Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dressing simply with patterns

patterned dress (Target)
ring (grandmother's costume jewelry box)
yellow wedges (Nine West)
nail polish (OPI Tickle My France-y)

Last month, Liz tackled the overdressed versus underdressed debate, and she related her tendency to overdress.  Today, I'd like to redefine the terms and propose some merits of underdressing.

As I see it, there are two ways to define overdressing.  First, one could define it as Liz did in her post: overdressing means "I took this event a little too seriously."  It signifies inappropriate or excessive formality.  Second, one could define overdressing like so: "I'm wearing more accessories than a Coach model."  In this case, overdressed signifies something slightly different.  It means the outfit is excessively styled or overly adorned.  Of course, the two definitions of overdressing may overlap in meaning, but I still maintain the distinction between them.  Wearing a single cocktail dress to a backyard barbecue - definition #1 - is not the same as complicating an outfit by layering multiple garments or jewelry items - definition #2.

The latter condition would make Coco Chanel roll over in her grave.  She advised women to remove at least one accessory before leaving the house, because she advocated the "less is more" rule.  So I imagine she might shudder at the simultaneously belted, hatted, hosiery-ed, sock-ed, cardigan-ed, necklace-d, earring-ed, bracelet-ed women of contemporary America.

I distinguish hyper-accessorized ladies as American not only to gesture at Coco Chanel's Frenchness, but also to introduce my cause for interrogation.  Lately I've stumbled upon a few essays which present the French woman's adherence to simplicity as a remedy for the American woman's supposed addiction to layering.  The American woman hides behind her clothing, say these fashion critics, and she therefore over-constructs ensembles.  That's why most of us are adept at executing this formula:

Cami + Cardigan + Belt + Jacket + Scarf

And why we saw so much of the Tights + Socks + Boots concoction this winter.
And why we're still seeing the Leggings + Dress + Cardigan + Belt combo now.

Alternately, the French woman relies on a single article of clothing to carry her look.  The black dress, the expensive coat, or the signature bag.  She does not succumb to the impulse to wear all interesting wardrobe items at once, which leaves her looking effortless and draws attention to her natural beauty rather than to her fashion sense.

Or so they say.
The argument has merit, as I see it.  When I studied in Barcelona, I noticed the same trend among Spanish women.  They rode the metro, walked the dog, and dined out in their finest, but they rarely looked overdone to my eyes.  They did insist on minimizing their looks, though.  My host mother, even, who was well into her 60s, chastised me often for wearing "too much."  Her wardrobe was smaller than mine - European women invested in signature pieces, she explained, and did not collect clothing - but to her it was more valuable.  I owned a dozen department store jackets; she owned two Yves Saint Laurent coats.

To her, the expensive garments enabled simple dressing, and their ability to stand on their own imparted more value than did their brand.  Admittedly, her impulse to pare down ensembles encouraged me, because I'm not one to match and coordinate and compose my outfits, and I grew up thinking this was negligent.  In fact, the closest my (wonderful! dear!) mother and I ever came to an all-out brawl was during my high school senior portrait session; she wanted me to wear the pearl necklace and the earrings, and I insisted on wearing one or the other.  I thought wearing both would make me look overdressed, like I had over-styled.  To my self-conscious 18 year old self, over-accessorizing reeked of pretension.  (Why I felt this way I cannot remember.  I may have considered pearl jewelry a decidedly 'adult' thing to wear, and the reasons behind this perception merit another post.)

In the same way, style critics suggest, excessively styled (often layered) outfits convey considerable effort.  And effort is not the same as thoughtfulness.  Liz suggests this supposedly American tendency to excessively layer clothing might coincide with the impulse to accumulate material items.  If so, the issue is one of value:  how and why do we transmit value to certain articles of clothing?

Today I'm experimenting with simplification, so I appreciate a garment with a strong pattern that can sustain a look without requiring enhancement from additional pieces.  Of course, the average French woman shuns patterns in favor of sophisticated, solid neutrals, so I'm departing a bit from my source of inspiration.  Still, I embrace the purportedly European concept of dressing simply, and I think patterned fabrics lend themselves to it.  It follows, then, that I appreciate this jersey knit dress, even though the same pattern in polyester would make me look like a veritable 1970s housewife.  (A martini in hand, cat-eye makeup, and the B-52s background music would round out the aesthetic.)  The black and white palette provides the option of pairing shoes and accessories of any color, the fabric is comfortable, and the belted waist offers structure.  But the best part of the dress?  It doesn't require a camisole, jacket, cardigan, belt, necklace, or scarf of any kind.

  • What do you think of my proposed definitions of overdressed?  Disagree, agree, or agree with edits?
  • How do you diagnose the layering trend?
  • What are your favorite ways to wear patterned pieces?


Scholar Style Guide said...

This post does an interesting job of addressing the questions I was wrangling with yesterday. Your look shows that black and white can translate as appropriate for warm weather when done correctly. I think there must be some mental correlation for me between fewer pieces and spring, as well-- maybe I associate "simple" with warm weather.

I hadn't thought of over-accessorizing as a type of "overdressed," but I have the same aversion to looks that seem to be accomplished by the piling on of too many pieces. Perhaps, too, there is something about the simplicity of the black and white palette that makes this type of overdressing seem especially inappropriate. I think my look from yesterday would have been much better without the necklaces at all.

I haven't spent enough time abroad to begin thinking about this as an American problem, but I'll definitely be keeping my eye out on the various fashion blogs I check to see if I can identify this trend as particularly American. It certainly coincides with the American desire to accumulate commodities.


Scholar Style Guide said...

Your post yesterday raised great questions about how we associate colors with seasons. The entire (North American?) fashion industry affirms your inclination to wear more black in the fall and winter and don bright colors in spring and summer. Generally, it seems like Europeans treat black as a perennial color in ways that Americans don't, so perhaps you wouldn't feel the same out-of-season awkwardness about yesterday's outfit were you in a different context.

Also, I liked yesterday's outfit, especially the belt. :)

I'm curious to hear Katie's take on this issue of (U.S.) layering versus (French) simplifying, especially as it pertains to branding. Ultimately, the question is one of value, isn't it?

- Anne-Marie

Jennifer said...

LOVE the ring, AM. And so bummed I can't go get one, having no access to your grandmother's jewelry box. But that why we love vintage: one of a kind. (Although since you said it's custome she might have gotten it last week.)

But if you are suddenly missing your clothes one day, it's cause I've taken a cue from the "Bling Ring"...and don't even feel bad about it. (Do you know the "Bling Ring"? I made Liz watch some TV about it. ;) )

Re: layering, I _love_ cardigans. But I think that stills fall under simple staples, not overdoing it.

Scholar Style Guide said...

I love love love the French philosophy on clothing. I think that your observations about different cultural values for style are right on, and I've never thought about the American layering obsession in this way. I want to think like a European woman about fashion, but I'm not that sophisticated. Maybe I'll grow into it.

Apologies: this comment is all over the place. Just turned in Major Project. Thus am brain dead. Will further comment later when full mental faculties have returned.


Scholar Style Guide said...

Hi guys!

Jenn, I like cardigans too, don't get me wrong. You're right about their status as simple staples; they have a way of making an outfit look complete. However, I think belts and leggings and many other individual garments serve the same function when they're used thoughtfully and with restraint. In this case, maybe I should've used the term "overstyled" instead of "overdressed," since I wanted to highlight the ways in which we can use garments excessively and to their detriment.

Katie, I share your admiration for French fashion philosophy. Why do you think it attracts so much praise?

- Anne-Marie

Jennifer said...

But can I make a small rebuttal to French fashion appreciation? Just so we keep in perspective our awe for European fashion. I feel I need some pics to speak my mind here..I don't want to use mean words. Just saying, I had a European boyfriend when I lived in Spain and _still_ I'm amazed at stuff European men will wear sometimes. Reminded of this at recent International Narrative Conference.

Scholar Style Guide said...

I appreciated the way Anne-Marie's post was careful about the ways in which she used the terms "French," "European," and "American," making sure to define her context specifically. I'm worried that we're getting away from that here in the comments, so I'd encourage us to be careful about the ways we use labels like these.

On the sense of "styling simplicity" that Anne-Marie suggests she has seen attributed to the French, and which she noticed in her experience in Spain, I think it appeals (at least to me) because it seems to emphasize the person more than the clothes. Since I would like to use clothes as a vehicle for expression, I'd like to stay away from styling choices that become so "busy" that they obscure me as the wearer of those items.

Katie, I'm curious what you mean when you say you're not "sophisticated" enough to "think like a European woman about fashion." Perhaps you could unpack the meaning of that comment for us in a future post!


La Historiadora de Moda said...

First off, let me say that I enjoy the concept of your blog very much.

Having lived in Spain (mainly Madrid) for a couple of years I have to disagree to some extent with your assessment about European women relying on only one piece. I saw many women who wore outfits with what we might call multiple heroes: fantastic boots, great scarf, signature sunglasses, large earrings, and the ubiquitous nose ring/screw. I get a similar picture from some of the European style bloggers I follow.

My take on layering it is an easy and practical way of dealing with temperature fluctuations throughout the day and adding interest to an outfit. Belting flatters figures (according to certain social dictates) by creating a waistline where one might not otherwise exist in an outfit.

Finally, the print on that dress is fantastic!

Scholar Style Guide said...

Hello! Thanks so much for your feedback. We enjoy your blog too.

I agree with you: it's difficult and in many ways counterproductive to essentialize a nation's styles of dressing. I might have misread Jenn's comment regarding Spanish menswear, but I infer that she's referencing the Eurotrash aesthetic, and it's important to recognize that said aesthetic is representative of a subculture. And we have to acknowledge that modes of fashion are mediated by subcultures, movements, and characteristics like these - age, regionality, nationality, socioeconomic class, etc. - making it even more difficult to locate a collective fashion conscious for any nation.

I like that Ralph Lauren and Carolina Herrera have in these articles given credit to the mutual, trans-Atlantic influence of French and American fashion. They suggest that the distinction between the dominant styles of each nation has blurred.

(In the second essay, the second paragraph attributes simplicity to American notions of style and in so doing could refute the considerations which have inspired my post.)

At any rate, you're right about generalizing, and I'm aware of the many exceptions and conditions which trouble the assertions I've made. It does still seem useful to consider the ways nation-ness, as one of many other factors, contributes to styling habits.

Thanks for reading! I've really enjoyed this discussion.

- Anne-Marie

Scholar Style Guide said...


'cuse me. It's late :)


Jennifer said...

Nice points, ladies. I didn't mean to "essentialize" in any way, though I guess I was. Hmmm. Just meant I feel that America deserves more credit in discussions of fashion. Or, as you said AM, we should discuss fashion in terms of the trans-atlantic or trans-cultural. How can we not in such a global world?

Though, that leads to a thought: why in such a globalized world of incredible fashion influences, do the members of sororities at my undergrad all dress the same? The "sorority girl uniform." And I believe Liz has commented extensively on the undergrad trends here. I've certainly been a slave to certain trends. Funny (sad?) how we fall back on these (usually simple and boring) status signifiers when we have a world of fashion inspiration at our fingertips. That is some basic psychology 101 though. :)

Scholar Style Guide said...

Anne-Marie, thanks for finding the links! I'm looking forward to checking them out when I get a chance.

La Historiadora, you make a great point about the functionality of layering. Maybe I read "simple" looks as more appropriate for spring/summer precisely because the warmer weather negates the need for this type of layering.

Jennifer, I'd suggest that the styling choices most undergraduates make are more heavily influenced by the "fashion" that's popular on their campuses than the fashion industry itself. Friends tend to develop similar tastes, so if you're a member of a structured "friend group" like a sorority, it seems reasonable that dressing similarly follows.