Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fashion Slump

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Oscar Wilde

In 1984, my interest in fashion waned. That’s the year I bought my last Seventeen Magazine and the year I graduated from an elite private prep school. Before that year, I cared deeply about appearances and spent 1.5 hours each morning washing, primping, hot-rollering, dressing, and making myself up. I had an eyelash curler, and by golly I wasn’t afraid to use it. Most mornings, just before carpool arrived, I would decide to change my whole outfit and rush out the door fastening my ribbon belt.

I was trying—and failing spectacularly—to fit in, but at least I was a preppy, neat, and fashionable failure.

College fixed all that. Duke University, at least for those of us completely uninterested in sorority rush, was all about nose-to-the-grindstone studying. Your roommate didn’t care whether your Izod polo shirt matched your eye shadow at two o’clock in the morning when you were quizzing each other on the difference between mitosis and meiosis for a Cell Biology exam. Your classical history chum wasn’t concerned with the state of your penny loafers while you were comparing notes on Odysseus’ use of rhetorical tropes in his speech to Nausikaa.

Who can bother with 1.5 hours of primping in the morning when you didn’t stop studying until 4:00 AM and you’ve got a stinkin’ 8:00 AM calculus class on the other side of campus?

No one. That’s who.

Underneath my preppy high school exterior was a woman who just wanted to be comfortable, clean, and presentable. As my sister always says, “Never sacrifice comfort for fashion.” After being liberated by my college experience, I enjoyed shopping for clothes and never again stressed about being a fashion plate. I also never had a hard time finding acceptable, comfortable, classic clothing to meet my admittedly conservative standards. Until recently.

What in the name of Ralph Lauren is going on in the fashion industry? I’m confused, and have been for about three years. That’s when I started seeing a revival of early 1980s weirdness: the Madonna crap, not the cute preppy stuff (though the Gap did try). But what little preppy stuff I saw disappeared quickly, to be followed by a fashion motif best labeled “Hurry Up! Let’s ALL Look Frumpy and Pregnant!”

It took me two days of hard searching in 2007 to find a decent dress to wear to my husband’s Air Force retirement ceremony. That was my last major clothing purchase, and as a result, by this year, my wardrobe started getting, shall we say, tired. To perk it up, my sister and I went clothes shopping back in March, when we encountered the following fashion trends (in addition to the Pregnant Look) that really put my knickers in a twist:

--Shirts with oversized ruffles, cowls, or cotton lace.

--Shirts with distracting and unflattering ties, ruches, and puckers.

--Shirts with patterns so loud and colors so garish that my eyes looked away in self-defense.

I found a few shirts that were, at best, inoffensive and hoped for better in the summer. But in July, when I saw three different women dressed in full-length, tube-top sundresses at the Indianapolis Zoo, I gawked in horror.

Why? For the love of Bermuda shorts and at-the-waist jeans, WHY?

These old fashions were ugly enough the first time around, but I consider it a crime against womankind that the clothing industry is uglifying women and expecting us to be grateful for it in these hard economic times. Couldn’t we all use a little pretty in our lives right now?

Mary Grimes and I went shopping in Madison while our husbands put their feet up the day before Ironman. Mary is very stylish and used to be a buyer for Talbots. I felt sorry for her shopping with me. I tried on an embarrassing number of outfits and found that nothing fit me. Nothing. Do the clothing manufacturers consider that women often have bigger hips than waists? Do they notice that most of us are not 5’11” and 98 pounds? Do they notice that we have skin that doesn’t like scratchy seams or stiff fabric that chafes?

Am I really asking too much?

This fall, as my wardrobe further deteriorated into tatters, I resolved to focus on the Eddie Bauer, Lands End, and L.L.Bean catalogs: long-time reliable sources of classic clothing. Perusing their most recent offerings, however, I found that even they have caved a bit to the uglification process. Skinny belts over cardigans (who but fashion models can carry that off?), low-rise pants (instant muffin-top, anyone?), and maternity shirts with weird little bows and puckers appear next to lovely classic cable sweaters, studio skirts, and cashmere argyle scarves.

That studio skirt is going to be mine, by the way. All mine.

My apologies to anyone who is thrilled with today’s fashions, but if you are, I hazard a guess that you’re younger (and skinnier) than I am. Just think, one day, when fashion cycles back to this look, you’ll be decades older and not so skinny or tolerant of discomfort, and you’ll remember this essay. And I predict that you will have joined me and my sister in agreement with the brilliant Gilda Radner, who said, “I base my fashion taste on what doesn’t itch.”

Fashion industry, I hope you’re listening.


  1. Admittedly, I am a younger and tend to keep up with the practical fashion trends, but I do think that there are a lot of good items on the market. Particularly at Talbots, J Crew and Brooks Brothers. TJ Maxx and Marshalls are great bets for cheaper options that are still in line with current styles. And honestly, finding a good tailor who can bring things into your shape is well worth the money! There is hope, keep trying and you must try it on in all sizes - you never know!

  2. OK, you think you're out of it - I don't even know what a studio skirt is!! Did I see that in the Talbots catty?

  3. Freeport Studio Skirt, LLBean WQ59497, $79. It's a plaid skirt, just above the knee, fully lined, and cute as can be with a cable turtleneck sweater on top. I think I'm still skinny enough to get away with a plaid skirt, but it may make me look like a barge.

    Elizabeth, I haven't been to TJMaxx or Marsalls in eons, but I may have to check them out. I love Talbots but am way too cheap to shop there. Stamps are so expensive, LOL!

    Plus, SAHMs rarely need to dress for success. Drool and sticky fingers are all too real in my world. Mostly, I'm focusing on casual wear, and that's where most of the uglification seems to be taking place. Tube tops. ARE THEY SERIOUS???

  4. I feel your pain Susan! I am short (under 5'1") and am over 50 (just about 56). I cannot wear jeans that don't go to the waist! I have found one style of Eddie Bauer jeans that fit me so I bought 3 of them and live in them! I also can't tolerate anything that itches, etc (might be a little Aspergers in me?? Definitely in my daughter!). I love stamps - they fit in any size!!

  5. Speaking as a young person (22 in November) I would just like to reassure you that not all of us are slaves to polyester ruffles (bleh).

    In fact, I refuse to wear anything that is not at least 90% comfortable (a huge problem when buying professional clothing for work). I have however managed to find some very tasteful and simple things from Victoria's Secret and Kohl's.

    I am also an avid knitter so instead of spending hours looking for the perfect sweater/cardigan/etc. that is not itchy and actually FITS, I just make it myself.

  6. I am younger (and a big fan of ruffles - my mama raised me girly, haha!) but I am extremely modest in nature and find it so difficult to find anything that is both attractive and decent. I have sadly resorted to wearing undershirts AND cardigans, boleros, etc. over things to feel unexposed.

  7. I didn't get the "fashion" gene everyone one else in my family has and this includes the boys. In my younger days when everything my body was tight and high it didn't matter what I wore, clothes just looked good and fit. I love your post about what clothes are like for mature women today with real figures.

  8. I'm with you, Susan!! Empire-waist tops just make me look pregnant. I long ago settled on a sort of uniform of basic knit tops (in all cotton or cotton plus spandex). Those are comfortable, not itchy or constricting. I try to find a little detail for interest--such as a square neck or boatneck, or a rib knit. As you said, Land's End is a great source for those--but also Target (Cherokee brand). My experience at Marshall's is that they sometimes have great finds, but you have to wade through a lot of junk to find them. Kohl's has been a good source of skirts for me. (I wear a lot of skirts because I live in Florida, and skirts are much cooler than pants when you have to be a touch dressed up. Last weekend I wore jeans for the first time since last April or so.)

  9. how funny susan. i must say i totally agree with you. my last few trips through the LLBean and LandsEnd catalogs have been mostly disappointing. gilda had is right...life is too short for uncomfortable clothing. as a nurse, i wear scrubs to work (one size fits nobody). then when i am not working i wear jeans or sweats. no fashion statements here, but that's ok. oh and i have one pair of black pants for church, or out to dinner, or someplace that needs to be nicer than jeans. i admit to getting super stressed when i have to buy a new pair of jeans, like now. ah well. i guess if that's the worst stress in my life, i am lucky.
    prayers and best thoughts for lisa and grady. when do you get to visit?!! (i am flying to philly next week to see my folks and my sister and her family. soo excited!) have a great day, and thanks soo much for sharing.
    marty ferraro

  10. too funny, I can totally relate to the muffin top after four kids!!! I'm 35 and caught in a gap, I don't want an elastic waist, but I don't want my butt crack showing either!! I do love lands end and LL bean, they are pricey, hard to rationalize, although I have no problem rationalizing that I just spent over fifty on paper and stamps:)

  11. Ahhh!! Ladies, you are killing me! There's no reason to give up after a few frustrating trips shopping. No one looks good in all the trends that are on the market, you find a few that can work for you and move on. A good tailor is worth their weight in gold and there are tons of jeans brands out there. For those uncomfortable with the low-rise, try "Not Your Daughter's Jeans". You may have to pay a bit more for certain items but often they are well made and last. It does take some effort, but is worth it, even if you are casual. You do feel better about yourself when you are out and put together. I swear, really. Keep trying!

  12. I am so glad someone else has a terrible time shopping for clothes! I hate all the fashions of today, yet Lands End and LLBean are just plain boring! It took me 3 months to find a dress for my neices wedding that didn't make me look pregnant, like an old lady trying to look young, frumpy. What ever happen to clothes that are for "normal" people!?!

  13. Oh Boy can I relate to all of this this side of the pond too..... let me assure you ladies it doesn't get any better as you get older (which I am!!!) No longer young or slim enough to follow high fashion (not sure I ever managed that!!) the choice is now between 'frumpy' (Granny would have loved it) or 'trendy' (ideal for my teenage great niece). Yes there are expensive clothes out there that I like and disguise all the lumps & bumps but I'd rather spend it on stamps!!! Where did middle of the road, comfortable, affordable fashion disappear to?
    I avoid TJMaxx - just too messy!
    Love the Lands End catty....
    Thanks Susan for your funny, topical posts that brighten our days.

  14. I want to reply to each and every comment personally but it would take forever. Elizabeth, I admire your enthusiasm and determination. Harriet, I loved the EB jeans until they changed them a few years ago; I was so sad when my last pair got a hole in an unfortunate place and had to go! Wren, you go, girl! Wish I could knit, but my time-sucking hobby is papercrafts, which isn't helpful for wardrobe, LOL! Amber, I am also modest, and I got an email from my friend Liz that says just exactly what you said. Lisa, I totally agree: when your parts are "tight and high", fashion is so much easier; and can we talk about upper arms? Sheesh. Cap sleeves don't look good on top of turkey wattle arms. Marty, you're right about scrubs...I've never seen anyone that looked good in them, even super-skinny people! Laura, stamps definitely get more of my money than clothes, too! Susan, we have more in common than just a name, LOL! Christine, I am sorry it's not better outside the US.

    Whew! Thank you all for your comments!

  15. Having just spent a weekend of shopping with a girlfriend I completely understand your frustration. As a SAHM, I need comfortable and easy to care for clothes. I have no desire to hand wash or dry clean anything. Casual wear without looking dumpy is what I want. And I totally agree there are way too many shirts out there that make me look pregnant. As far as pants I did find pants at Eddie Bauer that fit so well. They are "berkely" cut. The waist size is one size smaller than the hip size, so it gets rid of that nasty gap in the waist. Check them out. My friend and I bought a bunch of them and love them.

  16. Funny that you mentioned your friend was a buyer for Talbot's. My friend and I have been commiserating about Talbot's unfortunate trends for the last couple of years. We are both long-time Talbot's shoppers (I usually buy on-line and on-sale), and have not been able to find anything we want there recently. They keep sending e-mails with wonderful sales, but we can find nothing wearable. I even wrote Talbot's about it, and got a generic reply -- appreciated my thoughts, etc. I loved their classic skirts for church and the occasional dressier event. Even their tee shirts and khakis are not the same. So, I just keep wearing my old stand-bys, but they are wearing out!

  17. Thanks, Martha! I'm going to have to go to EB now. That's exactly my problem with jeans. That, and I'm right on the cusp between petite and regular length.

    Kay, good on you for writing Talbots. Hopefully, things will swing around soon, and we'll be able to refresh our wardrobes. My situation is getting dire, and it sounds like yours is, too.

  18. I goofed it is the Blakely fit at Eddie Bauer. Hope you read this before you head out. They are wonderful.

  19. Susan, I'm finally making it to some of your posts... love this one. This is why I shop at goodwill... :)


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!