Monday, 26 March 2012

How to buy good trousers (with a little help from menswear)

I decided to spread some information about how to recognise a pair of good trousers. I'm not an expert by any means, but I learned a couple of useful tips from The Handbook of Style - A Man's Guide to Looking Good published by Esquire magazine.

First, look at the waistband. The waistband should be lined - the lining helps the waistband to maintain its shape. Then look for a French fly, which has three closures. There's the "main button" above the zipper, but you should also be able to find a metal tab and a hook inside, plus a second button with a corresponding button-hole. The zipper should be attached to an extended waistband. The idea is to take stress off the zipper so that the front lies flat. The picture above, and the one below, shows you what it should look like. 

The pictures below show you what it should NOT look like. The trousers below have no lining in the waistband, and even though the zipper is attached to an extended waistband, the simple button closure just won't provide the type of fit the proper French fly does. With no extra fastening tools (tab-and-button), the closure "shifts" and the zipper bunches when I sit down. (Also, look at the stitching on the zipper - not impressive.) Acne Jeans had the guts to charge 200 euros for these trousers originally. I bought them on sale some years back, thinking that the high original price would signal quality - more on that later.

The picture above (the same trousers) reveals another thing you should be looking out for: taped seams. The waistband seam has been taped, and the back seam has been pressed (which is a good thing), but the edges are not taped or piped for reinforcement. Here's a pair of Chris' trousers where due to the material (heavy cotton), the seam has not been pressed, but nevertheless the back seam has been taped :

The seams up and down inside the trouser-leg have been pressed and taped:

Next to look for: lining, if the season or the material calls for it. Below are my vintage Christian Dior trousers. They are lined all the way to the ankles, meaning that 1) they are warm, and 2) the thick wool fabric will not scratch my legs or cling to stockings. (The "holes" you see in the lining make room for the pleats.) 

The waistband, however, is not lined, and these trousers come with your usual faced fly-front zipper. And here's what I don't get: women's trousers can be horribly expensive and still have no signs of good tailoring. To be perfectly honest, I don't know why women's trousers don't come with the French fly, lined waistband, or even taped seams on a regular basis, because most men's trousers, no matter how cheap, do. I've looked at all of my trousers (some of which have been pretty expensive), and in most of them, these important tailoring details are either just partially there (some seams might be taped or piped), or completely missing. Here's why you should care: when it comes to fit, these things matter. The French fly really makes a difference - the front of the trousers looks incredibly sophisticated. The lined waistband looks and feels more substantial. Taped or piped seams mean no loose threads, and they ensure that the seams hold. Why women's trousers don't typically have this stuff: I wish I knew. It's not because women's bodies somehow require a less-substantial solution. I might be thin but I have hips (my waist-hip ratio is off the charts), and the tailoring tricks that work for men's trousers do wonders for the way my trousers fit, too.  

Here's the good news: you don't have to spend a ton of money to find good-quality trousers. My suit trousers (the ones in the first two pictures) came with the jacket, but the trousers are sold individually for about $65. They have all the bells and whistles despite the fact that that they are not designer trousers. But you don't have to spend that much either. Chris spent $25 on a pair of magenta Paul Smith narrow-cut chinos (above) on Ebay, and everything's there: the French fly, lined waistband, well-finished seams. And of course, my vintage Dior trousers cost $3. I'm going to have them tailored to improve the fit later this year. On that note, if you take one thing from this post, let it be this: it's worth it to pay extra for having your trousers tailored. You can have the best quality trousers look horrendous if the fit is not right. The work on my trousers came to about $50 - they flattened the hip, took in seams in the trouser-legs as well as the crotch, and the trousers were hemmed. Overall, I had such luck having men's trousers tailored for me (pictures to come!) that I doubt if I'll ever go back, unless something changes in the way women's trousers are made.

Friday, 23 March 2012

What women can learn from menswear, or Adventures in menswear, part 3

There are a few things that every woman can learn from the way men are taught to shop and wear their clothes. I think women used to be taught these things too, but somewhere along the way we got lost. Style guides for women talk about the essential pieces of clothing every woman should have in their wardrobe, about how to dress according to body shape, or how to pursue classic style. I find that very little attention is given to helping women be smart and practical. The couple of menswear guides I've consulted give much more hands-on advice. 

I've written about clothing and identity before, and how the connection between the two bothers me. I've felt that perhaps we try too hard to portray ourselves through our clothes, and that maybe identity-driven clothing is just a very smart advertising gimmick to make us think that in order to send a message to the outside world of who we are, we need to buy clothes. But there is no denying that there is a link between ourselves and our clothes. We make decisions every day to wear the clothes that hang on our back, and we all have our reasons to choose a particular set of clothes. Sometimes it's to express an identity, sometimes to hide it.

The link between menswear and identity is just as strong as it is with women and their clothes. Men can opt for adventurous colours or plain ones, vintage cuts or modern, sweatpants or suit trousers, punk or preppy, and every choice tells a story. When women talk about identity and how their clothing reflects who they are, it sometimes appears to be a bit of a fantasy, a costume, or something that we aspire to look like rather than something we already are. (Certainly there is some of that in the world of menswear, too. There are plenty of men out there who think that just because they wear a fashionable mod-inspired suit that they've suddenly become Mick Jagger.) What I've learned from menswear style guides is that knowing who you are and knowing that you are an individual, not anyone else, is key to dressing well. You may go according to every rule in the style book and still look like you're out of place: you need to want to be yourself. Style will follow. You come first, and your clothes come second. 

And it's your clothes - not anyone else's. It sounds so simple, but I, for one, have really stumbled and struggled with this one! I've bought all sorts of things in the past, thinking that I could make someone else's style work for me, or thinking that I could pull off a trend. And then there are the "womenswear essentials". I don't know how many "essential 10, 50, or 100 pieces of clothing  every woman should have"-lists I've seen over the years... but what's striking about these lists is how little they say about 1) how we should be spending our money, or 2) how to incorporate those clothes into our lives. 

1) Men's style guides are full of information about how to recognise good materials and good workmanship, and I've discovered that consulting sewing guides works too: if we are interested in buying something else than cheaply-made crap clothing stores are full of these days, we have to educate ourselves and learn to recognise different types of stitches, seams, and fabrics. 2) When it comes to incorporating the clothes we buy into our lives, men's style guides tell men to consider what their lives are like on a daily basis - not what they might want them to be. Pretending that you are someone else, or living someone else's life, will not result in smart choices. Men are told to buy what they need and what they actually wear. Looking at those "womenswear essentials", it's really simple stuff: if you don't work in an office, you might never wear that pencil skirt the women's guides are telling you to buy. If you don't like wearing dresses, don't buy dresses.

Another important aspect of focusing on ourselves and our lives when buying clothes is the question of fit. Men are told to measure themselves and to buy the right size. Style guides tell men, with the help of clearly drawn pictures or photographs, how to recognise clothes that don't fit. Body-shape-focused women's style guides make an effort in this realm, too, but the message is more often "how to hide your flaws" than "how to buy the right fit". And then there's the confusion that plagues womenswear sizing-systems. Juggling between the sizing charts of various brands is so overwhelming that it's no wonder women often settle for less than perfection. To be honest, a lot of times we might not even know how to recognise ill-fitting clothes. Clothing stores for women are full of shapeless sacks that are supposed to be tops, tunics and dresses, and it's not because shapelessness is fashionable: it's because those sacks are so easy and cheap to manufacture, and they give women the illusion that they are buying comfortable clothes. Here's the thing: tailored and well-made clothes are comfortable too, as long as you buy clothes that fit your body. Well-made clothes last longer, and they look and feel nicer. Men are told to never settle for just so-so, and to have their ready-to-wear clothes altered. Surprisingly, it's not as expensive as you'd think. 

Overall, I find men's style guides much more practical than their womenswear counterparts. Men are told to invest smartly and to never settle for less than perfection. You don't have to be a minimalist, you don't have to be loaded with money, and you don't have to follow classic style rules if you don't want to. Although some menswear guides appear very strict about rules on the surface, they also often note that brave individuals break the rules all the time, and that we need those brave individuals in order to keep fashion and style alive and breathing. We can all learn to shop with dedication and with an eye for detail and quality. And it doesn't mean we have to become boring. We are allowed to have fun even if we get serious with our demands.

Images: via The Fashion Spot 

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Oh, Chris, you son of a gun

The sun is out, the heat is on, and here are some of my attempts to a) enjoy the weather, b) not get sun-burned, and c) add a little colour to my rather lame black-and-navy-and-blue pieces of clothing that have dominated my look recently. 

Chris is making it very difficult for me to only acquire twelve pieces of clothing this year. Take the blue loafers, for instance. I've been rambling on and on about loafers - not just here in the blog, but at home, too. Chris happened to remember that I had been taken by a particular pair of blue loafers at the Fluevog site way back last year. (Yes, he's the kind of guy who remembers things like that.) Chris took the initiative and bought the loafers for me without consulting me, and of course, they are wonderful and very comfortable, and I am very happy with them. My twelve-item-plan didn't exactly have space for them though, and to make things more complicated, Chris confessed that he had bought some men's shirts for me as well. (He "felt bad" that I've been frustrated with the contents of my wardrobe.)

In case you've ever wondered if husbands come too kind or too generous, the answer is yes. Chris spoils me rotten. I couldn't possibly be angry or upset about that though. I guess I'll keep a separate tally on things that I have bought, and things that Chris has bought for me...  

Friday, 16 March 2012

Adventures in menswear, part 2

I found myself browsing men's style magazines at Barnes & Noble the other day. GQ and Esquire were shelved right next to Playboy and the other naked-woman-on-the-cover mags. The men hovering around the area got noticeably nervous as I started flipping through "their" magazines, and I couldn't help but feel a little uncomfortable. Luckily Chris was available for support. We picked the UK version of Esquire to take home. It had nice-looking editorials and an interview with Daniel Radcliffe. I was interested in looking at the way men's fashion is portrayed and how men's style magazines would compare to those meant for women. For the latter purpose, I ended up reading Esquire side-by-side with the March issue of Elle. It seems that both men and women get their fair share of fancy-looking adverts, trendy clothes and accessories, cosmetics, "culture", and a handful of articles on random topics, even relationship advice. (A distressed man needed - and received - help persuading his wife/girlfriend to hold onto those explosive breast implants the media has been discussing lately - surely one of the most absurd things I have read in a long, long time.) 

On first glance it seemed to me that men's magazines must be just as non-sensical as women's: the world of Esquire is painfully heteronormative, and it excludes all other body types except tall and slim. But a couple of things struck me: 1) The appearance of wrinkles on men: there were numerous pictures of men frowning, men with bags under their eyes, men with gray hair. You never, ever see that in women's magazines. 2) The clothing is practical, if not adventurous. There wasn't a single outfit in Esquire that I couldn't imagine on a living, breathing man with a normal life. Yes, some of the clothes would be suitable for special occasions only, but they were still... clothes, you know, for people to wear. The women's trends shown in Elle included very particular things like lacy pastel clothing, art deco flapper dresses, and athletic micro-shorts. The list for men's trends in Esquire consisted of cropped jackets, three-piece suits, double-breasted jackets, and things like "patterns" and "texture" - nothing very innovative or exciting, but certainly practical and somewhat flexible. 

Men's style magazines certainly have their problems: Esquire, for one, offers just as exclusive-a-take on a man's life as Elle does for women. The magazine shows a glimpse of a lifestyle most men can only dream of: $14,000 watches, $300 custom-made shirts. I'm still inclined to think that Esquire's approach to helping men stay stylish is more accessible than anything women's magazines can offer. Women's magazines tend to offer us dreams beyond our wallets, but also beyond our daily lives, our age, our bodies, our everything. At least men might have a chance. 

I'm starting to notice that I'm falling down the rabbit hole a little bit, with my growing interest in menswear. I have trouble getting dressed in the mornings, because my wardrobe makes so little sense to me. A part of me feels like my entire wardrobe is built on gender-based biases that I've bought into along the way. But it's not all bad. A fresh perspective on things is sometimes all we need, even if it takes us out of our comfort zone.    

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Adventures in menswear, part 1

Like I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm currently reading a style guide for men, Bernhard Roetzel's Gentleman - A Timeless Guide to Fashion. I decided to embark on a trip to men's fashion for two reasons. First, I watched some movies with interesting menswear. Second, I read an article in the New York Times after the Academy Awards. The article discussed men's red carpet disasters; that despite men "having it easy" (all they have to do is follow the dress code - the concept is actually quite interesting), a lot of men get it wrong. At this year's Oscars, for example, George Clooney's suit jacket was too small, and his trousers too long. I would have never noticed that, because to be honest, I don't know much about men's clothes.


I've mentioned before that I'm not a huge fan of style guides or clothing rules in general, but I figured that some general information regarding men's clothing couldn't hurt. For a while I've been considering that perhaps menswear is simply onto something. Perhaps there is a reason why what-is-considered-a-stylish-man has worn a simple dark suit for decades on end. Yes, ties and collars have been a little narrower here and a lot wider there, but broadly speaking, a suit is a suit.  The same might be true of women's suits... but a lot of the times the details, colours, jewellery, hairstyles and make-up trends get in the way. There is often just too much of something that distracts the eye. Maybe there is a different type of simplicity, or something time-defying about menswear. Or maybe it's not the clothes at all - maybe it's the way menswear is worn. I got my hands on Roetzel's book because it is supposed to be the definitive guide of classic men's fashion.


So far I've learned all sorts of interesting things. Did you know that a button-down shirt is actually a shirt whose collar is, literally, buttoned down to the shirt? I am ashamed to admit that I had no idea. I've seen "button-down" used to mean a shirt, you know, a shirt, with buttons in the front. Now in hindsight I feel a little silly, because of course, almost by definition, all shirts have a multiple-button closure in the front, but not all collars are buttoned down. It makes sense to have the distinction. What's really interesting is that these types of distinctions are everywhere in menswear, and they actually serve practical purposes. A certain type of collar requires a certain type of tie in order to fit well, and vice versa. A shirt must be long enough - front and back of the shirt should be able to touch in the crotch area - so that one doesn't have to re-tuck the shirt after bending over. Men's trousers should only have pleats if the man's size calls for it - otherwise the fabric doesn't fall right. Or that's what Roetzel says, anyway. And I have to admit that some of this stuff just makes sense.

I wonder if the problem I have with womenswear is that it seems to have entered anarchy: that our preoccupation with our body shapes and identities has removed a lot of the common sense out of the equation of women getting dressed. We spend a lot of time wondering how to channel and express our identities through our clothes, and what others think of the clothes we wear. As consumers, we are told to buy outfits that channel a message rather than clothes that might let our personalities shine. We no longer care as much about practicality, good materials, or the right fit. These days when we encounter a blazer with sleeves that are too short, we roll them up rather than demand a sleeve that's right. And when we try on a blazer that's too big on the shoulders, womenswear sales assistants will regurgitate sales pitches on menswear-inspired trends. At what point did we stop demanding more? Why do the men's t-shirts in my closet last dozens of laundry cycles, but the seams in my women's tees start twisting and turning after a couple of wears? Do men just ask for more?  


I was fitted for a suit a few weeks ago, at a menswear store. It was an eye-opening experience. The sales assistant didn't ask me what type of style I was looking for, which seemed astonishing to me. She took a look at me from head to toe, measured me, and started pulling slim-cut, two-button-closure suits off the racks. After the sales assistant had shown me a suit I liked, minutes later I stood there wearing it. It was big everywhere. Before I had even said anything, I stepped into a little space with huge mirrors. A lady came in with a bunch of pins and tailor's chalk. She worked her magic on the suit, and told me to pick up the suit in a few weeks. I left the store a little overwhelmed. I wasn't entirely sure what had just happened. It hadn't felt like shopping. It felt like someone had dressed me according to some mysterious standard, something bigger than me and my identity.    

Images from Elizabeth Walker: Style Book: Fashionable Inspirations

Sunday, 11 March 2012


Some of you have been wondering how my shopping plan for 2012 has progressed. I'm glad to say: so far, so good, except that I've broken the rule of no online shopping. (It occured to me that if I knew how a certain brand fits me, it would be okay.) My second purchase of the year was a pair of Tod's loafers. I got them at Etsy for about $30. They have been worn a handful of times, if that, because they are in impeccable shape. They also fit like a dream.

One of the most comfortable shoes I ever owned was a pair of baby pink loafers. I wore them all the time. That is, until my then-boyfriend started harrassing me about them. He hated them. Every time I wore them when he was around, he gave me a hard time about them. I was silly, I didn't stick to my guns, and I gave the loafers to my mother, who eventually ruined them by wearing them while weeding her vegetable patch. Every once in a while I've thought about those loafers, and how I should have held onto them. For some reason, until now, I never thought about replacing them. 

As you know, I've given a lot of thought to why some pieces of clothing have staying power. When it comes to my shoes, I've made a lot of mistakes in the past. I've avoided buying basic shoes in order to hoard strappy sandals and all sorts of high heels that I seldom wear. But almost without exception, my flats have had staying power. I don't wear ballet flats - I don't find them aesthetically pleasing on myself - and my favourite oxfords and brogues can seem a little too formal sometimes. But my old, pink loafers had casual staying power, and I figured that it was time to get a new pair. This time though, I went with a neutral colour to make sure that they go with everything. I am considering getting a second pair in black, but I'll see if I can justify yet another shoe purchase out of the allowance of twelve pieces I've given myself this year.

So far, I've bought two pairs of shoes this year. I've come to realise that shoes are perhaps the most important part of getting dressed. It's not just about the way one's shoes look. Shoes influence the way we stand and walk. A woman struggling to stay balanced on her heels, knees bent, looks helpless. A pair of ugly, cheap shoes can ruin an outfit in a heartbeat - and this goes for both women and men.  In my eyes, a pair of really good shoes can allow one to overlook, say, a pilled sweater. Nothing, of course, looks better than self-confidence, but good shoes are perhaps a close second.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Shades of Blue

I am so sorry I haven't been able to post more often recently. Things have been a little hectic; I've been swamped with work, and I had a wisdom tooth pulled (ugh!). But now I'm back!

It looks like spring is finally making its way here. Well, I shouldn't say 'finally', because it really hasn't been much of a winter. We haven't had much snow at all, and just by looking at our heating bill I can tell that it hasn't even been horribly cold. It still feels wonderful to see the sun and some early croci (yes, I think 'crocuses' is the more common plural, but I just love 'croci'). I took these pictures on Wednesday. It was an amazing day, 65 degrees - that's about 17 degrees celcius. We're back to a-little-above-freezing today, but oh well.

In terms of style-related matters, I've been wearing pretty much the same clothes every day for the last three or four weeks: black jeans with a navy turtleneck or a chambray shirt. I've been giving a lot of thought to what makes clothing timeless and what makes me want to wear a particular piece of clothing again and again. I've also embarked on a mission to figure out what it is about menswear: why does menswear appear to age much better than womenswear? Chris and I watched a couple of movies (Great Gatsby, Talented Mr Ripley, Annie Hall), where the menswear actually looked somewhat current, but the womenswear appeared to reflect the period of time to the dot. The few pieces of actual menswear I own (sweaters, mostly - I've bought them because of the sleeve length) seem timeless year after year, whereas  what might have been considered womenswear basics at the time I purchased them, appear dated a year or two later, almost without exception. This bothers me.

In order to get my head around "menswear vs. womenswear", I'm currently reading Bernhard Roetzel's Gentleman - A Timeless Guide to Fashion. Even though I usually steer away from all sorts of style guides, I can't help but feel fascinated by this one. The title of the book says it all - it has chapters on smoking jackets, hunting suits and all sorts of useless aristocratic nonsense - but it is very refreshing to read about style in relation to appearance alone, with no consideration given to trends, body image or identity. It is certainly giving me a lot to think about, and I'll probably end up writing a series of posts on the topic.

Speaking of menswear, Jess provided a great link to this Wall Street Journal article, which suggests that women would benefit from shopping more like men. If you are not familiar with Jess' blog, Empty Emptor, check it out now. Her writing is phenomenal! She is currently tackling issues such as the phenomenon of wardrobe purging, and what happens to clothes after we get rid of them. Seriously, her blog is one to watch!

Anyway, since the topic of this post is 'Shades of Blue'... well, of course I had to include my favourite Blue. You may not remember, but Blue has struggled with her weight for some time. The picture above was taken two years ago, when she weighed over 17 pounds. This is what she looks like now:

Down to about 10 pounds! The transformation has been incredible to watch. She is so much more mobile and active. It has taken a lot of time and effort to get to this point, but Chris and I couldn't be happier that we've made it through.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Talented Mr Ripley (1999)

I'm sorry I haven't been posting lately - I've been busy with work assignments.

Chris and I watched Anthony Minghella's Talented Mr Ripley the other night. The movie doesn't exactly do justice to Patricia Highsmith's novel, but it's worth seeing anyway. The movie's wardrobe is to die for.