Since

It’s better to light a candle than to curse Slate, here are my two cents on how to dress like a grown-up when you’re still making lemonade-stand wages, offered with as little condescension and gratuitous sexualization as I can manage.

(These tips are aimed at young women in their 20s just beginning to build a post-college wardrobe, and applicability may vary depending on your state in life, and oh, about a thousand other things.)

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1. If you live in a city, big or small, discover your local thrift stores. You’ll find them all over–don’t neglect the rich suburbs, as these will often abound in the cast-offs of fancy old ladies and attract a much smaller clientele to compete for them.

Be careful though, as not all thrift stores are created equal.

There are upscale consignment boutiques, which specialize in designer labels at discounted but still enormous prices. These are best if you do have a little spare cash, and can save for some big staple pieces. For example, if you’ve amassed 200 dollars, it’s probably a better investment to buy a pair of second hand Ferragamo boots than new Steve Maddens.

At the other end end of the scale are the massive Goodwills that you have to paw your way through at random. If you want to find awesome things here, you’ll have to stop by on a regular basis to comb through their racks. I’ve found many of the clothes I love wearing at this kind of store, mainly by abandoning any pre-determined shopping list and deciding to try on that polyester floral print dress from the 90s. If you want to shop methodically, it’s best to look for non-investment basics: casual skirts, tops, running shoes.

Slightly above the massive Goodwills in the thrift-store hierarchy, are, in my experience, the tiny, pell-mell cluttered hospital thrift shops, often run by nuns. They operate in basically the same way as the Goodwills, with the caveat that they are smaller, and will probably be even less amenable to methodical shopping and more to regular visits in search of serendipity. On the other hand, sometimes they’ll become the regular beneficiaries of old ladies slowly purging their closet of beautifully cut tweed skirts and elegant little designer pumps, especially if they’re in a rich suburb. I would tell you about some of the awesome things I’ve found, were I not afraid of tempting the thrift store gods.

Your best bet is any of the mid-priced, mid-sized chain thrift stores–Greene Steet Consignment, Buffalo Exchange, Plato’s Closet, most things staffed by the Junior League. You won’t find vintage wonders for two dollars once in a blue moon, but you will find Ann Taylor and J.Crew Pencil skirts for $15-30, every time you go. For me, these places are expensive enough that I have to shop carefully–I won’t buy things on a whim, and I’ll spend a lot of time in the clearance section–but reliable enough that when I identify a concrete and consistently irksome hole in my closet (say, a black cardigan for spring), these are the first places I look.

Thrift stores can lend themselves to the delusion that buying things cheaply is actually saving money. It’s not. If you buy a thrift store polka dot romper that you, for obvious reasons, are never going to wear, you’ve spent two dollars, sure– but two dollars is a cheap beer. On the other hand, most items in thrift stores are unique; you can’t sleep on a potential purchase and be sure it will be there waiting for you the next day.

So, if I really like something, I can see myself wearing it, and it’s under ten dollars, I take the risk and buy. If it’s something beautiful and interesting that I could conceivably wear, or need for one very specific occasion, and it’s under five dollars, I’ll buy it (assuming I have the money to burn). If it’s over ten dollars, I’ll give myself some time to think it over. If there’s really no way I’m going to ever wear this but it’s the most awesome thing in the world and maybe I could just let it live in my closet and look at it every once in a while….I say get thee behind me Satan.

2. If you don’t live in or near a city, troll Ebay and Amazon. One of the best dressed people I know uses these sites as an online consignment boutique to purchase beautiful, luxurious jackets and sweaters at prices he can afford. I just searched “ankle boots,” an item for which I am currently in the market, and came up with this. A lot of chaff, but some reasonably priced wheat, too.

3. Trends are your enemy. Someday, when you are a fantastically wealthy old woman who lives entirely on truffles and expensive scotch, you can grab hold of every trend that comes along. But right now, you are trying to build a collection of lasting, beautiful, and versatile pieces, and you haven’t much money with which to do it. Trends will suck away your precious dollars and leave you holding last year’s paisley print jeans asking yourself what exactly you were drinking. (Caveat: sometimes trends catch up with you, in which case there is no reason to stop wearing what you love and works for you.)

4. On that note, a few lovely and lasting pieces are better than closetful of flimsy variety. The rule that you must never repeat an outfit or wear the same thing twice in a row is one of the stupidest I’ve heard yet.

So, what to actually wear?

5. For work and/or workish things, two skirts: one of a lighter material, like serge, and one of something heavy and woolen. Pencil is the classic, but make sure it’s well cut, so that you can move and it doesn’t bunch up in weird places. Other straight, simple lines also work. Think brown, black, navy and grey. Avoid khaki–it wrinkles easily, requires more washing than darker colours, and just looks kind of bland. Do not waste your money on an unlined skirt. Seriously. Your work skirts are the backbone of your wardrobe, and you should spend your widow’s mite to buy as high quality as you can.

6. Once you have your two quality skirts, you can wear them day in and day out with different tops. Blazers make you feel like a boss, but If I were you, I’d wait to invest in a really good one (or, like me, you could steal your younger brother’s Mass blazer that just happens to fit you perfectly).  In the mean time, cardigans, or even better, wool pullovers, are universally appropriate, cheap at thrift stores, and easy to wear.

7. You can cheat on tops. Now that you’ve outfitted bottom half in awesome skirt and top half in universally appropriate cardigan, no one is going to be paying attention to your blouse.* Buy cheap and pretty.

On the other hand, if you’ve found a really fantastic thrift store or have not yet filed for bankruptcy, now is as good a time as ever to acquire nice shirts. Look for shirts made entirely of one material: silk, linen, etc as they will retain their shape better than knit blends. Stay away from overly trendy or fussy frills–they are the enemy of versatility. I am not a fan of Oxford button downs, because the way most of them hang and gap in odd places suggests to me that the designers did not actually make them for a woman’s body, and who needs foolish triflers like that?

7. If you want to go really crazy, get a dress as well. Or, substitute a dress for one of your skirts (just make sure you have one thing of a heavy warm material and one thing of a lighter material.) Your dress, like your skirts, should be knee length to ensure that it’s safe for more than one job or occasion; it should have lots of structure. If the dress is dark or neutral it can have a subtle or geometric pattern; if it’s brighter it should be one deep, bold color. Stay away from lovely vibrant colors like scarlet and egg-yolk yellow–not because they’re bad, but because you’re poor and want to be clever about hedging your bets; also, darker colors require less cleaning.

Lack of  quality in a dress doesn’t necessarily show as much as lack in a pencil skirt, for some reason, so if your thrift store options are limited, you might want to go for the dress/skirt combo. Just remember, always lining.

Which brings me to pants.

8. Skip the pants, if you can do so in comfort (by the way, get real tights, not sheer pantyhose. It will keep you much warmer). There’s nothing wrong with pants, except that they are generally much less forgiving than skirts. Durable and lovely and striking pants definitely exist, but usually hang out at the top of the price totem pole. Not so with skirts. I don’t know why, except maybe that the industry hasn’t been making pants for women as long as it has skirts, or that it’s just easier to fake it with skirts. If anyone has found a reasonably priced maker of  excellent work-appropriate pants, please chime in.

9. Buy a pair of boots you really love, and don’t buy boots unless you really love them. Boots are never really cheap, so if you’re in a position to save up for articles of clothing, skip the compromises and squirrel away your pennies.

When I bought my Investment Boots with my first white collar paycheck, I knew exactly what I wanted: wide leg, knee high, russet colored, leather I found beautiful, discreet to invisible zippers. I scoped out my pair for about three months before I took the plunge, and four years later, in perfect condition, they are currently adorning my legs.

10. But! Until you can afford that manic pixie dream boot? If you can, get a pair of low heeled ankle boots or cunning little oxfords. You want something graceful, sturdy, and walkable. Ankle boots won’t draw as much attention to themselves as higher ones, so you don’t have to hold out for quality as much.

I’m going to commit fashion heresy here by suggesting you skip the ballet flats, unless it’s summer, and you can get cheap, pretty, light ones for fifteen dollars or under. In winter, ballet flats don’t really let you walk around outside–they’re only good for office wear. And if you get a pair of simple pumps you can wear both in the office and with jeans or dress to a party, you can put the savings from this double duty towards your awesome boots. Unless, of course, you don’t wear heels, in which case go to town on flats. Your pumps should be stacked, not stiletto, because your feet are important. They should only be about two or three inches, for maximum, you guessed it, versatility.

8. If you’ve spent several years trolling thrift stores, you probably already have a lot of fascinating cocktail attire. If you’re new to the game, get one party dress–not black. Black is for being sensible about maximizing work separates! Parties are when you get to cut loose and be bold. Besides, an exuberant color means less work for fancy shoes and accessories. Try to find something that’s not categorically evening wear or day wear–a cheat is to buy something made of more formal fabric (silk, chiffon, lace) in a cut that’s neither particularly conservative nor especially dramatic. Ideally, something with sleeves, either a nighttime neckline or a closely tailored fit, and a hemline that hits just a bit above the knee–you want something that can pass for foxy, festive, or formal. Look for dresses made all of one fabric (lined, as usual). Avoid satiny blends. Don’t be afraid of striking textures like brocade and velvet, but remember: a heavy fabric means you’ll probably need something lighter for summer, and the more imposing the fabric the less formal you want the cut.

9. Speaking of accessories, you’re on your own for tasteful jewelry. This is something I have never mastered. But I can tell you to pick up small, handkerchief sized silk or chiffon scarves wherever you can find them cheaply. Around the hair, as a belt, filling in for a necklace: these things have saved my life.

10. Make friends with your tailor! And your cobbler. Go get your measurements taken, and ask him about rates. Most torn things can mend, and it’s often a better deal to alter an otherwise ideal garment that’s not quite your size than to settle on another purchase. Waterproof your leather boots.

11. Don’t throw everything in the washer. All cleaning takes its toll on clothes, but machine washing and drying especially. Plenty of skirts can be worn again and again with spot cleaning, and little worn dresses often only need a day’s airing in the sunshine for freshness. Take the labels seriously, hand-wash your wool sweaters, and take doubtful items to a dry-cleaner.

12. You don’t need fancy exercise clothes. I know, I know. I want to be one of those cool girls who does yoga and runs exclusively in Lululemon, too! But you don’t need it, it won’t actually make you exercise more, and man is that stuff expensive.

I can’t believe I’ve written so much about clothes in one sitting. If, for some reason, you’re not heartily sick of the topic, check out any of the the zilllion style blogs out there, or, for practical tips, adulting.

*I understand that the bosomed among us have their own particular problems. Since I don’t know anything about this, I’m going to defer to Elodie Under Glass.

 

Addenda:  If you can, get a slip. It will make your life better. Also, drool with me over this.

How to Sexually Objectify Yourself (But Not in the Way You Think)

“With the laying aside of her clothes, a woman lays aside the respect that is hers!” 

–Gyges, Herodotus’ History.

“Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature…”

–Lizzy Bennet, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

 

 

When people say “don’t objectify yourself,” what they usually mean is, “don’t make it so other people objectify you.”

This needs to be said over and over: you cannot make anyone objectify you, or help them objectify you, or collude in their objectification of you. You cannot make people decide to treat you as nothing more than a sexual object, or act as if your sexual body renders you inhuman. You are very obviously human. This is something everyone can figure out without help from you.

And on the off chance I have readers younger than me: if someone says to you “you need to do this so I can stop hurting you,” run, or at least confide immediately in a trusted authority figure. This is abuser-speak, and I can’t tell you how furious it makes me that young Catholic girls are so often exhorted with rhetoric that normalizes abusive patterns.

You can’t objectify yourself for others. You can, however, objectify yourself for yourself: you can act as though the most important purpose in your own life is sexual appeal.

Most young girls grow up listening to the same advice from opposite ends of the spectrum. Popular culture says “Look in the mirror! Are you sexy enough? Will boys like you like that? Should your heels be a little higher? What would you think if your were a boy looking at you?” The cult of modesty says “Are you too sexy? How are you presenting yourself?What does this say about you? Will boys be aroused by this? What would you think if you were a boy looking at you?”

Only when these issues are settled do questions of functionality, aesthetics, propriety, and preference, questions that presuppose contexts and interests for women outside their sexual attractions, receive attention.

In both cases, a woman is encouraged to conceive of herself primarily as the object of a gaze; usually, a sexual gaze.* Her role is not the citizen and public actor with both agendas of her own and the capacity to engage sexually, but the passive stimulant and receptacle for the desire of others. Sexual attractiveness (attractiveness, not desire), its presence or absence, is the most pertinent quality of her public person, and if she knows what’s good for her she will try either to transcend or exploit her essentially object character .

On the one hand, because of their unique identities as sex objects women bear both a particular moral responsibility to “use their beauty” well and wisely, and a particular danger of exposing too much desirable flesh—thereby lifting the curtain on their passive, sexualized natures and forfeiting the respect they might otherwise have received. Their clothes should be chosen carefully with these realities in mind. On the other hand, women presumably do not even want to transcend their inferior nature: sexual desire from others constitutes a woman’s happiness as well as purpose, and so her clothes should be carefully chosen with the sole aim of maximizing it. Both sides tend to employ a heavily religious, Pelagian tone: we can overcome our sexiness and our fat rolls if we try hard enough.

The pressure is constant, insidious, and pervasive. Otherwise women wouldn’t buy swimsuits they can’t swim in, or skirts that must be constantly arranged and re-arranged just so; they wouldn’t convince themselves and others that five inches of covered midriff at the beach is the great dividing line that separates girls with dignity and self-worth from those without.

You can objectify** yourself by wearing clothes that don’t let you do any the things you want to or should do, with freedom and vigor, except be looked at; by standing in front of a mirror everyday wondering if your outfit is TOO SEXY or NOT SEXY ENOUGH. You can listen to people who say that your dignity rises and falls in an inverse relation to your hemline. You can buy clothes that make you miserable wearing them because you have to spend the entire party aware of and tugging at said hemline and shoes that create permanent aches in your feet, because beauty is pain.

The goal isn’t to find a perfect amount of sexual attractiveness, such that its presence is pleasant but not degrading, and implying that this mythical amount exists is how the modesty-as-dignity-crowd objectifies woman. The goal is to avoid pursuing or glorifying sexual attractiveness at the expense of every other human consideration: comfort, freedom, simplicity, adherence to the current mostly-arbitrary-but-still-important rules of propriety.

Deprogramming isn’t easy, especially because everyone is spewing the same lie dressed up differently. Here’s the list I’ve cobbled together ad-hoc over the years to replace the Is this modest/Is this hot Janus when buying clothes or picking out an outfit.

-Is this right for what I am going to do? Can I walk freely, sit comfortably, swim, run, dance, cook, whatever I’m doing? Can I put this on and forget that I’m wearing it, or does it require constant attention? Does it force me to preoccupy myself with my body and the gaze of others all the damn time? 

-Does its attraction depend on misogyny? (More on this later)

-Is it contextually appropriate? Is it formal enough? Am I going to church, the beach, a party, work?

-Does it conform to a reasonable degree and to the best of my judgement (because this is mostly not a hard and fast metric) with the customs and norms regarding dress, public-private distinctions, etc. of this time and place?

-Is it aesthetically pleasing? Am I sexually attractive in it? Do I actually like it and feel happy wearing it?

-Is it well made and durable? Does it fill a real need in my closet?

And finally, most importantly, IS IT A LEATHER SKIRT OR DOES IT HAVE SEQUINS? BECAUSE YES.

*Aesthetic objectification, for instance, is much less common.

**It’s important to remember that not everyone who transgresses some sartorial line is necessarily sexually objectifying herself. A woman whose jeans constantly expose her underwear may be overvaluing sexual attention, or she might be lazy, or she might have decided the dictates of youth culture are the customs she want to obey, or she might be trying to shock and offend you. These aren’t good things, but they’re not sexual objectification, because women can do things for reasons that don’t involve sex!

What I Don’t Get

among other things, is the line that goes something like this: “Modesty doesn’t mean looking frumpy! In fact, it’s really important to look attractive and your best! You shouldn’t cover up all the way! It’s a fine line!”

Oh great. Because that’s exactly what I wanted in my life, another fine line. To recap: I’m supposed to be sexy but not sexual, or alluring but not sexy; I’m allowed to be smart but not too obvious about it, competent as long I’m sweet; I can be slightly unconventional (it’s really kind of cute, actually!) as long as I don’t deviate in any major ways from the norms of femininity.

And now, I am informed that even that though the same gendered sartorial standards that dictate a more decorative, display-oriented wardrobe for women are responsible for the slightly-too-high hemlines and slightly-too-low necklines that someone always finds problematic, women are still held accountable on both ends.

We’re responsible for any slippage, any showing, any failure to meet someone’s standards of coverage, and we are not allowed to simply chuck it, forget about looking pretty or fashionable, and focus on other things.  We will be policed on whatever side of this invisible tightrope we wobble on.

So basically, what I’m hearing is “We’re not going to challenge this cultural fixation on your decorative role, but we will give you a MEEEELION more ways to obsess over it!”

Yay?

Stream of Consumerism

Oh Topshop.  If not the absolute best thing to ever come out of England, you are certainly the best thing to come out of Kate Moss’s double zero brain. You are the happy lovechild of Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, with all the former’s flair for the outrageous, prevented from plumbing the depths of their grinding faddishness by the latter’s commitment to budget chic.  When I walk in, I see leather shorts everywhere—leather shorts with high waists and billowing blousy Peter Pan collar shirts to tuck inside them, and this is a beautiful thing. I will never buy these leather shorts, Topshop, because  American money is different, and twenty quid is too much to spend on something I can wear in approximately two percent of social situations, but they still make me happy. When the craving becomes too strong, I will tear myself away and wander over to the detachable collars instead.

Oh detachable collars.  The Clark Kent of accessories. You look like a lowly bib bravely decked out in beading or tiny pearls, but really, you’re a superhero.  Step off the rack and into your metaphorical telephone booth, and it’s a bird! It’s a plane! No! It’s a no-fuss and infinitely adaptable statement piece! You swoop -in and save blouses and wool sweaters from an existential drabness, from living their lives as fuzzy and staid concessions to bad weather and dress codes. And even if things never work out between you and that spunky journalistic chambray, you know you have a higher mission. You bring the sparkle to jersey and merino, the high-stepping to the buttoned -up. You make me excited to wear black crew-neck sweaters. Or at least you would if I let you, because just as I am envisioning how nicely you would go with my bright yellow wool pullover, I remember that I am still traveling, still on the kind of diet where you drink as much beer as nice strangers will buy you because it’s the best way to stave off hunger pangs till your budget lets you buy food again, and still need to buy shoes for tonight’s ball. (Yes, I go to balls but run out of food money.)

The song playing over the PA system is too hip and British for me to recognize it, and too loud and upbeat for me to get down to business and just find these shoes, so I continue flitting and pawing my way through the sale section.  Neon pants, no, denim vest, no, ladylike dress whimsified with absurd lace configuration, no, aqua blue sequins, no, floral crop top what? Aqua blue sequins? Where? Goodbye, apologetic I-don’t-have-money-I’m-just-browsing-please-don’t-pay-attention-to-me demeanor, it was nice knowing you, but I have seen my bright blue and incandescent Eurydice, and there is no netherworld through which I will not chase her. When I emerge from deep inside the confusion of an overcrowded clothes rack clutching the garment, I seem to have made enemies out of several waify English and Japanese schoolgirls. Whatever. That’s what you get for trying to intimidate me with your fifteen friends and premature familiarity with heavy eye shadow.

Topshop, can I just tell you how grateful I am for your dressing rooms? The flattering mirrors, the soft, warm, lighting, the three way visibility make you second only to Anthopologie in terms of fitting room Nirvana. This is really what you’re selling, isn’t? Not quality clothes, (although Anthro feints that way) not chic, (since you can’t really buy it) not even primarily the cool factor of new and exciting drapery—no, what you are selling is that blissful moment after you grit your teeth, shed your clothes, and turn to face your gleaming enemy. He’s betrayed you at Target, under their weird light that turns everything beige, and in in the harsh glare of your local thrift store.  He fools you with a sick travesty of intimacy—the person looking back at you with loathing is someone you know, and love, and generally assume is right about everything, and she seems to have suddenly espoused every lie about how much better you would be skinnier, smoother, more generic and invisible, that two minutes ago you repudiated with every fiber of your baptized and liberated body.

We cannot get away from the male gaze and the advertising gaze even in one of our most private and vulnerable moments, because they co-opt our own reflections as their mouthpieces.  Attempts to analyze our bodies can only mean willing self-subjection to outside analysis and the breaking down of any boundary between our minds and Madison Avenue’s, between judge and judged, purveyor and commodity. When we look at ourselves objectively, their conquest is complete. I’m telling you, vanity is a fraught vice. But Topshop, you make that teeth-gritting moment a small eucatasrophe. In your dressing rooms, I turn to face the gleaming enemy and think, damn, I look good. Yes, you still invite to me to scrutinize myself, you still tell me that I only exist as long as I’m slender and young and nubile, but at least you keep up your end of the fool’s bargain. At least you sweeten the deal as I check myself out in the threeway and sink into contentment under that magical soft lighting.

But Topshop, why? Why must you make this dress so short? I love this dress. It is bright, bright blue, something between Cookie-Monster’s fur and the ocean in cartoons, and entirely made of shimmering sequins. It is sleeveless, and charmingly unfitted, with a bateau neckline, and full swingy skirt descending from a natural waist. The problem is, it doesn’t descend very far. Now, as our president likes to say, let me be clear. The problem is not that this dress makes me look like I perform at the circus on tightrope or flying trapeze. In my book, looking like a trapeze artist is no evil. In fact, and Christine and other guardians of good taste might beg to differ on this, looking like a trapeze artist is always and everywhere an unqualified good. But Topshop, I’m tall. Tall and clumsy, and there is no way for tall clumsy girls to wear a dress this short without living in constant fear of wardrobe malfunction. I’m not asking for knee length (like I said, I like being mistaken for a tightrope walker), but an extra inch or two would make a world of difference.

Dear Topshop, and please pass this along to Forever 21, H&M, and the rest of your ilk: this may surprise you, but not all women walk the catwalk, and we are not all built exactly the same. There is a whole world of tall, clumsy girls out there who want to wear scintillating mermaid dresses while we can still get away with it, and we need a few extra inches to do it. Give us the inches, and we will love you forever. Fail to do so, and let’s just say I have friends in high places– the European Court of Human Rights, to be specific.

Someday I will forgive you for that doomed and sequined love affair, Topshop, especially since I did get my shoes (and you really do shine in the cheap and elegant ballet flats department.) But I still have to ask, as I pass the kitsch display on my way out—what is it with the Kate Moss paper dolls? Are you trying to say she’s three dimensional in real life?