A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Pursuit of Elegance

I’m wearing a simple self-drafted gathered skirt for for Me Made May today. I thought you might be tired of seeing my mug all the time, so I changed it up. You get more of the the wild floral print this way, anyway.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Seven
The Pursuit of Elegance

I don’t know if every clothing-obsessed person had an identifiable turning point in their development of personal style, but I definitely did. I had loved clothing and design from the time I was a child, but aside from gothic tendencies, I didn’t have a defined style. I knew what I liked, but I hadn’t examined any reasons behind it.

It may be embarrassing to admit, but the entire basis of my personal style developed primarily from a single book: French Style by Veronique Vienne. I’d be willing to wager that you’ve never heard of this book, which is very much out of print, and was never very popular to begin with. Published in 1993, it was available from only one source — and that was the clothing retailer Express. That’s right: the turning point for my personal style was an oversized paperback purchased at Express. Filled with photos and illustrations both historical and modern, it was less of a prescriptive manual (wear this, as a command) and more of a guide to possibilities (try this, as a suggestion). More importantly, it spoke to the almost mystical desire I had to be enigmatic and elegant.

I knew even then that I would probably never be beautiful as society demanded, but I began to believe that I could be handsome and charismatic — which could be better in the long run. It was something I could age into instead of age out of — something that I could be at 20 or 30 or 40, if I did it well enough.

I found this especially comforting because so much about me was amorphous, at least physically. I was (at the time) an inbetween size, I was short, and I had freckles — the death knell of sophistication in my mind. Even the color of my eyes and hair were difficult to determine! My eyes were grey, but could look blue, green, or grey — and my hair was auburn, but was made up of all different sorts of gingery shades, and included a natural orange streak along the left side of my hairline. (I was occasionally called “skunk head” in elementary school because of my stripe.) I wanted to have something concrete and easily defined about my appearance, so I decided that I would learn to be well-dressed.

French Style does outline some rules, of course — actually helpful tips like “Don’t wear clothes that wear you” and “Mix, don’t match, lengths (and textures).” It also introduced me to the concept of “épater les bourgeois” — to shock the middle class. I would rather look shocking than dull any day! It helped to give me a sense of what styles to avoid, too. Even as a young adult I felt compelled to shun any style that might label me as frumpy — anyone over a certain (very small) size is easy to dismiss as matronly, regardless of age. I live in terror of looking matronly to this day, and I’m old enough now to be a literal matron.

Over the years I built on the basics French Style taught me, and developed my own internal set of rules for dressing. Some of these are admittedly sort of odd. I don’t treat blue denim as a neutral, for instance — I only wear it with black, white, or grey. I never wear true navy blue, pink, or brown unless it’s in a print with black. I never buy or sew a separate that doesn’t go with at least two garments I already have. Every single garment in my closet fits me at my current size, and is comfortable. But these are my rules — they don’t have to be yours.

I don’t necessarily follow standard fashion guidelines, either. I like horizontal stripes (quelle horreur!), and I don’t give much thought to what is considered typically flattering. I dress to please myself, not the arbiters of fashion or “good taste.” I’ve managed to stay true to my early style ambitions, though. I may not be completely elegant, but I think I’ve made excellent progress in that direction.

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