Sunday, September 7, 2014

My answers to the Women in Clothes survey

Last year, I responded to an open call for submissions to Women in Clothes, edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, and described by the editors as "not a how-to style guide, but an intimate look at the choices women make when they get dressed and an inquiry into the idea of personal style." The book is now out, and I was bummed to learn none of my responses ended up in the book. So below, for your reading pleasure or displeasure, is my full completed survey.

1. Do you remember the first time you were conscious of what you were wearing? Can you describe this moment and what it was about?

When I was in first grade, my mother was doing my hair, and I was standing in front of her in her bathroom, both of us facing the mirror. My hair was damp and combed back off my face – she was probably about to braid it – and I told her I thought it looked cool. I asked if I could wear it that way. So she put gel in it to preserve the slicked-back “wet look” all day. As soon as I got to school, I regretted this decision. I don’t think anyone made fun of me or even noticed, but I felt very self-conscious about it. Perhaps because of the mirror’s prominence in the memory, I happen to remember what I was wearing that day too, though not very clearly – I’m sure I was wearing a button-front shirt and pants, because the hairstyle combined with the outfit made me feel tomboyish, unfeminine. (I still despise the feeling of being stuck out in the world with regret over my fashion choices.)

2. Is there an item of clothing that you once owned, but no longer own, and still think about or wish you had back? What was it and what happened to it and why do you want it back?

There are so many of these. I can clearly remember many outfits I wore in high school (I once made a detailed list of these outfits for my blog). I would love to have that black butterfly dress from Delia’s – I felt beautiful wearing that – and my dad’s swim trunks that I wore as shorts until they fell apart. I got a pair of moccasins when I was 15 or so that were entirely perfect, incredibly soft and with minimal detail, and I wore them with everything. The soles cracked and they were too cheap to resole. If not for wear and tear they could have been my life shoes. (Many other shoes I have owned have fallen apart before I was tired of them – the black boots with the perfect wedge heel, the pink button flats, the studded, tan leather thongs…) It’s hard to pick a single item – and I don’t know what I’d do with it if I had it. Perhaps a beaded necklace I “made” by taking apart a strand of turquoise and stone beads and threading two souvenir pennies – the kind you get pressed in a machine – into the center. The pennies were from my brother, who got them at the top of the Empire State Building on a band trip to NYC.

3. Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice? What sort do you tend to admire? If not admire, what is the feeling that a compelling woman on the street gives you?

I do notice women, more so than men. I especially notice younger women, because they seem quite aware of how they look, they either want to be looked at or know they will be anyway, and respond to that. I’m always checking women out. With younger women, I especially admire those whose style is different and more radical than mine – outlandish hair, tattoos and body piercings, overt costuming. With older women, I admire chicness – confidence, comfort and ease, striking details.

4. Did anyone ever say anything to you that made you see yourself differently, on a physical and especially sartorial level?

There was a compliment from a guy in high school – I was wearing thrifted jeans and the aforementioned moccasins – I’m not sure of the wording, but the upshot was basically that my outfit had an I-don’t-care effortlessness that he called “so cool.” I remember this because while I thought that attitude/style was cool, I didn’t realize anyone else agreed.

Later, as a freshman in college, I remember a (male) friend expressing surprise that I was a virgin, saying, “I always thought you had to have sex before you could be sexy.” I think this is the first time anyone called me sexy.

5. Did your parents teach you things about clothing, or about care for your clothing, or about dressing or style? What lessons do you remember? Did they tell you things directly or did you pick things up?

The thing my mother taught me indirectly/implicitly was that quality is important, but you can get quality without venturing into showy, designer-logo territory. She was naturally thrifty, but didn’t like cheap stuff. I ended up inheriting these standards.

6. What is your process getting dressed in the morning?

These days, I rarely get dressed in the morning … I work from home, and I don’t get dressed until I plan to go out. If I know I’ll be going out later, I think intermittently about what I plan to wear throughout the day. Key considerations, in order of importance, include: weather, formality of event, company (anyone I want to impress?), recent purchases and/or obsessions, mood, confidence level. If there’s something I really want to wear (be it a shirt or a piece of jewelry) I’ll start with that and build around it.

7. Did you ever buy a piece of clothing without giving it much thought, only to have it prove much more valuable as time went on, to your surprise? What was the item and what happened?

In high school I once bought a simple gray twill kilt at the Gap. At the time, I had wanted a kilt (that whole schoolgirl trend was going strong), but preferably a plaid one with buckles, etc. This was a compromise. However, it remained in my wardrobe rotation for a good decade. In fact it’s still in my closet, though I never wear it anymore.

8. Did you ever buy an item of clothing or jewellery, certain that it would be meaningful to you, but it wasn’t at all? What was it and what happened?

Once I begged my mother to make me a bright blue corduroy jumper. She spent some time on it and then I only wore it once. I still feel bad about this.

I purchased a black velvet tuxedo vest about two years ago in a thrift store, envisioning it as an all-purpose “third piece” layer. While I often imagine wearing it with various things, it reminds unworn in my closet.

9. When you look at yourself before going out, what voice do you hear in your head and what is it saying? What is it looking at and evaluating?

My primary concern (see first question!) is always whether I’ll regret what I’ve chosen. So questions I ask myself might include: Will I feel over- or underdressed? Will I feel attractive? Will I feel fat? Will I be comfortable? Will this work if it rains or if I have to walk longer than I think? Will my nipples show? Etc. Generally I know myself and my wardrobe well enough to feel confident about my outfit the first time around, but on occasion I do end up changing a couple of times as a safeguard against regret.

10. Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple? Why do you think you keep buying this thing?

I am generally against buying the same thing in multiple colors, because a) you always end up liking one of them more, and b) you’re not fooling anyone, you can’t just wear them back to back. But I have done this with some basics like t-shirts and jeans if I felt they were truly perfect, and I have often wanted to re-buy shoes only to find they are of course not available anymore. One specific item that is always in my closet (I keep buying different styles/brands) is a black turtleneck. I just think I look good in a black turtleneck.

11. How and when do you shop for clothes? How does money fit into all this?

I buy new clothes far more often than I need to, probably once or twice a month, when I happen to be out and about and pass a store that interests me, and of course sometimes I go out with Intent to Shop. Because I work from home, I have a lot more wardrobe options than I really need, and in the past couple of years, I have often found things in my closet that I completely forgot I bought. But I love the buzz of having new things! On the other hand, I usually buy things on sale, and I don’t shop online very much, so it could be much worse. As far as money goes: I rarely strictly need new clothes, but I don’t feel guilty about this indulgence, because I have the expendable income, it brings me pleasure, and there are many things I don’t spend much money on (cable, vacations, gadgets, etc.).

12. What sorts of things do you do, clothing or make-up or hair-wise, to feel sexy or alluring?

Clothing-wise: I show some skin (arms, collarbone, clavicle, back, legs, not all at once, obvs), or wear very fitted dark jeans with heels, lots of jewelry. The kind of cliché sexy look doesn’t work on me, because I’m skinny with no cleavage, so “sexy” for me is usually pretty subtle. Makeup-wise: I amp up the eye makeup – I’m blond/blue-eyed so my features are naturally fair. (Side note: I love wearing bright lipstick but think of it as more fun than sexy.) Hair-wise: Long and wavy feels sexy, up in a slightly messy bun more fancy/alluring.

13a. (for adults) What sorts of thing do you do, clothing or make-up or hair-wise, to feel professional? How do you conform to or rebel against the dress expectations at your workplace?

My “dos” for work: Always wear makeup (otherwise I feel sloppy/unfinished) and avoid frizzy/messy hair. Always wear a bra (not required outside work). Jewelry helps. Add a jacket or cardigan over a tank top.

My “don’ts” for work: No shorts or baggy/frayed jeans. Nothing too revealing.

My jobs have always been pretty casual/loose on the dress code front so I don’t really have the opportunity to rebel.

14. Do you consider yourself photogenic? When you see yourself in photographs, what do you think?

Can I say I’m photogenic some of the time? I’m a lot more photogenic when I know someone is about to take my picture, if you know what I mean.

I’m always comparing photographs to my mental image, what I see in the mirror. So sometimes, obviously, I think the photo looks a lot worse. Sometimes it seems about the same. Now and then I think the photo is prettier.

As long as they’re not terribly unflattering, I enjoy seeing myself in candid pictures, especially in the background, because it’s a glimpse of what I look like to other people, to strangers.

15. Was there a moment in your life when something “clicked” for you about fashion or dressing or make-up or hair? What was it? Why did it happen then, do you think?

There have been a few of these. As far as fashion goes, I think I was about 25 when I realized it’s almost always worth the effort to try to look good (as in, better than just barely presentable), because it makes me feel more confident while out in the world, and I don’t end up comparing myself unfavorably to other women. Around the same time, I had an epiphany: all fashion is basically a costume. If I like something, but it’s objectively a little silly or ridiculous, who cares? If you look at fashion as costuming, you can do no wrong as long as you’re having fun. I think it happened then because I had gone through a big breakup and was starting a new job, and these felt like opportunities to start over, fashion-wise. [More on fashion as costuming here. Not that the outfit described in the intro includes the gray kilt mentioned in #7.]

Also, I only very recently figured out how, as a blonde, to wear eyeliner. (You have to rub it right into the base of the eyelashes!)

Also, I only recently, in the last couple of years, started wearing lipstick on a regular basis. My life is the better for it; lipstick is fun.

16. Have you stolen, borrowed or adapted any dressing ideas or actual items from strangers, friends or family?

There’s a certain way of rolling up the sleeves on a dress shirt that I stole from J.Crew catalogs.

17. Were you ever given a present of clothing or jewelry that especially touched or disappointed you? Or did you ever give someone a present of clothing or jewelry that they seemed especially touched or disappointed by?

Right after we got married (in a private ceremony with no wedding or rings), my husband’s grandmother sent me an old ring of hers that she used to wear all the time but had gotten too big for her. She didn’t intend it to be a wedding ring – it’s quite casual, a wide, domed silver band, and fits on my pointer finger. But it’s exactly my style, as it happens, and now I’m wearing it all the time. She’s an unconventional lady, like me, and I was touched by the gesture.

18. Do you ever wish you had a different body? What would it look like? Could be male or female, tall or short, curvy or skinny, etc.

I like my body, but there are little things I wouldn’t mind being different – an inch or two taller, a little sleeker here and there. The only time I really wish I had bigger breasts (I’m an A cup, though I was a small B when I was on birth control pills) is when I put on a swim suit.

19. What do you consider very beautiful or very ugly?

Beautiful: Curly hair, as in true ringlets. Very soft, smooth, evenly toned skin. Muscles. Strong jaws. Often, small asymmetries: a crooked tooth or small scar, etc. Distinctions. A widow’s peak. A mole. I love graying hair and eye wrinkles.

Ugly: I don’t like this word, but I often find signs of neglect/disrepair/bad health unattractive – split ends, yellowing nails or teeth, acne, sun-damaged skin, lack of muscle tone, etc.

20. Would you say you “know what you like” in the area of fashion and clothing? Or is there something else in life that you feel very sure about in this way (music, art, friends, home decor)? Where did your discernment comes from – is it instinctual or learned?

Yes, I know what I like in fashion! What’s still hard, though, is only buying what you love; sometimes one buys something mediocre (at Target, say) just for the small thrill of a purchase. I believe 90%+ of taste is learned.


a) How does makeup fit into all this for you?
Makeup and fashion occupy the same space for me: They’re a variable I can manipulate to change how people perceive me, and for the most part that’s a fun game for me. Of course, as a woman, there are certain expectations surrounding my clothing and makeup that at times can feel oppressive – but I actively avoid jobs and settings where that can become a real issue. I don’t dress up or wear makeup around the house (alone or with my husband) – it’s just part of how I engage in the public world.

b) What’s the situation with your hair? I think I have pretty good hair. I can easily straighten it or wear it wavy, depending on my mood. I don’t like to spend money on my hair, for some reason (not the same with makeup or clothes) so I get my hair cut infrequently and never dye it. I enjoy dramatic changes, so I often grow it long and then cut it into a short bob, then let it grow out again.

c) Do you care about lingerie? Not really, probably because of the aforementioned A cups. I insist upon wearing thongs, but not because I think they’re sexy (at all) – it’s because I can’t stand feeling my underwear rub against my clothes, and thongs minimize that, are the closest I can comfortably get to not wearing underwear at all.

d) Please describe your body. I’m medium height, just tall enough to look decently tall in heels. I have a small frame (usually a size 4), not terribly curvy but not boyish either, because my waist is definitely smaller than my hips. I think I have pretty good legs, and a great ass! I would describe myself as being on the muscular side.

e) Please describe your thought process and emotions. Highly logical and cerebral, but I cry easily, go figure.

g) What are some things you need to do to your body or clothes in order to feel presentable? If I gain even a couple of pounds and my clothes feel tight, I get irritable. So I always make sure to wear clothes that don’t feel overly tight. Usually, my outfit doesn’t feel “finished” unless I am wearing at least one piece of jewelry. Shoes are important; finding a pair of shoes that goes with lots of different outfits is a godsend, especially for packing. I always like for something to look slightly undone (what the Italians call sprezzatura) – a bit of cuff sticking out, hair slightly mussed, etc. I also always put on perfume.

f) What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment? I recently got back from a gallery opening and dinner with friends, but I’ve already changed out of my clothes into lounge/sleep wear: a very thin, soft baseball tee (white with red 3/4 sleeves) and plaid boxer shorts. I’m still wearing makeup: tinted moisturizer, blush, eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara. I had lipstick on but it came off when I ate a burger. I’m wearing a necklace that I have on all the time lately (through sleep, showers, etc.): a tiny gold ring with a cursive E inscription, one of my first pieces of jewelry, on a gold chain. My hair is down (it’s on the long side now) and has a touch of the bedhead, as I showered last night.


Where were you born and where do you live now? I was born in El Paso, TX and currently live in Denver, CO.

b) Say anything you like about your cultural/ethnic/economic background. I’m white/European, my parents were upper middle class, nothing to see here.

c) What kind of work do you do? I work as a writer and content marketing manager at a software company. I do other, mostly non-paid kinds of writing on the side (poetry, criticism, etc.).

d) Are you single, married, do you have kids, etc.?
I am married with no kids.

e) Please say anything you like about yourself that might put this survey into some sort of context. I found the womeninclothes website through a Chloe Caldwell tweet. I love fashion and beauty on a pure, consumerist basis but I also love thinking about them on a more examined theoretical level. So it’s right up my alley. I’d love to read it whether or not I’m not included in the book, perhaps with an eye toward reviewing.


If you are sending a picture of your mother from before she was a mom, please write a paragraph or two about what you see when you look at that picture. What do you imagine her life was like then? Her emotions/feelings? How does this photo, and her style in this photo, make you feel? 

You can’t see much of my mother’s clothing in this photo, which is perhaps what strikes me about it – there was, as far as I can tell from pictures and oral history, a very small window in which she styled herself as “sexy.” I’ve never seen my mom wear anything revealing in my lifetime. So this photo from the 70s, showing her bare back and arms, is quite poignant to me. She was younger then than I am now, and she would have been more vulnerable, and yet stronger too. But at the same time, she is completely recognizable, she looks just like herself, exactly as she looks now, only filtered through time. She looks so young and yet it’s so difficult for me to see her as anything but my mom, my protector. It strikes me that her style (the simple glasses, the short, clean hair) have hardly changed at all. I hope the same could be said of me, when someone looks back at my photos in 30 years. (I can’t help imagining a daughter doing this, though I have no plans to have one.)

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