Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book 7 – Open & Clothed: For the Passionate Clothes Lover

By Andrea Siegel

In high school, I admired and envied my best friend’s eclectic wardrobe and the ease with which she wore her clothes. Her mom was an interior designer who always had Vogue and other fashion rags around the house. My friend and her mom would visit sample sales and church rummage sales and find the most amazing clothes and jewelry. Sometimes they’d invite me along and that was how I first learned to develop a sartorial eye, though it took many years for me to find my own style.

It didn't come easy for me. There were much in the way of trial and error and embarrassing mistakes. But it was due to the fact that I had made an attempt to explore. It wasn't to emulate what I saw in magazines, or to find a social niche in going goth or punk, but to simply explore what appealed to me. And if it were not for my friend and her cool mom, my wardrobe would probably be pretty safe and boring. Eventually, I figured out what my own tastes were and what was right for me rather than what was dictated by fashion trends. And though I actually don’t like to shop very much, I enjoy clothes without being burdened with too much clothing anxiety (though as a woman it’s not always possible to be completely free of it).

Andrea Siegel always loved clothes. But she always felt that something wasn’t clicking. When she wrote about her history with clothes, I totally understood where she was coming from:

When I leafed through a fashion magazine, viewed mannequins in a shop window, or glanced at a beautifully dressed woman on the street, I could see how each outfit was assembled. However, I didn’t understand that I brought complicating factors to the equation, that my unique face, body, proportions, preferences, and history mattered. Because of my confusion about clothing, I spent attention, time, and money inefficiently.

I investigated the relationship between wardrobe and the big picture—how cultural constructs about sexuality, frivolity, family, death, fashion, and appropriateness influence clothing choice. By then using all my senses, not just sight, to discover what is beautiful to me, by broadening my appreciation to include all that has been considered beautiful, I discovered my place in the dance, the distinctive qualities that make me feel beautiful.

Many of the things that Open and Clothed teaches is already common sense for the savvy shopper, ie. how fashion is cyclical, how the industry is exploitative, where to find bargains as it’s not all about buying retail. But it still has a lot of relevant things to say with plenty of pointed remarks and well-known adages such as:

When a woman who loves shoes finds a shoe that is beautiful to her as well as comfortable, something akin to rapture occurs.

[sigh] How true!

Even though this book was published in 1999, some things ring true more than ever:

The “individuality” and “statement” clothing, advertised by the industry, has a mass-produced extreme look. Not only does it lack uniqueness—thousands of pieces are made in each size—it also often looks remarkably unflattering. The clothes are meant to attract negative attention rather than enhancing the attractiveness of the wearer.

Maybe it’s because I’m older now and less tolerant of the latest fashion trends, but for the past several years or so, either clothes have gotten cheaper and uglier or I’m just having trouble finding clothes that are flattering or of decent quality. Anyway. It was still a lovely treat reading this book. And Siegel covers a lot of ground. It isn’t just frivolity that she's concerned about:

We who care passionately about clothes owe it ourselves to be educated about the numbers involved, to know who gets exploited and why. The fashion industry’s primary purpose is making money. We often forget this.

I also liked reading about what initially inspired the author to write this book. When she was in college in the early 80s, she always noticed how her Italian professor, “a kindly elegant gentleman of perhaps fifty”, was always beautifully dressed. His style was never ostentatious, just simple and pleasant to the eye, the material of good quality and cut, so his clothes always fit him perfectly. One day she boldly asked him what was up with that, and he gave a very serious and thoughtful response. In a nutshell, having lived through WW2, he saw terrible and unmentionable things. Though he likes to dress well for himself, he also feels a responsibility to look nice for other people.

I want to do a small kindness. It is important to bring harmony and beauty back to this troubled world. I do not feel I am the most beautiful person on earth, but rather that it was important to me to give in this way, to know that I am making a contribution.

She felt her old professor was on to something. Much like the famous Emerson quote: “The sense of being perfectly well dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow.” But how does one achieve this sartorial karma? The book does explore at length the mantra: “Clothes must fit you, they must fit the occasion, and they must fit together.” Indeed, Siegel has little tolerance for those who dress sloppily or inappropriately because they either don’t care about appearances or think they are making a statement. She argues these stances have "everything to do with reacting against good taste and seeking to offend rather than finding what’s true for oneself." She goes on to say:

It’s important to dress in a way that respects our fundamental needs and desires, but denying our participation in a social context is dishonest. When we don’t own up to this social influence, it will operate on us rather than our having control of it.

This sounds very similar to the philosophy of Stacy and Clinton of the hit TLC show What Not To Wear (which I love to watch, btw). But unlike WNTW, which encourages you to spend thousands of dollars on a new wardrobe, Open & Clothed teaches the anxious shopper to exercise caution and restraint:

Often people who love to shop are, paradoxically, the ones who don’t feel satisfied with the results. Do you take unmet emotional needs shopping? Next time they cry out to go shopping, meet a need instead. Or if you feel an overpowering urge to shop, stop for a moment, take a breath, and figure out where you can be alone and not shop — the woods? An art museum? … Walk around or meditate.

She goes on to say: “You’re going to make mistakes. The idea of unerring judgment is a prison. As you practice, your mistakes will diminish… The only danger of making mistakes is spending way beyond what you can afford on something you cannot or will not return. A little soul-searching is in order to prevent reoccurrence.”

One thing I didn’t like about this book was the format. The 9.9 x 7.9 x 0.6 inch dimensions made it too big and cumbersome to carry it around or read it during a relaxing bath. That size is fine if there are nice illustrations but there were only black & white stock photos for each chapter. This was also partly a self-help book so there were some creative exercises (to make you a better dresser or to improve your wardrobe), but it doesn’t necessarily mean it had to look like an exercise book. For a book about cultivating clothing taste, it was definitely lacking in the well-designed book department!

Another quibble was the lack of structure. Though the chapters were organized in a logical way, Siegel makes use of so many references, sometimes they're grouped together in a hodgepodge manner, instead of being integrated into a coherent thesis. The book is filled with quotes, interviews, lists, questionnaires, advice, exercises, footnotes… Granted, there are many excellent quotes as Siegel researches archives and interviews many friends, colleagues and well-known pros in the fashion industry. If only she integrated all these in a more book-like structure, this would’ve made a high level tome. In the end though, it makes for a great browsing book for anyone who has a passing or passionate interest in clothes. And that's not necessarily a terrible thing either.

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