Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Too rich or too thin?

This remark, "a woman can never be too thin or too rich" or variants thereof, has been attributed to the Duchess of Windsor, to Jackie Kennedy, to Diana Vreeland, and to a socialite I'd never heard of, a Mrs. Douglas. All of them wealthy and thin women, but I wonder which of them would have been so crude as to say such a thing. All I know for certain is that I didn't say it.

I surmise that dress designers probably sign up for the belief at the start of their careers, catering to their own image of clothes as expensive and looking best on a tall thin body. Fashion is not about actual women, and certainly not about making them feel good in their clothes. It's an art form in a way, that bears no relevance to the person, only to their bodies, which are simply warm dress forms, especially desirable if they have broad shoulders from which clothes hang best.

Which brings me to "The Thoughtful Dresser" by Linda Grant, a series of essays examining the role of clothing and women's attitudes to it. At first I thought I'd never read anything written in such an angry defensive crouch: I love and need clothes, they're important to me, don't dare diss me on account of it, and if you don't agree with me you're either a baby who isn't aware of clothes, or you're a fool. And so on.

But after she describes herself, in painful detail, as a plain woman with fat ankles and a broad square body, you start to see that it's the cry of a plain woman wanting to be seen as lovely, as beautiful, as fine just as she is, and needing her clothes to wave that magic wand to this end.

And you start to see what a powerful writer she is, even if you don't agree with her, which I often don't, and you are carried along on the surge of her prose, together with moving accounts of women who survived the holocaust and terrible suffering which is hard even to read about, and yet kept their vanity and their need to look elegant. The magic power of clothes to make the woman.

Her own mother was a serious shopper and dresser and believed that the bag makes the outfit. To me that's deep down, profoundly shallow as a mantra for life, but to her it was a central belief. Because I think a lot of this is based on the need to accede to other people's opinions about how you look, that you could cringe on being caught with last year's handbag, or be unable to wear a favorite pair of shoes which are now totally out of fashion, and out of your decade in life.

Now and then she does acknowledge that there's fun and joy in clothes, too, but she does it with such frantic insistence that I think the lady doth protest too much.

Nonetheless this book is so well worth looking at and considering. Until I read this I had no idea that people outside of the fashion world to whom it's a living, cared this much about clothes and outfits and colors and shapes and fit. So I learned a lot.

As a woman who has never been what Heyer would call a diamond of the first water, nor yet plain, I've been largely more on the acceptable to nice side in looks, not too heavy, not too tiny, not too tall, curly hair I like a lot, letting its color change with age, that kind of thing. So I've never had to grapple with the reality that clothes are designed for someone I can never be. I've just worn what I liked when I liked to, within quite large boundaries of acceptable. Admiring elegance, but never wanting it for myself.

The fact that according to Grant, I shop like a man -- know exactly what I'm looking for, find it in a store, pay for it, get out of there --probably says something about me! she loves shopping even without buying, loves to see what's there, spend time in stores, admiring the colors and what's new this year. To me that is as exciting as watching white paint dry on a white wall.

What puzzles me is her insistence that her obsession ought to be everyone's obsession, at least that's how it reads to me. To me, it's okay to like what you like, no need to insist the world join you in it in order to validate your choices.

All in all, this is a terrific read in the sense of anthropology, if you're of my frame of mind, but would probably be a terrific read of validation if you do share her outlook.

Anyway, either way, it's a five star piece of writing. And I'd love to hear from blogistas and blogistos who have read it, or have opinions on this whole idea even if you haven't.


  1. I find that clothes are an important part of my life, but one that I don't spend much time thinking about. I'm not a huge fashion expert, but I try to look current, young, appropriate, and attractive.

    I feel like I could pretty much see my life history if I laid out my daily outfits in chronological order. I'm a roughly average sized woman with a pant size that fluctuates between a 10 and a 14. Shopping is so much more fun when I'm a size 10 and I always find clothes that are much more flattering. In turn, I think I project a self-confidence to the world that benefits me in intangible ways.

  2. One of the men in my knitting group was talking about shopping recently and how his wife shops the world for a handbag or whatever, whereas he knows what he wants, the make and the price and goes to the store, buys 10 or 12 of the item pays and leaves. Everyone laughed heartily. I said nuffink..its exactly what I do also. Until then I didn't know I shopped like a man.

  3. I've begun to notice that I hardly ever need to go shopping anymore. My clothes don't seem to wear out like they used to, and if I do need something, I usually get it from the local supermarket. I do have some nice scarves I've picked up here and there. Of course, I'm not invited to a lot of balls.


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