I’ve always lived – sartorially, at least – by one of my favorite Genet quotes, “To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance.” Growing up with a German mother who had very good taste when it came to clothes, I often received compliments from my grade school teachers on my refined outfits while envying my schoolmates who flounced about in their JCPenny / Kmart frippery, looking girlie and extravagant by comparison. I cried over the dress she made me wear for my first Communion because i thought it was sooooo plain, and desperately wanted one of the lace-tiered numbers with fake pearls and shiny ribbons other girls got to wear. My mom saved that dress. Suburban peer pressure remained a mighty force in my continued desire to buck my mother’s control over my wardrobe. Particularly her insistence on the less is more maxim, which applied to the tailored aesthetics she advocated as well as the quality of my clothes. We only shopped in one store – the most exclusive our area, and would spend a whole afternoon picking out 2-3 new outfits each spring and fall. The idea was to have a few nice things rather than “a lot of junk”.
Of course, as soon as I was making my own money at age 15, I ran right out to the cheapest, tackiest store there was (the equivalent, I guess, of a Rainbows), and started shopping for “more”. Ruffled blouses, high heels, tube tops, costume jewelry ( a taste she would never forgive me for since her mother and grandmother had cultivated a penchant for expensive – “platinum only” – jewelry that she’d hoped to pass on to me), etc. When I entered my thrift store phase in my later teens, the very idea of which still today sends shivers down my mother’s back as she imagines me elbow to elbow with riff-raff too poor to buy their clothes anywhere else, catching all manner of second-hand germs – from the clothes and the shoppers, no doubt.
I became addicted to bargain-hunting, the cheaper the better, and reveled in the unexpected find. Rebelling against the expensive, exclusive notion of good taste I’d grown up with, I felt like I was proving something — that one can look well dressed, stylish and interesting on the tiniest of budgets. I still love telling those who ask how much something they’ve complimented me on actually cost, or where i bought it…just for the surprise look on their faces. Its most fun when someone mistakes something for a designer ; “oh, is that a so-and-so? ” No, its TJMaxx…To re-contextualize something cheap or ktischy in such a way that it takes on another life has been a kind of guiding challenge over the years, my early exposure to details like construction, cut, and materials – my mother, for example, always inspecting the inside of a garment to see if/how the seams were finished, or checking a garment label – providing me to the skills to pull it off.
Lately, though, I’ve been noticing this species of women, late 30s through early 50s, who still dress as if they’re twenty-one, or appear to, anyway. The kind who assume idealized versions of themselves from some golden age in the past, or who need to prove they’re still ultra-hip. I’ve always liked modifying my “look” for just the novelty of it, but the idea of age-appropriate clothing has never entered my thinking (despite my mother’s prodding) — until recently.
As I turn 45 – a marker of middle-age, if ever there was one – I find myself wondering if I should prune my wardrobe down to “essential” pieces. Get rid of short skirts, kitschy patterns (except for super-fab collectibles, of course), etc. in favor of more streamlined, “flattering” styles. With this in mind, I started searching for bathing suits online, and bought a custom job by a designer out in Portland – a red and white polka-dot two-piece inspired by 40s-era pin-ups with high-waist bottom and halter top – and a black full piece by Tripp NYC that’s got studs and a criss-cross open back. I didn’t have the cheddar to buy the one I really loved by Agent Provocatuers ($799), which is fabulous and probably not age appropriate, or the other one I loved by Zimmermans ($233), though as mom would have said, if I hadn’t bought two suits, I could have sprung for the latter, but then she’s never understood the pleasures of more. Of course, I’ve hardly worn either since I’ve not been to the beach but a few times.
Still, the whole experience got me wondering about this sartorial need to adjust one’s “look” to reflect and accomodate a changing appearance/body. Does it comes from a savvy instinct to maintain one’s stylistic dignity or from a capitulation to a youth-obsessed culture that manufactures a two-dimensional, media-centric notion of beauty where surface is everything. I mean, I’m not suddenly going to wear frumpy suits and sensible shoes, but does that mean I can’t do mini-skirts, or wink-wink vintage anymore? What exactly constitutes “youthful” clothes these days, and should older women avoid them?
One of my ultimate fashion icons, Anna Piaggi, manages to transcend these sorts of distinctions by being outrageously herself. Her love of crazy patterns, bold forms, odd proportions, and high-low sense of couture has always thrilled me. And then there’s Lynn Yeager, whose picture I recently encountered gave this debate (do I accept the notion of age-appropriate dress or refuse it as bourgeouis bunk?) a whole new dimension. I literally didn’t recognize her at first, ethough her signature cupid bow lips, red pixie hair, white powdered skin, and geisha cheeks were all intact. All I saw was “grandma” — the dolls she grasped in her lap, of course, didn’t help. It kind of blew my mind, and made me realize how much I admire those brave enough to maintain their trademark look no matter how old they get, and even in the face of potential ridicule, or worse, unwitting self-parody. Such is the fate of fashion warriors, I guess, who refuse to accomodate social norms regarding beauty.
So what to do? Buy a hat or headband by SHcreations, a British girl from Surrey I just came across on etsy.com? They’re not only fun but ridiculously affordable (many under $30), the kind of thing I would have bought in a second in my more adventurous days (and the cheap versions I see around pale by comparison – I’m SO sick of bows!). A part of me says, Do it, why not? Style has nothing to do with age. Which of course, it doesn’t. But then I think maybe I can’t carry it off anymore. We can’t all be Anna Piaggis and Lynne Yaegers, after all.
Or is this shit all in my head? Is there a point at which an aging woman,or man for that matter, who to remain attractive and look well-dressed has to retire their youthful clothes because the “face” and/or body just don’t match up? Or Is dressing in kid-sized t-shirts, hoochie mama heels, babydoll dresses, dog collars, mini-skirts, etc. after 40 really the ultimate F-U? And not denial? I go back and forth on this: believing a woman has the right to look and dress however she wants, NO MATTER WHAT, but then finding myself in a cringe when one of these woman who from a-far (or behind) looks like some dolled-up teen turns out to be, once one gets a closer gander, “old”. The kind of woman other women make fun of, or feel the need to cluck on about, with me often being their only defender (despite my strange, overly-identifying reaction of initial horror, I’ve always been of the sistahs-should-support-sistahs school of feminism — and if you think all feminists are that loyal you’re sadly mistaken.)
Anyway, I’m really curious what people think about this subject. Is the refusal to adhere to the idea of age-appropriate dress a matter of rebellion, personal taste, feminism, or society’s pathological obsession with youth? I’ve been thinking a lot as well about this new 2-D ideal of beauty that’s evident, I find, in the preponderance of actors who’ve had nose jobs, face lifts, cheek implants, etc. all to look good on TV or in film, achieving a sense of proportion attractive only in flat, frontal images. Put these people in motion, and there’s a whole new set of awkward proportions. I’ve even noticed the use of bangs to deflect this profile problem where the bridge of a sawed down nose appears to almost dip in relation to the forehead plane, messing with natural proportions. Maybe being in the eye of the camera all the time convinces people that they exist more signficantly as images rather than embodied beings. I don’t know, but it all seems connected to a general fear of death, and the persistent equation of a woman’s worth with her sexual viability. As the ultimate sex symbol Raquel Welch said on Oprah promoting in her new book, Beyond the Cleavage: “Old is the last dirty word for a woman”.
They say, there’s no ACOUNTING for taste. I say, there’s no ACCOUNTANT for taste. Because, who the fuck would take the job knowing they’d be “audited” every six months—at best— in accordance with fashion’s “completely new” collections, directions, fabrics, cuts and rules—yeah, right. Taste is one of those words that really irritates me. Like transvestites that have a better ass than I do, like TomKat’s Marriage, like Nicole Kidman’s Forehead- it is a sham… a 24-carat charade that passes itself off as a diamond-encrusted reality. Taste, and the fascist fashionistas that evangelically support it, want you to believe that this whimsical, transient, cult-like style OPINION is an unequivocal reality. Taste demands to be treated like a “lady”, despite the fact that we all know she’s a dime-store hooker that was bargained down from 50 bucks on the west side highway. I can’t overstate my distaste for taste. So I say, fuck taste! All great style icons dis taste.
And, quite simply Taste is typically at odds with great STYLE. Hot & Not Lists, “Buy, Keep, Store” directives & our consumer culture of “In & Out” are disarmed in the face of the enviable charm of the woman who has developed her very own definitive, very personal style…the kind of style that actually determines and defines Taste. The kind of taste that even your Mom would be proud of—as long as it is available in Bloomies.
There are inexpensive clothes and there are cheap clothes—and whether or not an item comes from the Good Will is not the marker. Cheap clothes can be found in Macy’s just as often as The Salvation Army. However, inexpensive QUALITY clothes got to be vintage. As a self-proclaimed RAG-HAG, Goodwill gets me salivating like a Gucci garage sale. Why? Simply put: Thrift clothes/vintage clothes are the poor man’s couture. And, when I say “poor man,” I mean someone who wouldn’t auction off a kidney for a dress. One of a kind, often made from better fabrics, better construction—In the past clothes were built to last.
Old styles never really die. Lack of storage space makes it impossible to house them while they’re sleeping. There’s very little “new” fashion, too many new products. Grabbing a great, on-trend vintage piece just means you’re beating Marc Jacobs to the punch, before he finds it, reproduces it and sells it back to you for 1,000 times the price. Designers recycle style — I recycle fashion.
I first met Mary Jo at her baby shower, which she was co-hosting with a mutual friend, and dressed in heels, a silky blue shirt-dress, and ear-to-ear grin, I immediately found her warmth and style seductive. The brainchild of her and her husband, Roman Milisic, House of Diehl has turned the idea of couture on its head, proving that fashion, like art, is about more than flash and trend. Bucking notions of good taste, and the over-worn notion that you pay for what you get, their infamous “STYLE WARS” re-invent the way fashion is shown and created, blending music (think mc battles but with designers) and performance (imagine if project runway had an instant couture contest using recycled “junk”) in public spectacles that are much fun to watch as to participate in (audience members are often models) . For more information on House of Diehl, and t go to: http://www.buenosairesherald.com/PrintedEdition/View/19071 and http://www.societyhae.com/profiles/blogs/forget-ready-to-wear-get-ready, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Diehl