Monday, August 23, 2010

Gingham Getup and Bygone Girliness

Earlier Drafts:
These versatile wedges might be my favorite purchase of the season.
This punchy clutch has accompanied me to both semi-formal and casual outings. 

blue gingham button-down shirt (Brina & Em via Marshalls)
black or navy (?) pleated skirt (handmade via Parts & Labour)
leather belt (Anthropologie)
wedge sandals (RJ Girl via Piperlime)
yellow clutch (SR Squared by Sondra Roberts)
reading glasses (United Colors of Benetton)

I wore a version of this outfit two weeks ago, when I tagged along with Liz to Legg Mason Tennis Classic.  It was a humid 97 degrees that day.  Note to self: belted ensembles are not bright ideas for sitting outside in sweltering temperatures.  I returned home that evening with an attractive ring of perspiration around my midsection, but I liked the outfit enough to take another crack at it.  Today's iteration is my re-do.

This skirt is a dream come true, even though it's big on me at the waist, and even though I cannot determine whether it's black or navy.  (Liz thinks it's black.  I think it's navy.  What's your assessment?)  I want to suade this pleated wonder toward the blue color family, so I've paired it with a gingham shirt in an obvious cornflower shade.  The combination of gingham with a high-waisted, short-hemlined, full-bodied skirt screams 1960s Throwback to me.  Maybe I've been watching too much Mad Men, but I'm fairly confident Peggy Olson would wear a version of this outfit on her off days.

That's why, for fun, I've accessorized with a pair of brown tortoiseshell frames.  They make me look like the spitting image of my mother, a child of the '60s herself.  On some days I'm bummed to live so far from home, but when I want to experiment with being my mom's doppelganger, it's nice to set foot in public without hearing, "Ohmygawd, you look just like Paula!"

(Love you, Mom.)

Which brings me to this thought: almost every magazine I've read this month has featured the new "ladylike" throwback silhouettes for fall.  Real Simple magazine, to which I subscribe, even went so far as to title its featured spread after a Henry James novel.  Here's the lede text:

"Portrait of a Lady: As any great literary heroine knows, being your own woman is never without a few bumps in the road.  But, thankfully, the clothes that will hit stores this fall - sophisticated instead of girlie, tasteful without being stodgy, and figure flattering without revealing it all - will at least make the getting dressed part smooth and drama-free."

The magazine's editor wrote this in the same issue: 

"Ladylike dressing is making a comeback and, as far as I'm concerned, not a minute too soon.  Whenever I've gone to any mall, anywhere in this country in the past few years, I've walked around in disbelief, looking in the store windows and thinking, Is anybody over the age of 13 actually wearing these clothes?  ... Where were the clothes for a woman who wants to look modern but appropriate?  Could I be the only one?"

I'll admit I've given these upcoming fall fashion trends a fist-pump or two.  What woman doesn't look great in a full skirt, and what woman wouldn't want to rock a jeweled brooch and simple wool shift dress like Christina Hendricks?  I wonder, though: are these revitalized trends by nature coded with the fraught femininity which characterized them in their heyday?  Should we then embrace them and their social implications cautiously?  Or have gender relationships - and apparel technologies - so evolved that women can now confidently don clothing which only decades prior symbolized female social oppression?  Liz began a discussion on this topic when she wrote about Adrienne Rich's 1980 essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."  Essentially, Liz asked the question, "Are women wearing heels differently in 2010 than they might have in 1980?"  That is, are they rewriting old sartorial choices with new social meaning?

I hope the current fashions represent a recoding of femininity, because I, for one, do not envy Isabel Archer's "bumps in the road."

  • How do you interpret the revival of 1950s - 60s era fashion trends?  What does such a revival mean for women in 2010?
  • What do you think of the term "ladylike," an adjective which fashion gurus everywhere are already using to describe next season's throwback trends?  What does "ladylike" mean for you?  Why do you think it has so far applied to vintage designs?
  • Does this skirt look black or navy to you?  Would your interpretation of its color affect the way you'd style it?


Scholar Style Guide said...

Black or navy, I think the skirt looks great with this ensemble. And I love the addition of the glasses.

This is a fascinating conversation you're starting here, and I can't wait to see what others have to say. I'm actually going to tackle this at greater length in my post for tomorrow, but one huge difference between these items and the ones women could wear back then is apparel technology. We can move in these new iterations of old silhouettes; they could not.

So just as Rich sounds insightful but a little dated in her suggestion that heels impair a woman's ability to move and are thus a tool men use to control women, anyone who might suggest that these silhouettes necessarily carry the same oppressive undertones as they did in the 50s/60s would be missing an important point, I think.


Scholar Style Guide said...

Liz, I think you're right that modern iterations of 50s/60s silhouettes are less restrictive, physically and ideologically.

Still, there's something in the application of the term "ladylike" that seems counterproductive to me, in that the term actually restricts a woman's dressing freedom by defining sartorial value narrowly. Fashion enthusiasts like Real Simple's editor use the adjective to exclude - and poke fun at - more recent styles like "garish prints and cheap-looking fabrics, skinny jeans, and skirts that would make Twiggy blush." Instead, they encourage the "sophisticated," "tasteful," and "figure-flattering." This measurement of good sartorial "taste" speaks to a socioeconomic chasm which, I think, we were beginning to be bridge with bohemian and pseudo-grunge styles. These styles seemed more accessible to women with a range of budgets, because, for the most part, their fabrics and constructions could be adjusted to suit a variety of price points. They were also easy to duplicate with thrift store finds. Not so with the wools and silks of the 50s and 60s throwback styles. At least thus far. I've scoured eBay and other vintage-inspired clothiers, and it seems to me that if a girl wants to avoid looking "garish" and "cheap-looking" - and "unladylike" - she's got to splurge. I hope the season develops differently.

I'm also confused by the application of the term "ladylike" because, aside from the socioeconomic implication, it suggests that a "ladylike" garment is one which showcases a woman's figure. To this I ask, did gauzy, oversized, cotton shirts not showcase a woman's figure? Did leg-hugging skinny jeans not showcase a woman's figure? How are these items different from shift-dresses and body-grazing silk blouses, if "figure-flattering" is the standard of assessment?

In all, I'm trying to get to the bottom of this term "ladylike," and especially determine if it's an adjective that liberates or restricts a woman's clothing choices.

- Anne-Marie

Scholar Style Guide said...

In re-reading my third paragraph, I've realized that "figure-flattering" most often refers to a garment's ideal fit. And it's likely that oversized tees and too-tight jeans do not meet this qualification.

However, is a nearly-see-through cotton shirt so different from a perfectly tailored shift dress? Couldn't we classify both of them as "ladylike" for various reasons?

I'm probably beating a dead horse here. :) Please weigh in, all!


Anonymous said...

I'm with you that "ladylike" is a difficult word to use in grappling with your clothing. If you happen to be a feminist.

But the silhouettes themselves? Rock, rock on. Not wearing something because of its previous connotations of bondage is just as much a form of bondage. (Make sense? I just woke up from a nap on the bus ride home.)

So in conclusion, let's all wear what makes us happy and only call it "ladylike" if we are ready to be called "ladies" in whatever we wear.

Anonymous said...

Such a cute ensemble

I'm in a fairly conservative field and while I don't think I've ever been "pinged" for lack of a better work for being unapologetically stylish, I can say that there are some people, unfortunately women, that make an effort to be cold. Since they don't know me not to like me (although if they get to know me I can give them at least 9 reasons) I can only guess that has something to do with it.

Scholar Style Guide said...

Mackenzie, thanks for your insight! You make a great point: refraining from wearing a garment because it previously connoted restriction only restricts us further. The question then becomes, "How can we wear clothing differently so as to emancipate ourselves from its prior restrictions?" I think your suggestion to wear clothing that makes us happy is a great one.

Hi, Ebony! The nature of your comment makes me wonder if you have already read this article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Several academic style bloggers have tackled issues related to this article - like the one you've mentioned - in their posts today. Please check them out and join the discussion!



Thanks for stopping by, guys. Please do stick around! :)



Greetings! New reader here, so I'm going to ease in and answer the easy question: BLACK.


And I love this outfit. I think you've managed to look simultaneously classic AND modern!

Scholar Style Guide said...

Mackenzie, I like your point about how shying away from things that have been negatively coded in the past just reinforces those negative connotations. I hadn't formulated the thought quite so explicitly yet, so thanks for putting that out there!

If "ladylike" is a term they're using to suggest "of proper taste" (themselves being the proprietors of taste, natch), then I guess they're at least using an accurate term. We get this term from the idea of lords and ladies being superior to common folk, right? So I imagine that at its etymological root, "ladylike" does relate to, ahem, "tasteful" but those are judgments of taste that I'm pretty willing to throw straight out the window. I tend to shy away from these loose terms, and this one is just not in my vocabulary. I don't think I've ever thought, "hmm, I feel ladylike today." If I mean to suggest that something covers the body, for example, I say it's "modest." (In general, I try to evaluate clothing based on aesthetic judgments rather than value judgments, but I do think that when I condemned the use of leggings-as-pants back near the blog's inception, I called them immodest.)

Incidentally, I've never read Real Simple, but just last evening my MIL was telling me about the mag, and her assessment was: "They have the most beautiful dresses in here. But they're all way too expensive and they never tell you where you can get them for less." Would you say, AM, that the magazine is trying to sell a particular lifestyle? I've never had an interest in it because I assumed it was a magazine which taught "fancy" people how to be even more "fancy," but I admit I've never actually thumbed through it to check that assumption.

I find myself devoting more time to fashion blogs and much less time to fashion magazines. "Ladylike" hasn't shown up on my radar as a catch phrase for this season yet, but I'll be sure to pay attention if it does.


Scholar Style Guide said...

Monkeyface, thanks for reading and commenting!

Liz, good question on the voice of the mag. I'm not sure if it markets to "fancy" people, because I don't consider myself one and I still relate to the mag's content. You might appreciate that it always features a reader-response Q&A section on reading material; this month's question is, "What is the most memorable book you read in school?" Prior to it is a Q&A section along these lines: "Which outfit makes you feel your best?" Also, every issue features a notable quote on its binding. This month? One from your dearest, Willa Cather. Given these details and the earlier Henry James reference, we might say confidently that the magazine indeed markets to an educated base. Make of that what you will, I guess.

Aside from content, I appreciate that the mag's how-to cooking section is creative yet accessible to kitchen novices like me. And I enjoy the mag's design elements more than those of any other in circulation.

That said, I echo your MIL's sentiment. My appreciation for the clothing the mag features is merely aspirational. But I feel the same way about several other popular lifestyle magazines, so I doubt the budget-blasting clothing features are unique to Real Simple.

It's ironic to me that luxury in the form of 50s/60s throwback fashion is gaining such ground during a period of economic instability. The popularity of boho-inspired trends made sense to me since authentic bohemian style is necessarily budget-friendly. I can't wait to see how our collective lifestyle expectations develop as the fall season progresses.


Katie, Interrobangs Anonymous said...

I always have a concern that people wearing clothes from, or reminiscent of, eras like the 50s won't be aware of the historical contexts that engendered those styles. Not that the styles shouldn't be worn, but that there's a danger in not knowing what social and cultural context you've added to your appearance when you chose to wear them. And what does it mean when you are aware of those contexts? Does your behavior change?

Anonymous said...

I have such shirt envy - that one looks perfect with the dark skirt and that awesome wide belt. Love this look! You look so sharp and chic.

Scholar Style Guide said...

Ah, the "Is is black or navy?" debate. I have a skirt that prompts the same question in my closet too, AM.

Love the look. You pull off gingham better than anyone I know. I think that the oversized belt with the modern wedges in the same tobacco brown color gives an American west flavor to the 60s throwback vibe.

For me, the word "ladylike" inevitably conjures up notions of a time when women were actually called "ladies" (the opposite of "gentlemen"); in other words, it always carries the connotation of an old-fashioned style and a strict gender divide. Thus, "ladylike" implies overtly feminine frills and shapes while also keeping perfectly in line with social decorum. To me, it is a word that is inextricable from past styles and ideas about women and the way they should dress and act.

I love 1940s and 1950s styles. However, whenever I find myself watching my favorite movie, "All About Eve," and lamenting that people today don't dress as smartly or wear cute hats, I think about the societal changes that came with the sartorial ones, and I, I can do without a hat.

Great post, AM!


Iris said...

This is such a cute outfit!

Rebecca said...

I've come to this party a little late, but had to chime in b/c in the last month I've gone berserk for the "ladylike" shirt dresses. I've purchased 3 and my husband just melts when I walk out in one of them. He is also an academic and a feminist and a man who wishes men would dress more "gentlemanly" (er, wear suits and ties). So it's equitable, at least. I really don't like the word "ladylike" but agree that it attempts to define fashion that flatters a woman's body.

I think the point for me is that these dresses/looks were made to showcase the hourglass figure (which I have) and so are, indeed, flattering. So many clothes of the last decade look like they were made for 100 lb waifs. Isn't that equally problematic? I've felt more oppressed by the skinny jeans culture than I have by the retro 50/60s look.

Stephanie said...

So, I would just like to say that I am OBSESSED with this outfit (and the way you wear it!). I'll be sure to give you credit when I attempt to recreate it :) I'm feeling inspired, thanks for that :)