Posts Tagged ‘the common man’

Power Dressing (part one, of hopefully two)

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Sorry for the break in posting, folks.  I am trying to organise the irons I have in the fire—but hey!  Here’s another 1,300+ word post on what I consider relevant fashion issues.  Don’t worry, some of the irons in the fire are ‘lighter’ reading options for ILS.

I briefly mentioned power dressing last week, in context of scarves as accessories.  Now, power dressing—a very formalised approach to business attire that reached a peak in the mid to late 1980s—had textbooks of sorts, one both men and one for women, written in 1975 and 1977, respectively—Dress For Success and The Woman’s Dress For Success Book, both written by John T. Molloy.  He also wrote updates for each, some 15-20 years later.  Molloy’s approach was stridently research-based, as a consultant for unnamed big name corporations he’d built up seventeen years’ worth of data on clothing (nine in women’s clothing) by the time he was writing The Woman’s Dress For Success Book.  What is amazing is that this one man and his research team were part of the small group whose work snowballed into creating the look of the yuppie and, in doing so, further embedding subconscious and conscious class divisions that affect us to this day.  Here’s the opening of Molloy’s book for ladies:

This is the most important book ever written about women’s clothes because it is based on scientific research, not on opinion.

The advice in this book will help women make substantial gains in business and in their social lives.  It should also revolutionize their clothes-buying habits.

Most American women dress for failure.  I have said that before about men, and research shows that it applies equally to women.  Women dress for failure because they make three mistakes.

  1. They let the fashion industry influence their choice of business clothes.
  2. They often still view themselves mainly as sex objects.
  3. They let their socioeconomic background influence their choice of clothing.

The only reasonable alternative is for women to let science help them choose their clothes.[i]

I’m not even going to get into the paternalistic aspects of this, because using his data and word as law is something that is present in his book for guys as well (and because they’re endless and depressing).  As Molloy says himself later on in the same chapter—

It is a stark reality that men dominate the power structure—in business, in government, in education.  I am not suggesting that women dress to impress men simply because they are men.  My advice to women is based on the same principle as my advice to men: Your clothes should move you up socially and in business, not hold you back.[ii]

So, we’re going to ignore gems like “In summer women have always worn light and brightly coloured dresses to the office.  Do this only if you wish to be or remain a secretary.”[iii] and focus instead on the sea change in professional fashion Molloy encouraged with these two sentences:

There is one firm and dramatic step women can take toward professional equality with men. They can adopt a business uniform.[iv]

Illustrations from Molloy’s The Woman’s Dress For Success Book’, 1977.

Expectations of “The Man”

Based on his own numbers, Molloy began gathering his data on influential business dress in 1960.  A generally turbulent cultural time, to say the least, there was a growing relaxed attitude among youth in regards to clothing.  “The values expressed by the business suit no longer matched those of the typical college student”[v].  Though those already firmly entrenched in the business world valued the suit and the status inherent in a good suit, the new blood was rocking bright jackets and fanciful ties in their leisure and formal wear[vi] and were most probably not making the best impressions with corporate.  In his research, showing pictures and photographs of folks in different ensembles to CEOs, Molloy was most probably finding that the older men, the decision makers, wanted suits and “authoritative” looks.

Running through guides like Molloy’s was the sharp awareness of clothing’s ability to portray the wearer as someone of and with power.  Here’s one more of his gems:

At one large corporation someone asked what I thought a woman should do if the boss sent her for coffee.  My response was, “If you have to tell your boss not to send you for coffee, you must have already told him nonverbally that you were ready to go.”

I went on to say that the problem was being approached from the wrong perspective.

Women who want to be taken seriously and who want to succeed must dress in a way that says, “I am important.  I am a business professional and don’t you dare send me for coffee!”

There were two extremely successful women in the room at the time.  Both agreed with me.  And they said the reason most young women wouldn’t succeed was because they didn’t look like they wanted to succeed.[vii]

Reinforcement through style guides

Molloy wasn’t the only one aware of this.  Armloads of guides on dressing were popping up in the mid to late 1970s as part of the reaction against the “anything goes” stylings of the 1960s and in response to the influx of professional women workers who were searching for some way to get a foot up the corporate ladder.  They ranged from articles in Newsweek and women’s mags[viii] to tomes like Elegance: A Guide to Quality Menswear by Bruce Boyer, referenced oh so nicely in the time capsule American Psycho.

You’re a clod.  It’s an excellent book.  His theory remains we shouldn’t feel restricted from wearing a sweater vest with a suit,” I say.  “Did you hear me call you a clod?”

“Yeah.”

“But doesn’t he point out that a vest shouldn’t overpower the suit?”  Van Patten offers tentatively.

“Yes . . .” I’m mildly irritated that Van Patten has done his homework but asks for advice nonetheless.  I calmly continue.  “With discrete pinstripes you should wear a subdued blue or charcoal gray vest.  A plaid suit would call for a bolder vest.”

“And remember,” McDermott adds, “with a regular vest the last button should be left undone.”

I glance sharply at McDermott.  He smiles, sips his drink and then smacks his lips, satisfied.[ix]

What began as aspirational dressing and a search for a uniform was honed through the guides into as complex a set of rules as had been followed at the turn of the century.  Limitations on colours, cut, pattern, material were the heavy skeleton a person’s business wardrobe was built on.  The rules were the rules, even if they didn’t apply to you.  Research and the guides said that glasses created a stronger sense of authority[x], so one wore “non-prescription Oliver Peoples redwood-framed glasses,”[xi] or some equivalent.

Overwhelming assimilation of style

Conveniently, changes in suit fabric manufacture were making the designer suit more accessible to the common man.  In the 1970s Italian textile industries began switching from high virgin wool content to using waste wool, creating a cheaper suit fabric that “accommodated the fashion industry whereby new collections, new ideas, new colours and new patterns are presented each season.”[xii] Between 1975 and 1985 the profits of men’s ready-to-wear increased 12%, and in the 1980’s all major designer’s houses were carrying a men’s line.[xiii]

The awareness of fashion labels that began in the 1970s (with denim, funnily enough[xiv]), the availability—or seeming availability— of the clothing, “a swing back to the political right”[xv] and a money boom that had combined with credit to make everything seem possible all mixed together in a power shake that coloured the 1980s in suits and immobile hair and brand names.  You either Were or you Weren’t.  The soft steps towards blurring the class lines were halted.  Sure, one could “cross-shop”, but the objective was still to buy clothes that “come across as upper middle class.”[xvi]

Of course, when a mass of society and fashion push one way, there will be a faction pushing against, and oh dang the things that were created to be anti-suit!  Creativity and risk-taking styles are better as retaliation, and if you look, the highs of fashion and the arts are commonly seen when one side is reacting against another.  Each group spurs the other into higher and higher caricature as they refine themselves to a pure thesis.

So, I acknowledge that other things besides power dressing were going on in the 1980’s.  And it was exactly that, combined with some more worldly affairs, that left the power suit stranded on the pedestal of caricature.


[i] The Woman’s Dress For Success Book, John T. Molloy, 1977. p. 15-16

[ii] Molloy p. 32

[iii] Molloy p. 66

[iv] Molloy p. 34

[v] Fashion and Its Social Agendas, Diana Crane, 2000. p.175

[vi] http://www.blacktieguide.com/History/07.htm

[vii] Molloy p. 26-27

[viii] “One magazine ran a piece on “power dressing.”  Another reported on how women were being advised to “dress the trip to the top.”  And a third discussed how “clothes mean business,” . . . Fashion Power, Jeanette C. Lauer, Robert H. Lauer, 1981. p. 163 & 170

[ix] American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis, 1991. p. 154-155

[x] Molloy p. 88

[xi] Ellis p. 109

[xii] Men’s Fashion in the Twentieth Century, Maria Costantino, 1997. p. 127

[xiii] Costantino p. 121-123

[xiv] Costantino p. 111

[xv] Costantino p. 127

[xvi] Molloy p. 171

A few good pieces

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

“If I did go out and buy a $300 coat, it would have to go with all the $10 pants I own.”

In February, Jezebel shot out a quick little note about a post on the New York Public Libraries blog.  The focus of both was a 1941 survey of the college girl’s wardrobe and the problems of high and fast consumption in fashion.  The wonderful old days were wonderful, with your standard sweater sets and three basic styles of shoes—and how about the Uniform Project and the Great American Apparel Diet and all those personal internet challenges to reduce consumption and impulse purchases, to slim and simplify our wardrobes.

In our modern day of stores that can move from concept to finished item in six weeks, fashion ‘weeks’ that feel like they run seamlessly into one another as they hop across continental bounds and piping hot trends delivered to your local rag shop every week, we are as “spoiled [sic] for choice” as Stein says.  It can sure appear anecdotally that our closets are swelling like the inflamed fatty liver of a confirmed alcoholic—especially in comparison to the 11-3.5 blouses and 13-3 street length dresses of the surveyed 1941 co-eds.

One thing that really should be noted is the highly conservative nature of wardrobe building in the 1940’s.  In Grace Margaret Morton’s 1943 book The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance she writes, “Conservation is in keeping with the times.  Restricted consumer production has resulted in a silhouette which can be cut to advantage from limited yardage . . . As never before, this is a period which demands convertible, multiple-duty apparel, interchangeable three- and four- piece ensembles.”  Comparing today’s clothing habits to a time when patterns maximised yardage because of war rations can create a false dichotomy.

1943. Farm Security Administration –
Office of War Information Photograph Collection

Of course, having a wider range of clothing options available (or more accurately, acceptable), from pants and shorts to tank tops and sundresses, might have a part in explaining why the average young woman doesn’t spend “75% of her waking hours in the sweater skirt ensemble.”  Changes in how, where and what we can wear at work are a factor also.  Count the number of people you know who have a small, separate “work wardrobe” of suits and office wear supplemented by a double handful of casual pieces for home and a couple things for evening.  We are wearing more things for more reasons more often.

And the brands, stores and manufactures know that and love us for it.  Instead of a handful of cotton shirtwaist dresses and sweater and skirt sets for summer (as suggested by Morton), or the calculated business wardrobe of the 1980s and 90s, we wear more.  There certainly seem to be more eclectic and specific options now than there once were, but they float in a sea of mass market options.

A couple of weeks ago Jezebel again looked at our closets, this time focusing on the earth-wrecking waste of fast fashion, with its affordable options that essentially strangle the environment and starve workers.  Several options are presented, ranging from a $78 turtleneck to a $338 jacket, that attempt to answer the question “What are the choices for decently-made, competitively-priced, really cute stuff?”

But, don’t think that the inability of the average person to pay nearly eighty dollars for a turtleneck goes unnoticed.  “Fundamentally, it’s less and less the case that making ethical, sensible consumer choices is a freedom that hews to class lines. A $35 t-shirt that’s better quality than the $10 Wal-Mart version is still close enough in price that it’s attainable for most shoppers.”

And herein lies a problem.  I feel like a pretty high percentage of people will not, or cannot, pay ten dollars for a t-shirt, let alone $35.  It’s all well and good to save to buy an environmentally and morally responsible clothing choice whose quality may give it a longer life span.  But if someone is already in a position to consider a forty dollar skirt at Target a piece worth saving for, they’re not going to wait another $188 dollars for “a full black knitted skirt that has a sort of Alaïa feel, with its nipped ribbed waist.”

Since I have an aversion to purely anecdotal evidence, as it can easily slip into hyperbole and theory, I ran a very informal survey.  I ended up with just nine replies, folks in the mid-20s to mid-30s range, who are either unemployed, self-employed and/or solidly in the lower-middle to middle class income range; all but one currently live on the west coast.  A third are hand knitters and expressed awareness of the worth of both quality fiber content and of paying more for handmade. However, it’s a pitifully small sample, and I’d love to run this wider, because the results from just this group are telling.

Limiting the definition of “clothing” to everyday clothes and outerwear, I also allowed for clothes that were worn at least three to four times a year (which encompasses stage clothes and some formal wear). Nearly half of the group responded to the first question—“What is the most you’ve paid for a piece of everyday clothing?”—with two answers.  One number was for an uncommon purchase like a corset for stage wear (that was worn regularly off-stage as well), a perfect winter coat, or “allegedly ‘ass-tastic’” jeans; pieces that ranged from sixteen to two times the second price given.   Combining both sets of data gives a range of $30 to $150—not counting the $500 corset which, as a kind of shapewear, gets into the high and tricky ranges of support and undergarment cost more so than everyday clothing.

Asked if this price was more than they regularly pay for a piece of everyday clothing, the answer was, for seven of the nine, a resounding ‘hell yes’.  The other two did not consider their highs of $50 to be significantly more than an average purchase.  Even so, the mean price the sample group would pay was only $21, the most common amount being $10.  An exception of up to $45 when buying yarn to make something oneself was noted.

Already we can see that Sauers’ had one over on me in that folks will totally pay $10 for clothing.  My personal issues (and heavy thrift and sales rack shopping) have blurred my perspective.  Even so, a $35 t-shirt is comfortably above this sample’s average range for a piece of everyday clothing.  But what about their top limit?  Already by this point in the survey it was clear that for jeans and pieces that fit, a person’s ‘average price’ could be edged up closer to their top limit.  So, what was the most they would pay for a piece of everyday clothing?

“I swear on the life of my non-existent children, if I could find a pair of jeans that were flattering and as comfortable as all the skinny people claim jeans are, I would pay at least $100.”  And $100 is the highest price given, by two people who both cite jeans-fitting issues as the reason for so high a price.  With $54 as the average and $30 as the most common limit, we’re still well below the price of that $78 turtleneck.

Knowing that extraordinary circumstance, luck, and the desire to have at least a “few good pieces” in one’s wardrobe can expand the limits of what you’re willing to shell out, the last question I asked was what the theoretical top limit would be for a “SUPER AWESOME AMAZING PERFECT” piece of everyday clothing.  Ranging between $50 and $300 dollars, with an average of $142, every person who gave a limit over $100 stipulated they would pay that much only for something elaborate, custom or handmade.

I wish that I had thought to inquire about thrift store shopping habits directly in this survey, though I had a voluble enough sample that I was able to gather an idea that a good percentage buy used, when they can.  In her article, Sauers  mentions that “Thrift stores are green (and cheap), but hunting through their racks can be time-consuming and offer inconsistent results.”   It could be that people who prefer to pay only around $20 for a piece of clothing are willing to spend the time searching second hand.

Most people I surveyed are ‘crafty’, which can’t be a representative percentage of the population and may affect their purchasing habits.  One way that they seem to be like most of the population is that nearly all mentioned issues finding clothing that fits both their bodies and taste.  Says one,  “I could pay $6 [for] something nearly right, with decent fabric, which I can turn into something wearable… or I can pay $25 for a pair of cheaply made pants that don’t quite fit and say “BOOTY” across the ass in pink crystals and glitter paint.”  These people, with daydreams of $110 silk cardigans, don’t necessarily want the fast fashion offerings of Forever 21s.  And even when they do shop at mall and fast fashion stores, they do it out of necessity, more than convenience.  And they’re not abandoning the between-great-wars sense of wardrobe building either:

Lately I buy most of my clothing at Torrid because I am too easily annoyed digging through a department store for the one piece of plus size clothing that isn’t falling off my average-sized shoulders or down to my knees. I tend to wear my clothes until they are literally falling apart because of this and I do make repairs if I can.

Awareness of the clothing industry’s failings isn’t new.  Clinging to a false nostalgia of a simple wardrobe, filled with a few good pieces, isn’t going to help.  Disregarding the error of steering by nostalgia, the circumstances between then and now are too different, too foreign.  Choosing more ethical and quality options isn’t going to be a saving grace either, not when the divide between its cost and the average budget are still so far apart.

Seen About Town: Head to toe

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Oh, this lady was so perfect.  She really did not like being on the bus, it did not seem up to her standards.

Okay, so Tilda Swinton-style androgyny is great and hot and woo.  But I am kind of a bigger fan of the meatier/less editorial rock androgyny.  Because I can’t draw well enough, let me lay out a couple things for you: amazing legs, which is not what you normally see encased in skinny jeans (which emphasise shapeless stick-ness); that 1980’s butt-rock, mullet-evolved haircut that was worn by dudes and ladies; probably the only faux-worn denim dye job that I’ve ever liked; perfectly executed use of hot pink.

Something different: The Beauty Routine

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

There is a lot of nail stuff.

In the shower I use first a water-activated gel cleanser, then a honey-almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub.  Vidal Sassoon shampoo is especially good at getting rid of the coating of dried perspiration, salts, oils airborne pollutants and dirt that can weigh down hair and flatten it to the scalp which can make you look older. . . . If the face seems dry and flaky—which makes it look dull and older—use a clarifying lotion that removes flakes and uncovers skin (it can also make your tan look darker).  Then apply an anti-aging eye balm (Baume Des Yeux) followed by a final mosturizing “protective” lotion.

Ellis, Brett Eason.   American Psycho.  New York:  Vintage Contemporaries, 1991.

I recently tore through the archives of Beauty Schooled and loved a series of posts Virginia wrote on her beauty routine.  I mentioned lady-drag in my VS bra review, and I’ll examine it further later—relevant here, over the past couple of years I’ve taken on more aspects of the femme beauty routine while trying to maintain simplicity and a low-key process.  I have a very complicated relationship with The Beauty Routine, but I’m lucky enough to be comfortable with what is probably more on the minimum end of the spectrum, especially for someone with curly hair.  Anyway, Beauty Schooled says it best:

I’m realizing that we need to talk more about all the different kinds of beauty work we perform and all the different ways we value it. Because sometimes we’re ambivalent about sharing these details. It’s hard to admit you have lip hair, or you need to apply deodorant twice a day since these things don’t fit into the way we define pretty (hairless, sweet-smelling, etc).

So, this is pretty long and, frankly, kind of self-indulgent, so under the cut it goes.

(more…)

Seen About Town: Wearing what you damn well please

Friday, June 11th, 2010

I have a notebook from the Dollar Tree that says “Fashionista” on it and is the silliest pink. This is where my commuting sketches go now, as it is perfectly appropriate.


I see this girl pretty regularly and I think she was dressed up that day. Hella rocked it though.


She made her train, by the way.

Seen About Town: Layers

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

What I liked most about this outfit was that, if it got colder, she could un-scrunch the leggings and cover her knees.  And if it got warmer, she could take off the sweater and go with the tank underneath.  Surprisingly few people seem to dress for the severe weather changes the NW early summer brings.

This guy was just great.  I have been in the shops that awesome Mexican men go to and I still don’t know where the hell they pull out the purple jeans.

And bless windbreakers.  Those seem to have gone the way of the brontosaurus.  They were these things that we all grew up with and are now just endless printed hoodies and those jackets from Columbia Sportswear or somewhere sporty/technical.

Speaking of things styled for the wangus—

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

There is a bit of discussion over H&M offering skirts with their menswear for Spring 2010.  It is true that somebody is always trying to introduce skirts to menswear and it is going to make the blogs titter every time.  What is new is that it’s not some fancy-pants (skirt) designer who’s most outré pieces have no chance of trickling down to department ready-to-wear copies.  This is H&M, which—for cities that are not Portland—is as solid a source for clothing as Target is in the ‘burbs.

That there is no (apparent) feature of these skirts that differentiates them from styles sold regularly to women doesn’t really matter.  These are Skirts For Men, racked next to skinny jeans and blazers in the men’s section.  There will be no need to wander over to Juniors or Ladies and parse a different department’s sizing system, practising legit-sounding reasons for being there.  More folks who shop in the men’s department will try them on.

If the experiment fails, whatever, the seed has been planted. Once a style permeates the department stores it never really goes away.  Less classy/hep joints will begin picking it up. The process will rev the feedback cycle until, like cargo pants and babydoll tees, skirts in the men’s section are always represented to some degree—though every couple of years you may have trouble finding a style you like since the world’s gone obsessed with something else for the season.

Rodarte is apparently “the shit”

Friday, January 1st, 2010

I’m late on posting this, but hell, might as well finish the draft, get it out of the queue, new year and all.

Late December we went to one of the local Targets that was graced with the presence of some of Rodarte’s little capsule collection.

The situation and lighting was one where flash or no flash were equally annoying options, as far as getting clarity and detail.  These are quickie snapshots taken to get a point across.

There were dresses and bikinis and printed tees too, but I picked a couple of pieces that seemed best representative. I could not find the tights they made, which are pretty much just large pattern lace and I know Leg Avenue makes a variation in a thigh high.  All images link to Flickr pages that have more info.

Anyway, the piece I liked the most wasn’t even available online:

An inch longer and I would have got it

Quality-wise, if you like Target’s house brands (Mossimo Supply Co. and Merona, specifically), then you’ll have no problem with these pieces.  I personally am totally a fan of them, and found nothing wrong with all the little tulle/lingerie/lace fabric and treatment, nor the cardigans.

A couple pieces though, were victims of design and circumstance:

Oh, c'mon now

The tulle that works so well on the skirts comes off as itchy, snaggy and badly draped here.  Online reviews at Target say the fabric is as itchy as it looks and that the bows are not tacked, so they come undone and don’t go back very well.

It's kind of a meh piece anyhow

Well, it’s printed, so the inside remains white.  This is always a problem with prints, they might have been better off using a mustardy-yellow lace and printing black on it.  Inside felt scratchy,hung like crap—but that might have been a combination of the fabric and any residual size.

I wish they were carrying the socks they show in the looks. Closest equivalents at Sock Dreams are the Textured Stripe Knee High and fishnets over beige stockings, both raw-topped (cut the crotch top of the tights off so they’re just legs).

Overall I am remaining sceptically hopeful for Gaultier’s line, though it sounds like it is coming from a similar approach to what McQueen did—referencing “women and pop culture” instead of those things that made us love the designers in the first place.