Tag Archives: wardrobe

Thoreau as Fashion Advisor: Simplify, Simplify

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

— Clare Booth Luce

Squishable, packable navy dress from Travelsmith.

Squishable, packable navy dress from Travelsmith.

I hate packing. Hate it, hate it, hate it! It’s probably the stress of having to choose, and the sure knowledge that sometime during the trip an event will arise for which I’ll have nothing appropriate to wear—and the perfect outfit hanging in my closet back at home.

A recent trip to Salt Lake City and then Las Vegas left me completely stumped. I’d need clothing for outdoor walks in cool weather (it actually snowed in April), clothing for promenading on the Vegas Strip, dinners at casual restaurants, fancier evenings out, meeting the parents of my step-son’s lovely girlfriend (and, hopefully, making a good first impression), swimming, the gym…And all that had to fit into one suitcase. I spent the better part of the day before our trip in a hissy-fit of indecision. I just couldn’t put together a few flexible outfits out of the plethora of possibilities in my overstuffed closet. And the number of shoes needed for all these different outfits—jeesh! I ended up filling my carry-on bag with shoes.

A big part of my problem was color. The orange sweater only goes with the olive-green pants, not the black jeans (except for Halloween). The black jeans require black shoes, and the olive-green jeans require brown shoes. The beige jacket only works for half the outfits, ditto the black jacket. You get the idea.

And don’t get me started about how very much I hate shopping for clothes—pawing through racks and racks of duds hoping to find one flattering, classic, wearable item. The result is a tendency to finally blurt-purchase a handful of minimally-acceptable garments just to get it over with. And I don’t care for the cheap-looking (but often expensive), overly embellished stuff on offer in most shops. I don’t want to wear a ruffled, spangled, multi-colored top that flutters when I walk—whatever happened to simple blouses?  And while shopping in outdoorsy stores simplifies things, I don’t want to look like I’m perpetually heading out for a hike, or off to yoga class.

Recent studies have shown how stressful and draining constant decision-making is on our cognitive powers. Michael Useem, Ph.D., author of The Go Point: When It’s Time to Decide, says “Decision-making is just like running a marathon. It is just an exhausting activity.” There you go! While I’m grateful to have plenty of clothing from which to choose, all this choosing is wearying—especially when it’s time to pack for a trip.

So, this overabundance of choices has led me to a decision. From now on, I will only purchase clothing in three color families: blues, greens, and browns. That should result in a smaller wardrobe from which I can quickly assemble outfits by mixing and matching, because everything should more or less go with everything else. And I do feel best in those colors, despite fashion advisers’ urgings to wear autumn colors: olive green, mustard gold, burnt umber. Those colors sometimes flatter my complexion, but I don’t feel snazzy when dressed like a pile of autumn leaves. There’s something calm, crisp, mellow, centered about blues and greens, the colors of summer and sky.

And here’s the thing: I don’t look good in black, white, or gray, the most popular neutral colors, so I just won’t buy any more garments in those colors. Oh, I won’t throw away any good pieces I already have in orange, black, red, purple—but I won’t pack them for trips, and when they wear out, I’ll replace them (or not) with my colors. The brown family offers flattering neutral shades from palest ivory (so much more flattering on me than stark white) to deepest espresso (so much more flattering than black). If I ever find myself craving a shot of, say, orange—well, I have a large scarf collection. Basta!

This should make the shopping ordeal easier, and packing should be a breeze. I also like the idea of bucking trends and making conscious decisions about the look I portray, rather than being a plaything of fashion merchandisers. And being very choosy about color reflects the French approach to fashion, which I so admire: buy fewer items, and save up for the good stuff. Wear your good garments frequently, varying the look with accessories. Find out what suits you and stick to that. C’est une bonne idée.

So, here’s my new navy dress from Travelsmith, the beginning of a simpler wardrobe. Wish me luck. What about you? Do you buy whatever garments tickle your fancy, or do you stick to only certain styles and/or colors?

In search of Je ne sais quoi

 

Nancy, France, spring 2014

Nancy, France, spring 2014

I’m on a French kick. Lately, I’ve been muttering to myself in French – perhaps because my efforts at learning Spanish are kicking up the French-language debris that lines the foreign-language portion of my brain. And I’ve been looking in my closet and dreaming of simple, elegant, chic ensembles. I yearn for a smaller, well-organized wardrobe based on classic, good-quality pieces like a tailored jacket, a cashmere sweater, a crisp white blouse, ankle-length jeans, ballerina flats, and the all-important LBD. Of course, I’ve seen few Tacomans who dress like that, but so what? Isn’t retirement all about going my own way and discovering my own preferences? I already own enough scarves to bedeck a city block of Parisiennes, and a genuine beret Basque. The classic, slim silhouette of a French femme d’un certain age – that’s what I need to feel bien dans ma peau – at ease, confident, and full of joie de vivre. (See? What did I tell you? French phrases littering the place like autumn leaves.)

This yearning for all things French is largely due to homesickness – not only for Europe, but for who I once was – Madame S., prof de français. Even after I changed jobs and ceased teaching French, I continued to live near France (in western Germany) and travelled there frequently. I’ve been sorting through some photos this week, which is a much more time-consuming process on the computer than it used to be when we just printed up our snapshots and put them into an album – or into a shoe box with the promise that one day we’d put them into an album. In any case, I keep running across shots of the Loire valley, of châteaux I’ve visited there, of my daughter and me in Paris during her senior year of high school, of a long-ago me shepherding students through Paris, or Strasbourg, or Verdun, or even Hagenau, a cute little town in Lorraine that was an easy day’s outing from our school in northern Bavaria. And I found dozens of photos of my mom, daughter, husband and me in Colmar, one of the most beautiful towns in Alsace – crisscrossed with canals, the half-timbered houses with drunkenly-sloped tiled roofs, and windows bedecked with explosions of geraniums – so lovely, so comfortable, so far away.

Colmar, summer of 2012.

Colmar, summer of 2012.

But part of this French kick is also a reaction against the sloppy aesthetic of so many women my age. OK – at the family literacy program where I’ve been volunteering, some of the instructors dress up for work in proper dresses or nice slacks and blouses. Aha – my use of the word “proper” is a clue – my inner snob is pushing back against the laissez-faire approach to personal grooming that reigns here in my new home. I yearn to find a sidewalk café where I can sip espresso and read or write or contemplate deep, philosophical questions while watching interesting people stroll by. I want to be called Madame by a black and white-clad waiter with a cool attitude – instead of being chirped at by a cheerleader type: “Hi there! How are you today? Are you having a fantastic day? What can I get started for you? An Americano? Perfect!”

No honey, it’s not perfect. Perfect would be a place where I could sit comfortably and the waitress would come to me, take my order in modulated tones, and not insist on chirping at me until the coffee is ready. I loathe, despise and abominate chirpiness. And I’m not a cranky pants most of the time – really, I’m not. I find people fascinating – all sorts of people, but I just want a peaceful pause in my day to sip my caffeine and read a bit, or perhaps just stare out the window and watch the passers-by, as they do in France. Sigh.

Loire Valley, Spring 2014

Loire Valley, Spring 2014

A few days ago, I was in a restaurant with my husband. At the next table were a gaggle of women about my age – 50s, some perhaps in their 40s. They were drinking wine and laughing –well, braying and cackling – very loudly. Perhaps they were having a girls’ night out, having a few (loud!) laughs after work. But I got the strong feeling that they were all single – perhaps divorced? They were all well-groomed and dressed in work outfits – expensive-looking, snug pants with dressy blouses. Each one had obviously colored, streaked and styled hair – rather stiff, and plenty of makeup. Each one looked a bit anxious, checking out the room – for possible dates? For the impression she was making? Even though they were having (loud!) fun, they didn’t look at ease, confident, comfortable. They were a bit on edge, checking out the room for the impression they were making.

There’s a sexiness to the French woman that comes from being comfortable, from a firm sense of who she is. She knows herself, and dresses to please; a Frenchwoman always aims to seduire (to charm, to please) – not just men, but all the people with whom she comes into contact. But she has a basic confidence that this table of attractive-but-trying-too-hard American women obviously lacked. And that confidence is sexy.  Even – or especially – older French women, les femmes d’un certain âge, project this sexy, effortless (or seemingly so) confidence, and that’s what I’m aiming for – even here in my new home. Vive l’esprit français – even in Tacoma!

Shopping in the Galeries LaFayette, Paris, 2011.

Shopping in the Galeries LaFayette, Paris, 2011.

Here’s a list of books that I’ve enjoyed on French style and the French lifestyle, just in case you’re feeling a bit Frenchie yourself:

  • Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange, with Sophie Gachet. Such lovely photos! A quick read for a rainy day, with excellent recommendations for a simple, classy French wardrobe, styling tricks, grooming advice, and pages of Ines’s tips for your next visit to Paris – good fodder for daydreaming.
  • Chic and Slim; Chic and Slim Encore; Chic and Slim Techniques by Anne Barone. Thess slim volumes by a Texan show how French techniques can be applied to the U.S. lifestyle with splendid results. Oh, and she has another book out: Chic and Slim Toujours, which contains advice for aging gracefully à la française. I must buy this! Check out her blog at annebarone.com.
  • French Style by Veronique Vienne. Another slim volume with lovely vintage photos and philosophical inspiration.
  • All of Mireille Guiliano’s books: French Women Don’t Get Fat; French Women for All Seasons; and I’m currently reading French Women Don’t Get Facelifts. Her voice is delightful, and her advice practical and oh-so-applicable. Guiliano lives part-time in the U.S., so she knows the cultural and practical barriers to applying French techniques and attitudes here.
  • Fatale: How French Women Do It by Eduth Kunz. Her chapter “Of a Certain Age” is particularly inspiring.
  • French Women Don’t Sleep Alone, by Jamie Cat Callan. Erica Jong called this book “Adorable!” – and so do I. She analyzes that supreme confidence – not arrogance, just self-knowledge and self-acceptance – that makes French women so alluring.
  • All You Need to Be Impossibly French, by Helena Frith Powell, an Englishwoman who makes very perspicacious comparisons between the attitudes and practices of her countrywomen and les françaises. Sharp, funny, realistic.
  • French Toast, by Harriet Welty Rochefort. An American marries into a French family and learns volumes about the puzzling, wise, mysterious ways of the French. Very funny, full of illustrative anecdotes.
  • Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl, by Debra Ollivier. A well-rounded look at the attitudes and lifestyle of French women, with many fascinating historical vignettes.

And of course, this list doesn’t even begin to touch on the many French cookbooks that have inspired me, nor on the many delightful works of fiction about U.S. or English women who made the transplant to l’hexagone. Hmm – perhaps my next novel should be about a middle-aged woman in the U.S. who decides to polish up her lackluster lifestyle by living like a Frenchwoman? That could be très amusant.

 

On Free Thinkers and Trends

Trends are designed to make us buy shit. Not literally shit – that’s never been trendy, because there’s plenty of it around. You don’t even have to go to the store to get some (literal) shit – it’s available right there in your home. Or at least on the sidewalk in front of your home. Thanks, neighbor dogs! And cats. And raccoons. No, trendy items are only trendy if they require effort and expense to attain.

I once loved magazines – loved, loved, loved magazines, with their bright, shiny pictures; with their neat little packages of information and inspiration; with their message of eternally-springing hope. I’m speaking of women’s magazines here, the kind with a fashion focus – not, say, Ms. But the raison d’être of a magazine is to get you to buy shit – clothing, “beauty” products, purses, toilet bowl cleaner, fitness gadgets, what have you. And how do the marketers do that, dear reader? You know the answer as well as I – by making you believe that your life is somehow lacking, and that your life will be so much better if you buy this particular shit.  But you’re not – lacking, that is. And your life will not improve if you have in your house any particular consumer item that is advertised in those magazines.

So yeah – lately, the shine has worn off magazines, as far as I’m concerned. I’m just having a hard time seeing past the ads, despite the sometimes-good writing that I find buried between the ads. Have you ever tried this? Take a magazine – whichever type you choose. Flip through it, and tear out any page that has nothing but advertising on both sides. Make a note of how much slimmer your magazine now is.

And blogs! Some of my formerly favorite blogs, sort of online magazines, have morphed into vehicles for selling shit. Writers whose points of view I once looked forward to reading are now more focused on convincing me to buy this blouse, that moisturizer, and that other mascara. Jeesh! If I wanted that, I’d buy a magazine.

Here’s where I lose credibility with some of my younger readers: I do not care what the latest fashion trends are. The beauty of reaching my advanced age, 52, is that I feel just fine about choosing clothing that covers my nakedness, is comfortable, and suits my own ideas about what looks good on me. Are those snazzy-to-me shoes “so last year”? Who cares! Does this hat remind you of your grandmother? That’s your problem! Do the cool kids not approve of my simple, practical purse? Tough shit, cool kids! Who asked you anyway? I use a purse to haul around things that I want to have with me when I’m away from home, not to impress the cool kids.

And really, that speaks to my personal philosophy: You should do the things you do in life because they please you and express your inner essence – not because they might impress someone. It’s a key distinction. I taught high school until recently, and every day I would pass in the hallways clumps of black-clad “emo” types whose carefully chosen outfits carefully toed the emo party line. They made a big point of being “different,” but all in the same way. As I passed, they’d get louder so as to attract attention. They were trying very hard for a negative reaction – from teachers, from parents, from peers. I see people like this on the streets of Tacoma, in their oh-so-similar hipster outfits with the baggy gray beanies, and they’re mostly out of high school, yet many of them are still angling for the disapproval of passers-by like me. I find that sad. Why should you care about what sort of reaction you can draw from perfect strangers? Do you really need me, a middle-aged person, to validate what a badass you are?

Then there was S-, a student in my classes the last few years before I retired. She wore the oddest, coolest outfits, which she often designed herself out of scraps of cloth, old garments, and funky items cobbled into accessories. But she did this to please herself, and for that reason, I was always delighted to notice and to compliment her wardrobe choices. S- enjoyed what she wore, whether others approved or not; she was expressing herself.

I want to dress like that too, now that I no longer have to meet someone’s expectations for what’s appropriate. Not that I want to wear silver lame skirts and tiaras, like S- did, but it’s wonderful to be able to please myself, sartorially. And it’s such a relief to realize that, no matter what event comes my way, I already have something appropriate in my closet. I don’t need any new clothes! Take that, advertisers.

And that goes for electronics – so I’ll say no thanks to an expensive smart phone. I have a computer at home, and I don’t care to snap photos of myself in various locations throughout the day and post them for all and sundry to admire. You like your smart phone? Good for you – enjoy! You think that I’m hopelessly uncool because I don’t have one? Who cares! That also goes for social media. I enjoy Facebook, especially the goofy videos that my friends and “friends” post – that porcupine eating a pumpkin – too cute! And I like to read what distant friends are up to. But I’ve heard that the cool kids have left Facebook behind in favor of Instagram, Twitter, and God knows what else. Who cares! Not I.

I was noodling around on the internet, looking for others’ interesting thoughts on being a free thinker who doesn’t unquestioningly follow fashion, technological, and/or social trends. Most of what I found related to the Free-Thinker Movement – apparently devoted to freedom from religious dogma and clerical control, with past ties to the anarchist movement of the 19th century.  I’m greatly simplifying here, but – in any case – this was not at all what I was looking for. How disappointing! Where were the articles, essays and websites devoted to thinking for oneself in daily life? I did, however, find this good bit from Urban Dictionary website (always a fun read):

Free Thinker

A philosophical viewpoint that opinions or beliefs of reality should be based on science,       logic and reason. Ideas should not be derived from religion, authority, governments or         dogmas.

A free thinker should not reject nor accept any proposed truths of organized religion,           established norms, media, etc. They should determine if the belief is valid based on their     own knowledge, intuition, research and reason. Just because other people believe in it,         doesn’t mean it’s right! Use your own judgment and think critically!

by Autumn’s Modesty, September 19, 2009

Thank you, Autumn! I’ll bet she doesn’t waste much time reading fashion magazines or trolling the mall for external validation. So – here’s to free thinkers. I shall do my very best to be one.

Say No to the Dress: An Older Bride Goes Shopping

In search of a simple dress for my wedding.

In search of a simple dress for my wedding.

I can see it in my head: a slim dress of cream-colored satin, covered with the softest of lace. Little cap sleeves of lace drape my shoulders. The dress reaches to my ankles, so as to show off my pretty satin 1920’s style pumps, and so as not to drag in the damp grass or sand. I know that my dress is out there somewhere. I cannot be the only bride who has envisioned a simple, graceful lace dress for her outdoor wedding.

But I sure haven’t found it yet! What I have found are Little Mermaid confections with hobble skirts ending in a burst of froth; stiff, strapless Barbie gowns more suited for a walk on the red carpet than for a walk down the aisle; and delicate little bodices perched atop what appear to be tulle pot scrubbers – you know, those puffy things we made in the third grade as Mother’s Day presents (sorry, Mom). Or, for the older bride, a dowdy suit, or a sexy-schmexy skin-tight short sheath dress. So not me.

Sure, I know that the bridal industry is just that – an industry bent on persuading brides to spend as much as possible – and I don’t have to play along. In fact, I made my first wedding dress. A skinny 22-year-old, I looked like Glinda the freaking good fairy, but I made it myself! The marriage only lasted five years – he was a wonderful boyfriend, but a lousy husband – and we were both too young for such an undertaking. But the wedding was a fun party; all the aunts, moms, sisters and female friends got together to make a buffet of cold salads, ham, roast beef, and little rolls. The cake was embellished with fresh flowers, and the reception hall was decorated with translucent balloons filled with colorful confetti, which the guests popped as we left to start our short-lived marriage.

The second time around, for my marriage to the wrong fellow I wore an off-the-rack ivory suit with a peplum jacket – pretty snazzy for a civil ceremony with just the two of us.  After a controversial courtship (enraged exes on both sides, lots of gossip and disapproval), we eloped to Denmark, where divorced people like us could be married with far less paperwork than Germany would have required. This marriage lasted twenty years and produced my gorgeous daughter, though it ended badly. Does any marriage that ends end well?

And now I’m heading to the altar for the third time. “Good Lord, woman! Can’t you see that you’re just no good at this marriage thing?” I hear you say. Ah, but I’ve learned a lot from my first two unions – about relationships, about myself, about how to handle conflict, to be patient, to be kind. As a wise old Southern woman once told me, “Honey, everyone’s got something to teach you, even if it’s how not to be.” And I’ve learned a lot about how not to be from my time with hubbies #1 and #2. I wish them well.

And anyway, three’s a charm! (Or three strikes you’re out) My good, good man proposed to me this summer by the light of a full moon, as we watched the ocean waves whisper and murmur below us. We’ve been a couple for three years now, know each other well, and are more compatible than I ever was with my first two mates. This man is the love of my life, the one who sees through me, recognizes my foibles, thinks I’m beautiful when I’m tired and grumpy, and loves me – not his idea of who or how I should be. And I’ll devote the rest of my life to being the best wife I can to this dear man.

But, in order to marry him, I’ll need to find a dress. Where are you, simple lace gown? And we’ll need a venue – not a grand palace, mansion, or winery where we can entertain hundreds with passed hors d’oeuvres and squab with caviar. Just a pretty outdoor spot for the ceremony and a nice place to drink a bit of bubbly and eat a simple meal with a small group of friends and family. We are not wealthy people, nor are the loved ones who will be driving or flying in to help us celebrate. “Don’t cheat yourself – design your dream wedding!” I’ve heard this from websites, well-meaning friends and family- and let’s not even talk about the wedding planners. “Buy, buy, buy! Spare no expense! After all, what’s ten thousand dollars – it’s your only wedding! Oh, that’s right, ahem…”

I’m confident that we will eventually find a pretty place, a simpatico officiant, and that we’ll have a lovely, simple, small celebration with our families and friends. No limo, no swans, no DJ, no ice sculptures, no tower of cake, no hours of posed photos – just a celebration of the sweet love we’ve found at long last. Did I mention that we’re living in Germany while planning a wedding in the U.S.? Wish us luck.

 

The Joy (and Frustration) of Weeding

pile of clothing discardsNo, not in the garden, though yanking botanical interlopers out of the flower beds does have its therapeutic value. The type of weeding I’ve been doing lately involves clothing, magazines, books and other flotsam from corners of my home. Since moving into my current home and combining household stuff with my wonderful mate, I have given away a dozen large trash bags stuffed with clothing and shoes. A few of these were filled with my daughter’s cast-offs from earlier years, held onto for sentimental reasons. But most if it was mine, and that bothers me, dear reader – it bothers me a lot.

            When my two siblings and I were children, there wasn’t much money to spend on clothing. We were living on my dad’s public-school-teacher salary, which doesn’t go far in a family of five. So every summer ended with back-to-school shopping from the sale rack at Sears, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward. My mother did an outstanding job of making those few dollars stretch to clothe three kids in the basics, plus a few well-chosen items in the latest styles – just a few, but enough to keep us from feeling like total dorks, fashion-wise. Under Mom’s tutelage, I developed a good eye for bargains. Only $4.99 for this top? And it’s so cute! Please, Mom? Pleasepleaseplease?

            The trouble is that the gravitational pull of the sales racks has not diminished over the years, even though I now make enough money to pay full price for a modest but good-quality wardrobe. I still feel the thrill of pulling a cute top out of a pile of schlock, and several times per year I make spontaneous purchases of cute but not really needed items of clothing. This blouse may not match anything I already own, but it’s cute and flattering; it only cost me 9.99 Euros, and don’t I deserve a treat?

            Of course, some of the seasonal wardrobe weeding has to do with changing sizes. Over the past ten years my weight has fluctuated up and down a good twenty pounds. Lately, my weight is easing downward (Huzzah!), and that’s a wonderful reason to weed through my Schränke (wardrobe cabinets – German homes don’t have closets) and bins. Some of the too-tight items I put away with a sigh last August fit again! But many of the rejects are seldom-worn impulse purchases that simply don’t go with my basic pants and skirts, with my most frequent color choices, or with my lifestyle. That red Chanel-style jacket that was on super-sale? I’ve never worn it. That long, camel-tan cardigan? It just looks odd and lumpy over all my blouses and slacks. That schmexy, clingy dress in the bright pink print? It looks great, but how often would I wear something that clingy? Certainly not to work, and I just don’t go to that many fancy brunches or summer weddings. At 50, a grand age to be, I don’t have the elegant, well-put-together wardrobe I deserve. Instead, I have cabinets and storage bins bulging with ill-matched single garments from which I can only pull together a few decent outfits. What a waste of money and time!

            And so, after over-spending on “bargains” from my teens through my forties, I’m turning my back on the sale rack. It’s hard, dear reader – so very hard, especially now, in the summer, when the pedestrian shopping zones of European cities are filled with rack upon rack of darling, inexpensive summer fashions. Cute, colorful tops call to me, the cheap little teases, “Take me home! I’m fun! I’m frivolous! You know you want me!”

            But slowly, oh so slowly, I find that I am actually developing sales resistance. Is this one of the gifts of age that we’re promised: the wisdom to see all that schlock for what it is? A new blouse will not give me a new attitude, a new confidence, or a new je ne sais quoi – especially if it hangs unworn in my wardrobe because it doesn’t go with anything else I own.

            This summer I’m paring my wardrobe down to the bone, and then adding in a few basic, combinable items purchased from a good clothing shop at full price. My theory is that if, say, a blouse costs me forty or fifty Euros, it’ll have to be really flattering and combinable with several other items before my cheap self will plunk down that sum. It’ll be hard, since my bargain-rack mentality recoils at such a high price for one item – but it helps to add up the cost of a dozen trash bags full of discarded ten-Euro tops – ouch! I’ll even go shopping with a list, and stick to it! White blouse means white blouse, not sparkly silver tank top, not powder-blue cropped cardigan, not flowered sundress. Basta! (Wish me luck.)

            How about you? Have you found a way to cultivate sales resistance and good discipline when it comes to buying clothing? Do you shop with a plan? If so, please share your wisdom here.