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 

10 comments:

Ily said...

When I was a kid, shopping with my mom, she always made such a big deal out of quality and fit. It bugged me at the time, because I didn't know why these things were important. Now that I'm an adult though, I'm glad that she gave me all those guidelines. I'm not sure I would have learned them elsewhere.

Anyway, I've enjoyed reading this series. I subscribed to a men's fashion magazine for a while, and it was interesting to note the differences.

Jess said...

Ah, that point you made about people buying shapeless things because they're comfortable - I've never understood why people compromise their choices for the sake of what seems like a weird idea of comfort. I've seen so many really tedious "debates" online about whether leggings are acceptable to wear as pants, so just treating them if they were another pair of jeans or whatever. I don't really care about whether people want to wearing leggings as pants or not - seriously, so many people get so offended by it, like it's a crime against humanity, and I just think "Don't you have anything better to get worked up about?" - but what has struck me is that the people who wear leggings as pants always say it's a comfort thing, because leggings are so stretchy and they can't find anything that's anywhere near as comfortable. That's what I don't get - I don't know what other pants they're wearing that are actually literally uncomfortable to some extent. If a pair of pants was uncomfortable for me, I would never have bought them after trying them on. The right pair of jeans shouldn't be too restrictive, and then there are myriad options for all different cuts and styles and shapes of trousers that are definitely comfortable as long as you've got the right fit. As long as you know what to look for and you apply some criteria, surely there are pants that are comfortable that aren't totally made out of super-stretchy materal? But some people think their only choice for comfort is essentially some hosiery that costs about $10. Dressing for comfort rather than image is admirable, but comfort doesn't mean settling for only the stretchiest of fabrics and the baggiest of shapes.

Shey said...

You come first, and your clothes come second.<---wow, this is so true. Since I started sewing I learned a bit more about noticing stitches and how a garment is made, I've learned about draping and difference between fabrics and and things like that. I also follow a few male bloggers and you are right, they mostly talk about fit and well made garments instead of what's in and the new trends.

Teeny said...

i like point one...that men are encouraged to buy for their lifestyle, women are encouraged to buy for the life they want to portray/or obtain. I often marvel at my own husband who owns very little clothing besides his workwear (of which he has more than casual wear). When it is the weekend, he has his gardening pants, weekend jeans and good jeans - a heap of teeshirts, one good short sleeved shirt and one good long sleeved shirt. And that is all he seriously wants, because that is all he sees that he needs.

mette said...

I only read your part 3 of this series. It gave me lots of things to think about.
Could it be possible, that women are given a tremendous amount of advice, all sort of advice, and therefore it is difficult to pick out the essential information?
Men, maybe have to settle with less, and the info must be readable/ understandable for men.
One thing I try to do, when choosing between two sizes, is picking the larger one, as it can be altered to a perfect fit.
It is miserable to see people wearing too small clothes.

Terri said...

I sometimes wonder if women's clothing is like this because women's weight has a tendency to fluctuate more than men's. What fits well in one season may not in the next...

lin said...

You've said it so well, as usual. Your point about identities really resonated with me - it made me think about the style guides for for women I liked, and you're right in that they seem to focus on "which look are you" more than anything else. I enjoy them in their own way but women would really benefit from guides written like those for men - not enough thought is given to practicality and quality when it comes to womenswear.

(I think some of Nina Garcia's books aren't bad though, surprisingly. It's quite superficial, but it's a pleasant read that encourages a more classic, timeless approach to dressing.)

Carolyn said...

It is sad that there is so much hideous and cheaply made clothing everywhere... I know it might sound elitist to say this (since I know not everybody has the time or the interest in dressmaking) but I think that if more people sewed their own clothes then there would be much more appreciation of high quality and the time and skill level that goes into it.
And it is true what you say about menswear, it is when I started making my husband's shirts, and set myself the minimum standard of making them as well finished as his better RTW ones, that improved my tailoring skills enormously. Now my own are equally well tailored, and checking out the innards of lesser quality clothes is just distressing.
wrt essential lists; I believe each individual person has their own individual list of essentials, the secret is just working out what is yours!

gb said...

Thank you for this post. It's frustrating for me to shop because I'm a woman (and not very rich) always looking for quality clothes. There is SO MUCH women's clothing available, and with such bad quality! It's problematic for many reasons. Environment, unfair trade, bad fit, not good value for your money etc...

Eyeliah said...

Yes! Shapeless is easy to manufacture, and looks only so/so on most people. The challenge I have with a tailored look is how much my size fluctuates. What fits now may not fit in a year, but I do know men can struggle with this too. To get around that and to dress for my shape I usually wear a line skirts and fitted blouses which are forgiving with size changes and flatter a pear shaped woman.