How to dress: putting together outfits

(Hi there. I actually wrote this post last September and then forgot about it, which is why all the links are really really old. But if you love reading out-of-date, lengthy rants about high-street fashion and celebrity dressing, it’s your lucky day! Enjoy!)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about fashion ‘rules’ and putting together outfits, partly inspired by this post from one of my favourite blogs, Rip it to Shreds. It’s mostly about hideous trends but this is the bit that really caught my eye:

“…people insist on this revolutionary concept they themselves invented, mixing “high” with “low” and cut-offs with heels. It’s very fresh to do this, as opposed to the “too perfect, matching” look people always say they are against but no one really wears because it is out to match.”

Traditionally there are lots of different clothing ‘rules’ about what can and can’t wear, and you still see fashion magazines saying ‘Forget the rules and wear whatever you like! Why not wear designer shoes with high street jeans? Wow! Go Crazy!’ (I may have paraphrased a bit).

But has anyone actually obeyed this mythical fashion code of conduct since the 1950s? Unless you’re a member of the Royal Family*, it seems like having to dress appropriately for an occasion is a lost art.
* although most of them have lost it too. I refer you once more to this handy reference guide.

It does seem like a backlash is coming, with the most obvious sign being the return of ‘lady-like’ dressing. The first hint was longer skirts. One of the major reasons I started sewing was because for the past few years it’s been impossible to buy skirts and dresses that reach below mid-thigh. I know this makes me sound like someone’s maiden aunt, but I’m 5 ft 10. The average British woman is 5ft 4. That’s 6 extra inches of leg to deal with.

But that’s all changed over the last few years. The Whistles ‘Carrie’ skirt was a huge hit last year, despite looking like something your gran would wear to a nu-rave bingo party. Suddenly below knee-length skirts are everywhere. Similarly with Peter Pan collars, high-cut necklines, and long sleeves.

This (extremely old) New York Times article on the subject rather predictably talks about the ‘Kate Middleton effect’, but I thought this was the most interesting quote, from Jason Wu:

“A couple of years ago, the deliberately dissolute look of a model off duty was a strong inspiration, he said. “Now people are interested in looking ladylike.”

Well, duh! Here’s a thought: if an Eastern European 14 yr old with baby giraffe legs and Martian eyes looks good in a holey vest and ‘boyfriend’ jeans, it might not be down to the clothes.

But I’m not just thinking about bodycon dresses vs. knee-length pleated skirts. It’s more about really going for a look and nailing it. It can be scary to look too  ‘costume-y‘ (as Peter from Male Pattern Boldness put it) But wouldn’t it be great if more people started wearing a whole look head-to-toe, without feeling they have to ‘dress it down’, or ‘dress it up’?

Suzi QuatroNobody would describe Suzy Quatro’s style as ‘lady-like’, but she knew how to put a look together. What else can you wear with a zipped leather jumpsuit but knee-high python print boots and a ton of necklaces?

One thing people always say about Northern cities in Britain is that the women there aren’t afraid to glam up and go the whole hog – check out this article about Liverpool girls going out in their curlers. They don’t try and ‘dress down’ their outfits by putting horrible bike shorts underneath or wearing denim dungarees on top or something (I’m looking at you, Alexa Chung).

Alexa Chung in dungareesThere’s no excuse for this

Also, why not just stick on a pair of trainers if you’re dressing casually? I’m sick of seeing celebrities wearing cut off jeans with huge leather boots and clunky handbags.

Lindsay Lohan in shorts and bootsIf it’s hot enough to wear shorts, it’s too hot to wear knee-high boots. That’s just, like, physics or something.

Listen, if you’re just popping to Starbucks for your 18th sponsored frappucino of the day, put on some Pumas and wear a Kanken! It’ll look better AND you’ll be more comfortable!

Here’s another quote from that New York Times article, from Tommy Hilfiger:

“In a departure from his willfully incongruous pattern mix of last season, “we will be really very studied about how we’re putting our outfits together,” he said, to the point of offering matching shoes and bags — an apparent homage to Britain’s future queen”

Matching shoes and bags! Now that really is revolutionary.

I think it all comes down to is being comfortable in what you wear. Not necessarily comfortable in the literal sense: I don’t think we should all be walking around in pyjamas and sports bras all day, god forbid. But comfortable in the sense that everything goes together, and you look like your clothes were made for you and not someone else three sizes smaller or larger. This quote from Nancy Mitford just about sums it up for me:

I have often noticed that when women look at themselves in every reflection, and take furtive peeps into their hand looking-glasses, it is hardly ever, as is generally supposed, from vanity, but much more often from a feeling that all is not quite as it should be.
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate

When you wear something that you love and that you feel great in, you can stop worrying about your appearance and turn your attention outwards (perhaps to tell other people how hideous THEIR outfits are…)

For example. I’m not a huge Daphne Guinness fan but I bet when she leaves the house, she always knows that she’s nailed it. I guarantee she doesn’t waste time fretting about whether her skirt goes with her beige cardigan (or more likely, whether her multi-coloured kimono matches her enormous pony heels).

Needless to say my wardrobe is hardly anything to write home about, but sewing has been making me consider this issue more and more.

What do you think?


14 thoughts on “How to dress: putting together outfits

  1. busyellebee June 23, 2012 / 9:20 PM

    Since I have taken up sewing again, I have become more aware of ‘fashion’, and how I wish to wear it. Often we look to these celebs and are told what suits us and doesnt suit us, using out dated notions such as age, height and weight.

    The way I see it, if you like it, and you are happy and comfortable to wear it, then wear it! Don’t follow fashion, be it – for yourself. Yes get ideas if you want from magazines etc, but dont let them lead you. You should follow your own since of style, otherwise we will just become clones, how dull is that?

  2. Clare June 12, 2012 / 8:41 AM

    I think that the whole ‘she wears designer pieces and mixes them up with things from the high street!!!!’ is probably some kind of keyboard shortcut in lazy fashion writers’ version of Word. I remember when they used to say it about Kate Moss ALL THE TIME during the 90s, as though it was actually something revolutionary and new (was it though? I’m not sure, but I don’t remember anything that came before. The 90s were definitely a hugely casual decade coming after the glamorous 80s, so maybe? I am no fashion historian and so might have just made that up). These days, the high street itself produces that mix-it-up aesthetic, and for me personally, it’s been the dominant one for so much of my life, that when I see someone put together in a matching outfit, I automatically assume they are going to a wedding :/ I have a theory most non-celebrities dress in a mix-and-match way simply based upon the fact that we have to do our own washing, and can’t always wear the same things in Proper Outfits all the time (this theory is probably based on the fact that I’m not very organised with my washing..) On the other hand, people also just own a lot more clothes than in days gone by, so the possibility for experimentation is readily available.

    Anyway, I’m not sure what my point is, but I think that if I was a fashion writer I would say in agreement, that regardless of the actual clothes, confidence ‘is the most important accessory’ and that it really ‘pulls a look together’ 😛 Maybe it’s the ‘I MADE THIS YAAAAAY!’ feeling that one gets from a self-made garment that provides the necessary boost?

    • yesilikethat June 12, 2012 / 9:12 AM

      I totally LOVE your Unified Theory of Washing, I think it probably explains nearly everything about how normal people dress. This topic deserves a whole PhD thesis. I think confidence is the most important ingredient, hard to say that without sounding cheesy though as you point out. Also you can’t buy it in the shops, man.

      I don’t think everyone should be going around in wedding-style matching outfits, but it does just really really annoy me when people wear wellies and denim shorts in 30 degree heat, because that’s a ‘festival look’, or similar hideous mis-matching outfits. Basically I’m all about practicality. When will they do a Vogue fashion shoot about practical looks though?? Maybe I should pitch it to them.

    • Clare June 12, 2012 / 9:30 AM

      And truly, wellies and shorts are super practical at festivals! With a silly hat you bought for a fiver and a pint of cider. That’s mix-and-match at its finest 😀 Does look a bit silly in the real world though.

    • yesilikethat June 12, 2012 / 9:36 AM

      Okay, I guess you are right, but I still say there is never any excuse for Ugg boots. A pint of cider is an accessory for any situation though.

    • Clare June 12, 2012 / 10:46 AM

      The common misconception about Ugg boots is that they are actually shoes. NO! They are just very expensive slippers and should never be worn outdoors 🙂

  3. Sarah June 10, 2012 / 11:34 AM

    I think find some peoples’ obsessions with being fashiony bizarre. I’m a student and I often see girls in the library wearing things which are objectively hideous (and often unflattering) and I wonder if they genuinely like what they’re wearing. I think I’m lucky to have been brought up by a Mum who doesn’t put much emphasis on appearances, beyond being warmly clothed and presentable when it matters. I buy and wear things I think are nice individually rather than being part of a “look”! That said, I don’t have the confidence to experiment with “looks”. I remember reading an interview with David Mitchell once in which he said that he prefers to wear a shirt/suit because by wearing anything unusual he’s implicitly saying “I think this looks good” and possibly opening himself up to ridicule. It’s sort of sad but I can definitely understand where he’s coming from!

    • yesilikethat June 10, 2012 / 2:01 PM

      Hmmm, interesting. Definitely think fashion is a very bizarre world, I’m fascinated with it though. I think I wrote this post because I am bored with how safely I dress. I admire people that can wear a look head to toe, but I do think that you can tell the difference between people who are comfortable doing this and those who aren’t. My main problem is that I make (and buy) things because I think ‘that would be practical’ rather than ‘I love this!’. The second one results in a more comfortable/happier wardrobe, I reckon. x

  4. gingermakes June 10, 2012 / 2:16 AM

    Haha, great post! It really is funny that what we consider “edgy” is pairing pumps with ratty jeans. That’s hardly a fashion risk! It’s nice that, when you sew, you don’t have to be a slave to whatever trends come and go (or you can go all-out with the trends, if you like– it’s up to you!). I like that you can make skirts that suit your height and style, and you don’t have to walk around in something you’re not comfortable in.

    • yesilikethat June 10, 2012 / 2:02 PM

      Yeah I think you can be much more individual when you sew, although in the online sewing world there are trends that you see sweeping through blogs. But the great thing about sewing is that you can think ‘I need a black skirt’, and make one, rather than trawling round shops for hours fruitlessly, as the buyers have decided that black skirts aren’t ‘in’ this season. x

  5. Beangirl June 9, 2012 / 11:02 PM

    “If it’s hot enough to wear shorts, it’s too hot to wear knee-high boots. That’s just, like, physics or something.”

    The past two or three summers here in north Texas (where in the summer the temperature can be 46 C in the daytime), the trend for the Under-20’s has been tank tops, short-shorts and Ugg boots. Frequently furry ones. It’s… a look. I pretty much think your exact words above every time I see it.

    • yesilikethat June 10, 2012 / 2:04 PM

      46 degrees C!! I would kill for a bit of sunshine at the moment. Maybe not 46 degrees, but it hasn’t broken the 16 degree barrier here for days now. It’s so miserable. x

  6. shivani June 9, 2012 / 8:46 PM

    Kathryn, this is brilliant! I’ve had many an internal rant on the same subject (though not as eloquently as you’ve put it!). I think I probably worry too much about what I’m wearing – I don’t particularly mind being ‘unfashionable’, but I’d rather not look a fright just the same! But the more clothes I sew, the better I feel about what Im wearing – I’m not following anyone’s rules, so I can’t really get it wrong. Great post. x

    • yesilikethat June 10, 2012 / 2:06 PM

      Thanks Shivani! I have the same worries, I’m interested in fashion but more as a spectator sport than as a participant. I think sewing does force you to think about what you’re going to wear as you can’t just go out and make an impulse buy. x

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