written on the body

In typical horrifying style, I’m just going to name all of my blog posts after works of literature. Thank you, Jeannette Winterson.

Titian's Danaë with young Eros.
Titian’s Danaë with young Eros.  When was the last time Zeus rained gold on me?  What has Zeus done for me lately, is what I’m saying.  Oh God.  Literally.

Over the weekend (this is now several weekends ago), I went to see Titian’s Danaë at the National Gallery.  I wonder if Titian painted Danaë nude because he was worried about finding the right dress to deëmphasize her midsection or he didn’t have time to head to the mall to have her colors done.  Maybe Danaë spent a long time worrying about not getting enough cardio, locked up in that bronze tower.  Such a pretty face, they’d tell her.  That is, if they ever got to see her.  I hear Lady Godiva had the same problem, you know.  That’s why she rode the horse nude: she couldn’t decide what to wear.

Let’s just say that I spend a long time thinking about discourses of the body.  Is there a less obnoxious term for that?  Afraid not, reader.  Going into reading midcentury style guides, I was worried.  Concerned, really.  Have you ever tried to find a vintage pattern with a 40″ bust?  What about a 40″ hip?  Now, I read contemporary fashion magazines and so much of it seems to be about diminishing and deëmphasis, dressing so that your body can appear to conform to a long, lean, busty, hippy, firm, pretty-but-not-intimidating, sexy-but-not-whorish, smart-but-unimposing Western ideal, rather than align with your personality traits.  If contemporary discourses are so troubling, what would I think about the famously direct Edith Head?  Or Claire McCardell and Adele Margolis who, while trailblazers, were unavoidably products of their time?

Gretchen over at Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing wrote of being surprised about Irene Sharaff “body-snarking” Elizabeth Taylor.  I disagree about body-snarking in that instance, and I didn’t walk into the texts expecting that, as Gretchen writes, “Hollywood [or dressmakers] had more realistic expectations of stars [people] in the 50s and 60s, when a more womanly figure was in fashion.”  Mostly because I’m always disturbed by the idealization of the past, sure, but also the implication that women were more “womanly” in the era of distressing repression after the relative liberation of the 1940s.

Suffice it to say, I went in with some baggage.  A lot of baggage.  I was really pleasantly surprised, though.  More background.  (Don’t you love how this alleged review is basically me talking about me?  Me, too.)  When I first started writing this blog, I used to go back over my posts and add in a lot of I thinks and maybes, to cushion what I was saying.  Now, I do the exact opposite, and go back through my writing to savagely cull all of that.  Of course I think it, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing it, right?  The point is, there’s a directness to these books that I just love, even if I was a bit taken aback by it, initially.  No hemming and hawing and hand-wringing about pleasing and offending.  Just the facts, ma’am.  Por ejemplo:

I suggest the following, in the order I would choose if I were you. First: look at your figure. You know if you’re too fat. Consult your doctor and find out how much you can lose safely. He will be only too glad to help you and if you are really overweight he will disapprove from the standpoint of health. Your figure is adjustable—through diet and exercise. Instead of struggling from one size to another, you will save time and frustration by banishing potatoes. But be realistic. Reducing won’t guarantee a perfect figure if your bones aren’t arranged that way. Accept the fact that some alterations will be necessary and you will certainly save money if you can either do the alterations yourself or find a little dressmaker.  (McCardell 28)

Okay.  Now imagine Nina Garcia writing exactly those words.  Specifically, “You know if you’re too fat.”  She’d be pilloried.  I read a lot of contemporary style guides through Scribd, and did a fair bit of flipping through others at the bookstore.  The advice tends to lean more towards “Buy the right size for you.”  I don’t recall a single one addressing modifying your body to fit your clothes, but all of them suggest modifying your clothes to suit your body.  “Dress for the body you have now, not the one you have in your head,” they say.  Actually, that last bit has been an enduring suggestion.

Let’s hear from Adele Margolis now:

If you’re size 16 [contemporary US size 10-12] or over, you’re out of luck.  Some stores don’t even stock anything over a 14.  Clothing buyers and store managers tell us that the best-selling sizes across the country today are the 10’s and 12’s.  The largest voices and the best buys are in these smaller sizes. . . . If twenty pounds is an out-of-the-question weight loss for one who has lived enough years to consider her evening cocktail and a gourmet meal among the finer things in life, then at least one can think thin and try for ten.  In the ensuing struggle, it’s a comfort to know that it is better to fit the clothes you would like to wear than to make the clothes fit what you are—especially if what you are is anything less than great.  (Margolis 1-2)

Especially if what you are is anything less than great.  Okay.  Take a knee, grab some water, we’re over 1000 words in, and haven’t even addressed Edith Head, yet.

Okay, so there are perhaps, maybe, I think, kind of different ways of expressing these sentiments.  The old man that lives within me—the one frustrated by grade inflation, the everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality, and a stifling dedication to hollow, superficial niceness—is refreshed by Margolis and McCardell’s shit-or-get-off-the-pot approach.  (My will to run a family-friendly blog is flagging.)  They’re basically like really nice aunts, or something, who think that what they’re telling you is for the best.  I say this as someone with a cadre of aunts (and uncles, and parents, and grandparents, and elderly neighbors, and middle-aged neighbors, and maintenance people who work at school) who are far too fixated on my weight for my taste, and from whom “You know if you’re too fat” would be a reserved and tactful observation.

I’ve developed pretty thick skin, as well as a distaste for contemporary veiled body criticism.  Would you rather flip through magazine editorials that school you in the dark arts of figure flattery, delivering alleged compliments about “your tiny waist!  Squee!” while simultaneously telling you how to conceal your hideous, grotesque, offensive-to-all saddlebags?  What is the appreciable difference between that and the two quotes I’ve given you?  (Disclosure: While I’d love to tell you that I am Captain Body Confidence and Positivity, I most certainly am not.  I gained two inches on each calf after a four-ish months of spinning upwards of 6x/week, and am horrified by both my calves and my response to their sudden increase in size.  I am now hoping that Jesus, Mary, and Tracy Anderson will give me the “tiny dancer’s body” that is apparently my birthright as a contemporary woman.  I’m not switching up my exercise regimen because of my health or personal interest.  (I sob softly into my olives every time I hear a Lana Del Rey exercise remix at the grocery store, thinking of tap backs of days past.  “Summertime Sadness,” indeed.)  I’m doing it because I want to buy cute riding boots, and to not have to peel my trousers off of my calves. Point being, I am not immune to this line of reasoning, but I understand why it’s problematic.)

All that preamble to say, after thinking about it, I’m not sure I find what McCardell and Margolis are saying too offensive, actually.  I wish I could quote the entire books for you, but it seems to boil down to, “Listen:  If you don’t fall within this portion of the size range, then you could make efforts to slim yourself down to the region.  You’ll still have to make alterations, but the retail purchasing life is easier if you are within this specified band.  If you don’t, you’ll have to work harder to find or alter things that will allow you to project the image that you want to the people that you want.”  Eh.  Fair enough.  Dressing, it seems, is not about necessarily thinking about what you like, but rather what you want to say with what you wear.  There is a bit of a performative element to it, and while we could dress to reflect our conceptions of self, to ourselves, there are other voices in the room, and those voices are products of our culture at large.  Edith Head writes in the introduction of How to Dress for Success,

The way you dress—or package yourself—is the one thing over which you have absolute control.  You can’t change the size of your feet, the shape of your legs, the color of your eyes or the texture of your hair—but you can change the way you look ads easily as an actress does each times she plays a new role.

When you know what you want out of life—the areas of success you desire—then it is easy to dress “in character” to create the most exciting, pleasing, attractive appearance for your audience. . . .

Women come in a vast variety of recognizable basic types: the cute type, the majestic type, the dainty type, the boyish type, the clinging-vine type, the outdoor-girl type, the sexy type and many others.  Decide right now which basic type you are.  Ask yourself how big a part your clothes have played in making you that type.  Would you rather be a different type?  Would you prefer being chic to cute, looking dramatic to looking majestic, appearing more feminine, less mousey more striking?  What you wear, more than any other factor, can improve the type you are or change your type completely.

It is of first importance that the look you long for be compatible with your success goal.  Does it fit into the picture of you moving rapidly toward the role you eventually want to play?  (Head ix-xi)

Why the long quote?  Well, there are several important ideas here.  The first being about packaging and projection.  While I’m not terribly keen on the implications of the notion that most women conform to easily recognizable archetypes, I freely admit to filing people under certain categories based not just on what they wear, but why they seem to be wearing it.  The best thing about McCardell and Head is that their recommendations for dress are not about you.  Well, at least, they’re not necessarily about your aesthetic preferences within a vacuum.  Both seem to understand that clothing isn’t solely about self-expression, but function.  Function in a literal sense, with McCardell’s monastic dress and down-with-girdles attitude, but also in a very figurative sense.  When you put on clothes, you are essentially advertising a version of yourself to the world.   This is a major difference between books like McCardell’s and Head’s, and exercises like Wardrobe Architect or some of the contemporary style guides I ran across.  The second Wardrobe Architect worksheet asked a lot about one’s personal feelings about not wearing the right thing, or what you feel when when wearing a good-to-you outfit.  McCardell and Head are very much about understanding what you’re wearing refracted through others’ sensibilities and lenses of experience.

I can’t find the page where McCardell says that wearing your ladybug pin for tea with your Aunt Linda, who famously detests whimsy, is misgauging your audience.  It’s not Linda’s problem, but yours.  I feel most like me when I’m wearing a full, below-the-knee skirt, a fitted top (dress bodice or blouse), and a cardigan.  You know what, though?  I really don’t like the way I’m treated a lot of the time.  I hate that people talk to me with a bit of a baby voice, and look surprised when I tell them my major and school.  What’s the answer, then?  Dress like the awesome Janet Yellen?  The fictional and fabulous Diane Lockhart?  Actually, kinda.

Function, for McCardell and Head (we’ve abandoned Margolis, as I read her sewing book), is really about goal-oriented dressing.  Who do you want to be and for whom do you have to perform?  Naturally, I also worry about what that means, for you as a person.  If you wear the mask for long enough, does your face grow to fit it?  This is where I think McCardell especially nails it.  She’s not suggesting macro changes, or looking like a lost little girl wearing her mummy’s clothes.  You’re not a paper doll wearing your doctor/wife/mother/volunteer/bohemian outfit, but rather understanding how to take the baseline you—with your interests, comforts, and capabilities considered—and reconcile it with, then adapt it to, others’ conceptions of the person you want to be.  I took this theology class that got very hippie dippie and talked about sites of meeting and encounter.  For me, the body, through what we wear but who we are, acts as a site of encounter.  It is where self and culture meet—not just for you, but for people who look at you.  There’s something to be said about that moment of silent judgement and assessment.

This is running long (you think?), and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of either book’s advice.  Must stop making navel-gazing digressions.

I really want to address Professor Przybyszewski’s book The Lost Art of Dress at some point (don’t hold your breath), as I listened to an interview with her on the Diane Rehm Show just when I was first writing this post.  (Six whole weeks ago, reader.  I know.)  Basically, she thinks that we’ve become a nation of slobs and that no one cares about dressing anymore, and working on a college campus drives that home for her.  Well, I’ll leave you with a story.  I went to CVS during finals week a few semesters ago, after midnight.  There was a guy from school walking in ahead of me, wearing the dude-bro uniform—shower shoes, too-loose plaid shorts, and a t-shirt that could have used an iron. On the way in, a man had asked us for money for food, but I don’t carry cash, and am always a big fat disappointment in those situations.  Bro bought two packs of blond Oreos and a Gatorade.  “Typical,” I thought, because I am a judgmental shrew and was going through a [school]-loathing period (and I am jealous of the average 19-year-old male metabolism, big time).  On the way out, Bro gave a pack of Oreos to the man who wanted money for food.  “They’re golden,” he said.  And that’s that.

29 thoughts on “written on the body”

  1. I can’t get enough of your posts. You’re the only blogger whose posts I actually read all the way through because they’re that good and well-written. Thank you for raising our consciousness and standards.

    1. I’m so glad you liked it. I was telling Sonja (Ginger Makes, but you know that) on Twitter that I basically operate under the assumption that no one reads my blog at all, especially not the longer posts. It’s weird, you know, making a whole bunch of noise into what sometimes seems like an empty room. Well, not so empty, since you’re reading.

  2. Once again, this was fantastic. Thank you.

    (Aside: after I read your last post, my non-fiction book group decided to read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and I thought, Oh, that’s what her title referred to! Yes. I am all up on pop culture over here.)

    (Also an aside: we both wrote about body image stuff this week. Maybe there’s something in the water/ether.)

    Actually I think my entire comment is going to be a collection of asides:

    1. Dress helps in allowing us to project certain personalities, of course, but there are plenty of assumptions that come packaged with the bodies we’re in and which we can do little to change. When I was in middle school, for instance, I was very skinny, totally unfashionable and not very attractive, and it was expected and tolerated for me to be very, very smart. Then I got older, gained weight mostly in my bras, and highlighted my hair. The slim, blonde, busty girl is prey to very particular expectations from others, as I learned quickly: I was supposed to be stupid. People (mostly men) would approach me with the expectation that I was stupid. It didn’t matter what I wore, boobs trumped everything. I learned to affect a very severe, very deadpan facial expression and respond in such a way as to make it absolutely clear that I was much, much smarter than they were. I could practically watch their penises shrivel up in their pants. (I’m not helping you with your family-friendly blogging, here.)

    I was terribly offended at first. After being known for being smart for 14 years and having no trouble with it (sure, I was bullied for being ugly and skinny, but at least everyone knew who had the brains!), this pissed me off to no end. Then I got to have fun with it, and since then I’ve really enjoyed messing with people’s expectations through appearance and dress. I quite intentionally, and quite purposefully, dress in whatever way pleases me aesthetically with no worries about what other poeople make of it, and then I take a lot of pleasure in systematically dismantling whatever stereotypes or assumptions people will make of me because of it. To a certain extent it’s not something I can really get around: I look very, very feminine, but I’m not.

    2. I agree with you on the observation in your last paragraph. Give me a nice slob any day of the week, over a well-presented snob or jerk.

    3. I don’t know if you saw this essay in Elle a while back, but I thought of it as soon as I started reading your post.


    1. Yes! Sedaris. I went to a book reading for it when I was in high school, and he gave me this weird tiger’s head toy from the Cirque d’Hiver, thus earning my undying loyalty.

      There is definitely body-image stuff in the water lately. Actually, a lot of self-reflection, too. I think it’s the dual coincidence (really, a not-so-coincidental coincidence) of the tiny public pattern testing discussion that turned into, er, let’s just call it a thing, and the uptick of the GOMI craft forums lately. This community’s been going for all these years, and I think it’s getting more difficult to not notice the effect of what we say, how we present ourselves and the larger implications of our crafting/writing/photography, etc.

      Hm. I’ve never been hot or even naturally feminine-looking (I look like a genderless child, I think), but I’ve always been chatty and simultaneously interested in the mainstream and the esoteric. (God, that sounds so self-aggrandizing, doesn’t it?) If someone sees that you’re wearing a floral dress and talking about a Real Housewives franchise, they automatically think that you couldn’t possibly care about 18th-century religious philosophy or contemporary art. On one hand, just watching the surprise pass over someone’s face when they realize that I’m not an idiot is priceless; on the other, I hate that I can rattle off dozens upon dozens of stories about being underestimated and infantilized, even by people who’ve known me for decently long enough. Generally, I drop it, because I’m secure enough in my intellect to not have to show pony, but Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do I sometimes want to scream. Commiserations—kind of.

      Yup. There are more important things than not leaving your house in shower shoes.

      Yes! Saw and loved it. Indeed, the past two or three posts (and the next six or seven) started out as one big post that referenced Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Elaine Showalter (here: http://iheartthreadbared.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/upfront.pdf, and here: http://msmagazine.com/blog/2012/01/17/if-the-clothes-fit-a-feminist-takes-on-fashion/), and pre-book Professor Pryzbyszewski (here: http://magazine.nd.edu/news/29473/).

      Is it just me, or does this whole discussion of things you’re “allowed” to like if you’re smart doesn’t seem to extend to men? Indeed, their relatively narrow sartorial berth means that our definition of a well-dressed man still looks quite similar to the way it did 100 years ago, yet everyone seems to have an opinion of what constitutes “proper” dress for women. I remember President Obama said that he only wears blue and gray suits because it gives him fewer choices every day, and thus more time to be POTUS. If you think about the questions that bind contemporary women, a lot of them a) concern things that are in the next breath dismissed as frippery and b) conformation to these borderline arbitrary rules becomes part of the price of admission to a decision-making position, in the first place. I could kind of see Hillary Clinton saying the same blue-suit, gray-suit thing as a big old fuck you to the people who have so much to say about the pants-suits, but Cristina Kirchner? Angela Merkel? Not really. (Then again, I am less familiar with Argentina and Germany than I am the US.)

      1. I think the self-reflectiveness is great, whatever the cause, and I’ve been enjoying the discussions in GOMI craft as well (despite the occasional hurt feelings). I don’t agree with everything that’s said, but it is a lot easier to express disent there than in someone’s comments section.

        In my experience, and this may be age and cynicism speaking here, those at the top of a given hierarchy believe in the meritocracy and those at the bottom don’t, with a few exceptions (those at the bottom who believe they can be at the top if they work hard enough, and those at the top who actually realize that it wasn’t entirely their own fabulousness that earned them a spot there). It’s very, very hard to have conversations about all the dynamics that go into making those hierarchies without it being met by defensiveness–not 100%, but enough to make it difficult to bring it up and keep bringing it up. Regardless of whether or not it has an impact, though, it’s a good conversation to have.

        I hope what I said before didn’t come off as too much of a complaint. It’s true that it can get annoying at times (fun fact–at one job, people kept asking me if I was the summer or co-op student. I was almost 30, a mother, and had worked there for several years. WTF?), but the main point was that dress only gets you so far in altering people’s perceptions. People make judgments based on bodies, too, which are only so alterable. I may be able to gain or lose a certain amount of weight, but my height, overall build, facial features, etc., are pretty well givens, and we do stereotype based on them as well. I still get that sometimes and I’m told it’s supposed to be a compliment (“you’re too pretty to be smart!”–take it for what it’s worth, I’m well aware that I’m not a supermodel). And I know it works for other body types, too, in different ways–people will pre-judge your capabilities based on height, hair, skin colour, weight, etc., and you may be able to alter it by dress, but not completely change it. A really tiny woman dressed in a corporate ball-busting suit is still pretty likely to be thought of as “cute.”

        Oh, it’s definitely totally different for men. Appearance and body type and all the rest of it work into stereotyping there as well, I’m sure, but as you said, the rules of dress are more straightforward and predictable, and they also have less to do with fuckability. You can be ugly, as a man, and not be a failure. Men’s body changes aren’t staples of tabloid journalism. And yes, while there are stereotypes of good looking studly stupid guys, it is much easier to be both hot and brilliant as a man. And a lot less loaded. And you can have opinions on the internet without getting rape or death threats.

        I’ll believe that the patriarchy is dead when we allow women to be who they are without constant policing, judgement, scrutiny, evaluation, and gossip.

      2. And I’m finally getting around to answering comments. (Which is always a good way to tell that I have a post forthcoming, I suppose.)

        Second paragraph: Agreed. It’s the same in the SBC as it as at elite universities. Very few people seem to acknowledge that getting into [insert top-tier school here] is a crapshoot once they get through the gates. I suppose it’s comforting and reinforces a sense of community that would be compromised if better-known bloggers—not just sewing bloggers—thought, “Well, shit. I’m young and thin and pretty and have cultivated an aesthetic that is a product of my privilege. That seems unfair, yes?”

        Not a complaint at all! I was just trying to commiserate as someone who does not conform to traditional standards of beauty, but gets the same patronizing bull al the time.

        I’m writing a post about how different it is for men, actually. I’m sitting on my couch, in rollers, panic-Googling business casual outfits for the umpteenth time because the margin of error is so much greater for women than it is for men. I need to look smart (American) which I think rules out the full-skirted silk shirtwaist dress I was planning on wearing tonight.

        So. . .the patriarchy will live forever?

  3. Sweetie, I looked at your other posts, and you are not fat. You’re built like late 1950s Elizabeth Taylor, and you should think about rocking that look. Then get the guy in the shower sandals to put on some topsiders and take you to dinner. Sure, Gwenyth Paltrow looks good for her age, but guys want something they can grab onto. Even enlightened hipster guys.
    When I interviewed Susan Khalje, we had a long talk about how patterns never fit anyone perfectly, and that a huge part of sewing is fit. She recommended the ’92 edition of “Fitting and Pattern Alteration” by Liechty, Potter and Rasband, which is now winging its way to me.
    As for vintage patterns, people were tiny back then. We all had more protein growing up. EvaDress.com resizes and reissues vintage patterns, which I recommend.
    If you want to make a McCardell-style dress, I’ve put a number of modern patterns that fake vintage looks on this Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/juleseclectic/favorite-vintage-pattern-re-releases-and-vintage-s/
    If you take New Look pattern 6096, and put some long strings on the waist, you can fake the McCardell “Hostess Dress” that’s in the Museum at FIT’s online collection.

    1. Aw, I totally don’t think I’m fat, but I will be using the Elizabeth Taylor line the next time I get a rude neighbor. Thanks for that! (“Do you have a boyfriend?” “No.” “You’d have the boys banging down your door if you lost a few pounds.” “I have the figure of late-1950s Elizabeth Taylor, and lord knows she didn’t have any trouble at all!”)

      The fit book! Thank you (and, by extension, the sainted Susan Khalje). I started out on this weird vintage book odyssey because a) I’m building my wardrobe up from essentially scratch and b) I found Fit for Real People wanting. I’m not thrilled with Margolis’s suggestions, in some cases, so it looks like Liechty, Pottery, and Rasband are my next stop.

      I get that there is a lot of licensing red tape, but for designers like McCardell and Norman Norrell, I wonder if they just have difficult estates or if pattern companies haven’t earnestly pursued the right to reissue under the designer’s name. Every time I see a vintage designer sewing pattern I swoon, just a little bit, and I’m sure I’m far from alone. Yours is the Pinterest board that launched a thousand pattern hacks.

  4. […] consider to be flattering. I’ve also read some comments on terms like flattering and related discourse on what makes for “good fit” or clothes that suit people recently that give me food for […]

  5. Well I cannot say it was not worth the wait… Very interesting bit about the modern advice of dressing for yourself VS vintage advice of dressing like who you want to project. I was re-reading the Colette sewing handbook (for no reason), and the section on “editing for your style” starts by “dressing for yourself”. It seems highly rhetorical to me or makes me feel like an incredibly shallow person, so concerned about what people think of me, especially in a professional setting.
    I believe that it can be so difficult for young professional women to be taken seriously (also because of that: http://www.rolereboot.org/archives/details/2014-07-assertiveness-age-thing-gender-thing/), that dressing how you want to be perceived could come back as a useful advice.
    No I know I just said that, so I will contradict myself right away and share TMI for the internet. I stopped wearing a bra (for comfort/heat reasons, hello El Niño…), including at work. I’m pretty sure people noticed (or maybe it’s just my Narcissus talking), but I don’t care, I’M FREE (how late 60’s of me).

    On the books advice regarding weight, I will abstain to comment because I’m french and we are naturally mean people. But really, do clothes manufacturers owe (any) customers to address any size they reach? Why? (Cf. the Abercrombie controversy)

    1. From what I understand, from 1776 (1789, technically) to present, I have been the only American who has been born mean, so come sit by me. The problem with the clothing manufacturer size debate is that there exists a size 0, and that with it perhaps comes the notion that clothing stores set limits on the bottom and the top, which is certainly not true. It would be interesting if stores chose their ranges for themselves, where some go from US0 to US12, and others from US6 to US18.

      I’m a terrible person, but I totally shrug during controversies like Abercrombie and Lululemon. It’s useful to raise the question, “Why aren’t there cute plus-sized/petite/tall-but-thinner-than-0 exercise pants,” but the logic behind the leap from that to “[company] should expand their size offerings, or else” is tenuous, at best. The great thing is that supply follows the money. So if there’s a paucity of clothing you like, and you wave your dollars in the air for long enough, someone is going to grab ’em.

      I’m hesitant to say this, but what the hell, I’m old: there’s a self-centeredness that is often inherent in contemporary style exercises. Kant (and my favorite theology professor) calls it the Copernican turn: the notion that we shape the nature of our experiences, rather than having our experiences shaped by the universe at large. This focus on the individual as the beginning is simultaneously empowering and distressing. There is a point at which you and I meet us, then it all goes to pot. (I’ve been awake for a really long time, so that might not have even been in English. Anyway: Agree! Purely rhetorical for me, as I care a lot about what people think of me.)

      Oooh, I will join you on Team TMI. I see your bralessness, and raise you polyester post-surgical undergarments. It is so humid in DC, that I feel my face pulsing as the sun beats down on it. “No! Totally not hot,” I say. I kind of want to say to hell with my abdominal muscles, and just let it go. Then, naturally, I’ll carry a 40lb bag of cat litter up the stairs and have an organ pop out. I win at TMI.

      1. Actually on your first point “It would be interesting if stores chose their ranges for themselves, where some go from US0 to US12, and others from US6 to US18.”, they do, it’s just that the sizes are called differently! I don’t entirely believe in vanity sizing (mostly because this : http://www.fashion-incubator.com/archive/the_myth_of_vanity_sizing/, makes more sense to me) but the truth is that in the US I need to by 00P at Banana or Ann Taylor (yes I have a fun life) when if I go to Tibi (I wish) I would buy size 4 or 6 (and length will never EVER match my 5’3 frame). So in the US the reality is that brands adjust their size range to their customers.
        In France, brands have to follow the standard chart as a regulation (AFNOR) so I go and buy 34 everywhere. Brands designed for more “mature” customers, such as brands specialized in “workwear” would tend to start their chart at 38, unless they are higher end brands (which makes buying a suit an expensive hell for me). If you don’t know her already, check out French Indie designer Republique du Chiffon: http://www.republiqueduchiffon.com/, she uses AFNOR sizing chart.
        So that’s a wordy way of saying that’s what brands do… If they don’t carry my size, that’s because I’m not their customer and that’s too bad for me (I feel so bad to write this in english, in french I would have 0 remorse).

        I really thought that 9 years ago, finishing my prep school (no easy way to translate classes préparatoires, stupid french schooling system), it was the last time I would think/write/frown about Kant. For 2 years I pretended I understand that guy, I don’t. So I’ll redirect you the guide of Quality, Taste and Style by Tim Gunn (I know… sorry…) who is more of a modern Mccardell since he does focus a lot on being appropriate and the image you want to send to the world. Also he quotes Kierkegaard, so I could feel a little smart without frowning at a complex sentence (you know, wrinkles and all that…).

        polyester post-surgical undergarments/cat litter/organ popping out. You so win at TMI! It makes me want to tell you about my “romantic picnic” last weekend when my dog ate horse poop and then vomited it at the back of my car. 1h30 before reaching home. Awesome.

      2. See, I want all of the sizes called the same thing, French-style, and manufacturers who have no shame saying, “Dude, we go from 0 to 10. There are plenty of other people who cover the upper range.”

        Kant has eaten out all of my brain cells. All of them.

        Lucky thing your dog is so adorable, because the horse poop thing is just too much. Poor baby. He must have been so confused about his life that day; he just wanted to be one with the horse!

        You know, I eventually have to comment on your several thousand brilliant posts. (It is job hunting season at school, which is what my life is now. Woe is me.)

      3. So weird!! I actually went lurking around your blog today, suspecting my feedly to have missed one of your post. (Yes i know that it’s not possible…) Anyway there was nothing and I was disappointed. But i’m not anymore, there you are telling me my posts are brilliant ! We should do self congratulation session:”your post was brilliant, no yours was more brillant!”. It wouls ease the pain of my boss telling me we need to hire consultants to bring some “geniuses” on the team cause you know I ain’t no genius, and for you the rejection emails that come (or don’t even come) with job hunting. But you are so brilliant that I’m sure you are getting only acceptance notifications!

  6. Eloquently written as always- I fear I need some time to digest before replying! What I will say is I’m currently looking at rebuilding my work wardrobe and this gives me much to ponder on… Hmmm…

    Also, hope summer is treating you well!

    1. How is your winter? I have half a comment written on your Coppelia (have since yesterday) about topstitching. I have topstitched two knits, and consider myself an expert in the field. Obviously.

      Actually, besides resisting the urge to stalkerishly inquire after your embroidered wool Rooibos (I think I’ve finally found the pattern for mine), I’m doing well.

      I’m building, from the beginning, a work-ish wardrobe, and there is a lot to think about. I love whimsy! Give me silk with fly fishing lures on it! On the other hand, I want a job! For completely petit bourgeois reasons like food, shelter, and healthcare. Sigh.

  7. I have reached a new level to commitment to a blogger, I have now taken notes during reading your posts, to make sure I can comment on everything I want.
    Oh, the body-image problems we all suffer. One could keep on (over-)thinking and never find a solution, although Baz Luhrman once said it brilliantly: “Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly. I think there has never been a truer opinion on beauty magazines.”
    Another great thought, taken from the same song: “You are not as fat as you imagine.” That being said, sometimes it is better to address the elephant in the room and just say it as it is, indeed, You know if you’re too fat. Although our perception of being fat these days might be a little distorted and we have become too fixated on being thin (not on not being fat). But too fat is too fat, and bottom-line not healthy. And sometimes this should be said…

    You have uncles and aunts and other people fixating on your body-proportions? Well, let me tell you a little anecdote that is quite disturbing. I was sitting in the yard with my dad and sister just making small talk and my mom stopped by to say dinner was ready when my sister was saying how she takes from my dad’s side of the family and I take after my mom. The first reaction she had was asking: ‘Oh, do I look fat?’ Let me tell you, that did not go down well with me. Days later I am still enraged by her comment because I don’t consider myself fat and it has taken a lot of mental exercise and effort to think about myself that way (that being sad, there are still things I would like to change about myself, but fine dining and a glass of wine keep me from reaching my goals). It also makes me furious that that is the first thing that pops into her head… Ugh.

    The last thing I am going to say (although I would like to comment on much more) is that I always find it surprising and reassuring to see someone behave outside his/hers ‘projected image-box’ as the Oreo-guy. We are not what we wear…

    As always, you have made me think and as always I really enjoyed your post!

    1. Now that someone is actually taking notes, I finally feel like I have permission to assign readings. (I am only halfway kidding.)

      I think Baz and McCardell might actually agree here. The thing I love most about “You know if you’re too fat” is that it seats the power with the person looking in the mirror. In a book that focuses very much on context and the opinions of others, you get to know if you’re too fat. The problem with contemporary debates about obesity and size and body image is the paternalism that underpins the health lectures. McCardell treats us like adults.

      Hell, Edith Head treats us like adults, and she advises not just dressing the part, but going to night school so that we can fit into it. I’d love to see a magazine do an editorial on looking the part by city, while also highlighting interesting local learning opportunities that go along with your boardroom-chic Theory suit. Here’s what you wear to a museum, and here are some interesting exhibits and gallery shows in your area. I’ve veered off track. I stand by the sentiments, though.

      I don’t think that people (in my life, at least) even understand that their fixation on weight is problematic. Oh, your story is just infuriating. What does “‘Oh, do I look fat?'” even mean?! I’m always amazed by how casual people are when they say things like that. I wonder if she thought about it afterwards at all? One day, an uncle, just out of the blue, said, “I think you should get down to 120lbs. What do you weigh now?” My mother responded, “She knows what she needs to do.” Then back to talking about the weather, no big deal. Picture my face, Wendy.

      We are not what we wear. Yup. Oreo guy is my favorite.

      So glad you like/d the post! I love it when you stop by.

  8. Hi! I’m a new reader, and I’ve been enjoying your writing. I was interested in what has changed in the conception of personal style from Edith Head’s time to now. Instead of a limited range of archetypes to costume ourselves as, we’re now expected to display our supposedly unique personalities through a style of our own. Not only do we have to project an image, but we’re supposed to do it from scratch. Still, both approaches seem like a lot of work and asks us to talk about ourselves rather indirectly – through our clothing.

    Still – to put some body into this discourse (ha!), I found earlier Wardrobe Architect exercises useful as it brought something to light. By cataloging my preferences for certain garment types, and by considering of my lifestyle and climate in the same moment, I had an epiphany – my body has preferences, and, since my mid- to late-twenties, it has been stealthily asserting control over my visual preferences. Tight waists hurt my stomach. I can’t WALK in pencil skirts and I don’t want to live my life in fear of the moment I reach to tie my shoes and my “broad back” blows out a button-down shirt. Considering the needs and comfort of our bodies can temper the question “what image am I projecting?”; our bodies may be sites of encounter, but they’re also our homes.

    (It probably bears mentioning that I live on the west coast and work in an shockingly casual office…)

    1. Hey, Morgan. I’m a rather longtime crab&bee reader (way back to when you and your sister both posted, unless I’m conflating your blog with another in my packed-to-the-brim reader), and it’s nice to see/read you around these parts.

      There’s so much snowflake pressure, isn’t there? How can I dress like my One True Self but also project the image of a competent economist? I want a uniform, damn it. I mentioned to Andrea (who commented a hair earlier than you did) that it’s interesting to hear President Obama talk about only wearing blue and navy suits, because it means that he has fewer decisions to make and can then focus on, you know, running the country. Either because of my own sexism or American culture or consumptive consumerism or [insert dreadful thing here] I can scarcely imagine a woman as powerful and visible as POTUS saying that. Ever. Ever ever. Saying it, doing it, and still projecting that particular I-am-good-at-my-job confidence? It would be a feat. (And of course, people would talk about her navy pantsuits rather than her policy.)

      Agreed on Wardrobe Architect. It raised so many questions for me, and I got kind of overwhelmed. Head and McCardell sharpened my focus, sure, but WA and the fact that so much of the sewing blogosphere was discussing it, or having independent discussions of style and direction, laid a foundation with which I went into reading the older texts.

      I’m the exact opposite and am under a contractual obligation to wear pencil skirts, for decency’s sake. I am a small child, and if I am wearing trousers or full skirts, I tuck my legs under myself, or fling them over chair arms (completely unconsciously), so it looks like Kelly Kapowski is estimating a regression from her pink-walled bedroom. Pencil skirts force crossed ankles and as-decent-as-I-get posture. Those considerations do help narrow things down, don’t they? I wish there were a generator or an app or something. “Broad back” + casual office + pencil skirt aversion = sewing patterns {x1, . . ., xn} and garments {y1, . . . , yn}. Technology has obviously failed us. I’ve been awake for a long time (as evidenced by my increasingly zany comment responses), so I’ll shut up shop: Thanks for stopping by!

      1. I’m flattered! You may be heartened to hear that I’m still making my own laundry detergent and my sister is going to start brewing kombucha again! Sometimes I do feel like a fraud upholding the name Crab & Bee but couldn’t think of a good crab-only blog name – Just Crab? Crabby Sewing? Crab Sans Bee? Momentum won.

        I have heard rumblings from around the blogosphere – probably via Coletterie – about people who are embracing personal uniforms as a way to save money and reduce unnecessary choices in their lives. Maybe it’s not as implausible as it seems for a powerful woman to adopt? Folks would still talk, I agree about that. The pragmatist in me would really like to give it a try. Then my mind wanders off with the question “What would the perfect uniform be? What fabric would I use?” and I’m basically back to where I am now: dreaming, scheming and sewing.

  9. I am a 55 year old woman. I have never been able to wear heels or makeup. I do believe that there are appropriate clothes for various situations. I believe we all get along better in an office if everyone bathes, doesn’t use too much cologne, and maintains a level of modesty befitting the clientele.

    I don’t have to dress for the office these days, so I can spare you my rant about nonprofit office pay vs wardrobe expectations and drycleaning. I did come up with a uniform for myself, and I had a big laugh of recognition with the POTUS’ wardrobe comments. I just didn’t want to have to think about it anymore, and didn’t want to discuss my clothes with my boss again. Yes, she made me buy bras (I am washboard flat) to wear to work.

    These days, I am seeing this conversation in terms of the family member who is transitioning from male to female, and the expectations that his/her therapist has about wardrobe. That s/he will wear makeup and earrings and heels and ‘feminine’ colors and prints if s/he wants therapy. “I fought for these pearls and so should you!” .

    I am grateful that I am old and I don’t have to pass anyone’s judgement about how I dress to get help, be myself, or to get what should be mine. Is this any more or less ridiculous than kissing ass to get a better grade in a class? Or remembering the boss likes Hot Tamales and that you should wear a bra when you’re hoping to get a raise?

    I really love your writing, and I make my friends read it. They are still speaking to me, so this is good. I am looking forward to your thinking on the Lost Art of Dress, and appreciate the NotreDame article. I was trying to remember why I wanted to read that book so badly (that article) since I HATED that book so very very much once I started reading it. I don’t think I’ve thrown a book across the room in anger that many times since college.

    (shakes in rage!!)

    1. I have a uniform, too! Lots of navy and gray and silk blouses. The dry-cleaning bills will kill me, and the actual dry-cleaning will kill the environment. Let’s see what happens first, shall we?

      I have decided to take a really optimistic approach to this. By kissing ass and wearing bras and dressing “the right” way (whatever the hell that is) we’re just proving that we know the rules of the game, right? It’s on-campus interviewing season right now, and I get that the reason why I cannot wear a silk shirtwaist dress to an employer sponsored event is that the way that I dress is a pretty easy litmus test for how I am going to navigate a client meeting or something like that. Which isn’t to say that I find all of this particularly fair or productive, but rather that I get it. It goes back to McCardell and Head. I wish I could just wear a sandwich board that says, “I get it! I promise!” but alas.

      Thanks for being so lovely about my writing. I’m glad someone likes it! My mother has stopped reading my blog because she finds my paragraphs too long, so it’s a comfort that you’ve read on.

      Oh, I’m still seething over Lost Art of Dress and a second book called Homeward Bound. Well, we’re still passionate, right? That’s the upside of this.

  10. Well now I just want to read all of these books! Your posts are always so thought provoking, and I love reading them. I do feel that how others perceive us is very important, but not in a please everyone sort of way. We should dress for our audience, so to speak. I dress up for church. I put on makeup for dates. Presenting ourselves appropriately for the situation/event/person is important. It shows respect for ourselves and others, and this seems to be something that is greatly lacking these days.

    1. Laurraaaa! Thanks!

      The appropriate line is just so blurred, you know? I, naturally, blame the Internet and greater exposure to what other people are wearing, far outside of our communities. The illusion of us having one big community means that someone might think that an outfit that is considered appropriate for, say, a dressed-up church service would be similar to something a style blogger wears to a Sunday brunch. Not quite, though.

    1. I just finished eating cherry Twizzlers because they are literally the only way I can get myself to sit down and slog through a long paper. The answer is glucose. Always and forever. I need fewer decisions, it seems. Thanks, Stephanie! I am *so* sending that article to my mother.

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