Thursday, 17 February 2011

Pretty Practical

I was thinking about something I read in a glossy fashion magazine last night. To summarise, it went blahblahblah... I wear fully formed stockings, pencil skirts and Jimmy Choos all the time, of course they are just so comfortable! And ideal for all tasks a lady would want to do and anyone who doesn't has 'low self esteem' (the bright/middle-class female equivalent of 'yo momma') and is a slob obsessed with comfort (not that that judgement would lower anyone's self-esteem)... Blah blah blah... To my mind, every bit as dangerous to a young woman's mind as an inaccurately airbrushed model. Manners maketh woman, make-up simply maketh woman glam. I adore glam, but if my entire self-worth were tied in it I would feel rather sad.

Why was I stewing on this article, now residing in our flat's terribly designed and stinking communal recycling skip, again? Well it was something to do while I scraped at the black goo which grows where the water pipe in our (unheated) bathroom leaks (right down in the corner, natch) and sprayed it with bleachy water. I was cleaning- a 'traditionally feminine' job- and one which, by some fashion magazines' and bloggers' logic, is always infinitely improved and rendered painless by refusal to wear practical clothes. Perhaps in fashion-land cleaning consists of a light flick with a feather duster. Perhaps. Or perhaps some people do indeed feel infinitely more glamourous if they rip up their Agent Provocateur nylons and bleach-spatter their Prada blouse so they can never wear it again.

And almost always, my sentiments are echoed online in the form of comments on blogs - or just comments over coffee, when reading the magazines. Most stylish women can't, or won't dress 'perfectly' (by industry standards) 24-7 and what is really damaging their self esteem is the passive-aggressive postulating of pop psychology suggesting prioritising one's job, baby or lifestyle over this week's designer style or a perfect vintage look is somehow indicative of unrealised inner worthlessness. There are some truths (and they are truths) that fashion (and dare I say it, vintage and designer fashion in particular) seems to want us to ignore:

1) Some clothes are inherently more comfortable (be it warm, cool, easy-to-move-in or whatever) than others. That is to say, some are uncomfortable doing some jobs. Suspender belts and corsets, for example, aren't great for craning round the u-bend with a scrubbing brush.
2) Most reasonable people can tell when someone has 'made an effort' regardless of their look. That is to say, it is possible to look groomed whilst following almost any fashion and this- gasp- includes the humble jean and even that much-maligned genre (whispers) sportswear.
3) Many women, whilst enjoying looking good, maintain their self esteem from what they do in life rather than 'looking pretty'. It is not a problem with society and it is not that they are 'less feminine' or letting their feminity down in some way. Many women of incredible self esteem and social value wear no make-up and dress without deliberate fashion, yet still radiate what it means to be a great woman. People who get wound up by this ought to ask themselves why they have that reaction, or just bite the bullet and write me 500 words on why they consider Mother Teresa, Ellen Macarthur or Rosa Parks less womanly for eschewing lipstick and pretty frocks.
4) There is no mutual exclusivity between an item of clothing being pretty and an item of clothing being comfortable/practical. The high street (and designers) realise that they can sell twice as many clothes by making the distinction, 'tis all.

I like nice things and I like to look nice. However, sometimes, I also need to move around, deal with mess, or just slouch about without having to resort to an old South Park T-shirt from before His Lordship cast such things aside. So I buy comfortable clothes which look nice: it can be tricky, but it can be done.

Here are some of my tactics, my '3 simple rules' when I dress comfortably and practically:

1) Comfortable Clothes Fit
Anything too tight, even if designed for comfort, will dig in somewhere- in a truly irritating manner- and thus fail its purpose. The two biggest culprits: jeans and leggings. Jeans will pinch, rub and give you muffin tops and leggings- well. Um. Once I saw an episode of the daytime TV show 'Coach Trip' where they were filling sausage skins with raw mince. It can all go so horribly wrong. Leggings are one thing to be brutally honest with on sizing.
Likewise, too baggy and you'll look like an explosion in an early 90s branch of Our Price. Seriously, the 'pretty' side of pretty-and-practical will take a major hit. If you like loose, buy loose clothes in the right size so the shoulders fit well- the shoulders fitting is key.

2) Use Colour And Pattern
Confident use of colour tells people 'I've done this on purpose'. It tells people 'I like this style, I've chosen this'. Let's use an extreme example: the humble hoodie. Without colour and pattern, it says school PE kit- however with just the right colour choices it screams Gwen Stefani. The key thing is, the fabric and structure would be identical: it's purely the eye for colour and pattern that does it. Whatever your style, and whether it be a slick of red lipstick, a floral dress or a vibrant gold belt round a jersey dress, steering clear of grey ramps up the style of the most functional of outfits.

Created using
Does this look like a kid at a bus stop? The items are
a hoodie, trackies and ballet pumps: the red and animal
brings it to life.
3) The 'Trade Off'

Everyone has their 'thing'. Their red lipstick, their pencil skirt, their item of clothing that they wear and think ooh-la-la. For me it's heels, high, high heels and knee high boots- which I just can't wear all day to work (the heels for comfort, the knee length boots as it simply wouldn't be anywhere near appropriate. Like, appropriate would be texting from half way up Everest 'OMG great view, but it's cold!'). Plain black pumps or Uggs are comfortable enough, I was happy to wear them at work, but... meh. Just meh. Then I discovered a little trick which- bear with me- could make you look like a nutter. But it works for me. Replace the 'smart' detail on the item with another style element more suited to the situation. For example as heels are a no-no, could you go for colour (covered above), texture, lazer cutting or unusual structure?

This is very close to what I wore today. Minus balloon.
Just a sloppy T-shirt and jeans or a 70s look?
The design decides: speed of dressing and
comfort are identical
Anyway, I was going to add another point but Retrochick, whose fame precedes her, has already mentioned the utter, perfect value of a good quality black or neutral jersey dress in her post on quick, everyday glamour. I also swear by nice tunics and good (not wrinkly, not cheap, rarely black) leggings - but then I am more a late 20th century than a mid century gal (two words for more glamorous trouser days: wide legged tweed slacks).

Anyway, looking fabulous needn't mean discomfort or limiting everyday life. And if it did, I'd seriously ask if it were worth it.

My final tips? Don't feel guilty about everyday style, just revel in a change to dress utterly outragiously at least once a week- whether to go out or stay in, for me it's insanely high heels and loads of eye make up. Because dressing up should be so much fun.


  1. My entire self-worth IS tied in it and I do feel sad when I feel I don't hit the right note in terms of glam. A few of the die hard Vintagers are creating bubbles of glam to help deal with some impossible realities we'd otherwise have to face. It's a coping mechanism.

  2. Perdita, you are wise beyond your years! Our self worth can not come from shoes or make up but from the fabric of our spirit, soul or whatever is that we have inside!

  3. What a fabulous written piece. I am one of those women who does not wear practical clothing, that is clothing deemed by others to be practical (fleeces, sportswear, knits, Uggs, trainers). Maybe it's a subconscious reaction to years of being trapped in a career that required a uniform or have being born with a disability which meant built-up shoes and carefully considered footwear? By wearing what I want to every day it's self-confirmation, I'm no longer in pain and that I've escaped the shackles of paid employment.
    If I'm doing dirty work (there are no defined gender roles in our household, we both are more than capable of cleaning, doing laundry, sewing, drilling holes, mending stuff), I'll wear an apron over the top and wash what I'm wearing when I've finished.
    Sorry to waffle on. Hope this makes sense. Your intelligent post warranted a far more worthy reply than, you rock! xxx

  4. Fanny, you mention 'impossible realities'- that's the thing, isn't it? Fashion (the article wasn't only about vintage, and I deliberately mentioned different styles- this attitude can come from almost all fashion angles) can help people feel happy OR can become a trap or its own source of stress. A bit like food, or socialising: stress or anxiety can 'latch on' and turn something that should be a pleasure into a source of guilt and stress. The media needs to be more aware of this.

    Ofelia: Thanks... I'm no longer of an age where people use the 'old beyond your years' phrase anymore. ;) I guess I'm 'average for my years' ha ha!

  5. Thanks Vix. I totally agree about clothing 'deemed' to be practical, why should manufacturers decide (and often decide to make it plain or ugly).

    BTW His Lordship was washing up and ironing when I was attacking the mould. I think I drew the short straw on that one though! ;)

  6. I gave up dressing for other people a loooong time ago, now I dress just for me, whether that means jeans and trainers or my loveliest things. I don't buy glossy magazines anymore, or follow the trends in the shops, as they are full of unrealistic airbrushed images. After studying at college, with all age groups, I've seen the damage that the media bombardment with images of beauty/standards can do to anyones self-confidence. I strongly believe that we are all gorgeous regardless of age, size, gender, ethnicity etc. Sorry to rant! Fab post!

  7. It enrages me when women describe how 'comfrotable' their designer high heels are. These are women who do not have to walk to and from the tube for work. Similarly, the phrase 'ideal for all tasks a lady would want to do'... I suspect the word 'want' is most relevant here. No-one wants to do the cleaning, or take the bins out, or scrub the loo, or change the lightbulbs. But normal people have too. If you are changing your lightbulbs in 5 inch heels, then I feel a Darwin moment coming on. Our obsession with judging others on how they dress is so unhealthy, no wonder we all have such delicate self-esteems these days. x

  8. Hi my dear-what a fabulous post and very insightful indeed. As I've got older, I've become more self confident in wearing what I like rather than whats in trend. I love my comfy pieces like jeans, but I do try and make them into a complete stylish and unique ensemble with other pieces. Have a great weekend too x

  9. Hi Perdita, I for one am very glad that woman said what she did as it has obviously inspired you to write this wonderful and insightful post. Bravo!

  10. What a fantastic post. I don't have any practical clothes, I have no jeans, no fleeces and one pair of flat shoes. I wear dresses or jumpsuits most of the time but I am most comfortable in my Uggs, nightdresses or pyjamas and if I've been out trotting around in stilettos (although I'm now steadier on wedges!) I can't wait to change back into something comfortable, although it's often a ridiculous nightie. I'm often in the supermarket or the corner shop in my nightie with a smart coat buttoned over it.

    As you say you can do groomed without having to dress up. Don't people write some rubbish? Have a great weekend xx

  11. Christina, you've hit the nail on the head there: groomed and fancy are not the same thing! Clean jeans and a pressed shirt or a filthy ('sticky looking') designer gear/smeared mascara after an overlong night: which is more polished?

  12. Great piece Perdita, I really enjoyed this - a point of difference or a little bit of attention to detail will lift an outfit. I always wonder bout the gals in the mags that claim to zip around in 5 heels - and never (italicised) wear flats...

  13. I loved this post, so interesting. I have to say I do have designer heels which are very comfortable, I can wear them all day but I certainly wouldn't wear them to walk my dogs or clean my bathroom etc. I guess the women who spout this BS have a minion to do it all for them. I have scruffy things like jeans and t-shirts which I wear about the house because I wouldnt want my nice things to get ruined.

  14. Great post. I do feel that my mood and esteem is tied to with how l Fwel about how l look on a given day. l like to dress up, but l would never risk ruining something l loved by wearing it for a menial task. Everyone needs to just dress for comfort every now and then though!

  15. Wonderful post, thank you. I do get cheesed off with people who sneer at those who don't look perfectly primed and smooth at all times. But I'm also one of those people who can't stand people not making the effort, mainly for events, dinner, theatre trips and sometimes just a nice day out at a gallery or wherever. There's a balance to be struck.

    The other day, wearing some hold-ups, I was musing a bit on the fact that some vintage obsessives are quite sneery about hold-ups against "proper" stockings as well. Although I find them more comfortable, personally. I reasoned that if I were to travel back in time and offer my grandmother (evacuated with work to 1940s Buxton) a pair of hold-ups or, quelle horreur, some 'pantyhose', she would have snatched them out of my hand quicker than you could say 'metal suspender clips'.

    If you have the time, energy and money to be snobbishly perfect, fine. But don't make others feel bad for not achieving it...

  16. It's so true about what women in 'vintage times' actually WANTED: the fabric technology just wasn't there or it was rationed. My grandma (a cook in WW1) always took a good pair of 'slacks' and some brogues with a 1-inch heel with her for walking and casual days, just as it was always a twinset and nice tailored skirt for Mass and a 'frock' for evenings out. I think she'd be rather amused that for many, trousers are a no-no in a vintage wardrobe.


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