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?

On wearing clothes

Wardrobe essentials

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” — Virginia Woolf, Orlando

At the turn of each new year, I apparently expend a good deal of mental space thinking about clothes. What can I discard and donate now? What did I not wear in the past year? What, in Kondo’s life-changing phrase, sparks joy?

If anything, the simple act of tidying my wardrobe sparks joy for me. (I unashamedly admit that I love folding my underwear.) Last night, I edited my closet and came up with armful of things, once more, that I ought not hold onto. It thrilled me. I am so much happier with less.

Wardrobe essentials

But. I am struggling with a new desire. I do not want a pile of new things, but I want but fewer, far more expensive, and well-made things. Gobs of cheap garments from Target and Old Navy no longer appeal to me, as they did when I was younger. I just want one ludicrously expensive pair of jeans. Or a luxurious, sustainably made handbag. Which is a different (fiscal) problem altogether.

My style aspirations haven’t changed at all since I last wrote about them. I still want to dress like a Parisienne, however that is within my power in Central Virginia. I have successfully edited out most colors and prints, except for stripes. I wear rather plain things now, and I love it.

Simply put, people who say they “don’t care about clothes” are not truthful. Everyone cares about clothes. Everyone makes deliberate choices about what they buy and how they wear it. Our wardrobes are not happy accidents.

What people mean when they say this is that they don’t care about fashion or trends. Which is fine. But everyone cares about clothes.

And that is why I like thinking about clothes and observing what people wear and why. What we say to the world through what we wear. Is the image that I think I’m projecting through my clothes what the world actually receives? It is something to ponder.

Next: Perhaps some thoughts on uniforms and minimalism.

Favorite books from January

The books I most enjoyed in January: (A list because I love looking at book covers and reminiscing about books I just read.)

Women in Clothes

Women in Clothes, ed. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton (which inspired my recent blog foray into wardrobe definition and sartorial self-discovery)

In Persuasion Nation

In Persuasion Nation, by George Saunders

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, by Katha Pollitt (which I recently quoted from)

Independent People

Independent People, by Halldór Laxness

Oranges

Oranges, by John McPhee

No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes

No Good Men among the Living, by Anand Gopal

What were some of the best things you read last month? Do tell.

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.