What to Wear

Dress ShoesThe picture on this post is of my dress shoes: gold patent leather Doc Marten oxfords. From looking at those, you can probably guess how I felt about the clothes costume designer Jenny Beavan wore to the Oscars.

I didn’t watch the show – I don’t like awards shows as a rule – but when I heard both about what Beavan wore and the fact that some idiots were critical of her, I went looking for pictures.

This video on the Guardian website shows Beavan to full advantage, and does seem to indicate that some of the men she walked past were a little shocked by her, her clothes, or – to be charitable – the fact that she won instead of someone else.

But there’s something else interesting about Beavan’s walk down the aisle: Look at how she moves. She’s confident and very comfortable. And her clothes – which she chose on purpose – let her body move easily. They don’t get in her way.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of our bodies and the way we move to our overall being, and that’s led me to think about the best ways to dress. Despite the elaborate and outdated fashion show aspect of things like the Oscars, the way we dress is changing these days. It’s a good time to come up with new ideas on the subject.

Here’s my basic rule for how to dress:

Never wear any clothes you have to think about once you’ve put them on.

For some people – particularly men – this rule may seem obvious. But most women have been in many situations where they were constantly worrying about whether their clothes were right. Anytime you’re worrying about your clothes, you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing.

For example, if you’re wearing a short skirt and sitting on a stage, you’re going to find yourself paying attention to how you’re sitting because you don’t want to flash the audience a look at your underwear. I use this example because I saw it happen recently at an event featuring a brilliant physicist. She kept tugging at her skirt. Being conscious of how she was sitting likely affected her ability to respond to questions in the way she would have liked.

There are four subparts to this rule:

  1. You should be comfortable.
  2. You should be able to move well in your clothes.
  3. You should like the way you look in your clothes.
  4. They should be the right clothes for what you’re going to do.

Jenny Beavan is an outstanding example of the application of these rules.

Comfortable is obvious. You don’t want your clothes so tight that you can’t breathe well or so loose that you’re afraid they’ll fall down. You want them to keep you warm if it’s cold out, and to at least give you a chance at coolness if it’s hot.

Moving well is slightly different from comfortable. Some clothes may be fine if you don’t need to walk a few blocks or reach for something on a higher (or lower) shelf, but you often need to do those things. You don’t want your clothes to get in the way. And that’s why all my shoes – including my dress ones – are good for walking.

Liking the way you look is all important. It’s also very subjective. Me, I like a variety of bright colors. It would be easier to dress if all I wore was black – as many well-dressed people do – but I feel washed out and dowdy in black. As long as I like the way things are put together when I look in the mirror before walking out of the house, I feel good about myself. If things like color don’t matter to you, then just making sure your clothes are reasonably clean and fit well enough is probably enough for you.

By picking the right clothes for what you’re planning to do, I mean making a practical decision. If you’re going hiking, you want jeans and hiking boots. If you’re planning to work on your car, you want to wear something you don’t mind getting grease on. If your job involves crawling around under desks to deal with plugging in computers, you probably will prefer pants. If you’re going to be on television, you want clothes that work well with color filters.

Of course, that final rule raises the issue of “appropriate” clothes for various occasions. Appropriate is in a state of flux. I notice that very religious people now wear jeans to church, which I would never have done back in the day. I figure if you can wear anything you want to church you can wear anything you want damn near everywhere.

From my point of view, the only time I take into consideration whether something is “appropriate” from a conventional point of view is when I’m representing someone besides just myself. Back when I practiced law, I acquired some rather boring suits and always wore those to court. I didn’t have either the money or enough sense of conventional style to pull off fancy versions of those suits, but I looked respectable. If I’d looked too unconventional, it might have prejudiced the judge or jury against my client.

Diplomats run up against this sort of thing all the time. Sometimes they need to dress to blend in; other times they might need to do something considered rude to make a point. Clothing is part of their skill set, part of their job.

But if the only person you’re representing is yourself, you can dress as you please, just like Jenny Beavan did. If I were being given an award (one can dream), I’d likely go for a gaudy gold top and black silk pants. And, of course, my Doc Martens.



What to Wear — 15 Comments

  1. If I wasn’t paying attention, I’d allow myself to slip into as state of rage about these sorts of public presentations and women. I go through the slide shows in the papers online to look at what the women wear vs. what the men wear. The very first thing is the footgear. Even with tuxes many men wear designer forms of sneakers. All of them have flat soles and heels. Women on the other hand! Ye gods and little fishies! 6 inch toothpick heels, everything open to the weather, while the dresses drag for yards on the ground, are transparent with skirts at crotch length, and are form fitting right with most of the skin exposed. WTF?????????? Not to mention layers and layers that take hours and hours of make-up for the camera — not for human eyes — and all those hours and hours hair extension styles. All of which means none of these women are allowed to eat, and must spend hours and hours every day with personal trainers.

    I flip through those photos and think, endlessly, of the height of Victorian style, with acres and acres and acres in layers and layers of fabric, making of any woman an ambulatory wedding cake, but heavens to betsy if anyone saw she had feet or legs!

    Nevertheless, on our book support tour, and other events, I too obsess over wearing the right things, my make-up, my hair. I have spent hours and hours and lots of money on these things. However, the point was, that when actually on the road, I wouldn’t have to think about them, other than the time to put on the make-up. And once front and center I don’t have to think about any of it either. It’s all comfortable wearing.

    But most of all, I know how I’m presenting myself is noticed by the very many women — African American women — with whom I’m interacting, all of whom have ‘dressed up’ as best they can. It’s a mark of respect, that is registered immediately. Beyond that, with bookstores and universities and so on — it looks professional, which allows the presenters to feel confident in their choice to bring us in.

    But the time — all this time — that I could have used for writing . . . .

    • The issue about showing respect to the audience on your tour is an important one, too. Nothing about this issue is settled, but I agree there are times when too casual is disrespectful, and that applies to men, too. Though as someone who could never quite pull off the makeup/hair/conventional stylish clothing thing no matter how hard I tried — I recall in high school when I tried and just ended up getting makeup on my papers and ink on my fingers — I do think the boring but proper outfit, simple haircut, etc. is a good solution in those circumstances.

  2. As well, if one isn’t in the entertainment biz with a team of people to make you look good, here’s a lesson from just this week.

    I spent a lot of time on my hair because we had a half hour of television to do in Boston, on its NBC station. It being Boston it was hard to find and park, and then get to the station. The wind, darling, the wind, the wind. By the time we got to the studio, the hair was straight straight straight. At least my brightly colored blouse was OK.

  3. A few years ago I noticed that sometimes I would get dressed in something appropriate for the occasion, etc., that felt great, but then when I looked in the mirror, I would feel bad because I’m older and fatter than I was when I was thirty. And I still expected to see my 30-year-old self standing there all young and thin. But I found solution! (and I do this while shopping, too) I dress entirely by feel. I put things on and if they feel right (comfortable, suitable for my personality and the event), then I don’t look in the mirror at all. If it feels “off” in some way, then I look for information purposes and for ruling out certain shapes, fits and fabrics in the future.
    Since I work in an Apparel department, I deal with women shopping and trying on clothes all the time. I wish I could advise people to follow your comfort suggestion. Especially young girls. When customers ask me how something looks, I always reply with, “How do you feel in it? Do you feel good?”
    Doing my part. 🙂

  4. This is the eternal dilemma of women, or so it seems to me. So many things that are right are then wrong somewhere else.

    I wore skinny jeans with thigh highs underneath, that showed through the shredded knees, with a casual shirt and cowboy boots at Harvard. This was more than perfectly acceptable within the context of the department and the course. Among other things the students felt comfortable with how I looked, rather than off-put as they quite well might have been by corporate drag. But — torn jeans and cowboy boots would have been entirely wrong and inappropriate for the television program, which has an audience in large part geared to New England black church membership — an audience we indeed wish to cultivate, even more so than young historians.

    • BTW, why so casual at Harvard — because the rooms at universities in winter are so over-heated and arid, a terrific place to catch something. This sort of dressing kept me from being too hot and uncomfortable, to being warm enough and comfortable when outside in that wind, darling, wind, wind — and it was colder that day than the days before.

  5. The only time I was a finalist for the Nebula, I wore my cheong-sam — moonlight-colored Chinese silk with a design of dragons in silver. It was skin-tight then, and I know I cannot get into it now. If you know that photographs are in the cards, it is worth dressing for the camera.
    The last time I went to an awards banquet it was also the Nebs, and I wore my daughter’s old prom dress. It looks as good on me as it did on her, and if I ever wear it again I may borrow some of Mad’s beading, to be the shoulder straps.
    The key to happiness on these occasions? Your shoes. Never, ever wear shoes that give you pain; never, ever EVER wear high heels. If your feet are happy, you are happy. Gold Doc Martens sound just about right.

    • Amen on the high heels. I rant against them at every opportunity. They not only restrict your ability to move easily and often hurt, they also put you off balance.

  6. Several comments remind me once again that the most important thing about your clothes is that they not get in the way of whatever you’re doing. If you’re uncomfortable or think you’ve dressed wrong for what you’re doing, you’ll be paying attention to what you’re wearing instead of what you’re doing. And that’s never right.

  7. I used to think I disliked women’s clothes and preferred men’s. My mother had to physically stop me from raiding my father’s closet when, at 13, I discovered with delight we wore the same size of tops *and* shoes.

    And then I went to India, discovered salwar kameez and fashion-love at first sight. Bonus: the pants are drawstring, so it doesn’t matter if I gain/lose a dozen pounds or two in the middle.

    For official occasions I own black Oxfords, no brogues (I recently saw Kingsman wearing them) and I’m seriously considering getting a bespoke (man’s) suit.

  8. Men’s clothes are designed to be both practical and comfortable. Their upkeep costs less too.

    It is infuriating: I took the shirts and blouses I wore in Boston to the laundry along with the shirts of Himself. My things cost twice as much to be cleaned than his — yet don’t have all the fussy little buttons and so for the ironing. What is up with that?

  9. I can’t wear men’s clothes — they are made for people without hips and I have hips. (I love my hips, btw.) I wish I could get men’s jeans, though, because they do tend to be better made and cheaper.

    Men’s clothing is more practical, as a rule, except for ties. (There is no defense for ties.) But men’s clothing is also boring. I like a well-cut suit or tux, but when everybody has them on how can you even tell them apart? And jeans are great, but they’re not exciting.

    I can wear men’s shoes, but even there the choices are duller. (I think my Doc Martens are unisex, but they’re an exception — how many gold shoes do you see marketed to men?)

    Also, I don’t think the answer to “how to dress” for women who are more interested in what they’re doing than in how they look — that is, most of us — is to dress like men. Dresses can be very comfortable and the salwar kameez damigiana refers to above is another good idea. I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with women or men dressing as men usually do. I just want more choices without having to sacrifice comfort, ease of movement, and the like.

    While the most important rule about clothes is that they should not get in the way of what you’re doing — because what you’re doing is more important than how you look — they’re also a vehicle for self-expression. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice practicality to have fun with our clothes.