Catching up on the internet after a long trip away is always oddly fascinating. Devouring information in huge great gulps can help patterns to emerge. One I'm seeing right now? Is, curiously enough, the sartorial equivalent of how you feel after Thanksgiving dinner: a kind of gluttedness that surpasses satiation and passes over into nausea.
Purseforum has several threads
on paring one's closet down to a few key, quality pieces: Jezebel is fixating on the "6 Items or Less Challenge
," and my f-list has a few posts along the same vein. BeMoreWithLess.com actually aggregates
some of the various projects out there while suggesting yet another one: after mentioning the Uniform Project and 6 Items for 6, she proposes Project 333 (3 months on 33 items, not counting the various exempted classes like undies and workout gear and nightgowns and the stuff you just wear around the house and, oh, you know, the building blocks of daily life
that are exempted from all
of these projects, as if to highlight how bizarrely trendy and privileged and motivated by boredom and lack of discipline these exercises really are).
Me, I just spent two frustrating weeks living out of a suitcase, so ... to paraphrase Tango from "Tango & Cash," I did
miss my wardrobe, and the desire for artificial scarcity puzzles me. That said, I'm kinda fascinated by what appears to be a backlash against fast fashion, and all it signifies ... and I'm formulating an odd kind of a connection between said fast fashion, clothing-as-identity, and Paris. It might be triggered by recent personal experiences, or I might be onto something: walk with me.
So! A lot of the various discussions mention off-handedly the desire to live like French women do.* The stereotype of the fashionable Frenchwoman conjures the image of a few key pieces of quality clothing, worn steadily in the confidence that their perfection mitigates the fact that you've already worn them three times this week. It goes beyond having a signature piece into being
signatory yourself, sufficiently secure as to be able to ignore the dictates of greige nails and Ugg boots and whatever other horrors the fashion industry is planning to throw to the masses as cheaply made (but still ugly!) trends-of-the-moment, guaranteed not to go with anything you already own.
It's a nice image, nu
? Genevieve Dariaux mentioned something similar in her 1964 tome, A Guide to Elegance For Every Woman Who Wants to Be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions.
I read Dariaux a few years ago thanks to a kind loan from a friend, and snorted: Dariaux is the kind of writer who thinks blondes should stay away from jewel tones and men prefer quiet good breeding (for good breeding, read a high decollete
) in their wives. (In my head, I subtitled it The WASPs Guide to Elegance
.) But I came across it again
in Kathleen Tessaro's Elegance
, which is a first person memoir-style novel written by a badly dressed woman who discovers Dariaux's tome and takes it to heart as a personal Bible, changing the circumstances of her unhappy loveless marriage and her miserable dead-end career as easily as she changes her knickers (to 9 matched sets of La Perla, if you're curious, and I say this as someone who discovered just how much
they charge for a brassiere just the other day). It's a chick-lit makeover story with a few intriguing observations about clothes as signifiers of the self, but, interestingly, I don't remember there being much about inconspicuous consumption, to coin a phrase.** However, it definitely employs the tropes of what we might call the justified makeover, as I'd suggest the current backlash overall does.
The "justified makeover" is what I call books in which the heroine is so obviously, painfully, grotesquely nonredeemable that for the author, the ends do justify the means: I still remember the Barbara Cartland novel where the Grand Dame cast her hapless heroine into a 6 month long coma so she'd lose her baby-fat. Oy
. In a makeover-obsessed culture? We're all sort of That Heroine, or so the zeitgeist would tell us, and we're all constantly looking for that magic thing
which will make us perfect. What I find intriguing about this particular
phenomenon is that it's not being pushed by any one vehicle of the media: instead, it seems to be coming out of a genuine groundswell of mass emotion.
One of the emotions in question is, of course, frugality: in this economy, we all want to figure out how to break the cycle of unsatisfying spending. My cynical side says that this focus on few items of good quality is coming from the desire to justify a few pricey purchases before the trend passes and we all slink quietly back to Forever 21 (inconspicuous consumption, indeed) ... but I don't think that's the whole of it. It's the Parisian element that intrigues me particularly: it's an interesting kind of an identity to want to claim, especially since it's not being done through any particular item or element - a Dior dress, a Chanel suit - but simply through the idea of elegant quality and a limited palette.
Having just spent a few weeks there, though? Unless I'm missing something, you have got
to be kidding
me. For one thing, they have more H&Ms than we do: for another, the department stores are just like ours, except pricier (even accounting for the weak dollar, and, yes, even during the sales) (and don't even talk to me about the nifty boutiques, with their thousand euro frocks). Now, the literal cost of doing business might well be the reason why French women are famous for having less clothing and being more selective about it ... but is it really a good thing? If anything, my knowledge of national character aside, I'd suggest that setup is merely the precusor to what America currently has, where the rich have lots of nice clothes, and the poor have lots of crap clothes: it's more a nostalgic desire for a sense of quality, regardless of budget, than a sense of displaced national character that's currently up for debate. Traditionally (and, by "traditionally," I mean "within the last 30 years or so), that's been settled by credit and aspirationalism ... and, obviously, that's
not the answer. I suppose I'm just intrigued by this roundabout and equally unrealistic form of aspirational longing, where instead of wanting to be Kim Kardashian, we all want to be Edith Piaf in a Paris that might have been, but doesn't currently seem to be. Discuss?
* Men, French and otherwise, don't seem to come into these discussions. Stereotype would suggest it's because men are already
doing some variation on minimalist fashion, only without the wussy underwear exceptions - snigger
. My personal theory is that I
simply haven't the bloodiest notion of where to find men's fashion discussions (it sure as hell ain't GQ, let me tell you, having read a few issues on the flight), but I didn't want to leave them out altogether as though fashion is, by default, A Girl Thing.
** Despite what might appear to be a lackluster review, I actually quite enjoyed Elegance
, especially for a first novel: it's not perfect (the tacked on "happy ending" rubbed me the wrong way), but she has a wry turn of phrase that's absolutely delightful. Better still, she's one of those authors who improves by a factor of 10 with each book, so her third, The Flirt
, is a completely hilarious send-up of the romantic comedy in contemporary surroundings - seriously, Oscar Wilde would love
this - and her fourth, The Debutante
, is a just plain good
novel of mirrored lives in the vein of Alice Hoffman. (It just occurred to me that I'd never read her second ... off to order!)