Last year, when the Colette blog ran the wardrobe architect series, I read along and did some thinking about the various exercises. But I never actually completed any of them. Now this year, they’re using the wardrobe architect series to plan a year’s worth of sewing and wardrobe adventures, and I thought it would be fun to play along.
The first exercise (link) has us answer a short series of questions as a way of setting the stage for understanding how our lives and personalities influence our sense of style. So, here goes.
How has your personal history informed the way you dress? When did your tastes crystallize? Have they changed over the years, and why?
This is one of those questions with partly simply answers and partly complicated one. On the simple side, for example, I tend to feel very comfortable in skirts because of all those years of private school uniforms. I never felt any particular urge to change my behavior when I was in that uniform — I would play kickball in a skirt just as easily as in pants. So where some people might feel that skirts have an uncomfortable or even restrictive effect, I like wearing them, especially on warm days.
Then, on the complicated side, I’ve always been drawn to art and avant-garde fashion. Don’t ask me why these things happen! When I was younger, I did a lot of “costume” dressing — the Marilyn Monroe dress, the hippie tie-dyed prairie dress, many more such outfits — and I wore a lot of Issey Miyake / Comme des Garcons / Yamamoto type garments. (Not the real stuff, of course. Couldn’t afford it.) I loved all things punk rock. Still do. I think I was drawn to the sense of playfulness in these clothes, the strength, and the sheer different-ness, if I can coin a term. Mall clothes have their place, but statement pieces make me happy in a deep way.
But then I started practicing law and all that changed. I went all-in with power suits. Sharp, crisp lines — much as with the avant garde Japanese stuff, it’s all about those strong lines. Just the result was different. My all-time favorite suit from them was a cream linen/lycra pantsuit that looked much like this.
I wore this suit with colored scarves at the neck because I actually don’t look healthy or happy in most lawyer-suit colors. That should have been my first tip that litigation was not a lifetime occupation for me. In any case, the appreciation for crisp, fitted garments outlasted the career, just that now I wear them in colors that don’t give me that corpse-like glow.
Throw in a bit of sportiness (formed by my part-time occupation as a gym rat and my enduring love for long hikes in the woods), and that’s my basic style history.
How does your philosophy, spirituality, or religion affect your aesthetics and buying habits? Or, what aspects of those things would you like to see reflected?
Other than all those years of parochial education making me feel comfortable climbing trees in a skirt, I don’t think any of this has much influence. I’ve been a vegetarian for over 20 years, but I’m perfectly willing to wear leather, for example. (It’s a by-product, really.) I like making things myself, and I’m more and more anti-corporate as time goes on, but if Old Navy has the best long johns for the price, then I’ll buy from Old Navy. I’m not much of a brand loyalist, and I don’t go into nutty-crunchy raptures about organic cloth. So although I do have personal philosophy, such as it is, I don’t think it influences my wardrobe in any appreciable ways.
How has your cultural background shaped the way you look? How did the aesthetics and values you grew up with affect your tastes as you got older?
Is “white middle-class suburban” a cultural background? It’s sort of anti-culture, in its way. I don’t think that had nearly as much influence on my style tastes as the city itself. I can remember heading downtown as a child — whether for family all-day shopping trips, school field trips, or other reasons — and drinking in the visuals. That was like water in the desert! I loved seeing the stylish women hailing cabs and striding along the sidewalks in their excellent shoes. We didn’t have that in Shermer, Illinois!
I’m a lot more willing to wear ordinary clothes as I get older. I wear jeans now, for example, and they’re a lot more tolerable to me now than they were when I was in my 20s. Jeans and a sweater is my winter uniform, really. But I’m still happiest if something in the details is less “I got this at the mall with a coupon” and more “inspired by runway.” I try to look pulled together instead of thrown together. It might be jeans and a sweater, but the heels and jewelry and scarf might console me with a bit of pizzazz, lol.
How are you influenced by the people around you, including friends, family, and other communities you’re involved in?
Very little. Same as the last question, really. I will say that my sister-in-law has been a positive influence, more than any other member of my enormous family. Her tastes are very different from mine — she likes things plain and beige, which is absolutely not me. But she always looks pulled together, she always has the right shoes, and she never looks sloppy or dull. It’s all in the details, of course, the earrings and belts and so on, when you wear very plain clothes like hers. So I tend to pay a lot of attention to how she presents herself, even if it’s very different from my native style, and I have lots of respect and admiration for her. (Also, she’s not always plain and beige — she looks like a million bucks when she dresses up for a wedding reception, for example — just that I think that’s her native style in the same way that my native style is black and edgy.)
How do your day to day activities influence your choices?
I dress down a bit when I go to the family business. It’s a construction shop. I don’t want to get any of their materials on my good clothes. Mastic never comes out! And the rest of the time, I work from home, so I can wear whatever I like. In the winter, that tends to be blanket-like warm things because my house is very cold. In the summer, I prefer a dress or skirt. If I go out for dinner or shopping or whatever, this is when I tend to dress least for the occasion/environment and most to please myself.
Does the place you live inform the way you dress? How does climate factor in?
I live in an extreme climate, so yeah, dressing for the weather is important. But my 5-year plan will take me somewhere milder. Right now, I have to be prepared for -25F wind chills and +100F heat waves. You sink a lot of resources into the wardrobe just for weather conditions when you live in a climate like this. Balaclavas, thrummed mittens, long underwear, ugh, this isn’t about fashion. Let’s move on.
In what ways does body image affect your choices in clothing? What clothes make you feel good about the body you live in? What clothes make you feel uncomfortable or alienated from your body?
I’ve been through some dramatic body changes over the years thanks to ongoing struggles with endocrines and metabolism. This isn’t one of those “it’s my glands” excuses that people sometimes make when they are trying to avoid responsibility for lazy habits. This is one of those “I know my doctor well enough to ask about his last volleyball game and trip to Ireland because I am in his office far too often” things. Right now, my weight is a little bit up after some setbacks last fall — I didn’t talk about this on the blog when it was happening, but it was bad enough to land me in the hospital in November. It’s better now, and I am just on the cusp of fighting off some of these setback pounds again, getting some good muscle tone back again. I feel pretty weak and flabby after three months of minimal exercise.
In any case, what makes me feel good about the body I live in is when this body feels good and healthy. It’s really that simple. When I’m strong enough to run and lift weights and hike all day, I feel good about the rest of it, too. Not sure this is much of a fashion thing, though. Except, oh yeah!, I do love that feeling when I can put on a pair of running tights and not feel like I have to wear a long, loose shirt to cover my giant flabby butt. Tight and toned is definitely better!
Am I the only one who feels like these questions aren’t exactly fashion questions? They’re sort of verging on fashion questions.