Confession: I’m Fashion Obsessed

closet picI’ve spent a lot of time feeling guilty about how much I love clothes. My mother tells me that I come by the trait honestly – she even apologizes to my husband when I get excited about another new pair of boots. “I made her this way,” she says. Still, I feel like I should learn to back away from the new Anthropologie catalog with a bit more grace. So I’ve made some drastic efforts to break free from my sartorial obsessions.

I’ve purged the closet – three or four times over, once with professional help from a stylist friend. I started shopping in second hand stores. I’ve learned to be systematic about these outings – I can work the racks quickly and spot the junk straight away. My friends and I swap clothes. We’ve held quiet fundraisers that are really just private garage sales. We buy clothes from each other for bargain prices and then donate the pot of money to charity. Voila: new outfits, guilt free.

But my most austere experiment taught me the most.

Two summers ago I lived out of my backpack for 30 days. Fashion was the last thing I expected to learn about in the backcountry, but in retrospect living with one t-shirt, one pair of shorts, and one sports bra was empowering. The obvious is true: there are no clothing decisions to make when you only have one thing to wear. Clothing is about utility in the backcountry – what works and what gets in the way. At a certain point, I forgot what I was wearing – there were too many other things to worry about. Like where to dig cat holes.cody and sj backpack

But something else happened too. There were ten women on my trip – we outnumbered the guys by one. Alliances formed quickly, and though they weren’t always along gender lines, the women bonded in a predictable sort of way. We scrubbed our faces with minty, biodegradable soap. We shared hairbrushes and moisturizer (worth every ounce of their extra weight). We washed our hair in the creek and compared hairy armpits. One of the toughest women tried to shave her legs with a knife. Even our instructor – a woman who has logged more backcountry time than I can even contemplate – admitted to mailing herself nail polish just so she could “do something girly in the mountains.”mountaintop fashion

Not all women bond over fashion and beauty, and there are many men who love clothes and makeup and fashion week. But I learned that there is something distinct about the space we carve out to take care of our physical selves. It is not just about how we look. On day 18 of a month-long expedition, everyone looks gross. It’s not about exercise or strength. Anyone willing to carry a heavy pack that long is strong and fit. It’s about identity and self-knowledge, about shared and intimate space, that for me is distinctly feminine. I don’t dress or wear make-up for anyone but myself. I like to feel good so I run and lift weights and wear high heels. I put on make-up because it is fun and it makes me feel good. When it’s not fun, I skip it. My obsession with fashion isn’t about how many clothes I have in my closet; it’s about reminding myself of who I am.

I sometimes worry that I won’t be taken seriously if look like I care about my appearance. But I think I’ve learned that the opposite is true. I have never felt more comfortable in my skin than I did in the mountains two years ago. I didn’t have fashionable clothing or makeup with me. I didn’t even look in a mirror for thirty days. But I did make time for myself in the daily rituals of personal care, and I shared that space with strong, diverse women. Dressing for the day helps me know what I need to accomplish – whether it’s climbing a peak or teaching contemporary poetry.

I try not to feel guilty anymore. The fact is I love clothes and makeup and shoes. I love fashion magazines and nail polish. I also know that I can live without all of the trappings of the industry. Like most people, I am full of contradictions and every day I get up and try to do my best – with every part of myself. Getting dressed is just the first step.  ~ Sarahjules and sj dressed up

Are You Going to Wear THAT!?

My mother on Memorial Day 2008

My mother on Memorial Day 2008

Like most people, my mother influenced my fashion sense. She raised me with rules like don’t wear white after Labor Day; match your shoes with your belt, bag, and jacket; never wear white before Easter; and don’t mix blue and black. To this day, those rules still govern what I wear, and yet, those rules are challenged as I discover my own style and my new-found joy of fashion.

The other day, I mentioned to Sarah that I was always the weird kid in school who wore red and purple together…remembering my classmates’ sneers in childhood at my horrendous color choices.

She looked confused, “but that’s OK!” she said.

That one statement shook my world. What!? It’s OK?

A few weeks earlier, she informed me that it’s OK to wear black and blue together. I was just getting used to mixing the color of my shoes, belt, and jacket! What’s next?? Wearing white before Easter!? I would never do that!

Keri in Easter Dress at 4 Years Old

My Easter Dress at 4 Years Old

For my mom, Easter not only marked the beginning of spring, but it marked the addition of pastels and other bright colors to my wardrobe. Although the rule technically was “No White Before Memorial Day,” my mother broke that rule for Easter. She would dress me in flowery, pastel dresses, and take my picture. Before then, we dressed in black, brown, or other dark, muted colors. I would whine about the dark clothes I was forced to wear, arguing for light colors. When she worked, I would convince the babysitter that I could dress myself, and I’d run to school in my favorite purple pants and red shirt.

When my mother dressed me, I wore olive green pants with yellow or orange—her favorite colors. Of course, this was in the 1970’s—a fashion style that I laugh at now. (It seems to me that wearing red and purple together should not have been considered a fashion “sin.” In fact, I even found a 1974 image of a woman wearing red & purple together! I must have been a Maverick, and that’s why the kids laughed! They just didn’t know any better themselves!)

So, my fashion sense was built on shame: what could I dare to wear and not get laughed at? Unfortunately, it was all trial and error. So, at this early, impressionable age, I learned about fashion: t-shirts and jeans are always in style.

My fashion sense as a teenager: t-shirts & jeans

My fashion sense as a teenager: t-shirts & jeans

As I continue to wade through fashion pros and cons, I’m thankful for technology and fashion-forward friends who will tell me what looks good and what doesn’t. dress2dress1

The other day as I dressed, I pulled on a V-neck shirt with swirls of colors. There was red and purple in the shirt—along with green, blue, and yellow. I hesitated—should I wear this? Does it look silly on me? Does it match my pants? What shoes should I wear? But then I asked the important question: Do I enjoy wearing it?

It occurs to me that fashion is a sign of our times: we have fewer rules in fashion just like we have fewer rules in social norms. It’s acceptable to wear red and purple…just like it’s acceptable for same-sex couples to legally marry (well…we’re getting there). The more we’re encouraged to follow our own identity, then the blurrier fashion lines become.

And I’m OK with that.

~ Keri

Creating Style

instylecoverRecommended Reading: In Style, April 2013.

Few people know that I used to be a runway model. It wasn’t anything fancy, and it wasn’t with a large modeling company, but I learned how to walk a runway and how to put together a fashionable look. I did it at first to help a friend, but she asked me to continue, and I thought I would make some extra money. I made some, but mostly I got some nice clothing.

At the time, I thought of the fashion world as glamorous. I also thought being a runway model would be fun. It really wasn’t. Only one store hired me for their shows. It specialized in plus-size clothing. At the time, I did not consider myself plus sized. I could wear a medium or large, depending on the style, and my weight fell into the healthy category (probably one of the few times in my life when this happened).

However, the other stores wanted sizes 2-6. That was not me, so I got “stuck” with the plus-sized clothing. The smallest size in that store was too big for me, but they pinned me into the clothing and made it work. I felt horrible about myself every time. About three runway shows later, I quit. Although I got to keep the outfits I modeled, it seemed pointless because they didn’t fit. I did sell some of the pieces and made some spending cash, but that ended my modeling “career.”

The modeling company I worked with pushed the envelope at the time, hiring models of all shapes and sizes. I supported that. Today, however, the clothing industry seems to be slightly more progressive–only slightly. I see more plus-sized models and a push for “real” women models and mannequins. Progress is slow, but it’s still better than when I modeled. Now, as a true plus-sized woman, I have more shopping options. Still, some doors are closed to me.

For now.

For years, I have dieted…and dieted…and dieted. I finally found something that works for me, and I have lost a total of 95 pounds (the details are for a different topic). I have more pounds to lose, but what’s most exciting right now is that I’m in a size I thought I would never wear again. I’m still in plus-size clothing, but in another ten pounds or so, that won’t be true anymore. In the meantime, clothes entice me, and I am powerless to their pull.

A wonderful friend of mine in the retail industry is also losing weight, and she passes down her clothes to me as she shrinks out of them. She’s one size smaller than me, so as she moves to the lower size, I move into the size she just vacated. I love it! And since I have little money to replace my wardrobe every two months, it provides me with new clothes!

Typically, these are not the kinds of styles I would choose for myself: color, lace, sheer material, and patterns, but they fit me, flatter my ever-changing figure, and they’re in style. Consequently, I find myself curious about fashion.

This curiosity drew me to In Style magazine. The cover also enticed me. Zooey Deschanel graces the cover dressed in red, her dark bangs brushing her eyelashes. I’m not particularly fond of her new show, but her acting and singing voice entertain me. Inside the magazine pages, Deschanel talks about style and a little bit about the ridiculousness of it. She also reveals her intelligence.

Despite not being very academic, I recommend this issue of In Style magazine mostly because it’s spring. I’m ready for color, skirts, and strappy sandals. If you don’t love it for the fashion or the beauty tips, it is still worth reading about Zooey Deschanel.

Although I am enjoying my new-found interest in fashion, part of me feels like a traitor to plus-sized women. I may not wear those sizes soon (and hope to never wear them again), but that image will still be a part of my inner character. I hope that I will remember where I came from, though, and never participate in discrimination and judgment of plus-sized women.

~ K

Technology as…Fashion??

Shh…don’t tell anyone…but for the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a secret experiment. Although, it’s not very scientific, nor very secret, but it’s been fun. For the past few weeks, I added a pair of baby-blue earbuds to my daily wardrobe.

It started around midterms when grading clogged my calendar. I hardly had time to eat much less talk to people, so I wore my headphones in my office while grading papers, checking email, etc. They blocked out background noises and kept people at bay. Later, I participated in the iPod exchange program and received a new iPod Nano. Of course, with a new iPod, I needed new headphones!

Having been content with whatever came with my original Nano, I hadn’t been headphone shopping in ages. I never saw so many headphone selections in my life! How do you choose from so many colors, designs, and styles? I consulted help, only to find out that I knew so little about the subject, I hardly understood the clerk. So, I did what most newbies of technology do: I purchased them in a favorite color at a reasonable price. Sporting my new blue earbuds with my new tiny Nano, daily I wrapped my headphones around my neck as I ran out the door.

Of course, since I started wearing headphones, I noticed everyone else wearing them, too. Check out Wayne’s stylish headphones:

Traveling to a conference with a colleague, I noticed he had no qualm about wearing large, black headphones with a white skull painted on them. They didn’t count against his carry-on quota either. The TSA officials simply accepted them as part of his wardrobe.

Wearing headphones for exercise or studying makes sense to me. Music can help us focus and help our memory and learning (see my Master’s thesis for more), but headphones also isolate us and send a “do not disturb” message to the outside world, and whether you think that’s a good or bad thing, that’s exactly part of the point.

That certainly was true in my case. I needed to focus and get my work done. When alone, though, music provides company. (How ironic that I want company while wearing something that purposefully isolated myself.) The beauty of headphones lie in their portability: we can take them off when wanting to join the outside world.

Obviously, headphones are not a new phenomenon. While growing up, the Walkman was popular, and people wore headphones all the time, but the headphones back then were not nearly as sexy or fashionable as today’s. They were big, bulky, and ineffective. A cheap pair inevitably ripped out some hair and the headband interfered with hairstyles.

With the invention of earbuds, concern of damaging a hairdo no long existed. More than likely, this helped the industry move from function into fashion. From the simple black and white choices of the ‘90s, earbuds and headphones alike evolved into the choices we have today. In fact, it is now possible to purchase earbuds shaped into a gas mask or anything else.

So, some people may purchase headphones or earbuds for the sake of fashion, but I think that fashion is not on people’s minds when they don their headphones. Instead, it’s in anticipation of what the day might bring, and in a sea of people and stress, perhaps they bring a bit of needed solitude… just in a fashionable way.

Articles about headphones and fashion

Lady Gaga design:

Headphones that cover your eyes, too:

Headphone reviews:

~ K

Confessions of A New Blogger

this blogger's secret weapons

For years I’ve hauled trashy magazines home from the public library under the cover of night.  I hid my stack under Man Booker novels and the kids’ story books.  I’ve read them all – Vogue and Glamour, Lucky, Vanity Fair, InStyle and even UsWeekly.  English instructors read a lot.  We read level one composition papers and creative writing disasters.  We reread short stories from survey Lit anthologies and devour new fiction in hopes that our classrooms will feel edgy and of the moment.  We memorize poetry and pick at education journals.  And I confess, we hide our fashion magazines.

Then about five years ago I discovered my first blog: The Sartorialist. Now I stalk women like Emily at Cupcakes and Cashmere and Erin at Apartment 34.  The content looks like frivolous nonsense, inconsequential banter about neon stripes and handbags.  And mostly it is, but the sites are beautiful and contagious.  And they epitomize effective blogging: make it look good, write often and with enthusiasm, share relevant (and selective) information, tell a compelling story, get to the point.

Reading online is like drinking a raspberry Slurpee without a straw: it’s difficult to get a clear shot at the good stuff without making a mess of the process.  When I’m online I fight myself.  I work to focus on the long and important articles – to get my vitamins – and then I fight to move faster, to get to more stuff.  And I am a sucker for the well-styled, pretty stuff.  A good title and a well-lit shot of shiny food gets me every time.  If there is couture it’s all over – I’ll never get back to the Chronicle of Higher Ed if I can have Jimmy Choo.  Some scholars, like the London School of Economics and Public Policy’s Patrick Dunleavy and the University of Waikato’s Chris Gilson, claim that blogging is “one of the most important things” academics can be doing right now.  They are, of course, referring to academic research and the ability of social media and a well-tended blog to bring cutting edge ideas to the masses.  The fashion world should have such lofty goals.

Blogs bring us the world, sloppy section by sloppy section at a time.  We stumble upon the beautiful and the unusual through a series of unintentional clicks.  Usually we are led by advertisers and clever marketing, but occasionally we float through a world of images and ideas curated by someone we’ll never know.  We surf for experts.  The blogosphere allows, and according to Gilson and Dunleavy in some cases obligates, us to “contribute [our] observations to the wider world.”  It allows us to share ideas, to challenge one another, and to engage in a community.  The potential for greatness is palpable.  User generated content might fuel revolutions and topple dictators.  It may unearth a cultural touchstone or a cautious poet. It might also propel the next tasteless tube-top trend.  The distractions are infinite and terrifying; there is something paradoxically lovely and creepy about stumbling from the economic theory to shoes and nail polish in seconds.

– S