Wednesday, 20 October 2010

11/52: The GAAD allowances

I realised very soon after having gone on The Great American Apparel Diet that my existing, over-the-top wardrobe consisted of a lot of clothes that I didn't get much use out of. I noticed that I had a lot of clothes, but that I didn't have sensible clothes. My wardrobe reminds me of that of my mother's, who for as long as I can remember, has always enjoyed having nice clothes, but when it came to her everyday existence, she often found she had nothing to wear. Having worked in clothing retail, I have plenty of experience having helped other women buy clothes they needed, but I never got around to do it for myself. I have desperately needed practical shoes in the past, but bought, time after time, only high-heels that I wore maybe twice a year.

A few weeks ago I was starting to notice that I was struggling to get dressed in the mornings. As the weather got colder, I realised that my tights and long-sleeved t-shirts from last year were falling apart, and that I didn't have any sensible warm trousers apart from two pairs of jeans and a pair of too-big-for-me corduroys. My two long, gray wool cardigans were constantly in rotation. I have pretty clothes, lots of pretty clothes, but everything was feeling horribly unpractical. I figured it was time to give myself a break and go off the GAAD a little.

I bought this long cardigan and the mustard colour (and a purple) turtleneck, as well as two pairs of tights at Target last week, and guess what: I haven't felt one bit guilty. I bought basics! I bought for actual need! My wild guess is that if I wasn't on the GAAD, I would have spent the money on something frivolous and fun, because that is what I have always done. In the past I'd push back buying a pair of smart, tailored black trousers and spend the money on going-out clothes. I'd feel uncomfortable spending money on a pair of well-cut jeans. I'd be in desperate need of a go-with-everything sweaters, and I couldn't get myself to go into a store (or flea market) to look for that thing I needed. And then I'd buy yet another pair of high-heels, or an unpractical blouse (dry clean only), that I'd not wear because I didn't want to deal with taking it to the dry cleaner.

I don't quite know why I have had so much trouble buying practical clothes in the past. Maybe I was trying to persuade myself that my ordinary self wasn't interesting enough, that I needed to have complicated clothes in order to be something else. Maybe buying things that were unnecessary was more exciting. I wonder if, on any level, buying these unpractical clothes ever really made sense to me. I knew I was buying things I didn't wear, but still kept doing it. I have noticed that come autumn, I naturally gravitate toward wearing long cardigans, warm tights, cotton and wool, pieces that are easy to layer, and flat boots, or rubber soled heels. I have always felt drawn to these types of clothes, but persuaded myself that something flashier would work just as well. It turns out that the flashier stuff stays in my closet because it feels too complicated, too fussy.

I don't feel bad that I went off the GAAD to get things that I know I'll wear, things that I actually needed. I also bought a wool/mohair skirt and a pair of wool trousers (Christian Dior for $3!) at a rummage sale. I felt so good buying something useful that I was immediately reminded of the feeling behind why I went on the GAAD in the first place. It turns out that even practical purchases can have the same feel-good effect on me. It would be so easy, oh so easy, to just keep buying now.

Leather jacket: Diesel
Cardigan: Target
Turtleneck: Target
Shorts: Selected Femme
Tights: Target
Boots: small shoestore in Italy
Kitty earrings: present from Modesty is Pretty

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Say what?

For the last (not "past") week or so, I have felt very (not "awfully") self-conscious about my usage of the English language. There are two reasons for this:

Firstly, I read a review of the new translation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and was deeply moved while reading about Flaubert's fascination with perfection. Flaubert spent twelve hours a day writing, but produced only about a page of text per week. For him, "[a] good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.”

Secondly, while browsing through a reference book from 1900, I came across a section titled "misuse of words". I never knew that the word "execute" does not mean to put to death, but that "the law is executed when the criminal is hanged". Also, it is wrong to use "bravery" for "courage": "[b]ravery is inborn, instinctive. Courage is a product of reason, calculation. Men who are simply brave are careless, while the courageous man is always cautious." It is also wrong to use the word "such" for "so". One should say "so extravagant a young man", not "such an extravagant young man".

When it comes to language, I am the first one to acknowledge the fluid nature of it. Languages change and develop, and what was true in 1900 is not necessarily so anymore. The very nature of language is to do things we don't think are possible, and I often take advantage of it: I love creating new words in Finnish, and my sentences are often all over the place (an absurd and meaningless expression, a lot like "every once in a while"). However, I can also be anal about Finnish: one of my pet peeves in Finnish is compound words and the inability of Finnish speakers to use them correctly. It annoyes me when people capitalise the word for Christmas in Finnish - it is joulu, lower case, always. In English I over-hyphenate and spell in odd ways just because I think it looks fun. I use 'croci' for 'crocuses' even if the latter is more commonly used. I punctuate whenever I feel like it - a practice I would never entertain in Finnish. The truth (not "fact of the matter") is that I punctuate badly in English because I don't know how to punctuate well. The very nature of language in general, and that of English in particular, allows me to do this. English, with its odd range of 500 million to 1.8 billion speakers, is so widespread it can do whatever it likes, and there is nothing it can't do. So why am I torn? Isn't the changing nature of English good? Why does Flaubert's belief in perfect language get to me? Why should I care about people saying "promise" when they should be saying "assure"?

One reason is Shakespeare. I have tried to read Shakespeare in the original language, but I don't understand him. I can feel that there is beauty in his usage of English, but my knowledge of English is not sophisticated enough to understand it. When I try to write (not "try and write") pretty English, I find it looks crammed and empty rather than rich and meaningful. I often reach out for the thesaurus in my attempt to beautify my use of English. I don't concentrate on learning more. The more free and imperfect my use of English becomes, and the more I ape the free English of others, the less I feel I am saying. (A lot of times I don't even know what I am saying.) My guess is that this is also true of other speakers of English, native or not. In itself (another meaningless phrase) this is not a problem. It does make reading Shakespeare difficult, though. It is also a matter of instinct: my ears can tell that my English (and the English of many others) does not sound meaningful, or even worse, it does not sound beautiful. Of course, one could argue that the aim of language is communication rather than beauty, but I take my chances and accept the need for beauty in language at face value.

Another reason comes down to my desire to save things old and still useful. Is it absolutely necessary to make the distinction between courage and bravery? Perhaps not, but the world is a richer place with the distinction in it. Grammar and spelling rules exist for a reason, and they have a history. It is probably not a surprise (not "no surprise") that I love etymological dictionaries. I believe history of everything is important. As long as we carry with us a sense of understanding of where we have come from, we are richer. We gain nothing by forgetting, but a lot if we remember.

I feel embarrased to admit that as experienced of an English speaker as I am, my skills are nowhere near where they should be. I am not a native speaker and will never get to that level, but I feel the need to educate myself. I want to be able to write beautiful English. Maybe consulting old reference books isn't the smartest way to go about it, but it is a lot of fun. If I am sure about anything, it is this: it is never, ever, a good idea to take fun out of language.

Duffel coat: Salvation Army
Silk dress: second hand Laura Ashley, Fida
Tights: JC Penney
Ankle boots: Max&Co.
Scarf: Lindex

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Ramblings on Reference, and True Finns

I love old reference books, mostly because of the multitudes of odd entries and curiosities. Why did Henry W. Ruoff, Ph.D., D.C.L., trust his sources, and how did information like this end up being printed in his book, Universal Manual of Ready Reference, in 1905?

"The natives on the coast [of Finland] are either Swedes or Russians. The true Finns have little intercourse with the inhabitants of the maritime district, but inhabit chiefly the east portions of the country, where they live in the midst of forests, by the border of the lakes, and lead a mode of life exactly resembling that of the agricultural or settled Laplander, in houses that have a hole in the top to let out the smoke, and in one large room which is occupied by the whole family."

Okay, so poor old Henry wasn't exactly in the know when it came to turn-of-the-century Finland. But, flipping through the book I have learned (and fact-checked) that Hawaii used to be called The Sandwich Islands. Did you know that the Constitution of the Colony of New Jersey granted suffrage to unmarried women and African Americans who owned property, but the act was repealed in 1807? I didn't. I also had no idea what morganatic marriage was, but here's Henry:

"A morganatic marriage is a form of marriage which frequently takes place among the princes of Germany when they wed women of lower rank than themselves. In the ceremony the left hand is given, and though the marriage is looked upon as legal and the children legitimate, yet they are not entitled to succeed to the dignities and estates of their fathers." Fascinating, is it not?

Old reference books always make me think about the future of information. I am truly amazed how wonderfully accessible and easily contested every last bit of information can be today (unless you live in, say, China). Back in the day it took a lot of guts to print and/or contest information. There was real power behind the printed word, even if it was inaccurate. These days, every bit of information is out there to be challenged. The nature of information is changing: it is more fluid and more organic in nature. My guess would have been that aside from hard sciences, the search for solid facts and absolute answers is declining. (I, for one, tend to look for debates more often than for actual information. The thought of absolute information makes me feel uncomfortable.) It is slightly worrisome, then, that 39% of children between the ages 9 and 17 think that information they find online is "always correct". It would be interesting to know what the percentage for information found in "real" books was. How likely is it that young people would automatically consider old printed information either false or dated? My guess is that the older the person, the more comfortable they'd be in believing what a physical book has to say.

I often find myself on the verge of being an information drop-out: I am old enough to be confused by technological progress and computers at times, but young enough to have learned basic IT at school. As much as I vegetate in front of Wikipedia at times, I often feel I learn more from physical books, even though it is probably not true. It gives me a false sense of security to remember where I learned something from, rather than to think that I came across it online. My mind creates a clear division between the printed word (safe) and the information online (out of control). I flip through my 1905 reference book and have Wikipedia popped open on the side. I am doing my best to get the best of two worlds.

Dress: second hand / UFF, 2010
Cardigan: Lindex, 2009
Tights: Target, bought during TGAAD
Shoes: Vagabond, 2008or9
Mirror pendant: Petrune Vintage, 2010

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Department of Random

What an odd week it has been. We've spent time with friends, we've played Scrabble, read books (Freedom), seen movies (Let Me In and The Social Network, both definitely worth seeing) and gone to an estate sale. Despite my best attempts to stay on the GAAD even if it meant feeling cold, I finally caved in and bought some new tights and long-sleeved t-shirts yesterday. They were desperately needed so I don't feel too bad, apart from the lingering headache that is still there after I spent all day with a migraine today. And after reading what I have just written, I have no idea why I feel that it has been an odd week, because it actually sounds really good. Oh, maybe it's just the migraine talking.

We saw swans near Gibson, PA, where we found the above-mentioned estate sale last weekend. (We got a couple of old books and a bunch of 1950s sewing patterns - more on those another time.)

These are possibly my favourite earrings of all time. I got them in the mail from Modesty is Pretty, who just happened to think of me when she found the earrings at a garage sale - how sweet is that! I absolutely love the earrings, as did a waitress at a restaurant yesterday. She kept staring at me, and finally said: "I am sorry, I have been trying to figure out what those earrings were, and oh my, they are kitties! How cute!" I couldn't have agreed more.

Sweater: men's H&M
Blouse: second hand Cacharel / Salvation Army
Shorts: Object / Only
Tights: Noa Noa
Shoes: Vagabond

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

TGAAD 9/52: So far

If my calculations are correct, I have entered my 9th week of The Great American Apparel Diet. Time has gone by quickly. It has been tremendously helpful to live in a town that does not offer too many shopping options (for those of you who asked about relocation, there is a post to come on that topic), and the weekend spent in Ithaca made me fully realise the extent of this. I walked into a lovely vintage store and didn't buy the gorgeous 1950s pencil skirt I immediately fell for. I couldn't even bring myself to look at the stunning vintage dresses - the thought to have to leave something beautiful behind felt too painful. As I walked past the Urban Outfitters' SALE sign, it occurred to me that I didn't really have to deal with any temptations in Binghamton, apart from the occasional Etsy piece or the more generic want-want feelings a spread in a fashion magazine might temporarily produce. I got to thinking whether the lack of temptations was undermining the whole excercise: surely it would be more fruitful to say "no" to things I wanted, rather than to cruise comfortably in an environment where those temptations didn't exist in the first place.

I got to talking to a young woman who sold customised vintage pieces and crocheted hats (too cute to even describe, with feathers and all) at the Ithaca Apple Fest. I went through the stuff she was selling, and was seriously tempted while trying on a lime green felt hat with spray paint. The hat looked spectacular, and I knew that I'd wear it all autumn if I was given the chance. At that moment, TGAAD felt awfully silly. I was having to pass by a great piece of artisan fashion that I knew I would wear for years to come. It was one thing to not walk into Urban Outfitters and not spend money on things I'd wear one season, but it was profoundly stupid to have to say "no" to something I sincerely loved and could, in fact, use. I felt horrible leaving the young woman's stand. I wanted to support her business and her vision of active recycling and local craftmanship. I loved the hat. It occurred to me that perhaps being on TGAAD was, to some extent, preventing me from supporting my own ideals and beliefs.

I have tried to give more thought to my daily wear since going on TGAAD. It is not just about not shopping; for me TGAAD has been developing into a more thorough research project. The questions I ask myself almost every morning include "why do I choose to wear this as opposed to that?" and "why did I buy this piece of clothing in the first place?" The questions have already proven to be very helpful in thinking about my shopping habits in the past, and how I can mould them into something more rational in the future. Here are some of the lessons I have learned about my existing wardobe in the past eight weeks:

1. It is very difficult for me to figure out if a piece of clothing has staying power. This might have something to do with the experimental nature of my style choices. It is one thing to want to try new things, but it is another to know what makes me feel good year after year.

2. In terms of what types of clothes I get a lot of wear out of, there is an undeniable comfort factor that I should take into consideration more often when buying something new. I like having pretty stuff in my wardrobe, but if it is not comfortable, it will not get a lot of wear, no matter how much I like it.

3. I should pay more attention to the colours I buy. A lovely piece in the wrong colour will not be worn. Sometimes an odd piece with the right colour works.

All three seem almost too self-evident to mention. Believe it or not, I have never given thought to these questions previously. So far, so good, then. I am learning. My heart still aches for that felt hat, though.

Knit dress: Lindex, 2008ish
Zipper belt: Max&Co., 2009
Leggins: Urban Outfitters
Boots: Urban Outfitters, 2003
Necklace: second hand / America's Attic, 2010

Monday, 4 October 2010


I wore this on Saturday in Ithaca; I tagged along to help Lynn sell her jewelry at the Apple Fest. Ithaca is such a great town. I loved seeing the eclectic mix of people and personal styles I grew accustomed to in the bigger European cities, or New York. On top of that, no one stared at me. I felt like I fitted in somehow. Spending time in Ithaca for two days made me realise that I have sorely missed hanging about an environment that fosters forward-thinking people. For example, I don't think I have seen a single bi-racial or gay couple after moving to Binghamton last year. I have been to Ithaca several times now, but for the first time, I actually felt frustrated about having to go back to Binghamton. To jump from a young and vibrant town to a dying, segregated and conservative one, I felt sad. There was, and is, no way denying it.

I wanted to thank everyone for their kind wishes regarding our cat Cassie. She is doing a lot better, thanks to us finally finding a vet who figured out what was wrong with her. It wasn't liver or kidney failure, thank god, but a really bad gland infection that three other vets missed. Cassie is on antibiotics, and more or less back to her grumpy self.

I also wanted to thank everyone for their comments to my previous post about books and Kindle. Ironically, I have spent a fair bit of time during the past week browsing the Internet, looking for publications that are out of print and way too expensive to purchase on EBay or through secondhand bookstores. I have found a couple of great online sources to access old issues of The American Journal of Insanity (now The American Journal of Psychiatry). It seems that even to a diehard fan of old-fashioned print, there is room for progress after all.

Dress: Zara, 2007ish
Cardigans (I am wearing two, it was cold): Lindex and Benetton
Tights: H&M
Suede OTK boots: small shop in Reggio Emilia, 2009
Necklace: second hand / Petrune Vintage, 2010

Last but not least: Carrots in Love