A survey of sartorial attitudes

Questions lifted from the very excellent book Women in Clothes, compiled by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, which I bought for myself as a new year’s present and have been happily devouring ever since.

What do you admire about how other women present themselves?

I love seeing a woman who seems to really know her sense of style, and thus, herself. I love seeing a woman who is committed to a particular look, too, even if it’s not the style I’m personally aspiring to achieve. I like to see a woman walk down the street with her head held high.

When do you feel at your most attractive?

In a perfectly fitted dress, and in heels, although I hate to admit it. I only wear heels at dressy functions and for a very short amount of time, but I love feeling absurdly tall, taller than or as tall as most men in a room.

Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple?

I have five blazers and I still want more.

How long does it take you to get dressed?

About 30 seconds, because I lay out my clothes for the work day every evening. But it takes me about 45 minutes to get dressed, do my face, eat breakfast, read, and take care of the dogs on weekdays.

Christmas in the Pines
One of my favorite cardigans, a gift from my sister Kelsey many years ago.

What are some dressing rules you wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others but you follow?

Cut out colors and most patterns from the wardrobe. I am following this rule with more dedication this year, but I would never call it a universal rule. Many (most?) women look great in a wide range of colors and prints, but I’ve decided to stick to neutrals. These days, a spectrum of blue is about as much as I want to venture into color.

What are some dressing or shopping rules you think every woman should follow?

Only buy what sparks joy. Only wear clothes that flatter your body (which is a rule I’d like to observe more devoutly). Reject all garments with glitter.

Do you consider yourself photogenic?

Heavens, no.

What is your favorite piece of clothing or jewelry you own?

Clothing: Gray silk blouse from Everlane. Jewelry: My wedding/engagement rings, which belonged to Guion’s grandmother.

What’s the first “investment” item you bought?

The Oxford shoes from Madewell, which were about $175. I know some people wouldn’t consider than an investment item, but it was to me.

Was there a point when your style changed dramatically?

I’d say now, actually. I’m becoming more thoughtful and intentional about the choices I make when it comes to what I wear. My style was unremarkable/nonexistent in college; I bought cheap things on a whim, usually just because they were on sale. My college roommates used to tease me that everything I owned was in a jewel tone. I had this hot pink cable-knit, crewneck sweater that I wore forever, despite the fact that it was hideous on me. I shudder to remember these things that I held onto for so long.

Do you care about lingerie?

Deeply. I am always ready and willing to shell out a big wad of cash for a great bra. Bras are so important! My mother has always told me this. You wear a bra every day (or, most of us do), so it ought to be an excellent garment. I have a handful of sturdy, utilitarian bras, but I have a particular weakness for lacy, unsupportive lingerie. I am just about small-chested enough to get away with wearing flimsy, lacy little things on a regular basis, and so I do. I’m very basic when it comes to grunders, however; I only wear black, gray, and neutral cotton bikinis. Thongs are abhorrent to me, and I also maintain that they are unnatural and unhealthy.

What are you trying to achieve when you dress for the world?

I hope to project a confident, competent woman. I want to be taken seriously as an adult human being, and I think my new wardrobe goals are striving to communicate this.

Family weekend
With my sisters, Grace (far left) and Kelsey.

How has your background influenced the way you dress?

Growing up homeschooled meant that you grew up in a fashion vacuum. We had no idea, really, how modern kids were supposed to be dressing. Our peers wore a wide range of clothes; some looked like “normal” kids on the Disney Channel, as far as we could tell, since we weren’t allowed to watch it; others, especially girls, looked like they were straight out of Little House on the Prairie. My sisters and I were always instructed to dress “modestly,” but my parents were not big on rules, thankfully.

I vividly remember the one time I was told I couldn’t wear something. I was 13 or 14, and I’d purchased a gray mock-neck sweater dress to wear at Christmas. I wore it to my grandparents’ church, with black tights and new black shoes, and I felt pretty. But when we got home, my mother pulled me aside and said that she and Dad had agreed that I wasn’t allowed to wear that dress anymore. I was shocked. I couldn’t think of what could possibly be wrong with it; my arms were covered up, even most of my neck was shielded. I protested. “Well,” Mom said, “you have… um… a young woman’s body now, and your father and I feel that the dress isn’t appropriate and could cause young men to… stumble.” (“Stumble” was always the operative evangelical word for boys getting horny from looking at the female form.) I was mortified and totally grossed out. I never wore the dress again and felt sad and confused whenever I remembered it.

I tell the story to explain the context of “modesty” in dress that I hail from, but my parents were, in comparison to the vast majority of homeschooling parents in our community, quite generous in what they allowed us to wear. There was the sweater dress incident, and once, Mom and I had a fight over a tank top I’d bought with lace trim, but that was it. We didn’t fight about clothes; we were extremely obedient kids. My sisters and I didn’t give them any trouble when we were at home, regarding what we chose to wore. We didn’t watch TV and we didn’t have a ton of peers, so we had no desire to wear a corset and fishnet tights to church to be “cool.” “Cool” to us was having a big evidence binder on medical malpractice policy and a really rad journal to write your devotions in.

All of this is to say that I feel much more freedom about clothes now than I did growing up. I dress to please myself, as a free agent, and I no longer worry about the censure of my community.

Have you ever dressed a certain way to gain a sense of control?

Absolutely. One example comes to mind: I competed in team policy debate during high school, in which swarms of ultra-nerdy homeschoolers pretended to be little lawyers. Dress codes, for girls, were strict. Most girls wore floor-length or calf-length wool skirts, but I always wore a pant suit and heels. I had a short (male) debate partner, and I deliberately chose heels every time, to feel more powerful and to revel in the fact that I was so much taller than him. I towered over our opponents, too. And I daresay I got consistently great speaker points. I think it was mostly for the power suit and pumps.

What are some things you do to feel presentable?

A swipe of lipstick always makes me feel more presentable.

Is there a part of your body that feels most distinctly you?

My legs. I don’t have particularly pretty legs (they are extremely thin, mapped by a network of prominent blue veins, and I have a number of dings and scars), but they are very long. Since I acquired them as a teenager, I have always been proud of how disproportionately long my legs are.

With whom do you talk about clothes?

Grace and Jonathan. They are my style guides and muses.

Can you say a bit about how your mother’s body and style have been passed down to you, if at all?

My mother is a very beautiful and classy woman, and in her post-homeschooling days, she’s also become very stylish. When Grace was still at home, she did a serious closet overhaul with my mom and made her throw away all of her homeschool regalia (denim jumpers, baggy skirts, old sweaters) and start dressing in modern clothes. Ever since then, Mom has looked like a million bucks.

I am not as pretty as my mother, not by a long shot, but I did inherit her body, which I am grateful for (even with all its bizarre, specific quirks). I’ve found this to be helpful, because we know that what looks good on one of us will probably also flatter the other.

I like to match my wardrobe to my dog's. #pyrrhagram

What is an archetypal outfit for you — something you would have been happy wearing at any point in your life?

Dark jeans and a white or blue button-down shirt. I don’t know why, but even as a young teen, I have loved a button-down shirt. That’s all I wanted to wear when I was 14, but I was often dissuaded by the price tags on the most beautiful shirts, so I defaulted to Target clothes for most of my young life. I like recalling this about myself, because this is the basic style I want to return to, and knowing that I have always loved it makes it feel particularly right.

What item of clothing are you on the hunt for?

A cashmere crew-neck sweater (mostly just eyeing the one from Everlane).

What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment?

I’m wearing a chunky-knit, oversized cardigan from Zara; jeans from Gap; a dark gray v-neck sweater; and black equestrian-style boots. My face is bare, save for a swipe of blush, a touch of eyeliner, and Burt’s Bees lip color (shade: fig); errands day, so my face is more minimal than it is on a typical work day. And my hair, freshly washed, is at its most curly, so it’s pinned up at the sides.

So! I’d love to hear your answers.

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9 thoughts on “A survey of sartorial attitudes

  1. Avoid all things glitter: I couldn’t agree more. I hate, hate glitter and sequins and anything remotely related.
    I’m with you on getting rid of color. I’ve been avoiding color for several years now, but then I see people who look so good dressed in brilliant shades and wonder if I should branch out. Black is definitely my best color, and I gravitate toward it.
    I would like to own a bright red wool coat and let that be the extent of color in my wardrobe.
    Also: a comment on the home school wardrobe, since I participated fully and also lived in a total fashion vacuum until high school. Oddly, never caring about or thinking about (or knowing about) style made me into a young adult who wasn’t a slave to the latest trends, even after I exited the fashion vacuum. I really appreciate that now.

    I think a lot about clothes, actually, now that I have a daughter. When she was born I wanted to dress her in anything except pink, but that isn’t really practical when I depend on my friends’ hand-me-downs. But I draw the line at anything that is princessy or has tulle or says something like “diva” or “attitude.”

    Modesty is important, but I don’t think it’s important for the reasons I was taught. Or at least, those aren’t the most important reasons. As my daughter grows, I want her to understand her own worth and her own dignity and dress accordingly and not be scared or grossed out at the thought that some boy is going to lust if she wears a particular item. It’s about responsibility, and girls are never responsible for men’s thoughts. I could write a really long piece on this, but I’ll leave it at that.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, and for sharing, Rebekah! I, for one, would LOVE to read a post from you on revisiting modesty/raising a daughter. I also think so much about clothes and how women are forced to think about them so much; how our choices when we are young can influence us for a long time afterward. Anyway, think about writing that post, because I’d love to read it! Hope you and your family are well.

  2. This is fascinating — Women in Clothes is on my “to read” list and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but I think the story of dressing myself has always been defined by a struggle to figure just how feminine I wanted to present myself. I think I’m still trying to figure that out, although I’ve developed a newfound confidence (and a bigger budget!) when it comes to my wardrobe in my twenties. And amen to comfortable, breathable underwear. I think a set of brand new Jockeys are heavenly, personally.

    1. Ivy, you will LOVE Women in Clothes! Love, love, love it. I’m still working through it with great pleasure now, and it has been vastly interesting to me (as my blog indicates over the past few weeks). Would love to hear your thoughts on it once you do read it.

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