Karen wrote to me recently (and I have reproduced her letter, slightly edited, with her permission):
As a tall woman in her sixth decade, pale skinned, blue eyes, white hair who is reluctant to wear much makeup, on the slim-to-thin side, following your advice on color and dress/clothing shapes has been so useful. My transition out of dark suits is complete! I donated all of them, and my closet has much more color.
But something happened that puzzled me … I recently went to a neighbor’s 77th birthday party (more a late afternoon tea) where the other ladies present made such a fuss over how I looked – I found it more than a little embarrassing. The food was elegantly presented, wine was served, we ate on one of the patios in the host’s lovely garden, etc. That evening I mulled their reactions and tried to understand why the fuss over how I looked.
I had worn a sleeveless red linen dress with a cropped black knit silk 3/4-length sleeved cardigan, bare-legged, red clogs, a beaded bracelet, simple silver earrings and only mascara and a dash of red lipstick. I wore my hair twisted up and held with a clip. I wasn’t “dressed” up – I certainly wouldn’t have worn it to a wedding or evening dinner party but I had put a little though in. BUT most of the other guests were wearing clothes they could have gardened in. I have noticed the same thing when out shopping.
Anyway, it all made me wonder how “casual” morphed into slovenly and why it is so accepted. (Of course, I recognize that Brits may be more formal than Americans.)
Are you all imagining how nice Karen would have looked in her red dress and lipstick with a little cardi, her hair in a twist? And clogs! That is an interesting feature and if I had been at the party I am sure I would have admired her footwear. I have been thinking about her question for a week or two and I wonder what you think? I do believe that people should be absolutely free to dress as they prefer, but I like to dress up a little and I like to look at people who have taken some trouble with their appearance.
Here is a red sleeveless dress that looks quite smart with beige heels – probably for an occasion.
Any item can be dressed up or down. With summer sandals or trainers (or even clogs) this dress would be different. With a chunky belt and thick tights it would be suitable for a weekend outing. With lively jewellery or cardigan it would be nice for an informal evening event. For work I would put on a jacket.
For me the answer lies in the difference between under and over dressing. I discuss this in my book as I think it is a challenging topic, especially as many of us have plenty of clothes and spend a considerable amount acquiring even more. There is also the interesting distinction between fitting in and standing out. With no real rules of fashion or etiquette many of us flounder and fall back on the “I want to be comfortable” which includes soft jersey fabrics but also implies feeling comfortable in your environment.
Personally I do what I can to look good, but I don’t want to stand out too much. We have a couple of guys at work who wear three-piece suits and they stand out as being rather overdressed (our customer group is generally poor and very diverse). But I don’t like to be underdressed either. Today, as it is very hot in London I am wearing a yellow dress. It is nicely made with a few interesting features and I have added a red leather belt. The dress itself could be worn for a formal occasion with a hat, jacket or flashier jewellery. Today I am accessorised to some extent (earrings, necklace, nice shoes, colourful glasses, rings, watch). On Fridays we seem to have moved towards “dress down Friday”. Many colleagues wear jeans but often with a smart top or something colourful. I would say on the whole that the average colleague looks good on a Friday, perhaps more so than the rest of the week as they feel freer to be themselves. I wear jeans very occasionally to work. But only when I have no external meetings. If I am meeting a tenant, board member or partner organisation I would generally dress a little more formally so they would never feel that I was disrespectful.
And there is another consideration – do we want to be approachable or authoritative ? At a tea party for an older lady I would want to show respect but also to be approachable. I wouldn’t want to wear a formal suit or a stiff dress and gloves – unless the old lady was the Queen!
The key for me is to try to get a balance – just enough authority to be able to do my job as a senior manager, but sufficient approachability so no one feels uncomfortable around me. I want to look stylish and slightly cool, but I certainly don’t want to draw too much attention to myself. I would go for relatively subtle details rather than cutting edge fashion. I like to get a few up-to-the-minute items each year – which may be a T-shirt, or a pair of shoes or an accessory, and combine this with more classic items. My advice is to go down the middle. Not too dressy and not too dressed-down. Not too authoritative but not so casual you could be gardening (eg shorts, flip-flops, torn or paint spattered clothing). Not to0 stiff and not too slobby (PJs, elasticated things). Not too different, but not too samey.
This is probably awful advice. Meaningless middle of the road stuff. But I would like to encourage individuality, self-expression, and diversity. I want to say “I care”. About myself and about you. And caring about my appearance is part of respect (of self and others) and caring for others. Give them something nice and interesting to look at when they are talking to you.
The way I try to achieve this approachable yet authoritative, different but understandable, neither over or under dressed is to combine looks and elements.
- Jeans with a formal shirt or jacket
- A dressy lace skirt with informal footwear.
- A miniskirt with thick tights and masculine shoes
- A tailored skirt with a hand knit jumper or down jacket
- Pinstriped suit with a corset (I am joking about this one!)
Even something like cargo pants (without the weird phone accessory, carabiner clip and dibber) could look dressy with different shoes, a more formal top and a smart belt. Again the shoes and blouse would be more than fine for a party with a fashionable skirt.
For me “slob” and “slovenly” have connotations perhaps of looking down on people, which is an added complication. I don’t want to judge others – there are many reasons why people dress down – usually due to feeling insignificant, un-confident, and sometimes due to depression etc. Sometimes people are simply natural dressers and really aren’t interested in clothes or dressing up.
Nice clothes can make you feel a lot better but not if you are shamed into changing. Dressing down, and dressing up, sends a message. Sometimes the sloppy look is adopted as an act of rebellion, or to belong to the group. And sometimes you really don’t have the time or money to do much better. When people are ill, or disabled or mentally low having nice clothes, hair, teeth and make up can make them feel better. But getting there may not be feasible. When I had lots of little kids I literally dressed in what I had taken off the previous evening, shoved a spare nappy into my pocket and dragged the children to school. Only after they were gone could I have a bath, get dressed in fresh clothes and try to improve my appearance.
What do you think?