Disparaging fashion doesn’t make clothing any less relevant to our lives. Clothing impacts our sensations of strength and confidence.
I, too, hate fashion, but I love style. Style is personal. It is a representation of personality and a practice space for integrity and creativity. And personal style is always a struggle to defend your self-definition against the distractions of conformity (fashion and culture).
Some years ago a young friend replaced the rather unpleasant word “self-esteem” with “strength”. He said “Sometimes I feel strong.” I think this is brilliant. No need to muck around in psychological pathologies, let’s just pay attention to when and where and how we can feel “strong”.
Most people I know claim to “hate fashion” but they want to “feel comfortable” in their clothes. What does this mean? There are several components:
- Fit: Tight is uncomfortable but it’s worth noting that too loose is also uncomfortable. Lots of men feel “uncomfortable” without their belt to hold their pants properly.
- Dignity: Most of us don’t want to look silly, and we are worried that certain colors or styles do not impart composure.
- Contemporaneity: Although few people admit to following fashion, most people are aware of the difference between the 1800s, the 1960s, 1980s, and now, and want to present themselves within the range of contemporary aesthetics.
- Exposure: Cultural and highly individual factors contribute to our comfort with various kinds of body exposure. In some countries women show cleavage, in others they don’t. Some men would never expose their legs, others would never wear something tight enough to show their chest muscles. Some women like to show the shape of their ass, others are comfortable baring their abdomens.
Getting dressed is an opportunity to listen to and validate yourself. Your feelings and needs cannot always articulate themselves in words and thoughts. They may surface as a desire for a color, a shape, more femininity or masculinity, festivity or minimalism. Trusting these subtle urges and searching your closet to manifest today’s sensibility is a practice of self-awareness and self-respect.
Since all of my clothes were purchased secondhand, many do not fit perfectly. I may go through four or five outfits when dressing, and this is made more difficult when I must meet the technical specs of tango dancing and the svelte sexiness specs of milongas. The process of design around a commitment to today’s mysterious urge is practice with creativity. The urge, and clothing in general, could be considered to be trivial. I think there are two big benefits to bothering with this:
- The urge may be trivial, but the decision to take your feelings seriously is not. And while –or especially if– we find it difficult to prioritize our feelings over circumstances, such practice with purported trivialities builds skill and familiarity with self-awareness, self-care, and action.
- Everyone I know wants to bring more creativity to their work and life. But how to get started? First, understand what the creative process looks like: A challenge … a hunch … exploration … abandonment … another direction … testing … play … refinement … Getting dressed is a perfect laboratory to practice and gain confidence with your creativity, find the parts of the process where you are bold and those where you waver, and develop your own techniques.
When, in the process of getting dressed (or shopping) you try something on that makes you feel weak or bad in any way, discard it immediately. No matter how impressive the label, wonderful the color, or expensive the fabric, don’t waste you time or risk some future day with something that fails to empower you.
Only buy things that that make you smile when you put them on. Especially with shoes, notice the spirit the shoes bring to your walking. If you are scowling and twisting and trying to “make it work”, do not spend time and money on it. Unless you are an accomplished seamstress, do not buy things that don’t fit. Alterations are expensive and the outcomes unpredictable.
Dressing a Man
Many years ago, my boyfriend, who dressed himself from what he described as the “drabwear” section of a sporting catalogue was invited to a formal wedding and asked me to help. He complained bitterly throughout the entire process until the very end, when he found himself comfortable, handsome, and confident in the outfits we assembled. Although subsequent men were less noisy, they generally suffered from the same misconceptions from which I developed a technique.
Men generally have strong reactions to things on the hangar. No matter how loud their “No!” I have learned to respond with: “Ok, but I need to learn, so please put it on so that I can understand why it is so terrible.” Usually they have no idea what it will actually look and feel like on, and they get a lot of surprises.
My goal is to find the correct shape and color/pattern range for their pants, shirts, and jackets. Lots of men feel great in patterned or colored clothes once they get them on. When I’ve learned each man’s parameters I can shop peacefully without them and deliver the clothing without further noise.
Men can apply this technique to themselves by spending just one day trying on all the things you avoided in the past, the widest range of styles possible, and some variation in size from tight to oversized. From this one onerous day you’ll discover what is really best for you and you’ll easily be able to focus on this in the future.
Another tip for men looking to improve their shopping experience is to take a friend (“personal assistant”) with you to the dressing room. S/he* stands just outside your room and does two things to ease the process. When you need a different size in a particular item, s/he can zip out to the get it for you so you don’t have to get dressed in between. And s/he can speed up the trying on process by ref0lding/re-hangaring undesired items.
*While men are generally not permitted in women’s dressing rooms, I have never been barred from assisting in a men’s dressing room.
If you are to enjoy and play with the process of getting dressed, your clothing needs to be easy and pleasurable to access. Most people suffer from overstuffed closets, which are unpleasurable to use. Marie Kondo has two powerful solutions:
- Take a day to tidy your closets. Empty all your closets and clothing drawers onto your bed. Everything. Contemplate the quantity and abundance. Then pick up each item and ask yourself “does this spark joy?”. If you aren’t sure, ask “do I want to take it with me into my future?” If you can’t answer yes to one of these questions, say a nice goodbye to it and promptly put it in a box for give away.
- Stop folding, and start rolling. Piles of folded clothing look smart until you try to take a few items in and out. If you roll each item and then stand on end in a drawer or a box on a shelf, you can see everything, and you can take things in and out quickly without making a mess. Rolling you can do in your hands without a flat surface, so it’s easy and fast to put things away. (Also reserve hanging space only for things that wrinkle and roll the rest.)
This revolutionized my closet. My folding system had always turned into the jumble system in a matter of days. With the jumble system I repeatedly wore what was on top (in sight) and forgot the rest. The rolling system keeps everything in sight to facilitate exploration and play when I get dressed.
I buy all my clothes at second hand shops and flea markets. This is more fun and produces far less guilt when I make dysfunctional purchases. I rarely spend more than €10 per item; never more than €20.
I have four tricks to share:
- Jewelry makes imperfect outfits work and gives 300 lives to one great black dress. Especially layers of necklaces, which are fun to assemble. I buy lots and lots of cheap jewelry, usually used, always under €20, often under €5. For tango, long earrings, short necklaces, and dramatic rings for the left hand.
- When I like what I’m wearing, but something is not quite right, that something is often the bra. Although I prefer a flat look, some outfits need a bit of roundness or cleavage. The two bras always in my suitcase are both convertibles (the straps can be removed, crossed, or haltered). One is a bandeau and the other is a pushup. A new addition to my emergency kit is a lacy “bralette”. These don’t do anything helpful to the profile, but the wide lace shoulders add a bit of glamour to spaghetti straps or hard necklines.
- Always carry beautiful ribbons about 30cm long in your purse or shoe bag. These can be used to rescue shoes with broken straps or to turn a two-strap dress into a racerback to stop you and your partner having to constantly return your dress to its place. (You may also rescue a fellow milonguera’s evening; she will never forget you.)
- When in doubt, wear Spanx boyshorts. Some tango ladies loudly proclaim that girls intentionally wear lacy g-strings with see-through skirts, but I suspect they don’t realize their skirts are see-through (and it does seem that an awful lot of red skirts become see-through in red lights). When your skirt is short or unlined, do you really want people to glue their eyes to your panties? If not, wear Spanx. Yes, they are expensive. But mine have lasted 10 years and show no signs of age. I bought the short boy-short and the mid-thigh length in black and skin color and they have saved many, many outfits.
Due to the vagaries and obstinacies of fashion, which to the great frustration of many has for the last few years decreed that all men should showcase their knees and ankles, we may find at certain points in time that what we want is not available in stores.
We have our favorites, and if you are really really sure that something is a favorite and you need more of it here is what to do.
1. Hire an expert patternmaker to make a pattern of your garment. Ask them to explain to you how the pattern works and any special notes which you must convey to future sewers, such as: “cut the fabric on the bias” “Interface or do not interface.” If you do not understand the specs of the garment, the sewers will guess or do it their favorite way and you will not get what you expect.
2. Learn about the qualities of the fabric from which your original garment was made. If you buy a significantly different fabric, the result will not “hang” in the same way. You may not be able to find an identical fabric, so you may have to find quite different fabrics that have the correct feel, body, and hang. The original of my #1 skirt was a light but stiff polyester that I have never again found. Some salespeople recommended a light wool, but I discovered that upholstery fabric had better stiffness and the kind of large-scale monochrome patterns I prefer. Now I look for fabrics for that skirt in upholstery shops.
Buy the fabric yourself and be picky and patient with the learning process. When working with salespeople in the fabric store, remember that you may know nothing about fabric but you know your favorite garment more intimately than anyone, so while they can get you to the right shelves in the store, your instincts about whether a specific fabric is right or not will be more accurate than theirs.
3. Hire a very competent sewer and have them do just one copy at first to check the quality, accuracy, and fit of their work. If you are not happy, try another sewer. They are not all great, so be patient. If you are working with a special fabric, consider having the sewer first do the garment on a cheaper similar fabric.
If you have difficult feet there is good news for you! Until recently a custom shoe pattern (“last”) had to be carved from wood by one of the few remaining craftsmen. Now it’s possible to get a 3d print which you can take to custom shoemakers. If you are designing a shoe by sketching with the shoemaker be sure you understand important details like the shape of the toe and heel so there are no surprises later.