The feminine feminist

Self

Some possibly contradictory thoughts and no clear conclusions. This waffling nature is where I seem to have staked my flag at the end of my twenties. (And I am happier to be here, living in the gray, rather than in the stark dualities of adolescence.)

Does femininity have any intrinsic qualities of its own?

Men defined femininity for us, and masculinity gets to claim the origin of all gender traits. Femininity seems most often defined as the simple absence of masculinity: Men are strong, thus women are weak; men are bold, thus women are cautious; men are violent, thus women are compassionate, etc.

But what I want to know is this: Is there any quality that is inherent to being female, as we suppose there is to being male? Some characteristic that marks women, because women are born with it?

I started thinking this some months ago, when some men were discussing how grateful they were to not have any feminine traits, as if it would be the worst thing in the world to be compared to a woman. (It makes me think of that traditional Jewish blessing, Thank you G-d, for not making me a woman…) Many men think this way and express it openly. Even now, a great way to publicly shame a man is to compare his behavior to a woman’s.

I was incensed, after this discussion, but it made me start to wonder: Can women have pride in their female-ness, the way that men so evidently have pride in their male-ness? Do we always have to be comparing ourselves to men and in opposition to women to get any respect or credit? I’m smart, not like those silly girls; I don’t cry easily, like most women; I hate shopping, unlike most dumb broads, etc.

Is there anything deep and true that women can lay claim to, outside of the jurisdiction of masculinity?

If there is, I suppose it must reside in biology. Men have more testosterone, and therefore they actually are more prone to aggression and violence than women. Women can create and give birth to children, which brings with it a whole set of hormones and evolutionary instincts that men have no need of. Naturally, this does not preclude the fact that aggressive women and nurturing men exist all over the place, every day, and we can shift gender presentations in the span of an hour. But that is not what I am after. I am after something else, the root of what it means to be a woman.

What is it? Where does it reside?

The next question, though, is that if there is any intrinsic quality of womanhood, is it even worth defining? Will it just lead to more subjugation and heartbreak among women? Probably.

It taunts me, this question, because of the lack of middle ground. I want to live in a gray space on the question of gender; I don’t want it to be either/or. But I’m not sure it can be found.

I guess I’ve never felt entirely female, but then probably lots of people don’t. But I think that at different times in my life I located myself in different places on the gender spectrum, and for many years, throughout my thirties, which is when I made that pilgrimage, I didn’t have any connection to the female gender. I wouldn’t say I exactly felt like a man, but when you’re talking about yourself you only have these two options. There’s no word for the “floating” gender in which we would all like to rest. — Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry, Paris Review

I womanfully put this aside for the time being.

Next:

Does the feminine feminist exist?

Yes. Of course.

But in what ways? Which patriarchal standards do you choose to reject and does it matter which ones? How do you justify your choices to men and to other women, when there will clearly be gaps and paradoxes?

For instance, I sincerely enjoy cosmetics and a swipe of red lipstick, but I think mini-skirts and stiletto heels are misogynistic. I have strong moral objections to even the notion of a Brazilian wax, but I am completely fine with dresses, perfumes and facials. I mow the lawn and yet I make Guion fix any machine that malfunctions in our house, without ever trying to figure it out myself. I want men to take me seriously and yet I flatter their masculinity in a conversation in all the ways I’ve been taught since I was young.

Upon recently finishing Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity, I was comforted to read of how often she — feminist icon of the 1980s, who only wore pants and never any makeup — faltered from time to time in her commitments to outwardly rebel against femininity. Despite knowing the sexist origin of her angst, she says she was obsessed with how her hair looked and couldn’t stop thinking about her body and how men saw it in clothes. She won’t shave her legs or armpits but bleaches her leg hair in the summer when she goes to the beach.

Brownmiller knows she’s trapped; she knows all of us women are trapped. Whatever choice you make, you lose. Because here’s the rub:

Men created extremely high standards of physical beauty that women have to meet, and then simultaneously mock us for being vain when we try to uphold these standards.

Who do I get dressed for? For whom do I take care of my face? For whom do I apply mascara?

It is for myself. But it is also for everyone else — other men and other women. Like it or not, we’re all judged on a sliding scale of gender performance every day, most often in tiny, undetectable ways.

So, what is to be done? I think it is to take comfort in Brownmiller and take comfort in Carson and be OK with the floating space, even if we will never rest there completely. Be OK with living in and performing a little bit of both: the stereotypical femininity with dashes of stereotypical masculinity (who said that only men enjoy lawnmowers?).

Live with a perspective toward others and toward ourselves that is free and open-handed, especially when it comes to performing masculinity or femininity.

We’re all playing make-believe and dress-up anyway.

Style icon: Amirah

Style icon: Amirah

One of the first things I noticed about Amirah, aside from her bright eyes, was her persistently perfectly selected lip colors. That, and she always looked dressed to either host a gallery opening or dance at a discothèque. Regardless, I’m delighted to feature her in the Style Icon series!

Amirah lives in London, where she works at Good Business, a boutique consulting firm. I’m grateful to Grace for introducing us, and I’m looking forward to sharing lots of gelato with Amirah this summer when we’re living in London. So, take it away!

How would you describe your personal style?

Slouchy structured. I think a lot about my silhouette and tend toward loose and boxy tops and dresses that don’t (I hope!) look shapeless. Same with trousers and skirts. I prefer structured over flowy or billowy, and though I often wear slim or skinny trousers, I very rarely wear an outfit that is totally fitted — I find it too restricting.

I’m also a huge fan of prints and pops of colour. Grace has said the things I wear look like they belong in a museum, and another friend has compared my style to “going to a different exhibition every day.” I think this is because I’m often drawn to things that other people would never try on because the shape is a little unconventional or the print “too loud.”

I also like to think my style is pretty consistent. Pretty much everything I wear is smart casual, and (much to my mother’s chagrin) I will wear the same clothes and makeup (often just a bright lipstick) whether I’m going to the office, to lunch with friends or “out” in the evening. I don’t really know how to dress “up” or “down.”

Style icon: Amirah

Has your personal style changed over the years? If so, why do you think it changed?

It definitely has! I’ve always been drawn to prints and the silhouettes, but I think I’ve gotten better at putting things together, and over time, my style has evolved into something more consistent.

The change has mostly come from being forced to purge my wardrobe regularly as I’ve moved around a lot over the past four years. Keeping a wardrobe of only things I love and wear relatively often has also made me a better shopper. Before, I would enter a shop and walk out with lots of impulse buys that seemed like good value, whereas now, I decide what I’m looking for (down to specifics like colour and cut) and try not to settle for less than what I’m imagining in my head. I will now also only buy something I can see easily working with things I already own.

Style icon: Amirah
What do you hope you communicate by what you choose to wear?

Perhaps something similar to what I hope to communicate when I talk to someone: that I’m open-minded but have a point of view, that I notice the details, that I’m able to blend in but not afraid to stand out.

What are some crucial pieces of your current wardrobe? Items you wouldn’t feel complete without?
  1. My black ankle boots. I’ve worn them every day since I got them (on sale!) a few months ago. They’re from Geox’s Ambhiox range, which means they’re totally waterproof (not just water repellent), and they’re the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned even though they have three-inch heels.
  2. Besame Lipstick in Red Hot Red. My new favorite red lipstick; it’s matte and pigmented and super moisturizing.
  3. My collection of printed trousers.
Style icon: Amirah

What is your most recent purchase?

Ladder resist tights from M&S. They are amazing! I’ve worn them four times at this point, and they still haven’t yet laddered which is a record for me.

Is there anything you’re on the hunt for right now?

A warm scarf that isn’t too long or too heavy and doesn’t make my hair staticky. Also slim (not skinny!), well-fit high-waisted black jeans.

Style icon: Amirah
Who are some of your style icons?

Iris Apfel. Keira Knightly’s character in Begin Again. My friend Noam for her consistency. My friend Lina for her elegance. Grace for her ability to wear anything well.

Style icon: Amirah
What do you most notice or admire in a well-dressed person?

My mama has always said, “It’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it,” and I have come to agree.

I think being well-dressed is less about having the best good individual pieces (though of course having great pieces helps!) and more about combining them into an outfit that makes you look and feel comfortable and confident.

Thanks so much, Amirah! Delighted to feature you, and I’m excited to see you this summer.

Previously in the series: Grace.

Style icon: Grace

Style icon: Grace

I can’t think of a better person to inaugurate my Style Icon series than my perpetually stylish baby sister Grace.

After living in a variety of places around the world (most recently in Kathmandu) for the past few years, Grace now makes her home in Berlin. She is an accomplished videographer and photographer and a licensed yoga instructor.

She was kind enough to spend some time answering my questions and sending me some photos of herself and her wardrobe. So, take it away, Poodle!

Style icon: Grace

How would you describe your personal style?

Someone once said my style was sorta sporty/structured, and I think that is pretty accurate. I wear yoga pants most days and love jackets and drapey stuff too.

Style icon: Grace

Has your personal style changed over the years? If so, why do you think it changed?

I’ve always worn a good deal of black, even when I was younger and now (apart from maybe four colored things in my whole wardrobe, it is all I wear). Shopping is easy now, and when I see a rack of clothes, I just go to the black ones, and if I don’t see anything I like, then I leave. Texture is really important and always has been to me. When I was little, my mom couldn’t take me to fabric stores because I would have to touch every fabric sample… few things change. These days, I love leather, velvet, and lace.

What do you hope you communicate by what you choose to wear?

I find pleasure in getting dressed, and I hope that comes across. How I feel in my clothes is more important than what people think.

Style icon: Grace

What are some crucial pieces of your current wardrobe? Items you wouldn’t feel complete without?

My fuzzy black sweater, my Doc Marten Chelsea boots, my grandma’s necklaces, my silver earrings from Nepal, and my numerous pairs of black leggings and jeans.

Style icon: Grace

What is your most recent purchase?

A pair of black wool socks…it’s cold in Berlin!

Style icon: Grace

Is there anything you’re on the hunt for right now?

A practical leather wallet. I’ve always carried my small, black magic wallet with me everywhere I go, but here I use cash and coins frequently.

Style icon: Grace

Who are some of your style icons?

For me, my style icons are seriously scattered, and they often include places and how I feel in those places: Rishikesh, Kathmandu, Bangkok, Florence… But there are also some people too: Erin Wasson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tilda Swinton, Amirah Jiwa, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Style icon: Grace

What do you most notice or admire in a well-dressed person?

Cool, casual confidence. I truly admire people who dress with great confidence and who also don’t take themselves too terribly seriously. Getting dressed should be fun, and my definition of someone who is well-dressed is someone who is simultaneously creative and laid-back. I also admire people who can apply and wear makeup well (I know nothing about makeup and envy those who do).

Gran's Memorial in Ohio

Merci, Gracie! Such fun to read about your sense of style, which has always been distinct, even when you were tiny. More in the series to come (I hope!).

On wearing a uniform

Coco Chanel:
Coco Chanel and a Great Dane.

I’ve realized that the well-dressed people I most admire wear uniforms. Emmanuelle Alt has her black stilettos, jeans, and white shirts. Jeanne Damas is always tucking shirts and sweaters into high-waisted pants. Giorgia Tordini can WORK some menswear, and hence usually does (I’m more than a bit in love with her). Grace only wears black now. Jonathan wears black and white.

Such people have a very specific, recognizable, and definable personal style. This interests me deeply. I think this is what people mean when they say that someone has “great style” — it’s concrete and identifiable; it does not bend to the seasonal whim of sartorial trends.

A uniform is certainly an appealing concept. It is not surprising that the article Matilda Kahl wrote for Harper’s, “Why I Wear the Exact Same Thing to Work Every Day,” sparked such a frenzy of internet interest. We take people who wear uniforms seriously. It appeals to our deep need to feel orderly and distilled in our daily life.

But what does this mean for someone like me, who is neither (a) courageous enough to wear the same thing to work every day nor (b) inherently gifted in the art of choosing and wearing clothes?

Some thoughts about this dilemma and my desire to be uniform:

  1. Name what I like and why. Continue to fall into that visual rabbit hole that is Pinterest (with which I am unabashedly in love). Study well-dressed people. Take note of why I keep pinning the same images and over and over again. It turns out that I am a perennial sucker for a woman in (a) button-down shirt and (b) a classic men’s shoe. Be exceptionally clear about what I like and dislike.
  2. Continue to edit out pieces that do not fit my concept of my uniform. I think I have now successfully accomplished this, as I no longer own any bright colors, flashy prints,
  3. Wear and use what I have. I do not need more things. I have checked off some of the more expensive staples from my wish list this year (silk shirts, cashmere sweaters), and they should ideally last a long time. I am set. Say this to myself and believe it.
  4. Talk to stylish people and glean their wisdom. I like doing this anyway, but I want to do it in a more structured, disciplined way. I am hoping to feature a few of these people here in the weeks and months to come, so stay tuned.

If I had to shape a daily work uniform from what I already own, I think it would be this:

  • Three-quarter-sleeve gray crewneck sweater from J.Crew (similar)
  • Black trousers from Gap, which I had tailored many years ago and now wear once a week (similar)
  • Black blazer from Forever21, which I am super-ashamed to admit, but it’s actually great and I wear it all the time and it was $15 please don’t hate me I haven’t shopped there in years and never will again (similar)
  • Black Everlane loafers, my dream shoe

Here it is! I am proud of how bad this collage is and how decidedly un-cool-lady-blogger it is.

Little Stories bad collage

How about you? Do you ever think about this? What garments would compose your daily uniform?

Meet Maggie. She makes her own clothes.

During my recent foray into wardrobe minimalism and a general engagement on the philosophy of what to wear and where to find it, I’ve been thinking a lot about buying well-made clothes. And well made in two senses: made with a high degree quality and made in an ethical and socially responsible way. I’d love to jump off the fast fashion train entirely, but let me tell you, it is hard to find affordable, ethically made garments. If you get tired of searching, you could be like my friend Maggie, who just makes her own clothes.

Yes! She makes her own clothes. Even though I was homeschooled, I cannot even imagine attempting the same. But I find her endeavor so inspiring, and I wanted to sit down with her and talk about her lifestyle of dressing herself in handmade garments.

Interview with Maggie Stein, Who Makes Her Own Clothes

Maggie one of her handmade dresses: polka dot in polyester.
Maggie one of her handmade dresses: polka dot in polyester.

When did you start making your own clothes? (And how long have you been doing it now?)

Growing up, my mom made a portion of my clothes. I had a number of jumpers with very full, satisfying-to-twirl-in skirts during the early grade-school years, and flowy butterfly-princess costumes. I was very opinionated about clothes and the feelings I wanted them to evoke. When she could create something to fit my vision, she would. Otherwise, I’d wear boring department store clothes.

In my sophomore year of high school, she agreed to make my homecoming dress. We worked together during every step of the process. I was uncomfortable with my changing body, so I asked her to make alterations to the pattern that were either beyond her skill level (what we thought at the time) or completely impossible (what I now believe), and she made a gorgeous dress that couldn’t meet my expectations. We both cried over it and I wore a cardigan over my dress the entire night.

After that is when I started making my own clothes.

What was one of the first pieces you made? Do you still wear it?

The first few pieces I made, as a teenager in the late 90s, were HIDEOUS! They were my own lazy/unique interpretation of the strappy, backless tops that club kids and hippies wore.

Since you were homeschooled, I’ll include some visual aids: Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C

I probably wasn’t brave enough to wear them out of the house, so my parents never told me I couldn’t. They were quickly discarded.

(c) Maggie Stein

What inspired you to attempt to make your own clothes?

I was about to say “teenage shenanigans aside…” but I think that was a great example of why I sew. Sometimes I have an idea in my head of something I’d like to wear, and I’m unable to find it in stores, or unable to find it in my proportions, or unwilling to pay the asking price if I do find it.

Another example: I was given my own sewing machine in college and spent years making nothing but flannel and fleece pajama pants, mainly because I’d never been able to find loungewear pants that were long enough.

How has making your own clothes changed the way you dress yourself? Your sense of style?

I no longer have to figure out how to fit my body into the clothes I find or the current trends but instead can accept my body as it is and create a wardrobe that fits my particular shape and style preferences.

I guess the real question I want to answer is, “How has this changed my relationship with my body?” I no longer feel like there’s something wrong with my size. I’m taller and curvier than standard RTW sizes, which means clothes in stores are often too tight across the bust and hips, too loose on the shoulders and waist, too wide and too short on the arms, waistbands are too high, hems are WAY too short… I used to approach these thinking, “If only my hips were narrower and my shoulders wider! There is something wrong with me!” But, in reality, I have an awesome body! I am TALLER and CURVIER than the standard woman! I am TOTALLY WINNING! The problem is not my body, but those clothes, because they weren’t made to fit my body.

The way I dress myself and my sense of style were influenced by my mom’s strong eye for color and knowledge of what flatters (I still have her copy of Color Me Beautiful) and years of watching What Not to Wear every Friday night. (Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. I would watch it with my best friend! We would always have beer and popcorn, so it was almost like a party!) Making my own clothes has allowed me to take what I’ve learned and apply it without being restricted by what’s available in stores.

(c) Maggie Stein

How has this changed the way that you shop? Do you look at clothes in stores differently? Do you have higher (or lower?) standards for store-bought clothes now?

Well, for starters, I rarely expect to find what I want in a store. So I’m often shopping for inspiration, or I study the way something is made. I’ll ask, “Can I make this? If I made this, what would I change?”

I’ll buy something if it’s well made in a fabric that I might not be able to purchase or wouldn’t want to sew with (silky, sheer, difficult to source). I’ll also buy something if it’s super-trendy or inexpensive. In both of those cases, I have to ask whether it’s really something I need.

Given the cost of supplies, and the time investment, it’s not always less expensive to make my own clothes. It might be more ethical — at least I know who made my garment, but I don’t necessarily know who grew the fiber or where the cloth was made.

About what proportion of your regular wardrobe is handmade by you?

Hmmm… good question. I mean, I have a lot of T-shirts and sweaters and pants that aren’t made by me. But a majority of dresses and skirts I wear at this point are handmade.

What’s one of your favorite garments to make?

There are so many! I have one pattern that I’ve made perhaps a dozen different dresses from — the pattern itself came from a dissected Target dress that fit me perfectly. Each version is different — the original was sleeveless with an A-line skirt, then I made one with a fuller skirt, then I figured out how to add sleeves, and it became my staple day dress. I have it in a lightweight cotton for summer and long-sleeved in flannel for winter. I attempted to make it out of a suiting-weight wool, with lining, but that version is currently in Time Out. (I made some mistakes. I’m making it up as I go along, and some of the choices aren’t very flattering, so I need to unpick a lot of work and start again.)

I finally overcame my fear of knits and have enjoyed the freedom of sewing with fabric that stretches! My three most recent favorites are all knits: a ¾-sleeve ballet-neck skater dress, a scoop neck loosely fitted T-shirt, and a wrap cardigan that I drafted myself using pieces of the T-shirt pattern.

(c) Maggie Stein

Is there any type of garment that you would never attempt to make yourself? If so, why?

Until recently, I would have said jeans and bras. But a few indie patternmakers have started tackling those. Not only are their instructions clear and detailed, but they often post sew-alongs on their blogs, sharing pictures of each step and discussing the more complicated techniques. (Also, I can wait until other people/bloggers have made the patterns and learn from their lessons.) In my room right now are supplies and patterns for both jeans and bras, waiting for me to be ready.

What are some of your favorite fabrics to work with? Least favorite fabrics?

Lately, I’m moving away from very simple, sturdy, inexpensive woven fabrics (think bedsheets) to higher quality fabrics with more interesting draping qualities. Fabrics that require more attention/preparation when sewing are often more beautiful to wear, so I’m slowly learning how to handle them well. I’ve also started using heavy-weight knits, which are so cozy and delightful!

(c) Maggie Stein

If someone wanted to make his or her own clothes, what advice would you give them? Where does a person start with such a venture?

I’m tempted to say, “Start with something simple!” Easy wins will give you confidence to move forward. But really, I think it’s just as fun to start with something you’re REALLY motivated to make for yourself over and over again. There are things that fall into both categories, but no matter where you start, you’re going to have a lot to learn, so my advice would be to have patience, to expect mistakes, to learn from them, and to keep going!

Okay, one piece of solid advice: Start with an indie pattern. They tend to have instructions catered to a beginner versus established patterns that assume you know the lingo.

What are you wearing right now?

My winter wardrobe: a cozy handmade dress, black tights, and sturdy black ankle boots.

For more of Maggie’s musings and examples of her impressive handmade clothes, check out her great blog: Maggie Makes It Better. Thanks so much, Maggie! A delight to feature you and your work.

All photos in this post: © Maggie Stein.

A survey of sartorial attitudes

Questions lifted from the very excellent book Women in Clothes, compiled by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, which I bought for myself as a new year’s present and have been happily devouring ever since.

What do you admire about how other women present themselves?

I love seeing a woman who seems to really know her sense of style, and thus, herself. I love seeing a woman who is committed to a particular look, too, even if it’s not the style I’m personally aspiring to achieve. I like to see a woman walk down the street with her head held high.

When do you feel at your most attractive?

In a perfectly fitted dress, and in heels, although I hate to admit it. I only wear heels at dressy functions and for a very short amount of time, but I love feeling absurdly tall, taller than or as tall as most men in a room.

Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple?

I have five blazers and I still want more.

How long does it take you to get dressed?

About 30 seconds, because I lay out my clothes for the work day every evening. But it takes me about 45 minutes to get dressed, do my face, eat breakfast, read, and take care of the dogs on weekdays.

Christmas in the Pines
One of my favorite cardigans, a gift from my sister Kelsey many years ago.

What are some dressing rules you wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others but you follow?

Cut out colors and most patterns from the wardrobe. I am following this rule with more dedication this year, but I would never call it a universal rule. Many (most?) women look great in a wide range of colors and prints, but I’ve decided to stick to neutrals. These days, a spectrum of blue is about as much as I want to venture into color.

What are some dressing or shopping rules you think every woman should follow?

Only buy what sparks joy. Only wear clothes that flatter your body (which is a rule I’d like to observe more devoutly). Reject all garments with glitter.

Do you consider yourself photogenic?

Heavens, no.

What is your favorite piece of clothing or jewelry you own?

Clothing: Gray silk blouse from Everlane. Jewelry: My wedding/engagement rings, which belonged to Guion’s grandmother.

What’s the first “investment” item you bought?

The Oxford shoes from Madewell, which were about $175. I know some people wouldn’t consider than an investment item, but it was to me.

Was there a point when your style changed dramatically?

I’d say now, actually. I’m becoming more thoughtful and intentional about the choices I make when it comes to what I wear. My style was unremarkable/nonexistent in college; I bought cheap things on a whim, usually just because they were on sale. My college roommates used to tease me that everything I owned was in a jewel tone. I had this hot pink cable-knit, crewneck sweater that I wore forever, despite the fact that it was hideous on me. I shudder to remember these things that I held onto for so long.

Do you care about lingerie?

Deeply. I am always ready and willing to shell out a big wad of cash for a great bra. Bras are so important! My mother has always told me this. You wear a bra every day (or, most of us do), so it ought to be an excellent garment. I have a handful of sturdy, utilitarian bras, but I have a particular weakness for lacy, unsupportive lingerie. I am just about small-chested enough to get away with wearing flimsy, lacy little things on a regular basis, and so I do. I’m very basic when it comes to grunders, however; I only wear black, gray, and neutral cotton bikinis. Thongs are abhorrent to me, and I also maintain that they are unnatural and unhealthy.

What are you trying to achieve when you dress for the world?

I hope to project a confident, competent woman. I want to be taken seriously as an adult human being, and I think my new wardrobe goals are striving to communicate this.

Family weekend
With my sisters, Grace (far left) and Kelsey.

How has your background influenced the way you dress?

Growing up homeschooled meant that you grew up in a fashion vacuum. We had no idea, really, how modern kids were supposed to be dressing. Our peers wore a wide range of clothes; some looked like “normal” kids on the Disney Channel, as far as we could tell, since we weren’t allowed to watch it; others, especially girls, looked like they were straight out of Little House on the Prairie. My sisters and I were always instructed to dress “modestly,” but my parents were not big on rules, thankfully.

I vividly remember the one time I was told I couldn’t wear something. I was 13 or 14, and I’d purchased a gray mock-neck sweater dress to wear at Christmas. I wore it to my grandparents’ church, with black tights and new black shoes, and I felt pretty. But when we got home, my mother pulled me aside and said that she and Dad had agreed that I wasn’t allowed to wear that dress anymore. I was shocked. I couldn’t think of what could possibly be wrong with it; my arms were covered up, even most of my neck was shielded. I protested. “Well,” Mom said, “you have… um… a young woman’s body now, and your father and I feel that the dress isn’t appropriate and could cause young men to… stumble.” (“Stumble” was always the operative evangelical word for boys getting horny from looking at the female form.) I was mortified and totally grossed out. I never wore the dress again and felt sad and confused whenever I remembered it.

I tell the story to explain the context of “modesty” in dress that I hail from, but my parents were, in comparison to the vast majority of homeschooling parents in our community, quite generous in what they allowed us to wear. There was the sweater dress incident, and once, Mom and I had a fight over a tank top I’d bought with lace trim, but that was it. We didn’t fight about clothes; we were extremely obedient kids. My sisters and I didn’t give them any trouble when we were at home, regarding what we chose to wore. We didn’t watch TV and we didn’t have a ton of peers, so we had no desire to wear a corset and fishnet tights to church to be “cool.” “Cool” to us was having a big evidence binder on medical malpractice policy and a really rad journal to write your devotions in.

All of this is to say that I feel much more freedom about clothes now than I did growing up. I dress to please myself, as a free agent, and I no longer worry about the censure of my community.

Have you ever dressed a certain way to gain a sense of control?

Absolutely. One example comes to mind: I competed in team policy debate during high school, in which swarms of ultra-nerdy homeschoolers pretended to be little lawyers. Dress codes, for girls, were strict. Most girls wore floor-length or calf-length wool skirts, but I always wore a pant suit and heels. I had a short (male) debate partner, and I deliberately chose heels every time, to feel more powerful and to revel in the fact that I was so much taller than him. I towered over our opponents, too. And I daresay I got consistently great speaker points. I think it was mostly for the power suit and pumps.

What are some things you do to feel presentable?

A swipe of lipstick always makes me feel more presentable.

Is there a part of your body that feels most distinctly you?

My legs. I don’t have particularly pretty legs (they are extremely thin, mapped by a network of prominent blue veins, and I have a number of dings and scars), but they are very long. Since I acquired them as a teenager, I have always been proud of how disproportionately long my legs are.

With whom do you talk about clothes?

Grace and Jonathan. They are my style guides and muses.

Can you say a bit about how your mother’s body and style have been passed down to you, if at all?

My mother is a very beautiful and classy woman, and in her post-homeschooling days, she’s also become very stylish. When Grace was still at home, she did a serious closet overhaul with my mom and made her throw away all of her homeschool regalia (denim jumpers, baggy skirts, old sweaters) and start dressing in modern clothes. Ever since then, Mom has looked like a million bucks.

I am not as pretty as my mother, not by a long shot, but I did inherit her body, which I am grateful for (even with all its bizarre, specific quirks). I’ve found this to be helpful, because we know that what looks good on one of us will probably also flatter the other.

I like to match my wardrobe to my dog's. #pyrrhagram

What is an archetypal outfit for you — something you would have been happy wearing at any point in your life?

Dark jeans and a white or blue button-down shirt. I don’t know why, but even as a young teen, I have loved a button-down shirt. That’s all I wanted to wear when I was 14, but I was often dissuaded by the price tags on the most beautiful shirts, so I defaulted to Target clothes for most of my young life. I like recalling this about myself, because this is the basic style I want to return to, and knowing that I have always loved it makes it feel particularly right.

What item of clothing are you on the hunt for?

A cashmere crew-neck sweater (mostly just eyeing the one from Everlane).

What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment?

I’m wearing a chunky-knit, oversized cardigan from Zara; jeans from Gap; a dark gray v-neck sweater; and black equestrian-style boots. My face is bare, save for a swipe of blush, a touch of eyeliner, and Burt’s Bees lip color (shade: fig); errands day, so my face is more minimal than it is on a typical work day. And my hair, freshly washed, is at its most curly, so it’s pinned up at the sides.

So! I’d love to hear your answers.

Tillman clan weekend

This past weekend, we traveled to Southern Pines and Chapel Hill to celebrate Granddad’s 80th birthday.

Granddad / Abby Farson Pratt

He is a gem! We love any excuse to get to see him.

With Guion and his second cousins and their wives.
With Guion and his second cousins and their wives.

I like this Tillman clan (my mother-in-law’s family); they are such genial, polite, formal people. They also know how to have a good time at a luncheon!

Favorite party moment: Granddad’s sister, after we all listened to a series of moving and sincere toasts, looks around the room and shouts at her ride: “I would like to leave now!” 50 points for Big Jane. A woman who knows what she wants.

Back in the Pines, our weekend was spent watching the dogs and taking them on long, leisurely walks. So relaxing.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

I’ve been thinking lately about friends (and family) who emulate great style and who have taught me what little I know about dress. I was also thinking about how I would define their personal style. Taking a stab at it:

Grace (Aztec ghetto meets bohemian grunge)
Jonathan (urban woodsman art collector)
Catherine (risk-taking French sophisticate)
Stephanie (late 1950s, early 1960s painter and travel writer)

They have all taught me a lot, from simple observation.

Hanging with Joseph

Grace has always had panache, even as a child. She would change her clothes five, six times a day. Mom finally got tired of fighting her on it, and one morning, six-year-old Grace came to church in a 101 Dalmatians bathing suit, snakeskin cowboy boots, and a tutu.

It still amazes (and infuriates) me how she has this innate ability to pick out great clothes. She shops primarily at thrift stores, and she can pick out every single designer item in what looks to me to be a pile of worthless junk. For example, she recently gave me some of her clothes, including a Proenza Schouler skirt and a vintage Laura Ashley dress (hilarious in its cuteness), which fit me perfectly. HOW DOES SHE DO IT. I don’t know. I do not have that gift. I wish that I did.

In the meantime, I am continuing on my recent journey to study style, fashion, fit, and fabric, and I am even starting to dress like a grown-ass woman. Advice always welcome.

Observations on French style

Disclaimers: I have never been to France. I only know a handful of French people. These are merely an amateur’s observations of French style icons, based purely upon photographs and a small amount of reading.

(c) The Sartorialist. Short, tousled hair.
(c) The Sartorialist. Long hair, long legs.

Observation no. 1: Hair is either very long or very short and extremely minimalist.

Essentially, French hair is the opposite of Texas hair. French hair seems to be best when it looks like you have done absolutely nothing to it. Messy is better than structured and coiffed.

Clémence Poésy. Click for source.

Observation no. 2: Color and patterns are used sparingly.

One color seems to be more than enough for one outfit. French women never seem to overdo it. The proverb seems to be: If you’re going to use a pattern or a crazy color, use them carefully; the pattern and the color should never be excessively distracting.

(c) The Sartorialist. Leather + sheer = sexy.

Observation no. 3: Subtle sexiness.

Again, we find the opposite of American sexiness (BOOBS! In your face!) in the way that the French woman seems to project how alluring she is. French women don’t show a lot of skin, but when they do, they really know how to do it tastefully, playing up their best assets (e.g., a short skirt if you have great legs, an exposed collarbone if that’s your angle). Sheer also seems to be really big in everyday French fashion right now.

Clémence again, looking a little wild-eyed in Chanel. Click for source.

Observation no. 4: FIT!

If it doesn’t fit your body, don’t wear it. I still have a lot to learn in this department. This is something that Jonathan is always (wisely) preaching to me, too. One of my goals this year is to actually take some of my clothes to a tailor! Gasp. I have never done this before. Few of us, as Jonathan says, are lucky enough to be able to buy clothes that fit straight off the rack. The majority of us should get our clothes tailored. Accordingly, French women seem to inherently understand this principle of fit. Their clothes seem to be made for them.

Juliette Binoche. Click for source.

Observation no. 5: Minimal makeup.

It seems that the French trick to makeup is to always look as if you weren’t wearing any. This was always what my mom told me, too, when I started experimenting with makeup as a young teen. French women never look overdone. French women are also famous for their skincare routines and their seeming acceptance of natural skin tone (e.g., lack of the American urge to be perennially bronzed). And if in doubt, just wear a bold red lip with nothing else on your face.

My conclusion is one word: Natural. French style strikes me as so very natural. Obviously, it takes a lot of time and effort and money and a great eye, but French style presents itself as natural: This is the way my hair and face naturally look; I have done nothing to them. These are the clothes that I just “throw on” when I roll out of bed in the morning. That seems to be the consistent theme of French style, if I had to narrow it down, in my limited observation.

To an American like myself, cultivating this aesthetic will clearly take a lot of work before it comes to me “naturally.” But that’s the idea.

Nothing to eat

How to Plant Asparagus

There is nothing to eat,
seek it where you will,
but the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
and the sea, yield it
to the imagination intact.

— William Carlos Williams

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I am looking forward to:

  • Getting our yard in shape; planting things (pepper garden, onions, potatoes, flowers). I am desperate for some of our flowers to grow. The daffodils and tulips in the front yard have been taking their sweet time, probably because it’s been so unseasonably cold.
  • Actual spring weather. This cold weather and the persistent threat of snow every weekend is really getting me down.
  • Rescue adoption event tomorrow, to which I will be taking Laszlo. Here’s to hoping that he garners some positive attention!
  • Reading again. I have been in a non-reading funk, mainly because caring for a puppy all day means that I have little ability to divert my attention to quiet, stationary pastimes. I think I have also lost a lot of enthusiasm for fiction, which has never happened to me before.
  • Buying clothes and thinking about clothes and paring down my wardrobe. Still musing a lot on fashion and the importance of dressing well. I am reading a poorly organized book on British fashion, The Thoughtful Dresser, but it has inspired some thoughts. For instance: There is a reason why Paris and New York are hubs of fashion. In those cities, women are seen on the streets all day long. In contrast, there is a reason why Wyoming is not a fashionable center; women fulfill different roles (cattle wrangling?) and thus have no need for stylish, meticulous presentation in dress (functional presentation, yes, but no one would see you in vintage Dior even if you owned it). Something else I’ve been thinking about: Why is there such a lack of diversity in men’s fashion? Has it always been this way?

Happy Friday!

Week 7: One necklace

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Of all of the challenges I have planned, this week was, by far, the easiest challenge. But it’s in homage to my dear friend Catherine (who also invented the phrase “Monday Snax”). Catherine has impeccable fashion sense and during our years together at university, she would go through weeks during which she’d wear one accent piece–be it a scarf or a pair of earrings or a bag–with everything. I was always impressed by her stylistic bravery and her ability to incorporate so many different styles and colors into a coherent outfit.

This week, I wore the necklace above with every outfit. It’s one that I made out of an uncomfortable ring and a now-retired Japanese 5 yen coin. In some ways, this was a silly little fashion exercise, but in other ways, the coin was a reminder to pray for Japan, for my host family, and for the ongoing recovery efforts there. I liked the reminder each morning as I put it on.

Next week, I will be writing a thank-you note each day to the memorable teachers in my life. Onward!