Thursday, 23 February 2012

Louboutin on women and shoes

"When a woman buys shoes, she takes them out of the box and looks at herself in the mirror. But she isn't really looking at the shoes - she's looking at herself. If she likes herself, then she likes the shoes. A man is a fetishist: He polishes his shoes, appreciates the finish, wants to preserve them for a long time. A woman doesn't care about this. She isn't pround of having a shoe for 10 years. It's a natural feminine instinct to accessorize. A naked woman in heels is a beautiful thing. A naked man in shoes looks like a fool."

Thus spoke Christian Louboutin in the March issue of Marie Claire. As much as I'd like to claim that Louboutin is completely wrong, I'm not confident I can. Surely gender stereotypes are often misguided and used as marketing tools: women are supposed to buy "frivolous" pretty things, and men "smart" things like electronics  and cars. I think we can safely say that those stereotypes are a little foolish: we probably all know people whose consumer-habits are either smart or problematic, and gender is hardly ever the defining factor once you start taking things apart. But when it comes to my own history with shoes, I hate to admit that I think I know what Louboutin is talking about. I've been there countless of times, looking at myself in the mirror, wearing a new pair of shoes, loving the way they made me feel about myself. And I also recognise that a lot of it has to do with my gender.

However, I strongly disagree with Louboutin that women's attitudes toward shoes are about some kind of god-given feminine instinct, a natural order of sorts. When I say that my shoe-life has its roots in my gender, I'm talking about the way I learned to be a woman. As I was growing up, I saw my mother in fancy high heels. She had a good (but not huge) collection of beautifully made Italian shoes, and according to my mother, her mother had a truly enviable collection of shoes back in the day. I also witnessed my stepfather obsessively polishing his shoes in the weekends; he would only buy a new pair of shoes after the old pair broke. That's what I saw, and that's how gender stereotypes are made: through observation and learning. These days there is something that can be said about the the Sex and the City-mentality. If our own mothers don't live up to the stereotype of the shoe-craving woman, we always have Carrie Bradshaw and her friends to fall back on. We do what we see other women do - even if the women we see are fictional.

But back to Louboutin and his "feminine instinct to accessorize". It is just too easy to fall back on the assumption that the way women learn to connect with shoes has its roots in the biological make-up of us as representatives of our gender. To portray the woman as the natural peacock is pure nonsense. We can look at the history of costumes and take note of the fact that men, especially the wealthy, wore high heels from the 16th century to the 18th, and their attire used to be just as flashy, if not flashier, than women's. Why men eventually abandoned their fascination with shoes and high heels and women did not - to be honest, I haven't read enough about the topic to know. But I think it's safe to say that "natural instinct to accessorize" is not the reason. As for why Louboutin would claim that it is, well, that's how shoes are sold. But funnily enough, he also goes to say that he hates "the idea of natural". So I guess if women's natural instinct is to accessorize and to keep buying shoes... and the very natural he just talked about is somehow not desirable in his eyes... I would claim that Louboutin just doesn't know what the heck he is talking about. Anything to sell more shoes to women who don't really need them, right?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

On wardobe culling, Part 2, or The Anatomy of Letting Go

Terri asked me to walk you guys through my process of culling with the help of some individual pieces of clothing. I picked two items that are now in my donation pile. Here are their stories.

Item 1. 

I thrifted this dress last summer in Finland. I found it at a flea market, it cost 3 euros, and I bought it because I liked the print and the material... but also in part because the weather in Finland was much warmer than I had thought, and I was excited about buying something for the summer. I liked the colours, and I wasn't too worried about the size tag (Finnish 40 - I usually wear 36); I figured that I could take it in if need be. The dress ended up being too big, but I wore it a handful of times anyway, but always felt self-conscious about the fact that it wasn't the right size.

I decided to let go of the dress because:

1) it doesn't fit right, and taking it in would actually be too challenging for my poor sewing skills - the dress is lined and I'd have to re-work the waistband.

2) if I really loved the dress, I'd take it to a seamstress... but the reality is that I don't think it would be worth the trouble. I don't love it enough, and I have other dresses that I like much, much more.

3) I don't usually give much thought to what's age-appropriate and what isn't, but my gut feeling says that this dress would look much better on a 15-year-old. I also feel like it could make someone else happy.

Item 2.

I bought these shoes some years ago, also in Finland. I had been looking at them in the store for some time, I had tried them on, but didn't feel like paying the full price. I finally bought them after the discount crept up to 50%. I liked the design, that they were a little edgy but not completely crazy, and they were surprisingly comfortable. Or that's what I thought. The first time I wore them I got blisters. And not just any blisters, but out-of-this-world blisters, the kind that broke and bled. And you know what, I don't think I ever wore them out again. I'd occasionally put them on for an outfit picture, but before heading out of the house I'd change into a different pair.

I had played with the idea of getting rid of the shoes before, but always decided against letting go of them because I thought that perhaps next time they wouldn't be so uncomfortable, that my feet would somehow get used to them with time. But by now I feel like I'm over the design; they seem a little fashion-victim-y to me, and I can't think of all that many clothes I'd even want to wear them with.

I decided to let go of the shoes because:

1) they are horribly uncomfortable, and I can't change that.

2) and that's really all there is. Even if I still loved the design, there is no reason why I should hold onto shoes that I can't wear.

Monday, 20 February 2012

On wardrobe culling, Part 1

After having given it some thought, I finally engaged in some serious wardrobe culling over the weekend. By serious I mean that I bagged up a lot of clothes to donate. By a lot I mean not actually all that many considering how many clothes I have. All I can really say is "Holy macaroni, Batman, how did this happen?"

I have been holding onto so much crap it isn't funny. The crap in question can be roughly divided into four categories:

1) stuff I used to like and wear years ago but have grown out of, mentally or physically

2) stuff I used to love and then just forgot about

3) stuff I bought thrifted and never really got to wear for whatever reason (fit, colour, randomness)

4) stuff I bought because I bought into a trend, or because I saw it on someone else.

The first category is pretty easy to live with: even if the clothes don't fit me anymore, I at least wore them in the past. The second category is sort of wonderful, actually: I've been re-acquainted with some oldies-but-goodies. The two remaining categories are the ones I'm having a tough time accepting.

I think the main reason I've held onto the thrifted crap and the trend crap / someone else's style crap for so long is embarrassment. I guess I don't do all that well with admitting my own mistakes, and I don't do well with guilt. I have bought stuff, then realised the next day that it wasn't going to work for me, but it would prove too difficult to fully admit it. Maybe I just didn't want to deal with buyer's remorse, the money wasted, or my inability to spot an obvious flaw. Instead, I'd say "darn, I'll figure out a way to wear it anyway." "I'll try it again tomorrow. Or the day after." "Maybe I'll re-work it. I'll take off the sleeves. I'll hem it." "Or maybe I can wear that colour with a tan." And yet, I'd somehow know that I had made a mistake, that I wasn't going to tan, that I never managed to rework an ill-fitting garment successfully. I just didn't want to admit it to myself, and I kept holding onto clothes that I didn't love. After all of my previous culling attempts, there were (and are) still way too many clothes like that in my wardrobe. Time after time they kept creeping in somehow, and there they remained, because to admit failure is not always an easy thing to do.  

As I was digging into my mess of a wardrobe over the weekend, it became obvious that yes, I have made plenty of mistakes. I've had moments of clarity like that before, and they led to nothing: I'd get rid of my mistakes and then make more of them. I tried a different approach on Saturday: I started trying stuff on, and I tried to remember why I had decided to buy that particular piece of clothing. I tried to remember the last time I had worn it, and if I didn't remember, or if I didn't recall the way that garment made me feel, I'd fold it away. I asked myself what was wrong with whatever needed to go: was it the colour, the fit, the hem length? Once I started asking myself questions and being honest with my answers, it got surprisingly easy to admit that I had made mistakes. Because you know what, everyone has made mistakes, and to acknowledge them and to understand them is the only way forward. If we don't fully admit to ourselves what we have done, we will never change.

After about two and a half hours of culling, I had bagged up five big garbage bags of stuff. I couldn't help but admit that I had barely begun the process, that there was a lot more stuff that needed to go, but then I stopped myself. I had to, because getting rid of all of that stuff felt a little bit... too rewarding. I've been there before: I've culled one day, lived with an emptier wardrobe for a week or two, and then started buying again.  I figured that I'd better do this in stages this time. I don't want to get too comfortable. I am not ready to see a healthy wardrobe just yet.

Pictures from a Montgomery Ward catalogue, 1950.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Lucy Ann Lobdell

"I feel that I can not submit to all the bondage with which woman is oppressed, and listen to the voice of fashion.... Help, one and all, to aid woman, the weaker vessel. If she is willing to toil, give her wages equal with that of man."

Lucy Ann Lobdell: The Female Hunter, 1855.

This portrait of Lucy Ann Lobdell was taken in the late 1870s, after she had decided to get a man's haircut. After having been abandoned by her husband, Lobdell began to wear men's clothing. She supported herself as a hunter, and eventually lived with another woman. Lobdell was arrested for pauperism in 1877, and after the authorities realized that she was "unsexed", rumours began to circulate that she was insane. Lobdell was admitted to the Willard Asylum for the Insane in 1880, for wearing male attire, for claiming that she was a hunter, and for threatening others and herself with violence. She was 51 years old.  She died in 1912 in the Binghamton State Hospital. No evidence of violent behaviour was ever recorded in her hospital records, which span over thirty years.

Portrait from Gamwell & Tomes: Madness in America, 1995


Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train stills from unknown,,, unknown

Thursday, 16 February 2012

On fashion and identity-building

I've felt detached from the world of fashion for a while now, and it always hits me during fashion week that this is so. Twice a year I go through the same process, out of a bad habit: I feel that old, strange pull of the runway images, spend a few days on them and the bland "reviews" that accompany them at, and end up with a mix of negative emotions. Fashion frustrates me. Almost everything on the runway feels forced, self-referenced, and trend-driven. Fashion seems to focus on producing gimmicky add-ons to the fashionable folk's supposed "style identities", and the whole thing is just empty, tired and self-centered, consumerist and mostly plain silly. As one fashion show after another plays with whichever dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion that fashion is about this particular season, I can't shake the feeling that everything is, excuse my language here, all fucked up.

In the March issue of Elle, Daphne Merkin discusses the "New Prettiness" and the 1950s pretty housewife look of the current spring/summer season. She argues that women are drawn to traditionalism in these difficult economic times, that women are tired of identity building, and that the old roles and the old representations of being a woman feel safe. In this particular time and space, when our clothing and style choices are so closely linked to identity building, the idea of circle skirts, cat-eye sunglasses and pretty pastels makes me, indeed, think of where women once were, not where we are now or where we are headed. There is safety in that, but also a serious sense of regression. If the attempt is to mirror the post-World War II era and the way women went quietly back to their traditional roles as homemakers after having kept societies afloat during the war, I don't see what the significance of that is today. That type of regurgitation doesn't feel right to me.

I think that my discomfort rises from the new role of clothes as intentional identity-building-blocks. In a world where our style choices are increasingly considered personal narratives of some sort, the 1950s housewife looks and feels like a backlash, a submission to patriarchy and to the traditional understanding of what it means to be a woman. My discomfort comes from the fact that in shaky economic times, the role of women in society as equals is still not sturdy enough. After all of these decades of feminist thought and the fundamental changes that have taken place in the world of work, women still feel safer in submissive roles, or they feel safe being portrayed as such. The old stereotypes are alive and well, as is clearly visible from this very paragraph. In my head, at least, the 1950s housewife look is still symbolic of past times when women didn't have a voice, and when their identity was built for them. But now more than ever, clothes are not just clothes. Gone are the days when our clothing choices defined us because the society told us so. This time around, we are the culprits - we engage in costume-play and a form of dress-up in order to define ourselves willingly. Somewhere along the way we have bought into the idea that we must carefully build our styles to match whoever we think we are. Fashion and clothes are marketed and bought as identity-makers or -enhancers, and it is in this context that the housewife look becomes problematic to me. Whatever the stereotype, we actively pick and choose the elements that go with it, and think that it is safe, or forward-thinking, when in fact it is much more complicated than that. Personal style has become a costume of sorts, and I am not sure if that's right.

The idea that we can, or should, construct a style that matches our identity is fundamentally troubling to me. The above-mentioned Elle article discusses this a little bit, with the help of Caroline Herrera, who thinks that we essentially wear clothes to make ourselves look pretty. (I would add that whatever we consider pretty or attractive is not really the point - it is a process to beautify regardless of the standard of beauty.) Herrera thinks that identity-building with the help of our wardrobe is a little silly, and I think I agree with her. Fashion is fun and clothes are almost by definition a channel of self-expression (we choose what we wear), but I don't know how healthy it is in the long run. The links between fashion marketing, consumerism, and identity-building run deep, and I feel like in the current world of faster-and-faster fashion, we have blindly bought into the idea that we consume in order to define ourselves. Whether we actively play with multiple style identities or stick to one that seems to work for us, we almost seem to accept at face value that clothing as identity marker is a good thing, something to actively pursue. We all know the power of a new pair of killer heels, and what great-fitting jeans can do to our self-esteem at a given time, but I feel like we are past that point. We've gone further, and I don't know if it is the type of identity-building that could ever really last. Whatever it is that we are trying to find with the help of clothes, I am pretty sure I am not the only one who is confused by it.

Whatever the answer is, I seem to be on some kind of a journey to re-define what clothing really means to me, and I'm noticing that the less I focus on what I wear, the better I feel about myself. The less I focus on coming up with "interesting", "different", or even "like myself" type of outfits (isn't the term "outfit" a little troubling, too?), the less I feel like I am what I wear. Of course, there aren't any "truer" or "more authentic" style identities out there: we always pick and choose what we wear, so in a sense there is always going to be something constructed about the way we look, something false, something glued-on. I guess what I am trying to say here may sound like a minimalist-in-the-making, but here it goes anyway: the less I try, the more I feel like I achieve. More importantly, my choices are starting to make sense, and it is mostly because I have stopped trying to channel anything, because I have stopped preoccupying myself with narratives or identity-making, or with the way I might be perceived by others. I have started to wonder if it is, after all, possible to love clothes from the bottom of your heart but to simultaneously jump off the spinning wheel of the idea that our clothes tell a story of who we are, and that the story must evolve and change in order to be considered "personal".

Recently I've given a lot of thought to Eyeliah's bold transformation, where she culled her wardrobe to a handful of pieces. I've thought about making things simpler, about getting down to the basics, about enabling some inner force that is worn-out by all the effort that goes with managing a nonsensical wardrobe and thinking about the links between identity and style. It has served me well to have to look at my crazy, complicated, bulging, often ill-fitting wardrobe long and hard. I am close to claiming that if clothing has something to do with identity, perhaps that identity is not defined by what we own, but by what we choose not to own.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Waiting to suit up

The only suit I've ever owned was one I had to buy for a government job about ten years ago. I was in a hurry, and I ended up with a basic, cheap, black blazer-and-skirt combo from Zara. The sleeves of the blazer were a little bit too short, the nipped-in waist fell a little bit too high, but I didn't have the time or the money to look for anything else. The worst thing was that I had to settle for the skirt because the trousers that matched the blazer were too short. I still remember putting that suit on at home for the first time. I had always had a soft spot for menswear-inspired clothing, I had always liked the look of a woman in a well-tailored trouser-suit, and I had always admired female celebrities who wore tuxedos on the red carpet when other women chose to wear flashy evening gowns. And there I was, in that ill-fitting blazer, that horrible below-the-knee skirt, and a pair of black ballet flats.

For the past couple of weeks I've been keeping an eye out for tailored clothing. I can't seem to shake the idea that I might want to invest in a nice blazer, a pair of well-cut, slim-fit trousers, or even a 3-piece suit. I think enough time has passed from my first suit-related experience. I might just as well give it another go. And this time, I won't settle.

I went thrifting the other day, with the intent of looking for that nice blazer. I was really disappointed in the stuff I found; there were dozens and dozens of really ugly and cheaply-made women's blazers, and dozens and dozens of horribly dated but well-made suits. After I didn't find anything that would do, I jumped online. (I know my 2012 shopping rules forbid me from shopping online, but one can look, right?) The amount of blazers out there is astounding. I spent hours, literally, flicking through what Etsy and eBay had to offer, but I couldn't find anything suitable (pun inteded!). I guess I'm just picky. I don't want anything double-breasted, and I don't want shoulder pads. I have a specific colour scheme in mind (navy, black or gray). I want full-length sleeves, a good fit (not the type where the shoulder seam hovers close to the elbow), preferably a one-button low fastening, and nothing too short. The biggest obstacle, though, is that I can't wear anything that is clearly cut for a woman - those nipped-in waists are just hopeless for my figure. I learned that the first time around.

Perhaps I was overly optimistic about being able to find a second hand blazer that would work. It seems that a lot of older tailored items of clothing look very dated. I have more or less resigned to the fact that I might have to buy my blazer new, and well-tailored blazers don't come cheap. I might have to consider having one made. I'll keep looking until the right one comes along. In the meantime, I'll just have to be happy with what I've got: I can always team up some of my nice trousers with man shoes and grandpa cardigans for that menswear-inspired feel.

I'm wearing a thrifted Marimekko tee and thrifted Ril's trousers with a super old cardigan and Fluevog Beat Cassadys.

Monday, 6 February 2012

1 of 12

First of the twelve, 2012: the "man boots", aka the Beat Cassadys by John Fluevog. I've had my eye on these shoes for a long, long time. Chris got them in olive green way back when, and he's been raving about them ever since. I waited and waited for the black ones to go on sale, and worried about the men's sizing (they are not unisex). Well, it turns out that men's 7 fits me perfectly, and with the price having dropped from $235 to $119, I can't complain.

The boots are actually a present from Chris, but I am still counting them as one of the twelve items of clothing I'm allowing myself to buy this year. After all, I chose them, and I would have bought them if Chris hadn't. To not count them in would have been cheating.

I feel pretty good about having accumulated just one new thing so far. There are a few things I'm actively looking for currently - more about that another day - but so far I haven't been tempted to go thrifting too much. I am still savouring the idea of the twelve pieces, and I've been successfully shopping my own closet. Case in point: this blouse I am wearing today. It used to belong to my mother, and I saved it from her attic years ago. I came across the blouse last week while looking for a pair of trousers I had stored away in the basement. I had almost forgotten that I had it.

I am wearing my mother's old blouse, a super old cardigan, thrifted jeans and Fluevog Beat Cassadys.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Not much of a winter outfit

It doesn't really feel like winter. We haven't seen much snow this year, and earlier this week the temperatures hovered around the mid-50s. It is colder today, but nothing that would stop me from wearing my beloved silvertone KGs.
After I saw how the pictures turned out, I thought that a pair of black, high-heeled boots would have looked good with the skirt. Then again, I don't really wear heels much these days. Flats are just so much more comfortable.

I'm wearing a thrifted men's sweater and a dress by Corey & Co. The necklace is thrifted also.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

I came across this trailer on a l'allure garconniere's tumblr. Looks like a documentary every woman should watch.

What Tilda Said

Tilda Swinton was interviewed by Charlie Rose last night, and when asked about her status as a style icon, she pretty much said that a) she wears what her designer friends tell her to wear, and b) if it feels like pyjamas, she'll wear it. Shey of Modesty is Pretty asked me the other day if my style has changed since I moved to the US, and the answer is yes, it has. I have started to think a lot like Tilda Swinton, except that I don't know designers who would give me clothes to wear. I tend to wear stuff if it feels like pyjamas, if it's comfortable.

I don't think my comfort-seeking has all that much to do with the United States. It has a lot more to do with work. I used to work in clothing retail where it was necessary to look a certain way, ie. like you care about what you are wearing. (And before I make myself sound like I no longer care about what I wear, I'll say that caring about what you wear and looking like you care are two different things.) These days I don't have a 9-to-5- type of job, and when I work it is on my own terms, at home. This has had a huge impact on the way I dress. No dress code, no work-related societal pressure dictates what I should wear.

Dressing to impress others, or dressing to conform to the needs of the societies we live in is the sort of thing that we don't admit to ourselves easily. We like to think that we dress for ourselves and our identities first, and whatever role the people around us play is always secondary. We like to think that in the free world we live in, we have the right to choose. I, too, like to think that I have always dressed according to my own likes and dislikes, but reality would suggest otherwise. I recognise that I no longer wear the types of clothes I used to wear all the time, and it's not because I no longer like my old clothes or because my style has changed dramatically. I still like my old clothes. I just choose to wear different types of things when I can do so freely.

Trends, societal norms, roles of women in society, and dress codes still have a huge impact on the way we dress in the Western world, and at the end of the day there isn't a whole lot of freedom in that. These days there is even pressure for women to systematically "find" or "develop" their personal style, as if we somehow need one to fit in. Perhaps that is why comfort-seekers are often found on the edges of any style- or fashion-related discourse. The sweatpants-wearing woman is the ultimate fashion faux-pas.

I am wearing an old wrap-top, a super-old cardigan, thrifted velvet trousers and yard-sale Converse.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Howell love

Sources more or less unknown - I think the catwalk images are from