Thursday, 24 May 2007

Dress Code

This post comes as a direct result of the comments on my last. I had asked what I should wear on Friday for my first paid storytelling gig. Most people advised me to wear something I was comfortable in and this got me thinking about: a) what I am most comfortable in and b) the whole nature of dress and how we can and do use it.

Virginia Woolf said something about clothes being apparently trivial and yet actually important. I used to think that this related to the time in which she lived: now we are much more sophisticated and such things don't matter so much. Yet, witness the 'hoodie' farrago that has been raging. And the fact that in some provincial night-clubs jeans are still not allowed. This suggest that today, still, clothes are signifiers. Clothes speak to us and it is worth learning the language.

As I have mentioned on numerous occasions I tend to wear the same ancient pair of combat trousers. They have paint on them and the bottom part of the left leg is coming away from the top half. What do they say about me? I'd like to think they say 'here is someone so innately elegant and comfortable in her own skin that she can wear any old tat.' But they might say 'here is someone who is old and has lost interest in her appearance'; 'here is someone who is so poor she can't afford new clothes and she may rob us' or 'here is someone whose tatty clothes match her tatty mind.' Or any number of other bad things. And it is true that ten years ago I would never have worn such scruffy clothes with such regularity. There is an element of not wanting my clothes to be more beautiful than I am, and as I've got older and more, lets say, faded, so have they. But since the interaction generated by that last post I've realised that I do, however, use clothes to get what I want. And that what I am most comfortable in depends on the situation.

I have noticed, for example, that although it's been going out of fashion for years black gets results. And I instinctively wear it to create a 'don't mess with me' aura: last week I had to take my husbands car to the dealer because the roof – which folds down – broke. He thought it should get done under warranty and I knew that if they haggled I would lose and we'd have to pay. So I put on my smartest, knee length black skirt, a black top and heels. And for good measure some black eye-liner. I also took my son for moral support but that's another story. I spoke only to ask for the workshop manager and say, later, 'I haven't a clue' to some mundane question about servicing. They checked the car, explained the problem and it was booked in for this week. No questions asked. To be on the safe side, when I took it in for the work to be done, I wore my smart black trouser-suit again with heels and black eye-liner. And again I didn't have to speak, I just handed over the keys and left. When the car was ready they phoned and I went to pick it up. I walked in, the receptionist immediately took my keys off the shelf and handed them to me even though there were two other customers in front of me. I left without a mention of a bill. I wonder if I had worn my combats and old vest top I would have got the same effortless result. Somehow I doubt it even though I like to think I would.

And that's the problem a lot of people, including me, have: we like to think that clothes shouldn't make a difference so we dress like they don't when the fact is they do. We'd be better off exploiting that fact. Nietzsche said that appearance is everything. I don't quite go that far but am beginning to realise that it does count, and more than just a little.

This doesn't mean one has to be perfectly groomed, made-up and expensively dressed. It just means one will get on better if one's appearance signifies what one wants it to. It's about being in control. I'm always hearing the saying 'dress for the position you want not the one you have' with regards to work but it applies to everything. The difficulty comes, I guess, in understanding what one's clothes say about one. I know smart black makes me look a little intimidating, but that's as far as my knowledge goes. For example I'm still not sure what to wear to the storytelling gig. I definitely don't want to intimidate my audience. I also don't want to look like I've lost my marbles. What I am aiming for is to look approachable, inclusive and honest. Like I fit in to the tradition but am also not afraid to challenge. Really I want to look like a slightly nicer and more confident version of myself. Unfortunately I haven't yet worked out quite who, or what, I am.

I've just realised, though, what those old combats say about me: 'here is a woman trying to deny that clothes are important.' No, actually I think they say 'here is a woman who puts comfort before appearance.' Yes that's better. What do your clothes say about you?


Mary Witzl said...

This is a brilliant post, Eryl.

Like you, I tend to dress in the same tatty clothes every day. In fact, I rather revel in being able to do this. When we lived in Japan, I had to look good for work, especially when I taught on a regular basis. Not having to go to the trouble of doing this every day is a real perk of having given up that lifestyle.

I do notice that the better I dress, the more respect I get. While I understand that people cannot be expected to see past my scruffy old jeans, I hate it when they don't even try. I would like to think that I don't judge others by their appearance and perhaps I don't do this so much, but I know that I still do it to some extent.

Kim Ayres said...

Most of it is how you carry yourself. If you have enough confidence you can walk into a black-tie event wearing jeans and make everyone else feel they are over-dressed.

That's not particularly easy to do, mind, and requires a powerful self confidence.

What the clothes primarily do is give you a prop for the image you wish to convey. They help you get into character.

Carole said...

When I need self-confidence I dress much nicer than when I am just relaxed. I also dress up when I go to church--a sign of respect maybe, but mostly I wear jeans and t-shirts. Now that I have gained two sizes in the last 6 months, I don't really care what I wear, I am so disgusted about the weight gain. So I guess my clothes totally reflect my moods.

Eryl Shields said...

Mary ~ I too had to dress smartly for work when I worked in recruitment in Glasgow and I hated it. Everyday: suit, heels, make-up. I actually think it is that experience that has made me so scruffy today, it's such bliss not having to try so hard and not being told what is appropriate. I once got told off for wearing a colourful t-shirt under my jacket, ugh!

I guess we can't help judging people by appearance as it's a kind of shorthand, we think it describes the person beneath the clothes. These days I tend to be drawn to people who look like they don't try too hard. I guess I believe that this signifies they have more going on in their minds than superficialities. It's a bit of a minefield though and I suspect that the super-intelligent can think deep thoughts and dress well at the same time.

Kim ~ I suspect you are right but who has that kind of confidence? Certainly not me. I do use clothes as a prop: if I'm dressed much the same as everyone else I'm comfy. Which, thinking about it, is a bit sad really as the suggestion is that I want to be like everyone else and not myself. That is if you are right about the 'getting into character' thing: I must want to get into the character of the herd. Lord!

Eryl Shields said...

Carole ~ you must have been making your comment as I was replying to Mary and Kim.

Sunday clothes! I'd forgotten about those, I always used to dress prettier or smarter on Sundays long after dropping church. And it was a sign of respect I think.

Two sizes in six months! You've either been enjoying yourself or you have developed a condition. I hope it's the first. If it is I can strongly reccomend keeping a pot of nuts, seeds and dried fruit with you at all times. Whenever you feel like a snack have a handful of that first. I've recently lost about sixteen pounds doing that.

Carole said...

I think the cofndition is sort of a frustrating depression. I am so trying to step out of chalk lines, but can't quite manage it. And in my "I am so stuck" feeling, I continue to eat and I can't seem to stop. Food rarely disappoints, it feels a void that my self confidence cannot. I am so disappointed in myself for not being able to make a break through and again food is always there. I will try the nuts and dried food. Sorry, I am sure you didn't mean to be a counselor for today.

Eryl Shields said...

Are you kidding Carole, it's one of my favourite roles! From all the philosophy and psychology books I've read I gather that the first step to stepping over the chalk lines is acknowledging their existence. The second is time - the fourth dimension. You must forget all notions of time as a straight line and see it more as a squiggle that doubles back on itself. And then relax, your instinct will analyse and interpret all the chalk lines one by one and slowly you will find yourself on the edge of them and then, eventually, outside. Trying to force the process will only impede things.

Now, reading your blog and your comments on other blogs and seeing your photograph I find a woman who has nothing to lose her confidence over. You are smart, witty and beautiful. If I look half as bright and glowing as you when I reach my fifties I will be a very happy woman.

Try the nut mix, loose some weight and stop beating yourself up. You don't deserve it.

Carole said...

I like your idea of time. Doubling back on itself. Because I do get stuck thinking, "I'm 53, it's too late to change." I will roll that concept around.

I wish I could see myself as you do. And I appreciate your kind thoughts. Now I am off to buy some kind of fruits and nuts.

Eryl Shields said...

It's never too late to change: I know a woman in her seventies who has just embarked on a philosophy degree and is loving it. Another in her sixties who has just graduated in history. My mother-in-law passed her driving test at the age of sixty-nine and now goes all over the place exploring. Also, she didn't leave the British Isles until she was sixty and now she has travelled all over the world. Having been stuck in a job she hated for twenty years she is really making the most of her retirement. And she's lost tonnes of weight!

If life begins at 40 as they say, you've only just entered your teens.

Kim Ayres said...

In the Intro to Moral Philosophy evening class I ran last term, one woman on the course was 85!

Eryl Shields said...

That is so heartening Kim.

Mary Witzl said...

When I was in graduate school, there were two women in their eighties in one of my literature classes. They were indispensable when it came to questions about what really went on in the thirties and forties, but quite apart from that they were a lot of fun. One was an anarchist who was a great admirer of Angela Davis. It was fun to see her on campus with her picket sign, promoting anarchy.

Being a 'late bloomer' (a term I despise) I am filled with admiration for your mother-in-law getting her driver's license at age 69. My own mother got hers after age 50; following in her footsteps I only recently got mine. But getting it at age 69 -- that is something to be truly proud of.

Kim Ayres said...

'Tis Saturday!

How did the story telling go last night?

eg(scotland) said...

First off - hope the story telling went well - looking forward to reading about it.

On clothes - Monday to Friday I wear a business suit - always trouser suit. I haven't worn a skirt in probably 10 years. The suits are always black but can be pin stripe and I have quite a few of them. I did go through a spell (again probably 10 years ago) when I wore different colours but not now. I nearly always wear black or white shirt or t-shirt. Less often I'll wear a different colour shirt. Sometimes I worry people will think I'm wearing the same thing day in day out! And always boots - with a small heel.

Out of work, jeans, combats and when I get home from work most usually it's straight into the pyjamas. I'm never smart-looking.

I think for work I generally look smart but I've often said I could make the most expensive Chanel suit look like a tattie sack. Yet I have friends who could wear a tattie sack and it would be taken as Chanel.

My biggest problem at the moment is that I need to lose a bit of weight and I'm at the stage that everything feels just a bit uncomfortable.

But I so agree with you that in certain places you'll be treated differently depending on how you're dressed. By the same token, I believe the same is true of the way one talks and even one's height!


Eryl Shields said...

Mary ~ I can't think of anything more glamorous than an eighty year old anarchist. I have extreme anarchist tendencies myself and it has been one of my big areas of research. But I don't know the name Angela Davis - I will google it.

Kim ~ Ahah! Watch this space.

EG ~ Sounds like you need my favourite nut mix too (see Carole's comments) before you have to buy a whole new set of clothes. It works wonders.

Yes, height and voice/accent do make a big difference to how certain people treat one. I'm short and have had to work hard not to be seen as a 'wee woman' or little girly.