Friday, August 13, 2010

A Question of Words

Wearing this somewhat wacky color combination got me thinking about the comments that I frequently get about my stylistic choices. Many people have remarked that they appreciate my bravery and confidence in wearing whatever I want, and I started to think about what that concept really means. And what I determined is this: it really is just a question of words, specifically the ones that are used by others to describe us, and particularly the ones that can be construed as less-than-flattering. Words are strange things; some can cut to the quick while others have no effect whatsoever.

The choices we all make reflect which words we're okay with having assigned to us, and which we're not. No matter how you dress, some people will like it and some won't; it's just a matter of exactly what your detractors are going to say about you. Everyone at some point in life will be described in less than glowing terms, and so along the way we all develop sensitivity around some of those terms, and resistance to others. And from that perspective, everyone has precisely the same amount of stylistic bravery.

So I thought it'd be an interesting exercise to talk about which (presumably negative) words we don't mind hearing about ourselves and which ones make us cringe, because I thought it would be a way to understand our own choices better, and a way to push our so-called bravery in the direction we want it to go. I'll get us started. I think my style reflects the fact that I would much prefer to be viewed as eccentric or even bizarre rather than unoriginal or boring. I'll take androgynous or even unfeminine over slutty or trashy any day. And I'd much rather someone think I'm completely off my rocker than that I've played it safe. And therein lie the limits of my confidence. Put me in a staid beige pantsuit and just see how brave I am then.

Which negative words sting you and which ones bounce right off? How do your stylistic choices reflect these preferences?

Top: a gift from Sal
Scarf: Promod
Belt: Lazaro
Skirt: Skunkfunk
Leggings: Foot Traffic
Boots: Bata


shams said...

I like that you dress to express your style - it's why I keep visiting your blog. My style is completely different than yours (as one would expect from someone older and a larger size) but I do live in SF and enjoy seeing what you wear.

For me, I never want to hear frumpy or schlumpadinka.

I'm happy to hear funky, artistic or unusual. :)

Emma at Daily Clothes Fix said...

What an interesting question and I think your conclusion about how other people's reactions colour our clothing choices is true.

Personally, I would hate to be seen as dull or safe. Several of my colleagues have said that my clothes are weird. I take this as a compliment.

Meghan Edge said...

I like this question. To me it isn't so much words as it is tone. I can tell if you really like a dress I've made, or if you look at it with a weird face and say "It's... cute". I love when people call me a ragdoll or vagabond or weird or quirky, but that particular "cute" which I've gotten often when the person doesn't mean cute at all really really hurts me.

Diana said...

I love all the colors in this outfit! I think you have a fantastic and original sense of style, and I love it.

As far as negative words that sting that someone may mean as a compliment: when I'm wearing something I've made, it sometimes bothers me when someone says "Oh, did you make that?" They may not mean it as an insult, but their tone sometimes make it sound like they think that what I'm wearing looks amateurish.

On the opposite side, I love it when they ask where I bought it, and then I can surprise when I tell them it's handmade.

Susan B said...

That print mix is inspired!

I think the negative words that bother me the most are conservative, frumpy, dowdy, boring.

I guess the words that don't bother me, I don't think of as negative.

Raquelita said...

I love the belt with this outfit, and the color palette is inspired!

I don't know about particular words, but I have to admit that it stung a little bit when I came across a reference to my blog that dubbed it what would happen if the sartorialist went blind and did a PhD.

I guess I would rather be considered brave than conservative in my style choices outside the classroom. I admit that I tend to dress in more staid outfits when in the classroom - especially the first couple weeks of a term.

Academic Writer (a.k.a. A-Dubs) said...

I also love your style, and I read your blog for inspiration as I lack even a smidge of your imagination and creativity. Mixing colours and creating really awesome, original, and fabulous outfits are, I think, your superpowers. Plus you have a seriously crave-able shoe & boot collection.

Words I'd rather people not use to describe me or my clothes/style: conservative, safe, unprofessional, girlie (in the exceptionally youthful sense of this word), and revealing.

Words that are entirely context dependent: brave (totally echoing you, here), interesting (because sometimes it's code for "what the hell were you thinking?"), fancy (because it CAN be synonymous with "girlie"), trendy, and classic.

Words I want: professional, sophisticated, unique, shoealicious.

Also, to LHdM: whoever wrote that about your blog can suck it.

Jean said...

Hmmm. I don't get a huge amount of comments about my clothes, mainly because I'm a fairly safe dresser. Or invisible.

My colleagues will often say I look elegant - which is great - and my daughters will say I look 'pretty' or 'nice', followed by "you look nice when you make an effort mum." Yeah.

Franca said...

I'm pretty much the same as you! I don't mind if people think my clothes crazy or silly or ridiculous, but I don't want to be safe, or god forbid, boring. Or thoughtless, like I just got dressed in the first thing that came to hand. I also don't mind unladylike or childish. Because it's true!

This has got me thinking of positive words that are used as negatives. Once, one of Dave's friends, who was genuinely trying to compliment me, said I looked healthy and radiant. Shame that for whatever silly reason, healthy is a code for fat and radiant for pregnant!

Debra said...

I also love your site and your style. I would hate to be described as frumpy (although I suspect I sometimes look that way). Wouldn't mind quirky, but would love to be stylish. Will never get chic!

Sarah said...

The brazenness of a comment said to my face empowers me, but the cowardice of a comment made behind my back deflates me.

I quite like stirring things up, having people not quite sure what to say about what I wear. I love the challenge of combining impossible colours and textures together and making them work. Lack of understanding and appreciation for what I wear kind of validates what I'm doing. Call me weird to my face and I'll feel like I've somehow achieved something. Make exactly the same comment behind my back, telling my co-workers that you think I'm weird because of the way I dress (even though you've never talked to me!), and I'll somehow feel like I never want to wear colour again.

Mary said...

This post stirred up so many things! thanks audi. I'll start in reverse:@supermum: elegant is not invisible! elegant is one of the best complements ever (for me). @audi (pop culture reference). last night watching project runway reruns when they had to choose between "safe and boring" and "circus sideshow/trainwreck" for who would leave the show and I knew as soon as they said "safe and boring" that that one would go. @audi (personal body image reference). after a lifetime of being too heavy, in grad school I wittled myself down to a weight below optimal (not exactly anorexic, just overshot a bit)...cue to the following fall, when I'd regained a little but hadn't really realized it and my professor saw me and said "you look so healthy!" No complement has ever burned and bothered me so much before! ah well, what I wouldn't give to be back at that "healthy" weight now.

Oh and Audi, I love the way you dress.

Emily Kennedy said...

Great post! The words you listed as being comfortable with vs. the words that feel more negative was super interesting. It makes sense with how I perceive your style, but perceptions of style don't always consistently reveal the thinking, feeling person beneath the surface.

Words I'm comfortable with: daring, bold, brazen, radiant, sexy, pretty, hoochie, bookish, retro, punk, messy, sometimes slutty.

Words I'm not comfortable with: preppy, perfect, fresh, youthful, trendy, polished, tasteful.

Oh this is so revealing! What FUN!

Emily Kennedy said...

Just to clarify, I listed words that I like and don't like to describe my style. I have admired many a preppy or tastefully dressed woman, and I don't think those are negative words for everyone; just for my particular bent.

Peg said...

Interesting discussion.

I had experimented with an outfit yesterday that I was pretty sure didn't work, so I ended up posting a picture of it on my blog. (When I'd arrived at work, the receptionist took one look at me, laughed, and said, "You're very brave!" The commenters gave me a good suggestion (take off a sash; it was one element too many) and then I felt much more confident about what I was wearing.

The thing is, I'm sometimes constrained by where I'm working ("brave" is sometimes not appropriate at a law firm). I like the words colorful, elegant, poised, well-proportioned. I think I would like "off-beat" or "unexpected" or "funky," but more often if I'm wearing it somewhere away from where I work. If it's at my workplace, those same words might have a more pejorative impression. I wouldn't want to hear "slutty or trashy" either--and what's more, if I wore something like that to work, it would get me in trouble professionally.

Another thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is age appropriateness. I wouldn't want to be "mutton dressed as lamb." This has been much on my mind lately, as I just turned fifty. I also have an unbelievably gorgeous teenage daughter in the house who can wear anything and look fantastic in it. She can wear the clothes I used to wear and love, but they look much more appropriate one her than on me. (It's funny how oblivious she is to how amazing she looks, too: she'll put on a dress that makes people's jaws hang open because she's so gorgeous, and her comment about her own appearance will be something like "my knees look funny.") So sometimes I handle my sartorial longings by buying clothes I like and giving them to her!

Anonymous said...

when i get compliments on my clothing choices there are a number of factors involved in deciding whether i am flattered or amused or insulted - some are the words in the compliment. I like, chic, stylish, fashion forward, but am wary of brave, or interesting. At my age, which is over 40, i am not sure i would want to be described as "young" due to the mutton dressed as lamb fear, but i also never want to be seen as dowdy, frumpy or matronly.
I also take into consideration the person giving the comment/compliment, if they have a style that i admire, i will listen with open ears, but if there own style is not enviable to me, i will let it slide off me.
I once got a very conservative haircut, (an unfortunate mistake due to a language barrier) and was horror-stricken when every senior citizen female I knew complimented me on it, and rushed out to get the haircut fixed immediately.
i like dressing differently than almost everybody where i live, but like fitting in when i go to a metropolitan area, and get asked for directions.
thanks for your thought provoking blog

tinyjunco said...

it seems to me, as i've gone thru life, that comments (especially unsolicited ones) say more about the person commenting than they do about the 'comment-ee'. generally, i figure it's my style (such as it is) so what difference does it make to anyone else? i've been called lots of rotten things and i lived. it's just clothes, we can wear something different tomorrow. that's what makes it fun!

i'd be more upset if someone said i was nasty or mean or didn't help someone when i could have. not good.

thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments!

Jodi said...

Where do you shop in San Fran? I would love some new ideas and time to ramp up my wardrobe!! I am visiting there in September.. any good places you MUST go for shopping? I am so completely tired of my same old style and need to PEP it up!!

Sheila said...

What a fun topic!

I would much rather be refered to sartorially as: kooky, fun, wacky, awesome, artsy, quirky, "out there", daring, brave, adventurous.

I'm okay with the generic compliments (fabulous, gorgeous, lovely) if they also mention something specific (i.e. fabulous belt). At least it demonstrates that the complimenter is actually looking at details.

I would hate to get: trashy, sleazy/slutty, young, trying too hard, boring, conservative, corporate, dull.

I don't get too many reactions from people I see all the time (people get used to it), but I love when a stranger or someone I haven't seen for a while gives me a "Wow!"

You're such an inspiration to so many, Audi, I think because we all really want to be as confident to wear what we really want...and so many wear what they think they "should" wear instead. Thank you for helping me push my own boundaries.

Anonymous said...
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LPC said...

Tacky, sheepish, shoddy, trying too hard...What a good question.

spottedroo said...

What an interesting question.

Unlike many people I don't mind if people ask me if I made something myself. I'd much rather people think my clothes look home-made than that they look expensive.

I think the thing I am most afraid of is looking too dressed up or too formal.

M.K. said...

I'm new to your blog. I love it and feel really inspired to try and start pushing the boundaries of my usual approach to clothes (which is usually whatever is easiest and whatever is neutral).

I've long been wanting to figure out a better professional wardrobe, but have never had an example that felt right. It doesn't help that I often don't like shopping. I work in an academic sphere where the upper execs dress corporate, staff is business casual & students are in jeans. I interact with all three groups. I don't need or want to dress to the corporate level, but I do desire a look that will allow me to appear approachable to students as well as professional to my colleagues. Right now I feel very in-between - some days I look like a student, some days like a professional.

Thanks so much for taking the time to not just post photos, but for sharing your thinking about your choices, providing how-to's, etc. I'm feeling hopeful that with some effort I can get to a more creative professional look.

If you have any desire to write a post for those who are faint of shopping-heart, it would be very welcome. Do you stock basics? Is it better to go shopping with a vision of what one wants? Or to keep it more broad - say, shopping toward a color scheme? How does one decide to buy something if one can't yet envision a use for it? Trust one's love of the item? I could type several more questions, but will leave it at that. Thanks!

Tamara said...

I generally feel that words that hurt me are the ones that I suspect might be true. Such is the case with tasteless -- since my childhood all my family praised me with having artistic talents and great taste, but frankly, I don't see any proof of it. So when someone says my outfit is tasteless, it's like I'm scared to get exposed and to be a disappointment to someone.
Otherwise I'd hate if someone would think I spend too much money on my clothes (or on myself in general). Yeah, there's something to think about here...

Audi said...

Sarah: That's such a great point about comments made to your face versus behind your back; it does completely change the effect.

Emily Kennedy: I feel the same way; while I can love classic or even conservative on someone else, I'd be totally offended to hear those words applied to me! Funny how self image can be so specific.

Peg: Yes, I agree that the workplace introduces quite another set of considerations. I'd be much less offended at one of my "going-out" outfits being labeled as risqué versus an outfit I wore for work. And I wholeheartedly agree with you and other commenters about the 'mutton-dressed-as-lamb' concept -- that's something I always want to steer clear of.

Jodi: My favorite boutiques are Therapy, Five and Diamond, Sunhee Moon and Candystore Collective over in the Mission; Ambiance, Ruby, and Held Over in the Haight; and the giant Goodwill flagship store at Mission and Van Ness. For shoes I love the Fluevog store on Haight and Bulo in Hayes Valley. Hayes Valley also has some cute boutiques, though they tend to be pricey.

Anonymous commenter who asked if I'd have sex with you: NO. And I deleted your comment, because you creeped me out.

M.K.: I'll give your questions some thought; this sounds like a great idea for a post or even a series. I used to have no great love of shopping either, so it's definitely something that gets a lot more enjoyable the better you are at it. In the meantime you should read my Fashion Rut series; the links are in the sidebar (under How-to's and Tutorials). Those posts give a few tips on shopping.

Tamara: That's interesting; I also used to feel a bit sheepish if people knew how much I spent on certain clothes or a pair of shoes, but I've since let that one go. If I can afford it, then it's none of anyone's damn business what I spent. That would be a good sensitivity to divest yourself of, if you can. Certain clothing splurges just feel GOOD, and you really can't put a price on that.

Fawn said...

This is an interesting exercise for me. The words that scare me are things like: weird, garish, odd, tacky, trying too hard, cheap (in both senses of the word), or "cute" (in that condescending way that people only use on short women). But I also hate being thought of as demure, dowdy, stuffy, or (shudder) "matronly."

So I aim for "polished and a little quirky," but I tend to end up "low-key, safe, and unimaginative." Which is why I'm trying to be a little more creative.

Warpaint said...

I love this question. I think its interesting, when I was just getting started with fashion I would take any kind of criticsim very sensitively, and not respond well to any comment at all. I was very insecure about myself, and the fact that I started putting myself, my personality, myself into my clothes, I took every word very personally. But now, I relish things like that. I get things like I look like a dirty hippie, homeless, flower child, un coordinated, dressed in the dark, which I would say is pretty negative (except for hippie and flower child-I like that :D) while other people have said I always look put together, I have a certain style, and I always take pride in my apperance and look good no matter what. I have learned to stop caring so much about what other people think of me, and this has helped me grow as a person. Great question!

et said...

Audi, I'm with you on "I'll take androgynous or even unfeminine over slutty or trashy any day. " - & with the others on 'frumpy.' I'm finding that although I enjoy compliments on my outfit or a given item, I'm more satisfied with compliments on how I look instead of on my clothes. So although I'm beginning to lean more toward basics, thanks to you I'm continuing to at least look for basics with a twist to keep them interesting!