This post has been prompted by an article I recently read on nymag.com, Why New Yorkers Have Always Worn Black.
I don’t always find it easy to explain and defend my predilection to wearing black, which is often a very unpopular choice. But in the past year or so it has become clearer and clearer to me that black just feels right. I am currently adding mostly black things into my closet and dying a lot of what I own black. Not only clothes, but also accessories. In the top image, the bag has been dyed. It used to look like this:
But it was not only the bag that changed colors—wallet used to be white too, and the Kindle cover was brown in its previous life. I can’t tell you how many times I have resisted the impulse to make that blue pouch black too.
The New York Magazine article I mentioned is nothing really to write home about: black takes the grime of the city well, it is sexy, but most of all, it’s cool “you are part of the band” not the audience kind of cool. Eyeroll!
The author (Amy Larocca) does make an interesting point though, that before chemical dyes, deep black used to be difficult to achieve (my RIT dye experiences have shown that it can still be true today), so it was an extremely costly color, and it symbolized power, elegance, and luxury. Apparently, in Europe at some point there was such a thing as sumptuary laws that, among other things I imagine, forbade the lower classes from wearing black! Why is it that so many of the things on which we place value as a civilization are direct symbols of how better some of us are than the rest?
Black also used to be, for a long time, a color reserved kind of exclusively for men’s garments. I haven’t researched this properly, but as I see it now, women have always been encouraged to be colorful, and only when their womanhood was no longer their strongest identifier, when they were placed by society somewhere at the periphery of womanhood (I’m thinking of widows and nuns here) they shed their color and wear black or white. Black has always been associated in Europe with death, darkness, religion, the heavy, serious stuff. Women were supposed to play a role that was at odds with such connotations. Women’s duty was to lighten the mood, to make men’s lives more pleasant, lighter, less stressful, homey, comfortable. That was why women had to be colorful. A woman wearing black is not a source of entertainment or decor for anyone (but herself).
The comment section of the New York Magazine article was much more interesting than the article itself, as it often happens. One commenter brings up the popularity of the Japanese avant-garde fashion (Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake) in the 80s and to today as a vehicle through which black became so popular. The Japanese designers created dark, oversized, somewhat raggedy garments that didn’t follow the natural lines of the body. The women were not constrained to the dreaded “feminine form” anymore. The style was obviously not well received at first. Rei Kawakubo’s followers were called “the crows” in the Japanese newspapers. When Yohji Yamamoto was making a first appearance in the west, in 1982, the fashion press had this to say : “Yamamoto’s clothes would be most appropriate for someone perched on a broom” (Mary Long, “People”, quoted in this research article: When the West Wore East—love the title!).
As a crow and broom perching enthusiast, I love all of that. Witches are women who embrace their power. They are not to be taken lightly. Witches wear black. Witches were not exactly known as the most law abiding of citizens and they must have been able to afford black dyes because of the deal with the devil thing. Good for them! If that’s what a woman must do to be taken seriously. And to be able to wear black as she pleases.
This past weekend I bought four pairs of jeans from the thrift shop! Excessive, I know, but when you hear this story you’ll see it was unavoidable.
I would have never thought such a feat to be possible if it didn’t happen to me. I mean, jeans are notoriously hard to shop for even in conventional retail stores. Yet, I found four perfectly beautiful pairs in one day at the thrift shop. It happened and it was a history-making score. This is how the story goes.
I already had a good collection of jeans: two skinny pairs, two relaxed boyfriend style, and two flared. All that I’d ever need, and a bit more. However, two of those pairs (a boyfriend and a flared) were starting to feel a bit loose, and I had been looking to replace them. Of course, I never thought I’d be able to do it in one day.
This past Saturday I needed a longer break from home and kids, so I went out to visit both my favorite thrift shops. In the first one I found three great pairs of jeans. I found a Joe’s, Japanese denim, boyfriend style; a Hudson, made in USA, flare; and a Burberry, straight, ankle check pair, made in England. And they all fit! I know. I couldn’t believe it myself. Now, I am not usually one to buy cartfulls when I go thrifting, because what’s the fun in that? I usually just keep it to one or at the most two items per trip. So I made myself select only two pairs and leave one behind. I chose to leave the Burberry behind, because the other two pairs looked better on me. Plus, I reasoned, it’s good to leave some treasures back for other people to find, for good thrifting karma. I was of course certain that the next person to lay their eyes on the Burberry jeans would snap them in a millisecond.
At the second shop I had no intention of buying anymore jeans. As a matter of fact I had no intention to buy anything at all, just to enjoy the browsing. Unless of course, something formidable and out of my wildest dreams would show up. Which, you probably have guessed, happened. I found a pair of black skinny jeans, made in Japan, by Karl Lagerfeld ! I had been dreaming about Japanese denim for a long time, because they are apparently the holly grail, as declared by denim connoisseurs over on the two or three websites that came up in my Google research some months ago when I was looking to buy some nice jeans for my husband. So this is how I ended up buying a third pair. Interestingly enough, in this second store I also found another pair of Hudson jeans identical to the one I had bought already. So you could say that I left a treasure behind even here.
I spent a good hour or more on Saturday evening cutting and rehemming. I’m not too fussy about that, I just cut off the original seam using older jeans in the same style to measure, and then I sew the new hem by hand, because I broke too many machine needles with jeans. One of these days I’ll buy some denim needles. Maybe.
And this is where the story doesn’t end yet. No. The following day I couldn’t stop thinking about the pair of Burberry’s I had left behind. They were actually a nice straight leg, and I don’t have this style in my collection, and in a beautiful dark wash, and they were made in England (the most exciting part about it). Because I had a 30-percent off coupon and apparently nothing better to do this Sunday, I decided to check the store again and see if they were still there. I was convinced they wouldn’t be, of course. I didn’t even look too hard, but I saw them immediately there, waiting for me. Destiny, what can I say. And at checkout I discovered that it was a 50-percent off day. How were those jeans still there? I can’t think of any other reason that they were meant to be mine. This is the magic of thrifting: it’s not just shopping, it has meaning. Right? And meaning is happiness. Meaning is everything.
Now I got rid of one of the old jeans (I might use it one last time for a Holi celebration this weekend), and I am left with nine pairs, of which one is a bit too tight in the waist and one is rather loose (but in a good slouchy way that I enjoy). I’ve never owned this many jeans before. Such decadence. I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Because this winter has been so difficult and long and depressing, I found myself enjoying crafty projects more than I have been in the past several years. There was a time, all the way back toward the beginnings of this blog, when I used to take my sewing machine out daily, and I used to have a knitting or crochet project started at all times. Now the sewing machine only gets pulled out when I need to adjust or repair something, and I haven’t touched the knitting needles for year. I never make anything from scratch anymore, because I fail to see value in the clothes that I make (I only see the mistakes). However, there are very few additions to my closet that haven’t suffered some sort of adjustment, because when I find something in the thrift store, I tend to see the potential in my head, rather than the reality that’s right there in front of my eyes.
Yes, so this big intro was to say that I haven’t sewn or knitted anything of interest lately, but instead, I have been working on jewelry.
I don’t wear a lot of jewelry. Several bracelets and a pair of earrings are usually it. Only when I dress up I often throw on a knotted, waist-long necklace. And this has worked well for me for a long time. This past summer, however, I bought a short bead necklace from the thrift store and I thought that it went really well with any casual t-shirt or blouse, without feeling fussy at all. I liked it. I am also liking this trend right now of layering delicate necklaces with various pendants. So I looked in my jewelry box for old, unloved pieces that I could work with to make something I’d wear today. For one necklace I repurposed some silver beads from another necklace that I didn’t use anymore, and from a pair of old earrings bought from a Tibetan store in Cambridge I made the lotus pendant. A tie pin that I had bought several years ago from a thrift store in Ogunquit became the pendant for another necklace. The big tube bead is the only thing I bought new from a bead supply website. I am liking my resulting creations quite a bit.
Now of course I don’t wear a necklace quite every day, as I was imagining. Especially since I can’t seem to take off these hanging earrings that I made from an old silver chain and a pair of amber-bead stud earrings that I wasn’t wearing (I don’t like taking my earrings off at night and the studs hurt when I sleep). I often feel that big earrings should not compete with a necklace; it’s too much for me. I wish I could embrace fully the boho aesthetic of layering a hundred and one pieces of jewelry, but I’m always struggling somewhere between baroque and minimalist tendencies.
I also often feel that jewelry doesn’t make sense unless it has meaning for the wearer, and I don’t have many meaningful pieces. I don’t generally allow objects to acquire meaning. There must be something interesting to decode in that behavior, but maybe later. Someday, when I won’t feel this frugal, I’m might get a Cucuteni Goddess pendant, or a Brancusi’s Kiss replica (although I would prefer a Mademoiselle Pogany, if I could find one in silver, not gold). Right now, though, I’m quite content with what I have. It’s already much more than I need, but then jewelry is never a need. Unless it has meaning, symbolism, and magic. But these qualities often come with time and wear, don’t they?
For the past two months my family had quite a pleasant Sunday routine that involved my husband taking my daughter to skating lessons while the baby and I spent time in Savers looking around for treasures. There have been days when I didn’t buy anything, although the kids always seem to need one thing or another. They grow out of sizes at such a fast rate that clothes are consumables in our house. I should file the expenses under groceries. This post, however, is not about clothes needed by fast-growing children, but about an unnecessary bag for their mother.
I definitely didn’t need another bag. I didn’t. A year or two ago I had reached the perfect balance of bags. I have one bag (or two) for each imaginable situation: I have bags for winter and bags for summer, I have tiny fancy bags that work nicely for evening events, and slouchy, cross-body bags that I can travel well with me. I have big bags that can be diaper bag (or laptop bag) and purse at the same time, I have diaper bag/purse combos (the purse is small enough to go inside the diaper bag when needed, but also has enough space for essentials like phone, wallet, sunglasses and keys). I have tan, brown and black bags, and even a pink evening bag, because who knows when a little black dress (which I don’t own and possibly never will) might ask for a colorful little accessory. So, yeah, no need for a new bag. But then when I saw this pretty little leather one with it’s beautiful hardware and attractive rounded corners, I couldn’t resist. And it was only $4.
I have been wearing it exclusively now for two weeks and I am very happy with it. I am happier than if I had resisted buying it, I think. Which I often think I should have, because I own enough crap already and I don’t have the time or the energy to take care of it all (my basement is a messy testimony to that). But it was cheap and small. At least I got stopped from purchasing two lounge chairs that were cheap and lovely. Really lovely. They only needed new upholstery, and maybe an extra room in the house. See, good that I bought that bag that helped me resist bigger temptations. I think that maybe I should just enjoy it for now and stop obsessing over needs versus wants. Sometimes there is little reason to our actions, and that should be acceptable. As long as it stays in the realm of sometimes and doesn’t become every day. As long as it’s small and cheap and beautiful. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. (The planet? Of course you had to remind me of that! Come on, stop giving me such a hard time. Just this once.)
I can’t resist embroidery or crochet embellishments. I know that in our day and age these are no longer the mark of handmade items enriched by the mastery and care of skillful artisans, but machine-made, fast-fashion creations (in most part), but something of that ancient handmade spirit is still summoned by these garments, I often find (or maybe I’m just dreaming, which might very well be, since I get little sleep and my awake hours are in fact lost in a daze of semi-reality).
I often like to think of the times when women would sit in front of a wood-crackling stove and work on tedious, detailed embroidery for hours at a time. In agricultural societies, most of women’s work in winter consisted of making clothes for the family and linens for the house. I learned from Mamaia (my grandmother) how to do cross stitch on tablecloths, how to knit vests and winter hats, how to use the sewing machine to alter hems, or make bedsheets and pillow cases; and once or twice I even watched her weaving bed covers and wall tapestries on an old, wood, weaving loom like this one (the woman in the image looks a lot like Mamaia too). For a long while didn’t really appreciate any of these skills I inherited from her, and years later the fast-paced modern life did not allow time for these activities that seemed destined for a life of leisure. I wished we all could still slow down in winter and occupy the time with pleasant, calming projects involving the creation of beautiful things to be used for years to come. How precious those things would be! Let me lie down here for a moment and think about that. With my eyes closed. Just for a second.
Right, I was writing something. Yes. I remember. So, in the thrift shops I always look for peasant blouses and I think I have quite a nice collection by now. I want to learn about the different types of embroidery of various cultures. Only India has a myriad, like Kantha, from Bengal, or Chikankari from Uttar Pradesh. In Romania, the beautiful traditional blouses, called ii, are also adorned with delicate amazing embroidery. I’m also smitten with Mexican peasant blouses, but I know little of other traditions, and I know (and rejoice) that there is much to learn about.
Now, on a different note, I wanted to take a moment and admit how awkward it still feels for me to talk about personal style and clothes and adornments of all sorts on this blog. While in my daily life I do spend quite a bit of time thinking about my what I wear and I often find myself fascinated by other people’s personal styles, there is a deeply ingrained fear that these are superficial matters and not worthy of too much thought, and if I talk about all that here, I will give the impression that I am not a deep thinker, a serious intellectual, and all that which matters. So, in a way, I have to force myself to write about these things, although they do interest me very much and although when I really think about it I know there is nothing wrong with caring about how clothes look, how fabrics feel or how jewelry carries meaning. I watch Project Runway on TV and I have no doubt that designing clothes is an art and designers are artists, just like village women who embroider complicated patterns on fine fabrics are artists themselves. It is about beauty, and nothing about beautiful things is a waste of time. Right? OK, maybe sometimes time will be wasted, but what is one to do with time anyway, if not fill it with beauty? If not adorn it with thoughts of swishing fine cloth? And anyway, it is too tiring, boring and passé to be highly intellectual all the time. My brain needs rest. True, lots of rest, recently, or it loses track of what’s real and what’s only a dream, but don’t tell that to anyone.
Putting on clothes in the morning can be a very unpredictable animal when you’re the mother of an infant. No time, no clean clothes, no energy. The baby gives me about ten to fifteen minutes to get ready in the morning, so not much time to stand in front of the closet undecided about what to wear that day. I could stay in my pajamas, sure, the baby couldn’t care less, but I have a strict work from home policy that requires changing out of pajamas before 10 at the latest, and putting on some sort of nice yet comfortable clothes that say (in spite of the obvious) that this woman has things to do, places to go. It’s all in my head, but I think that if I look depressed I get depressed, so I try to avoid that. Yes, I know I am not the one who came out with this groundbreaking idea, but really you could just pretend that this is where you heard it the first time. A little bit of exaggeration never did anyone any harm, right?
So, a few days ago I opened Photoshop on my laptop and started playing with colors and clothes like they were Lego pieces. Because after all the image we create for ourselves in the morning is like a Lego creation. We put pieces together, in a few variations, every single day, to build someone that we think we must be. Someone capable of voyaging through the world with ease and comfort, with confidence and maybe even contentment.
My daily uniform now consists of long cotton knit skirt, usually black, rarely jeans, and a tank top in a lighter color with a cardigan that is either grey or some other muted coloration. The colors didn’t exactly turn out right in my image. They are a little sad. But these are the general hues I tend to be attracted to. I would have liked to simplify and wear only one dominant color, but I am not there yet. You know, you read in good books about those women who all throughout their lives wear only red, or black, or white. That small detail makes for such interesting characters. Because who has so much restraint? Who is so determined and has such power of conviction? Who doesn’t doubt themselves at least ten thousand times a day? Well, obviously, not yours truly. My Lego self is a bit disconnected, loose, sometimes walking the edge between someone and someone else. These Lego selves of mine try to stay together, live in the same universe, but often, as you can see from my Photoshop creation, they just look sad, disjointed, and a bit grotesque together. A bit of a Frankenwardrobe, so suitably, on Halloween.
I was thinking of starting a new regular column over here about thrift shopping and style and stuff. Because there is pleasure to be found in stuff, especially when it’s cheap and treasure hunted. Thrift shops make for a thrilling experience, and since beautiful but boring day-to-day life with a baby doesn’t allow for many of those, I appreciate it from the bottom depths of my shallow little heart.
I generally hunt for leather bags and linen or silk or wool, or embroidered, crochet cotton. Lately I have been noticing the jewelry section also, which I used to ignore because of no interest in “costume” jewelry, which for me meant plastic crap. But I have relaxed my ways a bit lately, to allow some excitement at the sight of a long non-precious metal or glass-bead necklace. What’s the harm, after all, right? Metal and glass are still natural materials, after all. Right? Right. (That was not a rhetorical question, and I do need to answer it myself because nobody else reads this blog.)
So, yeah, stuff can be exhilarating (and almost ethical), especially when it’s already used, cheap, well made, and pretty. All must apply, otherwise consumer guilt comes haunting at night, and destruction of the planet from overproduction of crap and creation of garbage becomes terrifying nightmares that don’t really stop in the light of the day either.
Minimalism is of course appealing and clearly the more ethical choice, but it is such a difficult commitment. At least for me. I am not a saint, in spite of the image I might try to create on the Internets. For this moment in my life, thrift shopping gets a lot of love over here, and it will show its pretty face on the blog from time to time, with your permission. (Yes, all right, “you” is just a hypothetical concept on this blog of mine, as “you” very well know. And “we” don’t need to mention it again, OK?)
Summer is slowly chilling away and my mind is starting to linger on the wool sweaters and scarves forgotten at the back of my closet. At the end of such a beautiful, perfect summer when nonetheless I am grateful for the change that is coming, I feel so blessed to be living in a place that has all the seasons. Just like Blaga would say, I love them all, winter and spring, summer and fall.
I’m also happy to be returning to old wardrobe friends that have been missed throughout the season and also a little sad for having to put away some of the summer favorites. Most of my wardrobe lives with me throughout the year. There are however, wool sweaters that sit packed tightly during the heat, and jeans that want to make summer appearances but are most often denied the chance. And there are of course, breezy linen dresses, handkerchief cotton skirts and light button-up shirts that will not see their reflection in the mirror during winter.
I have written about uniform dressing before. It works for me. This summer I have been wearing long dresses paired often with shirts worn as jackets, and maxi skirts with light tops, most in cotton and linen, but some also in silk, because I have developed a slight silk obsession that embarrasses me a little. Soon, all these beauties will have to be stashed away until next June or, if we’re lucky, maybe May.
The outfits pictured in this post are my favorites.
This is the uniform that fits best, I feel, my life (an exciting whirlwind of writing from the couch, doing household chores, and organizing children’s activities) and my style (let’s call it creative yet simple, boho-ish yet streamlined, something yet a completely different other thing).
I think there might be maybe two more outfits that I didn’t picture although they got a lot of wear. Otherwise, although I do own too many clothes, nothing much appeals when I get dressed in the morning. Nothing else feels just as comfortable, cool and not fussy. So I probably need to start a new donation box. Maybe once I see what fits into my fall uniform and what doesn’t.
I have different uniforms for different seasons because I do need some variety. My style changes in the colder months when I wear more pants, and fewer maxi dresses or skirts. Once the cold weather comes in full force, I will try to document my fall/winter uniform too. That will surely be more fun (scarves!)
The Thoughtful Dresser is a book that I wanted to like. It’s one of those themes — women and their clothes — that can be deeply interesting because there is so much negativity attached to it. I also have strong feelings about the topic and I was hoping to find more thoughts in the line with my own.
It started like that. The book seemed to have had many good intentions in the beginning, but somewhere it failed to deliver any sort of deep message beyond: beautiful clothes are a pleasure that we should not deny ourselves. Which is not a bad message in itself, but which, at the same time, is not enough. There are pleasures and there are pleasures, and wearing beautiful clothes is among those pleasures that we are not sure what to do with, like eating and sleeping. It’s among those pleasures that we blame all our misfortunes on and not among the pleasures that we keep in higher regard, like watching team sports. I think that making clothes and putting together outfits the reflect a style and various moods, are forms of art, an art with immediate and strong impact on various psychological levels. But this is not the direction of this book.
All the time reading the book I felt excitement at the beginning of the chapter, and as the reading continued I was let down, time and time again. No, this is not an enlightened book that will leave you feeling entitled to own and wear that beautiful dress while still viewing yourself as an intelligent and valuable individual in the world. If that is what you’re looking for, then you need to keep looking. This book only reinforces old-time tales of women’s imperfect bodies that need cover and designer clothes that are an ultimate cover which sadistically will never fit our bodies.
A large part of the book is dedicated to the story of Catherine Hill, a holocaust survivor who became successful in the fashion industry owning several stores and having known well many big names in the high fashion world. Sure, I told myself, now the revelations will come, from the experience of this extraordinary woman who had been through the unimaginable and turned to clothes to make her life beautiful again. Unfortunately, even that line of the story fell flat. We are left with an image of Catherine Hill wanting to cover women’s imperfect bodies, because the cover had been denied to them in the camps at different times, and that had been unbearable to them. As much as this might be a powerful message, I do not want to be left with the idea that I need to cover my imperfect body.
Maybe I found the book distressing also because the message was often contradictory. For example, on one page we are told that designers don’t care about us, the women who would buy and wear their clothes. They only care about themselves and what’s in their minds. On the the next page we are told how lusting for designer shoes is just normal and OK, and going for glamor is all that is left for a woman over 40 (one definition of glamor being the designer label).
The parts that I did like were those few incursions into fashion history, Christian Dior’s thoughts on the New Look and Coco Chanel’s preference for simplicity and cheaper, comfortable fabrics (jersey, yes!). But I am sure there are many other books that discuss these issues to more depth.
The book could also have used a better editor: many ideas were repeated several times throughout, for example how you can tell the age of a photograph by looking at the clothes the people in it are wearing, or how the author inherited her thick ankles and thick wrists from her peasant Russian and Polish ancestors. Throughout the book you can feel the author’s sense of displeasure with herself: her body, her aging, her inability to wear designer shoes. Don’t we have enough magazines, commercials for cosmetics and surgery that show us how much our bodies are lacking? I personally do not feel any need to also read books that reinforce these ideas.
One question this book did leave me with: who is the thoughtful dresser? Certainly, it is not the reader, because the readers do not get any insight or advice into how to put more thought into their dressing. No. The thoughtful dresser can only be the writer herself, who put some thought into writing this book. Unfortunately, the book’s relevance does not extend beyond her person either.
I have been thinking of doing one of these posts for a very long time. I do find them fascinating, and I know I am not the only one. Now that Angie posted her thoughts about her bag and its contents, I felt compelled to finally do this post.
Bags can tell a lot. They are keepers of secret lives and intimate selves. They are an important character in one’s story. This is what mine can unveil. You can interpret it any way you want. These are things that come with me, hidden, and when they peek out, they tell tales that might or might not be about the real me.
Copyright 2018 Lori Tiron-Pandit