days out of seven, it's usually just fine, but there are days when I put on my grey sweater while thinking longingly of the much more appropriate red one sitting in my armoire back home.)  And for a special occasion -- our nephew's recent engagement party, for example -- I will obsess over finding the perfect outfit to wear, weeks in advance. Once I have the key pieces, I turn to jewelry & shoe choices, as well as nails & makeup.  (As I was applying my eyeshadow that day, I realized that the blue I pulled out of my collection, to match the navy blue of my top, was actually more of a violet. Horrors!! And it was getting too late to remove it all and start again with a more appropriate shade.)(Needless to say, I survived.) 

(Whereas dh happily throws on the first thing his hand touches in the closet, and will wear (& re-wear) the same thing over & over -- not to mention committing fashion faux pas such as wearing a red T-shirt with green shorts. "You can't wear that for Christmas Eve -- you wore it five years ago," I will say as I search his closet for a more appropriate outfit. "How do you remember these things??"  he says, no doubt privately thinking "and why should I care?")

That's why Heather Mallick's column in last Saturday's Toronto Star resonated with me so strongly.  "For every dress and shirt, there is a reason," the headline reads. Mallick was promoting a new book by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, called "Women in Clothes." The authors surveyed more than 600 women (famous & not, including Mallick) with a detailed questionnaire (which you can also fill out) about what they wear and why. Questions such as: “With whom do you talk about clothes? What is your cultural background, and how has that influenced how you dress? Do you notice women on the street? What sort do you tend to admire?... Can you recall some times when you have dressed a particular way to calm yourself or gain a sense of control over a situation that scared you?” And on and on. The responses make up the book. 

"I now realize," Mallick writes, "that I had been subjected to either a skilled police interrogation or the therapy session of a lifetime." (My own reaction, reading the list of questions -- now more than 80 (!) -- was that each one could provide fuel for an entire blog post.) 

I found and bought the book later that night. :)  I will let you know what I think when I finally get around to reading it -- although I suspect this is the kind of book you can dip in & out of at leisure. 

Does this book sound like something that might interest you? What sort of a relationship do you have with your clothes?


  1. I have just been celebrating finding the perfect (well, it's not perfect, but it's very good, or will be after a little tailoring) dress for my niece's wedding in Australia next March!! (Have to buy at the beginning of summer or everything will disappear.) And I start planning what clothes and shoes I will take on a trip as soon as I've booked it - often months in advance! And of course, DH really doesn't have a clue. He has no clue what's in his closet, even things he wore regularly one season, by the next season he won't even remember he owns it.

    So yes, this sounds interesting. I'm off to fill out the questionnaire.

  2. I care about my clothes a lot. I love it when they are soft and warm, like my cashmere jumpers/cardigans. I want them to be superb quality and want to never let them go. I wrote a blog post about it when I lost a jumper I had had for 20 years. (Still a bit sad about it) Some years I don't buy anything new when fashion is weird. On the other hand, I might buy an entirely new outfit if the occasion is big enough (new job, brothers wedding)
    And it can be very emotoinal: for that wedding someone suggested a bright red silk dress, very powerful. I looked stunning, but with infertility weighing heavy on me I found it too bright.
    Looking forward to your book review!

  3. That sounds like a book I might read. My relationship with clothes and style is evolving. That's a nice way of saying that I wish I had tried harder 10-15 years ago. My mom is beautiful but hates clothes shopping, so she gets stuck in ruts, and she never showed me how to walk in heels or apply lipstick, etc.

    Recently I made a quick list of styles that I like and that I hate -- what I gravitate toward, what feels uncomfortable or awkward, what just doesn't seem to work for me. It was a revelation (I adore making quick lists; it's my favorite problem-solving method). The list of styles I personally hate was pretty easy, once I got started. Stilettos, for example -- I am never comfortable in them. Ankle boots. Skinny jeans. Midi skirts. Then I drew conclusions from the lists, like "De-emphasize lower legs" (my worst feature). And I read somewhere that if you tend to have a lot of similar items in your closet, that means something beyond "I'm in a rut." It means you're attracted to some element of this style, and the challenge is to identify it and then push yourself to branch out a bit.

    I've started making a lookbook for DH, who is also trying to "grow" his style. It's fun to play editor. : )