Archive for the ‘Style and Identity’ Category

So Superficial

Two Afghan women wearing chadri

We talk a lot about whether clothing is “superficial.” Well yes, clothes go on the surface of our bodies.  That’s what superficial means. But this doesn’t make clothing irrelevant or pretend.  It is deeply tied to our choices, our sense of self, and what we express to the world.

I’ve been wanting to talk about the Islamic Burqa and the “Burqa bans” in European countries.  But I didn’t know what to say — becuase I don’t like the burqa.  I wish it weren’t compulsory for women to cover themselves, for any reason. But I’m American and deeply believe in religious freedom.  So what do we do?

We don’t ban burqas.  Thankfully, feminist legal scholar Martha Nussbaum analyzes burqa bans in her piece Veiled Threats, in today’s New York Times Opinion Blog . Professor Nussbaum is smart and organized, as always, and I love how she fits it all together with different theories of religious freedom:

Societies are certainly entitled to insist that all women have a decent education and employment opportunities that give them exit options from any home situation they may dislike. If people think that women only wear the burqa because of coercive pressure, let them create ample opportunities for them, at the same time enforce laws making primary and secondary education compulsory, and then see what women actually do.

Former Miss Washington and domestic violence advocate Elyse Umemoto speaking in support of legislative reform

. . . And let’s be sure everyone lives safe from domestic violence and coercion, living in trust that we will be fully protected by the law. 

But what about all that nasty objectification –the world that insists we need a certain kind of body, demonizes age and weight, and promises us power if we show more skin (but exploits us as soon as we do?) Nussbaum says “The way to deal with sexism, in this case as in all, is by persuasion and example, not by removing liberty.” 

So what do we wear when we do that? And how do our clothes do that (or not?) Happily Professor Nussbaum allows for delicious high heels.

Onward. Nordstrom Anniversary Sale starts Friday!



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J's look: Praga patchwork skirt by Free People, with interesting detail.

One of our regular blog contributors is wearing this Free People Skirt today (I think it’s this one). She is very tall, funky and fabulous, and also she works in a kind of artsy/techno job, so I think this might be the perfect skirt.  But she wonders if it’s “too Boho.” Well, I don’t know. (I do know that on me, this skirt would be too, “My Mom’s Gypsy Costume she wore for every Halloween the 1980’s.”)  My friend J is NOT “a Boho person,” she is an edgy, hip person who used to live in Prague for real.

This reminds me that adjectives are useful for describing things (Does the skirt belong to the category identified as “Boho.”) Adjectives are less useful for describing people (is this person Boho or not?)  Labelling people hinders them.

So I generally resist the shortcut, “I’m not the kind of person who ___,” or “I’m more of a ____ girl.”

Labels are categories.  Categories are useful when we need to quickly sort ideas or things.  But people are not ideas or things.  Categories taunt us: What to include? What to exclude? 
It’s big issue with moms.  Are you a working mom or a stay-at-home-mom? Are you granola or crunchy? Are you hip or funky? Moms are an exhausted, isolated, brilliant and busy bunch of women.  We crave definition and connection.  This sucks us into categories, fast.  And labels like “attachment parenting” (for instance), while useful in gathering and sorting ideas –hinder us  when we begin to agonize over whether we want to take on the label of “An Attachment Parent,” or whether a certain parenting choice is “AP.” At best we distract ourselves with mind games about who is in, and who is out.  At worst, we condemn and ostracize each other — and ourselves.

Of course we can (and should) judge what we see of a decision — of an idea, a look, a statement, a skirt. We just can’t judge the entire of a human person.  (When we do start to judge a person — as judges, as juries –we are careful about what we can consider — Race? Reputation? Gossip? Appearance? — and what we must ignore). In daily life, putting people into categories (are they good or bad? Cool or weird? My kind of friend — or not?) is a waste of time — and a dangerous one.  And the worst person to label is ourselves: Is this dress ME?  I’m not a BOOTS KIND OF GIRL. If I wore that I’d look like A SLUT.

Judging ourselves is a way to grab at masks, instead of accepting the complexity and dynamism of our authentic selves.  It limits our potential. It sets ourselves up for failure. 

My look: Sofft pumps, with interesting detail.

My challenge then is to judge and describe things — the clothes, the awesome Chevron stripes, the texture and the shape. And not to judge and describe people.  Things — especally clothes, especially style — need to work FOR us. They don’t define us.  They can’t exclude us.

And I’m saying all this because I want to say: I’m not much of a Gypsy Skirt kind of girl.  I’m more of a “interesting black pump” (what I have on today) kind of girl.  And that makes me feel a little stodgy and boring next to friend J.

But I’m challenging myself to express this without self-labelling.  I’ll let you know when I succeed. 


the American Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org/

Catholic Relief Services: http://crs.org/
Doctors without Borders: http://www.msf.org/

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Sedate, serious, modest, graceful, lovely (and comfortable).

While WGD has been left to the capable hands of Aki (and our substantial Hugh Jackman lurker traffic), I’ve been busy with the less-sartorial side of life.  Those times where clothes are the last thing we worry about. Like funerals.

I’m not giving a funeralwear report to make light of a serious time.  I want to discuss an important question: how do our clothes represent ourselves to the outside world?  Even when we don’t “care about our appearance,” and the last thing we want is to attract attention, our clothes talk.  At a funeral, we have to be careful what we say.  Our clothes should say “I’m sad and I respect that you all are, too.  We are bringing our very best today to commemorate our loved one.”  It’s a sad thing to say, but saying it well is much appreciated. My guidelines:

1. Black is overrated.  It’s not wrong to wear black, but don’t fixate on it.  If you already have a modest dark dress or suit, wear it.  If you shop for a new black dress, you’ll find that most of them are too embellished or sexy.  Don’t grab something too short, too ugly, or ill-fitting just because it’s black.  Gray, brown and (especially) navy blue are just as good.  Subdued light colors are also fine, especially for young people and in warm weather.

2. Cover it up.  No thighs or cleavage, period.  Skirts come to the knee and blouses are buttoned.  In all but the most informal warm-weather situations, cover your shoulders and toes, too.  This might make you feel matronly. That’s good.  Your clothes are now saying “I’m a grownup.  I know it’s more important to be respectful than sexy right now.”


Conservative blouse, suit jacket and skirt.

3. Clothes must fit.

If you are pulling an old dress or trousers from the back of your closet, be honest about whether it might have “shrunk.”  Don’t wear anything too tight.  Baggy isn’t much better.  Aim for tops that fit through the shoulders and pants that don’t sag.  A pretty, well-cut line says, “I am elegant and dressing well because this is a classy memorial service.” That’s nice.

4. Tone it down. This is not the time for colorful, flamboyant shoes or jewelry.  This was an obstacle for me (all my shoes are fabulously colorful or textured these days). I overcame it by (what do you know) buying new shoes — the black Sofft pumps above.  These looked particularly elegant with a knee-length suit skirt. For jewelry I wore a little cross on a chain — obviously not everyone’s style, but we’re Catholic and it belonged to my Great-Grandmother.  I think a little conservative necklace like a chain or string of pearls is great. Going without is also fine, too.

5. Wear your best.  If you have a suit, that’s probably what you’ll wear. If you don’t (or if your only suit has a red seersucker miniskirt), wear your nicest (modest) dress.  If you don’t have a good dress, wear slacks and a blouse or sweater.  Around here, people who work for a living sometimes don’t have much other than jeans;  okay, wear clean jeans with your best shirt tucked in.  Don’t worry, and don’t stay away just because you feel like your clothes aren’t nice enough.

Why Get Dressed? Because clothes matter and it’s nice to look nice.  Having a well-fitting dress or suit in your closet is worth it, because you can wear it at times like this.  Of course good clothes don’t make everything okay, but they can help you feel good about yourself.  Which helps. 

In Memory of my Great-Aunt Mary Ann, who was fabulous.

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Watch out men! We are taking your pants

Logical fallacy: If women wear pants, men must either be in skirts or naked from the waist down

Jennie recently shared an interview with New York Times columnist Gail Collins, author of When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.   The interview is here:

The world has seriously changed since our mother’s generation.  Not surprisingly, a lot of these changes involve clothing.  There’s always been a tension between feminism and femininity (must we act masculine to have the opportunities men have?) Collins debunks (again) the urban legend of literal “bra-burning” (never happened).  And asked whether a “feminist” identity is distasteful to modern young women, Collins says, “even back in the ’20s women were writing that there was something about the word ‘feminism’ that suggested bad shoes.” 


Woman doing housework (see apron), 1959

My name is Robin, and I’m a feminist. Who won’t wear bad shoes.  Women my age (36 in 2009) know we can aim for pretty and powerful.  We’re not shocked when it’s a struggle to have both, but we know we deserve it.  If we want, we can run the world in skirts and heels . . . or at least we should be able to.  And we’d love to argue about why we’re not. 

Just don’t force us into skirts and heels.  Because seriously, it was not that long ago that women were supposed to wear dresses all the time. They might wear pants at home, but there aren’t even that many pictures of that before 1960.  Because if they were photographed (or depicted in art at home, see left) they would have put a dress on.  Does that seem absurd?  As Gail describes:

. . . when I went to college we weren’t allowed to wear slacks out of the dormitory, except if you were going bowling. And later on, the younger women had demonstrations and they all went out in slacks and a lot of them had picket signs, and they got rid of the law. But when I was there I just signed out to go bowling every night. I was absolutely not one of the great cultural heroines of my time, I guarantee you.

How. Dare. She.
BOWLING. Seriously. I guess pants were better because they ran and bent over? What was up with this? Mom?

Skirt vs. pants is still a big debate for many working women. Does it sex us up, or reduce us to an gender-specific expectation? And if we play along, is this necessarily a bad thing? At least we have a choice (or do we — when we hear that a Federal Judge might really prefer female attorneys to appear before him only in skirted suits).  If we dress  like men to be treated as well as them, do we concede that the Masculine is the default, the power ideal? (Because gender is something extra that women “have” and men are “normal?”) More importantly, will it make us look fat and dumpy if we tromp around in heavy, practical shoes? Heels are so slimming.

hard to be a man

Anti-suffrage cartoon circa 1910. The man and children are unhappy because the woman is leaving the house to go cast her vote. I don't think this was ironic.

Gail Collins is a little ambivalent about the clothes issue. Which is fine with me, because she’s awesome.  But around here, it’s important.  When I was pregnant with my daughter, I got some flack for wanting to buy her dresses right away — but it turns out, sturdy cotton knit dresses can be comfy and fun for girls.  She’s so cute! Then I’m conflicted when she argues too much about which PRETTY DRESS she’s going to wear in the morning. She is only 2, and there are more important things in life.  But it’s GOOD (and I’m getting to this, with Teens and Twilight) that she’s opinionated, self-possessed and determined — even when it comes to flowered pants. Should I worry that she wears too much pink? On the other hand, should I encourage my son to wear dresses (at least just for play?)

Gender-blindness may never happen, and we aren’t even totally “equal” yet.  And even for women who aren’t personally interested in equal career opportunity, the world needs it:  Opportunity builds confidence, confidence builds esteem. Girls’ self-esteem helps them stand up for themselves.  This keeps them safe and free from domestic violence and predation (TWILIGHT ARGH).  As adults they’ll be confident enough to demand equal healthcare and equal pay. 

We’ve still got a long way to go on this road.  Does it slow us down to wear a dress along the way? As Collins says, there are “walls you are never going to climb over, and separating women from really ridiculous but incredibly sexy shoes is one of those.”

. . . Unless you can climb over those walls in heels.  I’m not saying you have to try.  Just don’t tell yourself you can’t.

Slacks “loose trousers” first recorded 1824, originally military; O.E. slæc “loose, careless” (in ref. to personal conduct), from P.Gmc. *slakas (cf. O.S. slak, O.N. slakr, O.H.G. slah “slack,” M.Du. lac “fault, lack”), from PIE base *(s)leg- “to be slack” (see lax). Sense of “not tight” (in ref. to things) is first recorded c.1300. The verb is attested from 1520; slacken (v.) first recorded 1580.

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Wednesday Mad Libs


Diana Frances, Princess of Wales, nee Spencer, at her wedding to Royal Highness The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Great Master and First and Principal Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Member of the Order of Merit, Knight of the Order of Australia, Companion of the Queens Service Order, Honorary Member of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, Chief Grand Commander of the Order of Logohu, Member of Her Majestys Most Honourable Privy Council, Canadian Forces Decoration, Aide-de-Camp to Her Majesty

Diana Frances nee Spencer, Her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales, Countess of Chester, Duchess of Cornwall, Duchess of Rothesay, Countess of Carrick, Baroness of Renfrew, Lady of the Isles, Princess of Scotland., at her wedding to Royal Highness The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Great Master and First and Principal Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Member of the Order of Merit, Knight of the Order of Australia, Companion of the Queen's Service Order, Honorary Member of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, Chief Grand Commander of the Order of Logohu, Member of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, Canadian Forces Decoration, Aide-de-Camp to Her Majesty

Aunt Jan writes:


 I grew up in a family that had a women’s apparel shop. My sister-in-law was involved in every fashion show in town, and was known as the Who’s Who in what to wear. Everyone who was anybody savvy went to her.  All the wives of the men at the state capital, the governor’s wife to boot. Now, there is a place for fashion, I use to rebel against her belief in the grand  importance of it, until I became older and realized that beauty is power, it’s not total power but it gives us an edge wherever we go. Your blog is what we  intelligent women have always needed, do not feel conflicted, keep going. I love it. Jan

P.S. Men can’t resist a woman in heels or a dress that swings, even if your argument against nuclear energy made them angry, they might vote your way, it you say it with the right colors, fabric, hair and shoes, GO FOR IT. AJ

 When I was little, I thought clothes were ____________ and wanted to wear ____________.  In my teens, getting dressed was all about __________.  Now that I’m older, I think of clothes as ____________ . 



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We can all agree this is a great look, right?

Men and women alike all agree: this is a great look, right?

by raisa

Gentlemen: We’ve determined, by speaking with you in person and occasionally baiting you in blog comments, that you read this.  As a feminist, I resist sex-based distinctions and dont’ like questions like “Why Do Guys Get Dressed?”   Of course men get dressed for the same reasons that regular people do. Can’t it be that simple?

But we know, men, you worry about your own wardrobe issues: looking too effeminate, too goofy, too fat and/or too thin. You need your own, man-centric fashion tips.  Since Queer Eye for the Straight Guy went off the air in favor of competitive cooking shows, there is not much out there to guide you.  In fact, I was inspired to write this by today’s Men’s Fashion feature at NWSource,* which seemed from the photo to be promoting a shiny green tuxedo. I’m sorry about that, men.

Michael Jordan: Another thing all men seem to agree on

Michael Jordan: Men love this guy! They want to dress like that but they can't.

Fortunately, we have a few spare moments today that we’re not spending buying groceries for your dinner, raising your children, and running the world by working harder than you do for 85% of the pay.  So we took some time to assemble some fashion advice.  Don’t worry, we know we have to be nice to you (because we hate it when you’re sad) and will not be reposting your Facebook photos as helpful visual aids**. Even if some of you are repeatedly photographed wearing the same identical beer shirt (as EACH OTHER because you won it for free at the SAME PROMOTIONAL BEER EVENT) in public.

So, here goes.

You might not know it by looking at them, but men often have strong opinions about what they wear. This is usually about socks. So I made the first three Men’s Fashion Rules about socks:

Rule 1. Don’t wear white socks with dark shoes
Rule 2. Don’t wear dark socks with white shoes
Rule 3. Buy your own socks. Do your own laundry, fold them and put them in the drawer.

If you follow these three sock rules, YOU WIN. We love it! You look great! Please, don’t talk about your socks anymore. Women cannot help you.

Lookin Good!

Lookin' Good!

I don’t know much beyond socks, so I had to do some research.  I discovered that AskMen.com’s style guide  has some tips for you: They include Rule 4. “avoid loud accessories” and Rule 5. “Don’t wear Uggs.” Got it?  Esquire has gems like Rule 6. “having your nails fully rounded will keep you from picking at them.” I don’t know which is more annoying, Esquire’s macho-breezy writing style (Nail grooming is about about “one hell of a good-lookin’ handshake”) or or the fact that there are women with side-boob hanging out all over the website.  This is my fault for reading “75 things you Don’t Know About Women,” which featured a boob photo for each “Thing. ” I read it to see if I knew all “75 things [men] don’t know” (I did), and I can tell you, skip this article.  The 75 things were likely compiled by my 17-year-old nephew (would explain the boobs) based on celebrity quotes his 14-year-old sister got out of Cosmopolitan.

Esquire does recommend that you wear brown cords with a gray shirt.  This sounds good to me, so I’ll make it Rule 7: Mix brown and gray.  Go for it, guys!

I do suggest the style selector at Men’s Health magazine.  Lots more brown/gray mixing there! I recommend men review this site for an orientation. It can help you get used to regular guys dressed well.  You get to pick your “style” and yes, you have to have one.  Even if it’s “casual guy,” you can do “casual guy” well.  Here, I’ll make  Rule 8: “Be Genuine.”  Get your look together and express yourself.  Don’t worry about trends or dress like you are still a teenager. Be you: You are a man, and it’s okay. Be the best man you can be.

I checked out About.com, where I learned about “dressing for [men’s] body types.”  Men’s bodies have three types: tall, short and fat. Sorry men, you don’t even get to be fruits! But check out Ask Andy About Clothes, where he amusingly describes the male body using Sanskrit terms from the Ayurvedas. Rule 9 is wear clothes that fit and flatter your shape .  Don’t wear baggy clothes (especially bulky sweaters) if you don’t want to look heavy (Sanskrit: Kapha).  Avoid turtlenecks unless your neck is swan-like. Clothes must fit precisely if you are of-a-smaller-build.  And don’t wear a “delicate shoe” if you are otherwise thin.  I’m sorry if this is getting complicated.  Don’t complain.  We women are over here trying to squeeze a pear into an hourglass.

That leaves me room for one more rule, so I will impose my own opinion as Rule 10: Don’t wear clothes you get for free. This includes beer contest prizes, work giveaways, or anything you got as a bonus for buying ten items at a record store. I can hear that you’re already arguing with me, so I will give you an exception: You can wear the beer shirts to a bar, you can wear the sports shirts to a sports event, and you can wear the record store shirt when you mow the lawn.

I think that’s all you need to know, men.  You look great, and we love you. Now please go fold your socks.

Men like cowboys.

Men like cowboys. Lookin' good, cowboys!

*New Seattle designer WyattOrr features a men’s line for “25-to-50-year-old man who is looking for something subtly unique, never flashy, just a little different.”Don’t get me wrong, this local designer might be AWESOME. But, hmm. Really green tux?

**By “we” I can only speak for myself. I take no responsibility for what deathmama does with any photos of anyone.

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This is Us: August 24, 2002

 . . . Or, how much we’ve aged in seven years.

by Robin

I saw Julie & Julia tonight (loved it).  I spent most of the movie with some kind of angsty longing feeling.  I wish I had time to cook more; I wish I could go to Paris.  I thought of writing up a blog post about dressing like Julia Child with a string of pearls and an apron.

Bride and Groom

Groom in Armani; Bride in Lea Ann Belter

That’s the point of the film.  Aspiration, trying to find yourself, trying to become something more. I watched it and envied Julie Powell for living in New York, but she was stuck above a Pizza Parlor in Queens envying Julia Child (who was banished to Marseille). Julie Powell wished she could be “a writer,” and finally just started writing.  Julia Child loved to eat and just started cooking.   I’ve been to Paris (not enough).  I can’t cook much French food but I can make dinner reservations in French.  I may not write a book and most days I wonder whether I have enough to say for one more day on a blog, but I’ll stick with it (for now).

A happy life is a balance — or a tension — between being happy with where we’re at in our lives and aspiring to something more.  Clothes are the same way.  Genuine or affected? Comfortable or Challenging?  Fantasy vs. Reality? Who knows. We can find ourselves in our aspirations, though. We can give ourselves room to dream but permission to live in reality. 

Weddings are that: That day where we think about the future and make an almost absurdly optimistic commitment to another person’s happiness.  We suspend our daily lives and celebrate the best in ourselves and those who love us.  We feast a little on the fantasy — not naively, but symbolically.  So that over those years of better and worse, sickness and health, we can sometimes look back and remember what we really meant in the first place.  Not to look back and say “we sure dressed up for a day” but to remember: That was us.  And this is that same us. And here we are.

Even if looking back, we feel a little silly for spending that much on a dress.

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