I think I look all right, but people seem to think I’m on an eternal episode of What Not to Wear. I attract fashion advice, and I don’t really know why. Do I look that strange?
Sometimes, it’s entertaining. One friend who has given me a lot of fashion pointers over the years is a five-foot-tall New Yorker. The first piece of fashion advice she ever gave me was to wear boot cut jeans. This was in the nineties, and as a woman of 5’11”, I was at the mercy of tall jean manufacturers when it came to the arrival of the boot cuts. I promised her I’d give them a try just as soon as I could. Tall boot cuts arrived on the market, I put them on, my friend was right, and she earned lifetime rights to telling me how to dress. She’s a coach, so she tells a lot of people how they should be doing things. It’s almost cost her friends before (I am thinking of the Great Male Eyebrow Waxing Debacle), but it will never cost her my friendship because I understand that this is just how she is.
Over the years, she’s sent me links to some strange clothing choices for a woman who lives in the home city of Columbia Sportswear and Keens. “These would look great on you,” she said of sequin-and-embroidery embellished jeans with velvet tuxedo stripes down the legs. “I wear these, they are so fun,” she said of crotcheted beaded hip scarves. The height thing has never made sense to her. She has sent me links to tie-dyed maxis that would be midis on me, and shorter dresses that would be tunics. She can’t quite figure out the difference between the wardrobe of a Lilliputian New Yorker and Brobdinagian Portlander.
Things finally came to a head when we met in Vegas years ago. I will never fit in, in Vegas. I’ll always be that lady with the brown glasses and the clogs in Vegas, that lady from who looks like she’s from Oregon. I’m never going to have Vegas clothes. On that trip, she didn’t bug me about my heathered green v-neck tee or my Danskos, but she did keep pestering me to try on a Spanx bra that she loved. “You can sleep in it!” she told me. I don’t sleep in a bra. “But you could!” But I won’t.
She kept on, I kept demurring. The straps don’t adjust, I kept telling her. But she is 4’11” and I am 5’11” and she’d never had to consider the role of adjustable bra straps in the life of a woman my height. Finally, to make her stop, I did the wrong thing. I agreed to try it on. I went into the bathroom. “You have to put it on from the bottom up!” she called through the door, “Over your hips!” Nothing that fits around the top of me is going to slide up over the bottom of me, that’s just not how I’m built. So I put it on over my head and pulled it down. It fit nicely around my chest–right at armpit level.
The trying on of this bra marked a turning point in my life. I stood there with that bra in my armpits and realized that a big part of the problem was my own. I was a partner in this because I was always trying to find a polite way to turn away fashion suggestions, like pleading cost or lifestyle or length issues. I was tired of making my point that way. I should have just said that I like a bra with hooks and underwires and cups and stretchy adjustable straps, and so she should just leave me alone about any bra I could (shudder) sleep in.
I decided to stop ignoring and skirting fashion advice. I decided to start openly rejecting it.
This attitude helped me with another friend who really, really hated my hair. It’s long and I don’t color it. This friend, who works with me, found my hair horrifying. She started pestering me about it in my forties. She was devoted to getting me a smart, short, stylish haircut that I could keep properly dyed and, well, under control. She would say, quite firmly, “Don’t you want a cute short haircut? You’d look so much better with short hair, Karen.”
I am a tall, sturdy woman with strong facial features. I would look like kd lang if I had short hair. And though I admire kd and enjoy her music, I do not think her style conveys what I want to say about myself. I would express this. My friend wouldn’t let it die. She thought she was doing me a favor. I guess she thought that I didn’t know my hair was long, and I didn’t know it was going grey, so she had to keep telling me. Otherwise, you see, I wouldn’t be aware of what’s on my head. You know, like the people who tell you that you’re fat because the combined input of the scale, the mirror and the waistband of your jeans isn’t enough, you need helpful friends to let you know you’re getting to be quite a porker.
Discussions with this friend culminated in a heated coffee break discussion in which she said, “So, you have long grey hair that makes you look like a witch. Do you want to look like a witch?” I remember saying, quite emphatically, “Yes, yes I do. I want to look like a witch. That’s exactly what I’m going for, so please leave me alone about my hair.”
For the record, my New York friend wanted me to leave my hair long, but dye it dark brown while leaving two silver stripes at the front “like that chick on What Not to Wear.” This would have been a little too Elvira for me, and I told her that. Several times.
Everybody has opinions. No one seems to have considered that I look the way I look because I like it. I’m my own personal expert at handling the particular challenges of my chthonic proportions. I’m dressing pretty well within the bounds of good taste and poverty. I make missteps once in a while, but every single thing about my appearance is thought out and done on purpose. No one needs to tell me what to wear, or what not to wear.
I blame a lot of this on the show What Not to Wear. While it was on, everyone in America now considered him or herself an expert on what other people should wear because of that show, which I used to watch. It was initially hilarious to see the women on that show with their fashion missteps. We cringed at the breast-baring Ren Faire dresses, the quilted jackets made of hemp and misguided artistic intentions, the tiny club dresses that revealed personal grooming habits.
Yes, there were the overwhelmed moms who hated their post-pregnancy bodies so much that they were simply swathing themselves with whatever fabric was at hand, but they were not the majority on that show. Most of the women who were secretly filmed, humiliated at screenings, and bullied by their friends and families into going on the show, actually adored their clothes. They were wearing just what they wanted to, in just the way they wanted to wear it.
If you’re an astrophysicist and what you want to wear is a wolf t-shirt, a denim miniskirt and some bowling shoes, well, have at it, I say. Wear that, rather than the Clinton and Stacy Outfit They All Got. Which was this: a tailored jacket over a flowy blouse over wide leg trouser jeans, and heels. There were slight variations, but this was the look that Clinton and Stacy really believed in it, for every woman, all women, all shapes and sizes, this was IT.
Now, if you love this outfit, then have at it. Wear it every day. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to wear that outfit! You can wear what you want. Let your freak flag fly.
The funny thing is, Stacy herself has repudiated this whole wardrobe homogeny. Here’s an article called “How I Moved on From My What Not To Wear Style.” In it, she says:
When I look back, I realize the style I had while I was on What Not to Wear — the pencil skirts and sheath dresses, the floral and ruffled tops — does not reflect who I am now. It reflects the television persona I gave up a long time ago. It no longer “fits.” (Pun intended.) I dress much more androgynously than I did when I was younger. Frilly, girly clothes don’t have enough gravitas for me. I like suits and leather and jumpsuits, and I almost exclusively wear pants. I am pretty sure this change in my style happened quite naturally. But there have been times when I’ve worried this change won’t sit well with fans of my old look, that I’ve ostracized them, that I am no longer playing by the rules I prescribed to countless women over the course of the show. More than anything, I don’t want people who have believed in my advice over the years to feel I’ve betrayed them by no longer “looking the part.” The fact is, my public persona was only ever “part” of who I was to begin with. The Stacy I was in 2002 cannot possibly be the Stacy of 2016. Age is part of time, and does in fact change things.
So Stacy herself has turned over a fashion leaf, and now she looks like this.
Do you love it? I love it. It has nothing to do with me or my style, but I love it on her. If you don’t, well, go put on those wide leg jeans. Me, I’ll just be over here, brushing out my witch hair.