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