Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Importance of Being Stylish

Hats: the spike of life.
 Photo via my Pinterest
Anja Rubick in 2010 Vogue Paris
For those of us who tend to spend most of our time behind a book and the computer screen instead of in front of a camera lens, it may seem odd, even superfluous, to concern ourselves with the composition of our outfits. For the majority of my adult life, I've found fashion to be a vapid pursuit that only succeeded in emptying one's purse for the sake of a (subjectively) pretty thing that was, above all, fleeting.

I believed that fashion photography only depicted women doing useless things like staring blankly off into the distance with her mouth hanging open, or clutching a garish handbag while balancing on insensible shoes or allowing themselves to be draped with exotic animals. To me, these photos represented a collection of tangible evidence of the stupidity and susceptibility of some women (and men). I thought fashion and the pursuit of outward style detracted from the "real" work that being done elsewhere.

Recently, however, I have completely changed my mind about how I view the art of adornment and I've come to view style as an important--if not indispensable-- element of culture.
Collegiate cuties from 1949, Wellesley College.
Life magazine, photos by Nina Leen. 
This reversal in my opinion sprung initially from a basic need for new clothes and evolved rapidly as I became ever more aware of the many details of dressing and the broader implications of fashion in art and literature.

For several years in my early 20s, I amassed a collection of drab, ill-fitting clothing that I thought I needed in order to look "professional" in my job. When I left that job to pursue a Masters degree, one of my first acts was ridding myself of all of those hideous pieces. But, alas! I was now a starving grad student living on student loans and earnings from my part-time Spanish teaching position at the university--how was I to replenish my closet?

I had never given much thought to my style and had no idea what I was going to do about my dismal clothing situation (I couldn't very well go around nude). So I did what any academic would do: I began the process of intensive research.

Initially, my objective was practical: I needed clothes fast and cheap. I began reading personal style blogs, fashion blogs, books on Western fashion history... I scoured the Internet for answers on how to get good quality clothing inexpensively. What I found surprised me.

1940s ladies' fashion
I discovered that I had been missing out on having a personal style, and that I wanted one. I also discovered I loved women's fashion from the 1930-40s and that vintage clothing was, if you knew what you were doing, far cheaper and more durable than most modern clothing. As a bonus, vintage clothing always comes with a story-- some woman before me wore these clothes while she went about, cleaning her house, attending the opera, meeting friends for tea... I wanted those stories! And I wanted the outrageous detail from past eras: hats, pin curls, gloves, brooches, dress clips, shoe clips, earrings and bangles, petticoats (!) and slips, bras that "lift and separate," bed jackets, night bonnets, fur stoles and muffs, pencil skirts, lightly puffed sleeves, handbags without cellphone holders, and oh! LIPSTICK!

1940's ad for ladies' hats - I love how
the shadow of the brims "foreshadows"
the return of the wide brim!
Photo via my Pinterest.
Since discovering the delights of vintage-hunting in thrift stores (ah the thrill of finding something truly unique and beautiful amongst a pile of cast-off, shapeless sacks!), I have begun noticing the importance of style in literature-- both the style of writing and the style each character possesses when we meet them in their world.

For me, some of the most delicious descriptions of fashion come from Raymond Chandler (perhaps because of my love of WWII-era fashion). He constructs a character by attending to the details of their outfits, while showing how they move around in their clothes. He also makes it obvious that what a character is wearing is an important part of the plot-- with their clothes, a character could be attempting to deceive or reveal themselves to Philip Marlowe (and subsequently you)...

"She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at."

Raymond Chandler had style.
Photo from Life magazine. 
"She wore brownish speckled tweeds, a mannish shirt and tie, hand-carved walking shoes. Her stockings were just as sheer as the day before, but she wasn't showing as much of her legs. Her black hair was glossy under a brown Robin Hood hat that might have cost fifty dollars and looked as if you could have made it with one hand out of a desk blotter."

"She was so platinumed that her hair shone like a silver fruit bowl. She wore a green knitted dress with a broad white collar turned over it. There was a sharp-angled glossy bag at her feet."

[All quotes from Chandler's 1939 novel The Big Sleep.]

These moments in literature, in which an author hovers over a character and looks at them, are an essential part of what makes a rich and compelling narrative--and more importantly, it is at the heart of literature's purpose. James Wood remarks on this in his book How Fiction Works (2008): "Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice..." The act of noticing is crucial in writing and reading literature.

Marlene Dietrich, 1940s.
Photo via my Pinterest.
Visual details in a narrative are not just metaphors for who or how a character is, then, but rather they form part of the overall aesthetic metaphor of a novel as a whole. Ursula K. Le Guin notes in her introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness that a writer is essentially a painter that uses words as their palette: "The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words." (Sigh. I love her for writing that.) 

So to my formerly-frumpy self, I say may you be forgiven, for you knew not why you dressed. To delight in a style of one's own and the bright possibilities of dressing oneself every morning is not a vapid pursuit, rather it is to participate in an important process of noticing. Furthermore, in literature, noticing provides the method by which a writer can say "in words what cannot be said in words."

Paying attention to the outward details of a real person or a fictional character is an art. I make my own little efforts to notice the styles of others, now, and to for-heaven's-sake match my gloves with my hat, handbag, and brooch.

What is your style? What author writes your favorite descriptions of their characters' style?

This post was partly inspired by the recently opened exhibit of Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo's wardrobe, 58 years after her death. If I could go to Mexico right now and see this exhibit, I would. Instead, I'll content myself for now with this sneak-peak video of the exhibition:

Until next time, my fair petticoat rufflers!


  1. I love this post! Not only was it oh so well crafted, but inspiring too. I think it not a coincidence either that you were drawn to a time period in fashion where clothing was crafted according to the natural curves of women's bodies (hear that skinny jeans!) yet tailored to a crisp and assertive silhouette. This reminds me of my father's mother, a Southern belle, who even as she was passing away in a hospital refused to remove her pantyhose!

  2. so glad you love the best era ever! not only are the clothes wonderful, they are usually made in the USA. it's a win, win!

  3. Great post! I can't choose one personal style. I love so many.

  4. to look forward - have you seen the blog Advanced Style ? speaking of personal style....

  5. I love this post! I decided early last year to dress the way *I* wanted without worrying about "fashion" - rather a style of my own based on my loves and expressing outside how I perceive my inner self and my inner beauty. It was also a way of escaping the body image pressure as I found myself a year ago obsessively comparing my body with other girls and was teetering on an eating disorder... I felt very low in myself. But my self-expression changed that. Strangely I now get MANY MANY compliments on the street (almost every time I go out) and *everywhere* about how "beautiful" and "stunning" I am.

    My style is Pre-Raphaelite/LotR elf/witch/goddess/dryad/medieval queen - I comb thrift stores, markets and Etsy for unique and beautiful things of good quality material (I love silk and I have picked up silk clothes and scarves in jewel colours for cheaper than a cotton singlet at Target simply by looking in the right places, also I love tapestry designs) - I have a lot of "precious" materials and ornaments that I am not afraid to wear all the time, I also wear corsets and costume accessories from Armstreet. I love anything that accentuates my waist as I'm blessed with a very small one... To avoid the messy "goth witch" or "punk" look I choose jewel-like and rich colours that *work* together (I'm VERY good with colours) like deep hunter green and burgundy, or flame colours, or sea-colours. Finally to complete my "look" I make headdresses and wreaths from the most realistic artificial flowers, leaves and fruit I can pick up from homeware shops - and of course the colours are always matched with my outfit.

    I can put together a new and splendid outfit everyday by matching different colours etc. It's huge fun. And it works. And I do it because that's who I feel myself to be inside - a shining and colourful, magical and artistic soul.

    If you're interested - I have my own blog at

  6. - for me as both a mother and an artist, clothes are an easy way to paint a picture just by getting dressed in the morning. The joy of combining shape and colour together is one i will never tire of and I adore clothes I adore the fact that each outfit enables a different part of my spirit to shine through crafted with my mood. Having so little time to paint during my days my clothes are a creative process in themselves. :) xxx