How to Dress (for women)

On the flight from Rhodes to Larnaca, I wore a jean skirt, white Keds and a pink oxford. I sat between a man in pressed tan jeans, silk socks, thin leather slippers, a lime green, unconstructed linen jacket, Raybans and a woman in towering heels, stirrup leggings, a cashmere sweater and 1 ½ hours worth of make-up. And if you are thinking of skipping this essay because you think talking about clothes is silly and a bore, or beneath you, or a waste of time, or you’re not good at it: be advised there are several sections towards the end that were written just for you. So skim down until you find them – you wouldn’t want me to waste my valuable wisdom by talking to the wall, now would you?

Perhaps you are going for the more general critique – talking about clothes is a stupid waste of time, people should be judged by their actions, their soul, their karma, their auras etc. I agree. This is not me being contentious. This is not me being disagreeable (as if I could ever be THAT). This is me being realistic. In many situations you are in fact judged by the content of your character or the disposition of your soul and you would do well to have both in good order. But there are quite a few occasions which require the judgment to take place on a solely superficial level. Your shoes. Your stockings. Your fingernails. Your dress. And, may I point out, it is seldom a question of money. You can wear an insulting $500 dress to a wedding as easily as a $50 dress. You can spend $600 and crash out of your job interviews; while the next person shines on to corner office glory in a $100 ensemble.

Therefore, attention please. When you walk out of your hotel, hostel, Gasthof, cave, tent, yurt, or chateau, you should be wearing something that is appropriate, clean, comfortable, and fits you well physically as well as mentally.

A diva knows that once she leaves the sheltering doorstep – she is on display and making a statement wherever she goes, be it to the barn, the Reichstag, the mulch store or the pampas. And she always takes care that her clothes say exactly what they are supposed to, be it “Don’t notice me,” “I will win this case and eat your assets for lunch,” or “I am more artistically sensitive than you are.”

Now we must be honest for a moment. Precious few Americans have any idea of how to dress properly. There are several reasons for this problem:

1) Americans think that spending lots of money will ensure a fabulous wardrobe. Attention please: Throwing large hunks of money at the public school system will help solve THAT problem, but not the fact that you look like a mange-ridden baboon when you leave the house.

2) Americans are blighted by Grrranimals. They think clothes have to match.  See the benighted dears in dressing rooms croaking “Does this match?” Heaven forgive them. Darling, one makes clothes ‘match’ by force of personality and spirit (not, mind you, brute force). Buy the things you love. Wear the things you love. Avoid that whole acid green plaid beret, high-heeled sneakers with leg warmers thing but remember French women dress themselves by standing in front of their closets, closing their eyes, reaching in, grabbing a few pieces, and then putting on whatever they extracted. And my, but my, do they look so fabulous you just want to throw roses at them as they pass you by.

3) Americans don’t know how to assess the levels of the issue. Can’t quite get their minds around the fact that there are work jeans, play jeans, home-project jeans, going to the grocery store jeans, watching a cricket game jeans, visiting the in-laws jeans, gardening jeans, going for coffee jeans, and traveling jeans. Americans see jeans, monolithic and inviolate.

4) Americans are spoiled babies on the issue of comfort. It’s as if the country never moved beyond the kindergarten stage. The entire state of Vermont, to take one of many possible examples, looks like it’s ready for play group: baggy shorts, shapeless sun dresses, worn-in cotton shirts, sandals. Makes me shudder just to think of it. I’m sure there are perfectly lovely people there, but I do fear if you go to university there, you will arrive back at your cherished Mama’s wearing those hideous, bulky, wool sweaters so prone to shedding, wind pants and boots. Your mother and I would have an attack of the vapors I do assure you. If you want to retaliate against your upbringing, be sure to do it in a sensible fashion. Because you know if you show up in that kind of gear (Saints preserve us, a dung-colored, formless winter coat, making you look like a mobile compost heap) I will take pictures to torture you with in later years and give you a herd of goats for Christmas. Give you a real taste of the country.

5) Americans often appropriate vestments from another country, culture, and/ or religion with little self control and a sense of respect. Buddhist monk robes should be worn by Buddhist monks, not you. No matter how the color sets off your complexion. The head scarves worn by Arab men look good on them. Not you. Yes, you can take sari fabric and make a lovely dress from it, but before you wear a sari, you had better think carefully about the why, not just the how (i.e. so that neither you nor the sari will collapse in an untidy heap at an inopportune moment). You will also have to deal with the fact that you will be stared at; but if you need to be stared at – you are not a diva.

To review: it’s 60 degrees on a nice January day at the Acropolis. What are the Americans wearing? Jeans or Dockers, a t-shirt with sweatshirt, sneakers or hiking boots. What are the Europeans wearing? high-heel tennis shoes, black plastic tight boots, red leather mini-skirts, orange fake-fur clutch coats, gold lame shirts and GQ wool suits.

Fashion Emergencies:

The first and most important rule is to know yourself. You know you (or at least you should). Are you the kind of person who can walk through a sandstorm and not get a speck in your contacts? Can you walk from the living room to the kitchen and run your hose, lose an earring, break your heel, and smear your mascara? Magazines have perky articles about packing an extra pair of hose. Let’s be honest, you will either never need a pair or you will need 20 pairs. If you need to do it systematically: sit down and think of the last five times you have been away from home and had some kind of fashion emergency. Now figure what you need to change to stop that from happening again.

Second rule: Miss Manners edict of fashion emergencies: pretend not to notice anything that can’t be fixed immediately (either by you or someone else) and call careful, gentle attention to anything amiss that can be fixed.

Third rule: Alaskan Outback Rule of Automatic Helpfulness (AORAH) – Offer to help any person – up to and including giving away safety pins, tampons, bobby pins, and aspirin; up to and including lending your wrap, lipstick, perfume, and comb; up to and including sharing your tent, campfire, water, food and mace. You must do this for anyone who asks, as well as anyone who looks like they need assistance. And if you make an extravagant fuss over helping a person, demanding repayment, lording it about, you are guaranteeing that you will sit on a large slice of cream cake at an important company function. But, although she is always solicitous over other people, a diva will always attempt to solve her own problems. She is not one to lean promiscuously on the goodwill of the world.

Small note: One benefit of shawls over coats is that one may always wrap a shawl over one’s dress, pants, top, etc in such a way as to completely cover a stain. They are also emergency baby carriers.

Another small note – Let’s say you are out having a fancy ten-course dinner and, when you retire to wash you hands before dessert, you realize that you have a large piece of spinach stuck in your teeth, and you realize that spinach was only served during the first appetizer course, then my dear it is time for a long heart-to-heart talk with your date. If he is already your husband, I fear for you. If he is merely a companion of several months standing then there may be hope for him yet, but perhaps he is a lost cause. If this is a first or second date, I suggest you leave him to date (and hopefully marry) one of the lesser evolved specimens of wildebeests.

Yes, I know men will pout and whine; “But I didn’t notice,” they will mew like colicky babies. “I was looking at your eyes,” oh they will slither around like Baltic eels. Have none of it. Dates, and to an even greater extent, husbands, are with you in public to help you navigate the rough and tortured waters of social events. Don’t let them shirk their duty.

And if the little swine dares to make fun of you on this matter, oh my child the horror stories I could tell you. A true story my dear, you’re old enough to hear it but don’t repeat it to your younger sister. It will give her nightmares. A dear friend was at dinner with two couples and her husband, as they were having their coffee, husband turns to wife, I blush to repeat it, and he says “So let’s see your teeth.” She stares at him and he chuckles, turns to the other couples and says, “She got mad at me last week because I didn’t notice she had a bit of pepper caught in her teeth, so now I have to do teeth inspection.” The couples laughed merrily. She was mortified, but luckily she had many conversations with me when she was just about your age so she knew just what to do. She smiled indulgently and never said a word, not then and not in the car on the way home. She certainly didn’t make him sleep on the couch (no real diva would resort to such tactics). She simply refused to eat at the same time as him for three weeks. By the end he was bringing her breakfast in bed every day, to no avail. She finally broke when he got plane tickets to Tahiti and she had to eat on the plane or risk starving for 12 hours. Let this be a lesson to you. If you are going to fight, fight about the issue at hand, and the issue at hand only, but never give up your self-respect.

Now for those with special issues:

*          If the issue is you don’t like to talk about clothes because you can’t find clothes to fit, then this problem can be solved with a simple application of time. You can, if possible, hunt down a tailor. Tailors are everywhere and exist to make you look fabulous. See instructions for tailors below. If that isn’t an option, clear out some space in your calender and start hunting. You know you’d waste three days on a good book, or an whole afternoon on a good movie, spend that much time on making yourself look fabulous. On-line and catalog shopping will get you through if you live far from ‘good shopping.’

*          If the issue is you don’t like to talk about clothes because you can’t afford what you want. Get over yourself. Repeat diva edict: you can have anything you want, but you can not have everything. If you want le plus grande clothes, live with milk crates and eat day-old bread. Whining gives you scabby, knobby knees.

*          If the issue is you don’t like to talk about clothes because you just aren’t interested in them, as long as you are saying this from a strong, centered place, then I am quite happy to let you be. Just be sure that you have an honest, settled feeling about the issue of clothes, that you aren’t in high scorn mode (always a sign of inner conflict) or running from the issue. If you are comfortable to dash about exclusively in old jeans and tattered shirts, my dear, you may go in peace with my blessing but listen to one caveat – at some point in time what you wear might be very important, imperative in fact. In might be a crucial dinner for your boy/girlfriend’s work. A best friend’s wedding, a funeral, a function at your significant other’s place of worship. And jeans won’t do.

This is why you should have one (and it can truly be only one) outfit that is ‘dressy’ in the accepted sense of the word (i.e. it doesn’t have to be a dress, much less some ghastly creation in pink organdie). One dear friend had a smashing ensemble of dark blue pants, crisp white shirt and flat shoes, worn with pearl earrings and a necklace, she could go anywhere in perfect comfort and yet be respectful.

Oh, but you panic, I don’t know what to wear; when I choose something,  it invariably is a nightmare. What? You are in the midst of reliving that small debacle in the mosque involving you and the halter-top dress? That minor riot occasioned by a your appearance in black velvet bell bottoms at the Physics Department’s sherry party? Not to fret.

These tiny missteps on the stage of fashion are why you, in the same spirit as one takes vitamins to protect against scurvy, must take notice of what others are wearing ever once in awhile. Even if you don’t really need to look smashing, ask a friend for advice on an outfit every so often. Borrow a dress sometime. The reason you do this once or twice BEFORE you really need the help is that you want to test the friendship (a dirty secret which you will never reveal). If it’s a real friend, she will not treat this as a ‘let’s make you over’ moment – but as a ‘let’s get you through this one event in something you can stand’ moment. All you need is one “good” outfit and then I shalln’t say a peep about your every day clothes because you walk in beauty, clothed in righteousness, dignity and grace.

Please Note – Don’t dress for meeting a new guy and don’t continue to dress in an new way if you meet a guy in a not-usually-you outfit. Be very careful on this point. You are you. You are worthy of being loved for the divine person you are. Don’t try to play a character to get your guy. If you persist in this path of foolishness, your aunt will strap you down and make you watch The Truth about Cats and Dogs six times, and that part when the woman watches the man of her dreams go to bed with her best friend, I’ll put that on slow motion. Just to teach you a lesson.

*          If the issue is you don’t like to talk about clothes because it’s a stupid waste of time and it’s beneath you – you have the credentials and people are going to judge you by your brains and not your looks, etc., excuse why I giggle politely into my (linen, lace-edged) handkerchief. Allow me to share with you the true story of the dear woman who spent $75,000 getting a Ph.D. at one of the ten best universities in the states and went to her job interviews looking like a red-light district Amsterdam tart. Shall I be specific? Her light-colored suit was so tight you could see panty lines (front and rear) and, as her sweater was too tight, she showed a nice two inches of pudgy stomach. All that and a skirt that barely covered what it needed to cover. As a general manager for Microsoft once told me, “if you have to adjust (i.e. tug down) the skirt when you sit down, kiss the job goodbye.”

Another woman, quite petite with three-inch black hair, showed up on a sweltering summer day for an interview in a severe, white, button-up shirt, almost completely obscured by a mannish, black wool, three-piece suit with white stripes the width of a pipe-cleaner. She had black, solid, lace-up shoes and her hair spiked in all directions. In all, a sweltering gangster with a porcupine pelt on her head. Well may you weep.

Pragmatically speaking – if you refuse to pay any attention to clothes, you must be prepared to understand that certain opportunities will be opened for you (some will celebrate you courageously flaunting boring middle-class standards) and some will be shut to you.