Style Double Standard

I used to live in Los Angeles, where it’s all about style. While there, I made a concerted effort to spiff up whenever I was out in public. That was never a big challenge, since I inherited the love-to-shop/love-to-play-dress-up gene.

I currently live in a small town in Northern California that I have alternately described as arty, charming, friendly, and touristy. Of all the labels this town have received–from others and from me–the one that stands out most is tolerant.

Tolerance is a good thing when it comes to allowing those who are different to let their individual flags fly. But there’s a flip side to tolerance, which is marked by an anything-goes attitude that can often generate some pretty questionable results.

I’ve blogged before about bizarre outfits I’ve seen on the streets of our fair community. We’re home to many earthy hippie types of all ages–ranging from authentic ’60s throwbacks to their offspring–who dress in multiple layers of long flowy things. We have back-to-nature folks who wear nothing but hemp and other natural fibers. We have cowgirls at heart who cling to denim, flannel, and dusty boots. And, really–all of that’s okay. Unless those not-fit-for-the-big-city outfits are on me.

Most of the time, I maintain my fashion sense wherever I am, thanks to my love of style. I often dress up more than the local rules require, and I’ve gotten used to the fact that when my husband and I go to a restaurant in town, we’ll be more decked out than the majority of diners. (A server once said to us, “You both look so nice! Where are you going?” to which we replied, “Um…here.”)

But occasionally, much to my dismay, I find that I wear things here that I would never wear in LA. I’ll spare you the details–and myself the embarrassment–but suffice it to say that I’m beginning to notice a very real double standard. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it scares the heck outta me.

It might be a when-in-Rome thing: a settling-in to a quieter, less fashionable lifestyle and trying to fit in with what surrounds me. It might be a lowered-profile thing: not needing to stand out from the masses. It might be a let’s-not-be-so-superficial thing: after all, they’re just clothes, not accomplishments. It might be a practical thing: I’m just going to the grocery store/gym/post office, so I really don’t need to focus on fashion. I can live with any of those meanings, but God forbid it should be a slackening-of-style-values thing. That, I just can’t accept.

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Quotations on Fashion and Style

“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.”
—Oscar Wilde

“Fashions fade, style is eternal.”
—Yves Saint Laurent

“Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty.”
—Coco Chanel

“Style is an expression of individualism mixed with charisma. Fashion is something that comes after style.”
—John Fairchild

“Women dress alike all over the world: they dress to be annoying to other women.”
—Elsa Schiaparelli

“I wear my sort of clothes to save me the trouble of deciding which clothes to wear.”
—Katharine Hepburn

“Style is primarily a matter of instinct.”
—Bill Blass

Samantha <on the Hermes Birken bag>: “Oh honey, it’s not so much the style, it’s what carrying it means!”
Carrie: “It means you’re out four thousand bucks.”

Not All Cotton Is Created Equal

I recently ordered a sundress online. It looked good in the photo–stuff always looks good in the photo–and the fabric was listed as 100% cotton. Because it was a natural fiber, I thought the quality would be decent, but I was in for a surprise.

The dress arrived yesterday, in a box about the size of the average novel. My heart sank immediately, because no article of clothing should be able to be compacted that small. After digging though a fair amount of tissue paper (Is there even a dress in here?), I pulled out a rumpled piece of patterned fabric that was nearly transparent in its thinness. 100% cotton, indeed!

I immediately started researching fabric, and here’s what I found. The quality of cotton fiber is determined by three factors:

• Color—ranging from white to yellowish
• Purity—the absence of foreign matter, such as leaves or earth
• Fiber length, strength, and uniformity

Depending on these factors, the fabric can feel as thin and scratchy as a dime-store handkerchief or as lush and dense as silk. Clearly, these extremes of quality affect the way a garment fits, drapes, and holds up over time.

When shopping on the Internet or from a catalog, the words “100% cotton” don’t mean much on their own when you can’t feel the fabric. Look for qualifying adjectives, such as:

Egyptian cotton—Top of the line, with a smooth and silky texture.

Pima cotton—A superior cotton, extremely durable and absorbent, grown primarily in the Southwestern region of the U.S.

Of course, there are no guarantees, but at least this will get you moving in the right direction.

Buying Cheap–It Just Doesn’t Pay

When I was a little girl, my mother took me to our area’s finer shops to buy clothes. It’s not that we were rolling in disposable income, but she was a firm believer in quality over quantity. So instead of three inexpensive dresses, I might get one really good dress that would last until I outgrew it.

When I was older and started shopping on my own, my mom reminded me of her theory. Lines such as, “Cheap clothes don’t hang well, and they certainly don’t last” swam through my head whenever I walked into a store.

Even now, as a woman of a certain age, I still hear her words when I’m considering a purchase. Oh sure, I’m a big fan of places like Target for workout clothes and T-shirts (the store’s tissue Ts are among my favorites), but for more serious clothes, I usually go higher end.

But then, I blew it.

Two weeks before leaving for New York, I decided that my travel wardrobe needed a boyfriend blazer. I’d seen these slightly oversized jackets online and in catalogs, and I liked how they add polish and a bit of dressiness to a pair of jeans. I jumped on the Nordstrom Web site and found this one by Necessary Objects:

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It was in the junior department, it was only $58, and it was made of polyester, rayon, and spandex. The fabric content sounded dreadful and I wasn’t crazy about the fact that it didn’t have any buttons, but the price appealed to me and I liked the idea that it would be delivered to my door well before I had to pack. So I ordered it in black.

The jacket was certainly cute enough. It looked good with both blue and black jeans, and the striped lining really popped when I rolled up the sleeves. I didn’t particularly like the sheen of the fabric, but I thought I’d be fine if I stayed out of direct sunlight.

Three days into my trip, the lining of the blazer took a nosedive. It ballooned below the hemline like the jacket of a tacky, shiny, man’s suit. Since I tend to travel with equipment for any clothing emergency, I doctored it with my stash of safety pins and hoped for the best. All the while, that little voice in my head kept repeating, “You shouldn’t have bought such a cheap jacket–and you’re wearing pins, fer gawd’s sake!”

As soon as I returned home, the blazer went straight back to Nordstrom. The store has the best customer service in the retail world, and they took it back with no questions asked.

But I still wanted a jacket just like it. Fortunately, in Nordstrom’s grown-up department, I found this by Kenna-T:

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It’s a lovely tropical wool–four times the price at $238. But what a difference! Even though it has the same menswear look, the drape has a body consciousness that keeps it from looking like I swiped it from my husband’s closet. The armholes are cut higher, which visually elongates the body. It also has a single button that just seems to add a certain polish and finish. Best of all, it will likely look great for years.

So lesson learned–loud and clear. Cheap clothes will always perform like cheap clothes, and I simply don’t want to deal with a wardrobe that falls apart. Mom was right when she said that a few good items will serve you far better than a closet full of junk.

Style for the Baby Boomer Woman

My blog is going to take a different emphasis for a while, at least through the summer. Because I’ve accepted a gig as a style expert on Live Person (liveperson.com/elle-mansfield), I feel it makes sense to support that work by posting exclusively about fashion.

My speciality is baby boomer women, since that’s what I am and I’m all too familiar with the questions that begin to arise as we get older:

* Do I look like I’ve raided my daughter’s closet?

* Must “age-appropriate” be synonymous with “frumpy”?

* How much skin can I show?

* What’s the perfect hemline for a 50-plus woman?

And my favorite question of all:

* What the heck happened to my neck/upper arms/thighs/belly?!

I hope you’ll visit often, and I hope you’ll find things here that help you make good style choices.

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100 Things I’m Grateful for (part nine)

Whew! Almost to 100. Given my basic nature, the last bunch must be exclusively fashion related:

83. Spanx two-tone tights (brilliant concept)

84. Nike Air Technology in Cole Haan peep-toe pumps (unexpectedly comfortable)

85. Balenciaga purses

86. Wide belts

87. DKNY on Madison

88. Scarves

89. Diamond stud earrings worn with everything

90. Sergio Gutierrez Liquid Metal bracelets

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91. Heirloom jewelry

92. Black and charcoal (Sorry, Sam…old habits die hard!)

93. Camisoles

94. Cropped cardigans

95. Handbags in purples, plums, and greens

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96. Kitson sneakers

97. L.A.M.B. sneakers

98. Nike workout gear

99. My Manolo Blahniks from Trace

100. Great stylists

Fashion Police — I really don’t want this job

I live in a town that attracts a lot of tourists. Ours is a rather funky, arty community, and it’s as tolerant a place as I’ve ever witnessed. Whether you’re a local who’s lived her for years or a visitor just stopping by to explore the incredible beauty of this region, you can get away with wearing just about anything. If you’re sporting waist-length dreadlocks and layer upon layer of hippie duds, no one gives you a second glance. If you’re decked out in plaid bermudas with dark socks and sandals, no one cares. Sigh…except me.

After living in LA, I’m frequently taken aback by the things I see on the street. LA has a fashion sense all its own, and a lot of style atrocities are committed in an attempt to embrace the latest trends. There, people often try too hard. Here, they don’t try hard enough.

I know it shouldn’t bother me…I wish it didn’t bother me…but try as I might, I cannot beat down the Aaaaaargh! that rises up unbidden from my core when I see things I’d rather not see. Like the guy in the health-food store who was wearing what appeared to be a square of dirty cotton canvas with a hole cut out for his head. It was tied at the waist with some sort of cord and slit up to a very hairy mid-thigh. He’d teamed it with black running shoes. And black ankle socks. I had to turn my shopping cart in the opposite direction.

I once told my husband that if I were queen of the universe, everyone would be required to have a full-length mirror.

“That’ll never work,” he replied. “First, they’d have to use the mirror. Second, they’d have to be able to objectively evaluate what they see…and that’s never going to happen. So you might want to take off that tiara, okay?”

I’m trying…really, I’m trying.