Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dressing Up Was Hard to Do

I managed to dress for last night's dinner party without buying anything new. I kept hearing Thoreau's admonition in my head: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." So I decided to shop in my closet, and realized I had the right items to dress like a guy.

As some of you know, it perturbs me that, compared to women, men have it so easy when it comes to dressing well. My husband can walk into Lord & Taylor and walk out with everything he needs to be well-dressed for a few years. We recently shopped during one of their many sales and picked out three suits and two sport coats to add to his collection. Their tailor went at everything with a mouthful of pins, and now they fit him perfectly. Since he stocks up on shoes, dress shirts, and ties with equal aplomb, he has no trouble dressing well for any event.

But when I walk into Lord & Taylor, I usually walk out empty handed. Nothing is ever what I had in mind; almost everything has some "creative" detailing that ruins it for me. It would be nice if women had a uniform that bestows instant authority, dignity, camouflage, and elegance as almost any suit does for any man (provided they haven't fallen for those Pee-Wee Herman short pants and sleeves).

But that's never going to work for women. It just fails, no matter what we try. And we keep trying. Take, for example, this company, Basiques, which has a shop on Newbury Street.  Their clothing line is based on the style of French women, who theoretically have only a few, very wonderful items in their closets. According to Basiques, women just need about 10 pieces to have a wardrobe any chic Frenchwoman would envy. So they want to sell you a black jacket with matching pants and an A-line skirt, and a stack of button-down shirts: white, stripes, giant polka-dots, sheer black for evening, and a graphic wave pattern. Add plain pumps, a white tee, jeans, a strapless bustier, and some accessories, and that's all you'll need forever. Everything coordinates with everything else, and it all fits into a carry-on suitcase. Great premise.

But it doesn't work.

Most of the outfits you can make from those items will make you look very French indeed. The problem is that you will look like a French flight attendant — but not Air France, because their uniforms are designed by Christian Lacroix and are somewhat hip. You'll be an attendant for a small, regional French airline in your neat little suits with lively blouses and scarves tied just so. When Americans wish they could dress like French women, I do not think we are aspiring to look like we are about to hand out in-flight menu cards.

Basiques. Doesn't she look like she's welcoming
you aboard Air Bretagne, or whatever?

I believe it's both a blessing and a curse that we women are expected to show more imagination in how we dress. If we were as limited fashion-wise as men are, we'd go crazy. But we're expected to weed out all the bad options and choose only what suits our figures, personalties, and style — for any occasion. And, actually, it's not that hard to know what we should wear. We know which cuts and colors flatter us and which don't. What's difficult — next to impossible, really — is finding those imaginary clothes amid all the very, very wrong things stores are selling. Many of us want to wear things like the Hepburns, Audrey or Kate, wore, for example. But good luck finding such perfect, classic items anywhere..

I'm beginning to think that a finding a good dressmaker might be my only salvation. I'd show her movie stills of Audrey Tatou in Coco Before Chanel and Julie Christie in Don't Look Now, saying, "Make me that, and that, and that!"

But my fantasy seamstress couldn't help me last night. So I ripped the tags off a menswear-style black suit jacket and pants that had been sitting in my closet for a few years. I wore a tuxedo shirt untucked, high-heeled boots, and a long chain with my grandmother's pocket watch. The effect was elegant, dignified, authoritative, and definitely camouflage. Success, on the outside at least.

Inside, I was wretched. To fit into the pants, which I'd bought in an optimistic size 4, I wore "shaping" tights by Donna Karan. Before I put them on, I was skeptical — they were so narrow at the top that I could barely fit my two hands in them. Getting into them made me grateful for my strength-training classes; it was an exhausting battle. If all contemporary "shapewear" is like this, it would be easier to starve off some pounds than suffer such agonies. The tights were supposed to be high-waisted for more "shaping," they insisted on rolling themselves at my waist, like a tight iron band, all night long.

I would never have survived Victorian corsetry or 1950's girdles; I would have had to join a convent in self defense.

It occurred to me during the dessert course that perhaps I was dressed like a French woman after all. Because, as they say, "Il faut souffrire pour ĂȘtre belle." (One must suffer to be beautiful.) But those tights are now retired, long before they"ll reach age 62.

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