Second Thoughts On Style

Love that cowl-neck sweater! Image by Nieve44/La Luz via Flickr

What about a person’s appearance — (although a lovely soul matters most! — makes them attractive and memorable?

Personal style. Attention to detail. Self-confidence. Understanding fit, proportion, color and scale.

It isn’t easy, which is why so many fall into the snoozy ruts of khakis-and-a-blazer for men or those faux pinstripy “suits” so many women wear, as if by default. I read fashion magazines, but find their advice and choices often fairly bizarre and unworkable for my size, shape, budget and age. Other than that…

Websites like The Sartorialist now celebrate civilians who manage to radiate chic.

Working retail for a few years was a fun way to see how stylish people put themselves together. I still remember a woman my age who came in wearing a gorgeous turquoise jacket — with eyeglass frames that matched.

A few addenda to how to achieve it:

A high-cut armhole. If you’ve ever been to France and tried on their clothes, you’ll notice the difference in fit right away. The armhole is cut higher and tighter than anything created by American designers, and it creates a totally different line. Much more elegant!

Sleeve length, shirt shape and necklines matter! A cap sleeve is brutal on a woman like me with large and muscular upper arms. A boat-neck is fab on (my) broad shoulders. Focus on your best bits and camouflage the rest by drawing attention to the parts you’re happy receiving the most attention. I can’t tolerate people staring at my chest, so make sure to dress in ways that focus attention elsewhere.

Shapewear. Unless you are rail-thin, Spanx is your best friend, smoothing out the bumps under almost everything you wear. Bras need to fit really well.

Proper sleeve length and trouser rise. Men and women alike seem to overlook these basics, maybe because most of us buy off the rack now without the critical and helpful eye of a tailor.

Watch the break. Look at dozens of wedding photos and you’ll see men whose trousers are wayyyy too long. On your wedding day! Do they not know? Notice?

Scarves, shawls, mufflers. One of my favorite French male styles is the use of a colored scarf or muffler with a blazer or jacket. It adds such panache!

Feet first.  How many people even have a shoeshine kit (including a suede brush) or shoe trees or visit their cobbler regularly to make sure they are, literally, well-heeled? I see all sorts of people wearing costly clothes and jewelry whose footwear is a mess. Makes no sense to me.

Hang out and pay attention. I’m not a huge fan of H & M, but every single time I go into their store at Fifth Avenue and 42d Street I learn a lot about style just by watching the women who shop there. On my last visit to Paris I was most struck by a woman in her 60s with fabulous olive sneakers with burgundy laces. I’d seen the shoes in a shop but not with those laces, which gave the shoes a totally different look. Pick a fun neighborhood, take a cafe table and just watch the passing parade.

Customize and personalize. The lesson of the burgundy shoe laces. I admire the spirit that makes a woman, or man, make that extra effort to take a mass-produced item and make it their own. A hat-pin or pocket square. A bag you’ve stitched yourself of vintage fabric. A plain T-shirt to which you’ve added lace.

When you find something fantastic, buy multiples. Years ago, I scored four (!) silk scarves from Banana Republic: deep chocolate brown; creamy white; soft rose; deep fuchsia. They’re long enough to circle my neck three times and wide enough to wear as a shawl, with luxuriously fringed ends. They were $60 each (no, not cheap!) but I bought all four anyway. One of the best buys of my life, as I wear them year-round and love them. They easily fit into the smallest suitcase and change the look of almost any outfit. If, like me, you dislike shopping, make good use of your time and pick up several things at once. This year I bought two classic cotton Tahari shift dresses (black and blue) and two pairs of dark-wash, boot-cut stretch jeans (also black and blue.)

The monochromatic route works wonders, when done well. All black, blue, cream or camel can be a terrific look, especially if you mix shades and textures. Think: denim, linen, silk, rayon, cotton, leather, suede, charmeuse.

Combine interesting colors: navy and black, brown and black, red and gray, violet and gray. One of the pleasures of travel is seeing what other countries’ stores have to offer. I always find clothes I love in Canada, France and England, sometimes more easily (?!) than in New York, arguably a shopper’s mecca. I find NY filled with cheap basics (zzzzz) and super-costly designer duds I can’t afford or won’t fit into. One of my favorite dresses ever (wore it for my wedding) is by the British label Ghost. I bought it in L.A. and very rarely have found their goods here.

Great eyeglasses. I bought one of my two pair, grey multi-toned plastic,  on the Rue St. Antoine in Paris, a few blocks from the apartment we rented. They were no more expensive than they would have been in NY and every time I wear them — daily — I remember Paris. I get compliments on them frequently. A stylish pair of glasses makes a strong statement.

Well-chosen jewelry. When Jose and I began dating, he wore silver rings and even, occasionally, bracelets. I had never dated a man who wore jewelry, let alone was so attached to it as a style marker. It looks great on his brown skin and, within a few years, I had a ring made for him — agate set into a gold bezel, with a wide silver band — that I designed. He loves it. His wedding ring is hammered silver, found on Etsy.

I love great jewelry — whether costume, vintage or contemporary — and he has given me some beautiful earrings over the years. It’s one place I splurge whenever possible, and even the simplest outfit can shine with a touch of gold, silver, pearls or mosaic. Flea markets have offered some of my best finds — like Deco bottle green  glass earrings and a black ring with a deeply incised Gothic-style C, (the font of The New York Times).

Wit. I love juxtaposition, which takes wit and a bit of bravado. Something as simple as great socks — red, striped, violet — can add a style hit to the most basic man’s outfit. The night I met Jose, he wore a vintage gray wool overcoat and his muffler was a red silk Buddhist prayer shawl. That definitely left an impression. Even more so when, at the evening’s end, he took it off — scented with his fab cologne, 1881, and wrapped it around my neck.

What style (re)sources have you found useful?

13 thoughts on “Second Thoughts On Style

  1. J. Crew catalogs – the models always have fun but totally wearable makeup
    Scary seamstress – Easter European dragonish type, but but golly she makes sure your garments hit where they’re supposed to
    Stylish friends – a treasure trove of sales info, ideas, and an eye for things that will look good on you (I’m not always objective about myself)
    Drugstore displays – it’s cheaper to have fun with makeup and nail polish than try on a new persona with a wardrobe makeover

    1. Fun suggestions! Seamstresses really ARE your best friend. I think stylish friends are key, as long as they’re willing to share sources and secrets. It’s true that often someone else will see a way to dress that we would never have considered…

  2. I think that jeans are an important thing to buy more of when you find something that fits. Trying on jeans is one of my most hated things, nothing like shoving your butt into it only to have it not zip up. Low rise jeans are evil, my hips are too wide for them so I can’t even get them over my butt. Love the tips, I really love eyeglass shopping and agree a great pair of eyeglasses are a must!

    1. I had not bought — or even tried ON — a pair of jeans since I went from a 12 to a 16. I had heard wayyyyy too many horror stories. But I was also totally sick and tired of cords (too casual and not very comfortable) or dress trousers, my one black pair. I bought two pairs of Cookie Johnson (stretch) jeans. GO! They are chic, comfortable, very well made. I would never have even tried them on, but the (ahem!) personal shopper I used brought them to me and — voila!

  3. Personal vanity, I wear clothes that feel good. My wife wants something different! If you are confident in yourself you can get away with more, but not everything.

    I love the outdoors and wear clothes accordingly, but that is a problem when we hit the city. I hate polo shirts, wife loves them. A constant battle.

    And finally, you are middle aged when you stop having writing on your t-shirt. how old is too old?

    1. I am not a big fan of polo shirts myself. Many men just buy whatever’s easy or what they’re used to, and not what is flattering or well-fitting. I think T-shirts with messages are goofy; I wear mine only to the gym.

  4. “Jose, he wore a vintage gray wool overcoat and his muffler was a red silk Buddhist prayer shawl. That definitely left an impression. Even more so when, at the evening’s end, he took it off — scented with his fab cologne, 1881, and wrapped it around my neck.”

    What a beautiful, romantic image.

  5. I second the thoughts about having great eyeglasses. If, like me, you wear glasses every day and need them to see– they had better be stylish frames!

  6. Cold Song

    Thank you for these posts! This couldn’t be better timed for me. I am an American who just this month moved to Helsinki from a smaller Finnish town. Changing locations can sometimes necessitates a reevaluation of personal style. I think the advice you have shared is fantastic and I will be definitely be drawing on it as I struggle to acclimate here.

    Excellent eyeglasses are definitely key! I bought my last pair in England, searching high and low for a shop that carried discrete, unique and creative frames. It more expensive than buying designer labels at the local shopping center, but worth every penny. Personally, eyeglasses with glaring labels don’t work for me. For the first time, loving the aesthetic of the shop, I trusted a professional to help me pick frames. I love the result. She pushed me to try things I wouldn’t have even touched. A professional can see us more objectively and help us make daring choices; sometimes partners and friends are attached to the way we look right now and can be resistant to change.

    Regarding durable and well made pieces, I am a devotee of wool and cashmere because I think it can be tremendously durable and wonderful for travel when well made. However, I don’t know how to buy cashmere! The best piece I have is from TJ Maxx, an incredibly lucky find almost 10 years ago. Everything else I have tried since then has been more fuzzy, prone to piling, and simply not as good quality (admittedly, I have not bought expensive labels…). I know it has to do with the weave and length of the cashmere fibers. I would love to have another sweater as reliable, durable and pill-free. I think it is worth investing in something that still looks stunning after a decade! Does anyone have any advice? What labels are worth the money?

    Now there is so much cheap cashmere on the market, I am afraid to buy anything.

    I LOVE this blog and I am a wee bit chagrined it took posts on fashion for me to finally comment…

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I’m dying to visit Helsinki — lucky you! Marimekko just opened a flagship store in Manhattan and I plan to go pay homage.

      I assume (?) you can buy online…? I’d spend a bit more and buy from Brooks Brothers or (which will be $$$) a Neiman-Marcus or other upscale dept. store (on sale) so you are getting a heavier weight cashmere. I have a few pieces of it, but they don’t pill too badly and I’ve been wearing one of them (bought at Loehmann’s, a local discount chain) for more than 15 years! Scottish-made cashmere (Ballantyne) can be found in vintage shops and wears like iron.

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