Style descriptors: a thought experiment

Of many useful things I've learned on here on this forum, one of the most valuable has to be the five words I use to describe my style.

I originally came up with these by looking at my shopping strategy, and since then I've come to realise how well they describe different aspects of my look. But there's more. I realised quite recently that each one is a response to fundamental aspects of my lived experience:

  • Timeless: approaching change
  • Urban: dressing for my environment
  • Eclectic: acknowledging diverse influences
  • Androgynous: a statement on body image
  • Individual: an assertion of selfhood
This made me wonder if this is something anyone else has noticed. When you talk about your style, or set style goals for yourself, what aspect of your life are you serving? Could it be one of these, or is it something else? 

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Style Lab IV: Silhouettes

Once in a while, you may have looked at what I’m wearing and wondered: why on earth is she wearing that? The answer is invariably because I can. I don’t consider myself a great beauty, but I’m tall with long legs, slim hips and a strong shoulder line. This body shape is a blessing and a curse when it comes to fashion, so please forgive me for squirming slightly when someone congratulates me for pulling off that avant-garde look that’s so difficult to nail. Yes, I know I look good in a paper bag. The fact is, I sometimes think a paper bag is the only thing I look reliably good in.

Body type: Tall, lean IT with long limbs and big bust. This sounds good on paper but in fact it’s no easier to dress than any other body type. Tops and jackets can be hard to fit and and I have to be very careful with waist definition. Tailoring is a perennial favourite but can feel too formal in the wrong setting. Menswear styling is very nearly flop-proof but strays all too easily into drag king territory. Big, bold forms have always been a feature and are fast becoming my default casual style.

I love playing up the shoulders and prefer to play down the décolletage. At this point in my life, the main body part on show is the brain, although this hasn’t always been the case. Nowadays I’d rather project confidence, intelligence and humour than sex appeal, not so much attractive as strong, charismatic and not to be messed with.

Unsurprisingly, Angie’s advice has almost always been the best. I’ve also found unlikely inspiration in Kibbe’s theory. The classification of Dramatic/Natural made a certain kind of sense once I wrapped my head around it and I ignored all spurious interpretations in favour of my own assessment. It’s since provided some useful styling benchmarks.

Points of conflict

Footwear is an issue, because I always feel the best way to balance my tapering silhouette is with a bold, focus-pulling shoe, the chunkier the better. My skinny ankles often disagree.

Necklines are a source of confusion. Face and hair favour a high neck, conventional wisdom on body shape calls for an open collar or a deep v-neck. I prefer to emphasise my face and compensate with layers, structure and tailoring. One more reason for defaulting to oversized.

Core silhouettes 

(pictures are examples from current style, possibly not the best ones)

Tailored/semi-fitted Strong shoulder, semi-fitted waist. Tailored jackets and blazers, fitted button-down shirts and blouses, close fitting knitwear. I love me some tailoring and I cannot lie, but I need strong vertical lines and volume on the bottom to balance the full bust and sharp shoulder. Can read too literal if I’m not careful. Typically worn with slouchy, wide or tapered pants to keep it from being overly formal.

A-line Tailored or loose fit with a longer line, strong shoulder, fitted or surrendered waist, flared hem. Tailored dresses are a default solution for professional environments, while a loose fitting version sometimes turns up my urban/casual style. A successful variant is the high waisted empire line, although I haven’t worn that in a while. Good for dresses, skirts and toppers.

T-line Lean or oversized column over skinny or tapered pants, leggings, mini, pencil and tube skirts. I love this shape for its drama, and for being the only way I can wear skinnies. A great casual winter look for oversized knits finished with chunky statement footwear.

Relaxed Easy, softly structured fit with low-slung or surrendered waist. Bomber jackets, tucked tees, fluid fit knitwear. I find this very easy to buy but not so easy to wear. Detail and proportion need to be spot on to avoid feeling lumpen. Brilliant when it works, falls flat on its face when it doesn’t.

Oversized Loose fit throughout with plenty of volume. Sweaters, sweatshirts, dresses, coats. I own this look but I’m first to admit it’s tricky and I shoot for avant-garde or urban baggy rather than lagenlook. Drape and structure are essential. Detail, texture and character are key, although minimal looks are possible with the right pieces.

I’ve said it many times, but it bears repeating, I’m rarely dressing with flattery in mind. I take on board the comments that I’m better served by tailoring and structure than the looser fitting forms I’m more often seen in these days. I’m still wearing tailoring, particularly when teaching, but for some reason, and I can’t for the life of me say why, I’m far more comfortable retreating into an exaggerated silhouette right now. There could be all sorts of explanations, such as the comfort factor, the weather or the licence to take up a lot of space, or perhaps I’m just milking this hard-to-wear trend while it lasts.

Nevertheless, in the background is a lingering feeling that dressing like this is lazy and transgressive, even though I’m giving it as much consideration as I would any other look. Maybe it’s all those pesky subliminal messages about body image we’re constantly bombarded with. I can’t deny the appeal of turning them all upside down.

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Style Lab III: Data Mining

One of my ongoing objectives is compiling meaningful data about what's in my wardrobe. This is the tip of the iceberg. I may post a detailed analysis complete with graphs and charts on my personal blog sometime.

Numbers: ±250 items, not including accessories, underwear, lounge wear or sports gear. Around two thirds has been acquired in the last six years and half since 2013.

Shopping: Around a third of my wardrobe was bought on the high street. Main suppliers are Uniqlo, M&S and H&M, the latter for designer collaborations and subsidiaries Cos, Weekday, &other stories. Around a quarter is evenly split between vintage and self-made, 5% online purchases and up to 40% sourced from independents.

Basics: Around a quarter my wardrobe could be described as menswear classic and normcore. This seems like a solid foundation of basics.

Wear and Usage: ±70 items are what I’d call kingpins, and ±90 are in regular rotation, but up to 40% is not getting enough wear. I could probably get rid of half my closet tomorrow and still get dressed successfully.

I’m already making moves to fix this. I want to bring back a few of the better pieces, some of whom are excellent and should not be neglected. I also need to set some clear objectives for culling.

Problem areas are:

T-shirts: I buy too many concert shirts. Enough said.

Shoes: Is it so wrong to have 30+ pairs? I don’t know if I could ever have too many shoes, but I’m only wearing around half of them at the moment. Some are benched because they need repairs, others because I ditched the heels in favour of platforms. There are quite a few awkward children among them, see below.

Skirts and dresses: According to the numbers, I am very good at wearing pants and I suck at dresses and skirts. I need to address this in my day to day style. If all goes to plan, many of these will be brought back into service by a pair of OTK boots I ordered at the weekend.

Trophy pieces: There are a few items on the bench which I don’t think I want to get rid of, such as international textiles, rarities and pieces with sentimental value. Suz, I’m liking your suggestion for a dedicated history closet.

Eclectic items are the most frequently benched. I fully expect some of these to make a comeback in future, because past experience suggests that if I like something enough, I’ll find a way to wear it one of these days.

Awkward children: There are a number of things that I like but just don’t seem to work for some reason. It could be the colour, the style or the fit, or it doesn’t suit my current style. I need to be brutally honest with myself about these.

Worn out favourites: I’ll be honest, if something I love dearly is worn out, I have a lot of trouble getting rid of it for some reason. Some of these are waiting for repairs, others I need to phase out or replace.

My immediate plan is to bring some of the benched items back into my day to day style, and ask myself how I feel about them. If something isn’t working, what do I need to do to make it work? And how do I feel about all this variety? Is it fun and enriching, or guilt-inducing and tiring?

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Style Lab II: Requirements

Thank you for all the positive feedback on my last Style Lab post. I’m not sure exactly where this is going, but I’m very glad you’re along for the ride. In this post, I’m looking at what I need from my wardrobe in practical terms so as to make it work better for me.

Requirements: Currently around 25% Professional, 25% Social, 50% Casual, with overlaps in between. Seasonal capsules should be proportionate with their duration in the cycle. Small travel capsules are required for away trips.

Professional: Creative technical designer. Formerly business oriented, lately focused on teaching and seminars with steps to move into sustainable fashion. Styling should be definitive and personal as opposed to fashion forward. Typically architectural or tailored, drawing mainly on Timeless/Individual styling. A restrained, accessible look is best for the classroom.

Social: Urban leisure day to evening, meeting friends, eating out, gigs, date nights, shopping, museums &c. Out and about off duty is where I’m most adventurous in Urban/Eclectic styling. Formal functions and nights at the opera up the ante.

Casual: Getting dressed for the sheer joy of it, to work at home/in studio, run errands, or head to yoga class. Often oversized silhouettes for comfort and mobility, dressed up for the feel good factor. Quality and style is important for emotional reasons. Includes a small loungewear capsule, but everything else leaves the house eventually.

Environmental: All should be workable on a bicycle. Some of my biggest mistakes have been failures to account for this. Solid, comfortable footwear required for lots of walking. Rainwear is essential year round, as are hats in winter.

Seasonal: Summers are warm and humid, winters are cold and wet but seldom freezing. Dressing for four distinct seasons keeps style fatigue at bay, with many items rotating in and out.

My wardrobe is full of wonderful things that don’t always match. I’ve worked my way through many different personae over the years and their traces linger on in my closet like skeletons. There are many reasons for this, chief among them being the various professional roles I’ve cycled through and my ongoing efforts to dress authentically for each of them.

I think I need a clearer “if (this) then (that)” strategy, setting conditions for particular roles and crafting a range of looks for various circumstances. I’m already doing this to an extent, but life changes can mean that items acquired to fill a specific need can go unworn if I don’t find new styling options for them. For instance, I’d like to make elements of what used to be my business wardrobe work in new settings, because as Angie points out, I look darn good in a blazer.

All that said, my shopping strategy to date hasn’t exactly supported a coherent presentation. Things are getting better, but I don’t think I’ve ever been systematic, or even honest with myself, in defining exactly what needs to be in my wardrobe. While I love having a closet I can shop, there are undoubtedly things languishing in there which are good enough to find a place in someone else’s life.

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Style Lab I: Definitions

All this talk of churn and wardrobe planning puts me to shame. I need to take a long, hard look at myself and what I’m trying to achieve in my style. In the first part, I am taking apart my style descriptors, examining what they mean to me, and why they are important.

Descriptors: Timeless, urban, eclectic, androgynous, individual.

Timeless - Heritage Classics The heart and soul, believe it or not, is a deeply classic sensibility. Tailoring and craftsmanship are essential. Denim is premium selvedge. Oxfords and a good blazer go anywhere, anytime. Creepers are George Cox originals, made in England since 1949.

Urban - Acid Sport ’80s New Wave and ’90s rave culture followed me to Amsterdam at the end of the 20th century. Now hitting middle age as a wannabe Japanese teenager. Loved fun fur, metallic fabrics and colourful sportswear for as long as I can remember. Platform shoes are a necessity. Concert shirts add instant cool to any look.

Eclectic - Euro Folk This is the outcome of a lifetime of thrifting and absorbing art, culture and history. Part art-school hipster, part urban boho, part retro vintage, not quite any of them. Draws influence from traditional workwear, primitive art, antique costume and international folk textiles.

Androgynous - Gender bending Playing with masculine and feminine identities, never tilting too much either way. Femme looks are tough and full of attitude, mannish looks are detailed and embellished. Not personally comfortable with too much feminine performance, but love looking ladylike when the occasion calls for it.

Individual - Conceptual Modern High concept, avant-garde and deconstructed pieces are key, usually in one of the core neutrals.

The last, which I called Conceptual Modern because I can’t think of another way to describe it, only emerged as a major theme a few years ago, but it’s been there as an aspiration for much longer. It’s taken me a very long time to work it into the look, mainly because it’s so hard to find the right pieces and sometimes I have to make them myself. This is the glue that holds everything else together, informing all excursions into other territories. I’ve noticed lately that I can’t get dressed without it, so it’s a major consideration in future acquisitions.

A good rule of thumb seems to be that essentials and indispensable statement pieces fall under timeless/androgynous/individual, and accent statements fall under urban/eclectic.

My challenge for 2017 is to work my existing wardrobe further into a coherent style around my view of the above descriptors, merging old favourites, found items, fantasy dressmaking projects and opportunistic purchases. Anything that doesn’t fit into this new philosophy will have to go.

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Sacrilege III: Bitter and Twisted

Don’t try this at home. Seriously, don’t. That is, unless you have an unhealthy interest in pants, or your idea of a good time is stabbing yourself repeatedly with pins. I’m at the end of my rope.

I’ve come to the conclusion that tailoring is like sausages. Everyone loves it, but nobody really wants to know how it’s made. If you’ve ever made your own sausages, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Nonetheless, you were all perfectly happy to push me into this so now you get to see what’s inside my own personal circle of Hell.  

I kid. This has been a fascinating project where I’ve pushed my knowledge of pattern cutting to the limits and advanced my tailoring skills. I’m considering adding trouser sculpture and pants origami to the interests section of my dilettante CV. And most importantly, I’m well on the way to some seriously excellent trews.

Here’s the thing though. Pants are notoriously difficult to get right. They have to fit, drape and move gracefully, so the only way to work them is on the wearer. And since the wearer is me and these pants are all about the rear view, that means I have to fit them using two large mirrors and a lot of selfies. You get the idea.

It’s all about rapid prototyping and iteration. Modify, test, modify again. The nice thing about working like this is that very occasionally it leads through some blinding complexity to a solution so elegant it feels like it was there all the time waiting to be teased out, leaving you wondering why you didn’t see it before. Not that it would be obvious, far from it, because that kind of simplicity is almost never easy.

There’s still work to do here but I feel like I’m in the home straight at last. The end result needs no cuts to the fabric and sticks very closely to the original seams, so in theory they could be restored to their former grandpa pants glory if I ever felt the urge. I know this isn’t a sewing community per se, but for anyone who’s interested, I’ve included a draft of the pattern blocks and approximate alterations, which I’ve been working on so I can see what I’m doing from the inside out, so to speak.

Here’s a rundown of the process.

1. My first move was to fit the waistline. I set a concealed tuck behind the fly to achieve the fit while preserving the drape. This creates a staggered waistband which I actually find more flattering than the original high waist.

2. I then set the back tuck, which had to be balanced with a dart into the front section. This should have been a clue as to how difficult the rest was going to be.

3. I ran into serious trouble trying to tailor the legs themselves. My original plan was to reduce the length with horizontal seams and adjust the profile at the side seams. This draped like cardboard and created yet more bulk which had to be balanced.

4. I then hit on the scheme of twisting the leg around a diagonal seam, which made some kind of sense when I thought about it. It followed the natural drape at the knee and pushed the shape towards a contemporary boot cut. The problem was that it didn’t fit together at all.

5. I fixed this with a tuck from the back of the hip to the inseam above the knee to reverse the twist, and narrowed the leg to the straight grain, eliminating the taper, reducing the dogleg in the side seam and straightening the leg. I quite liked this, the drape was behaving and everything fitted, so I marked it out with tailor tacks thinking I’d do the same on the other leg.

6. In the pictures, the right leg is closer to a straight boot cut. I don’t think these pants were ever meant to be straight though. These are the old fashioned tapered bags your (great)grandfather used to wear and I think I want to keep them that way. Moving on to the left side, I went back to the original side seams and used the tucks alone to correct the twist, which was far harder to achieve on a tapered leg than a straight leg. This produced a larger dogleg in the side seam, a motif I repeated by lapping the side seam in the tuck at the hip.

7. A question on the length: at the moment, one leg is a little longer than the other. The longer delivers PPL, but it breaks ever so slightly. The shorter looks a little awkward but it drapes without breaking and shows off the shaped cuff. It was originally tailored for someone with far larger feet than mine and it looks a little odd even with my chunky shoes, but I’m inclined to shoot for the shorter length to preserve the drape. I need to see how this plays out on the next pass, but what do you think?

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Sacrilege Pt II: Surgery

Last week I bought a lovely pair of vintage trousers and challenged myself to make them fit me. You all very kindly encouraged me to overcome my doubts about butchering a piece of museum-quality tailoring and press on.

To be fair, nobody could tell at the time exactly what I was up against, least of all me. The pants were huge, at least three sizes too big and a full six inches too long. I’m no stranger to a slouchy trouser, but these were clownish even by my standards and I was by no means sure I could pull it off. I spent far too much time over the weekend looking at avant garde menswear on Farfetch and wondering What Would Yamamoto Do?

Still, the fabric is a pleasure to work with, very supple and with lots of body so it holds its shape beautifully. The down side is that every fold and tuck has to drape perfectly. I’ve been trying to channel Yohji-san in the hope that the master would look over my shoulder, give me the nod and perhaps guide my hand once in a while. After much trial and error I think I’m finally on track to a wearable garment. Who knows, maybe he’d even approve this alteration.

In the interests of full disclosure, here are a few before and after pics, along with some nerdy tailoring details. It still needs tweaking but I’m pretty sure I can get this to work.

  • I want to preserve the original tailoring so the only cuts I’ve made are to the leg seams, where I’ve put deep tucks front and back. This instead of hemming so as to keep the original cuff, which I will line with contrasting fabric so I can turn them up.
  • I shaped the legs by making the inseam a little shorter than the outside seam, giving a more contemporary silhouette and making said turn-ups behave themselves better.
  • Too much alteration to the crotch looks like a bad fit, so I’ve taken out little more than an inch there and done the rest with a couple of darts across the back, making the deep rise look intentional. The tucks on the back leg help control this somewhat and there’s a trick or two I have yet to try on the inside to make the seat drape nicely.

All needs yet more tailoring but I’m quite satisfied with the result so far. I think these are going to be workhorses in the winter season.

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This is Progress


For the first time in my life I seem to have gotten my head around dressing to a consistent formula. I’m not sure how this has happened but some of the YLF wisdom must have sunken in. Getting dressed is very easy at the moment and it’s all coming from a relatively small selection but I’m wondering how long it’ll be before I get bored.

Spring Essentials 2016:

  • Pants: loose fitting, tapered, dropped crotch.
  • Tops: long sleeved Breton stripe tees, boxy sweatshirts, solid colour turtlenecks;
  • Statement shoes: creepers, flatforms, platform booties.
  • Jackets: oversized blazers, bomber/utility style jackets, quilted mid-layers
  • Accessories: peaked hat, specs, silver rings, oversized gent’s watch.


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The Cape Controversy

I couldn't help but notice that Angie's Power Suit ensemble included a cape. While many supers agree that a cape is indispensable for ceremonial purposes, (such as the AGM, as Angie suggested) there has been some controversy as to whether they should be withdrawn because of safety issues. 

As creator of the most innovative super suits of the era and a global authority on skin-tight safety wear, renowned designer Edna Mode puts forward a convincing argument as to why the cape should be removed from the Standardised Superhero Uniform (as agreed at the 2125 Marvel Universe convention).

Remember, all you moonlighting superheroes and crime-fighting vigilantes, luck favours the prepared!

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Praise and blame for the oversized (for Gaylene)

This is very long, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for a while. I stepped out of the forum for a few weeks, partly because I’ve been wearing a lot of baggy clothing lately. To put it mildly, this is not the most popular choice around here and I completely understand why. I’m not judging anyone else for their choices and I hope you'll do me the same courtesy. Life’s too short to have the whole of YLF look at me sideways.

If you have the patience, please read on.

I have a definite preference for the oversized. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me. It hangs well on my big boned, zaftig frame. It gives me the freedom to eschew figure flattery and focus on colour, texture and proportion. It sidesteps all the problems I have with fit on my broad shoulders, short waist and large bosom. It makes me feel good and it’s comfortable.

I’m quite sure I look more impressive in mannish tailoring and more conventionally attractive in a fitted dress. But right now, a looser fit feels very authentic in relation to my lifestyle. Why should I dress up and perform when all I’m doing is working alone, running errands and meeting friends? Why not enjoy the freedom and mobility of an unconstricted silhouette? These shapes are having a moment and I’m taking advantage of that.

There’s been a lot of talk lately on the forum, confusion even, about how we should respond to this, in particular a very thought-provoking thread started by Gaylene a little while back. I really enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts on this, but to my eternal shame I only made the most pitiful contribution myself. To be honest, I’ve been disinclined until now to wade in when it’s clear that a lot of people here seem to have the poison eye for a style that’s so close to my heart and anyway, I’m the first to admit there’s a problem. It may feel to me like a gift from the gods to see this filter down at last, but in reality the building blocks are very hard to assemble. In my opinion, high volume stands or falls on design, materials and fabrication, but I’ll come to that.

Anyway.

"Conceptual Fashion uses the body as a site for communication. Postmodern philosophers like Foucault maintain that the body is inscribed with cultural and gender meanings and becomes a text that tells the story of the social context that the body is constructed in. This process not only shapes the body but in many cases disciplines it as well, for example, what bodies are considered to be objects of beauty. Some conceptual designers have understood this and use fashion and clothes to disrupt dominant discourses and narratives about the female body."

Gaylene posted this quote from the Accidental Icon and all I said was Yes. Gaylene, my humble apologies. I wished afterwards I’d given you a more nuanced answer, so here’s one now.

I’m a professional creative living in the centre of an international city. (sounds glamorous, but in fact it’s a life as full of misery, challenges, ennui and joy as any other.) No doubt if things had turned out another way I’d be dressing differently, but this is who I am now and I like looking the part. Fashion is important to me and I strive to engage with it on the level of ideas and contexts as well as using it to look appealing, or correct, or whatever. On some levels (not all) it’s definitely an art form, and like any art it doesn’t always have to be beautiful, it can be used conceptually as well. And quite frankly, there are times when I can do without the demands of performative femininity and I’m more than happy to stand in opposition to it rather than simply ignore it.

So yes, I see this partly as a subversive statement about womanhood, ageing and social expectations. But ultimately, I agreed with a lot of what was said in that thread. Aesthetically this is very challenging, at odds with just about everything we’ve come to expect from womenswear. It’s been a huge disappointment to see this executed so poorly by retailers. Something’s been lost in the translation from high fashion to high street.

We all seem to agree, however, that they do layers very well in Japan and I think that’s a clue as to why this isn’t working. Japanese fashion to my eye is more concerned with forms and fabrics and far less about the body underneath. The lagenlook has relevance here in Europe for more or less the same reasons. But in both locations the designers and brands who have been working with it for a long time prioritise quality in material and fabrication.

COS don’t seem to be able to pull this off. I look in there from time to time, I can see what they’re aiming for and I want them to succeed at it but there’s something about their cuts and materials which just doesn’t work out. Uniqlo have done better at it (just look at this lady) perhaps because they’re Japanese and it’s part of their DNA. They just sold me a very nice boxy sweatshirt and I’m liking their wide legged gaucho pants at the moment. But even so, a quick straw poll of my wardrobe indicates that for me, it’s either high end pieces with exemplary cuts or my own creations where I’ve used top notch fabrics. It doesn’t work well in inexpensive materials.

I find since my trip to Japan last year I’m moving more and more in this direction. I’ve been looking back at pictures from the last couple of years and I can see that even though many of them hit the conventional flattery spot, they look to me as if I’m trying too hard. By contrast, the looks I’ve been wearing lately, the loose fitting tops, the baggy pants, the chunky shoes, all seem to express something that’s fundamentally me. It puts me in mind of Gaylene’s observation on seeing the model’s faces more clearly in these clothes. Maybe I don’t look as conventionally beautiful in these outfits, but I can see very clearly who I am.

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