A Return to Elegance Begins with You


Photo credit: mensatic from morguefile.com



Last night, I attended an online class hosted by my friend, Colleen Hammond of the Total Image Institute. Colleen and I met after I looked her up online after reading her book, Dressing with Dignity. Her book really changed how I thought about my appearance and clothing. Although I knew I dressed neatly, I felt that my choices lacked femininity and style. Colleen's book was one of the primary reasons I switched to wearing mostly dresses and skirts and am now really getting into vintage clothing and sewing my own fashions.

During Colleen's class, she mentioned how fashion has degraded since the 1980s. This really struck a chord with me.  I came of age during the 1980s, and first got into fashion during that decade. I subscribed to all the fashion magazines, and even took an image course for teens hosted by Macy's that culminated in a runway fashion show.  I had the tall, willowy, athletic silhouette favored by the decade and the 'big hair' without doing anything bizarre to my hair - God gave me tons of thick, wavy hair, which was "in" during the decade. 

I vividly remember the preppy look of the 80s. Guys came dressed for high school in polo shirts, neatly pressed Bermuda shorts, and loafers. Girls wore long strands of opera peals (fake of course) and beads over long tunics and legging. When I went on my first job interview in 1985, I wore a green Shaker knit sweater over a long denim skirt and black loafers. My sisters coached me on what to wear to a job interview.

We knew how to dress and when to dress up. An awards ceremony at school meant we put on a dress and the guys put on collared shirts and slacks. We knew, or perhaps were taught, that you dressed different for a Friday night hanging out with your friends than you did going to church on Sunday, visiting elderly relatives, attending an awards ceremony, or going to a wake or funeral. 

Sometime around 1990, there was a fashion shift. I remember looking at the images in the fashion magazines and feeling disgusted by the "heroin chic" that was being promoted in the early 1990s. Suddenly the models went from athletic, healthy-looking women like icons of the 80s Christie Brinkley and Paulina to waif-like girls who looked like anorexic vampires. Instead of hair that was fashioned into a style, hair looked unwashed - long, lanky, greasy. Eew. What was going on?

As the decade progressed, style devolved into a mishmosh of "anything goes." I stopped shopping at all but a few stores because I could never find anything I liked. Nothing fit, nothing flattered, and nothing represented who I was as a professional woman. I was too big to fit into brands like Anne Taylor (where many of my professional friends shopped) and too fashion conscious to wear polyester Lane Bryant mumus. 

We lost more than big hair and shoulder pads when the fashion world decided to embrace the waif culture and sloppy look. We lost dignity. We lost class. We lost style. We lost a sense of propriety. Adults wore pajama bottoms and flip flops to the grocery store. I remember the first time I saw a woman in town wearing a pink pajama style t-shirt, pink plaid fleece pajama bottoms, flip flops. She had uncombed hair and literally looked like she just rolled out of bed. In what universe is this remotely acceptable? Unless you're dying from the flu and have no one to run to the store for you, for goodness sake, take a shower and put on clean clothes and real grown up shoes. You're not in the privacy of your bedroom. 

I don't want to return to any decade. I know that the world turns. But what we mistake for "progress" in fashion is the same old, same old, just uglier.  Yesterday, a headline from Australia crowed about a woman wearing fashionable skinny jeans who ended up in the hospital for four days. She'd worn them while helping someone move, and all that bending and squatting in tight, restrictive jeans damaged the nerves in her legs and feet. She couldn't walk for four days.  How is that any different from our Victorian sisters who wore corsets so tight they fainted because they couldn't breathe, or they laced their stays so tightly they damaged internal organs? We're dressing sloppier than our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, but no smarter, it seems.

I'm not asking for formal wear to take out the garbage. I do think, however, that society needs a baseline standard once again. For example, grownups wear real clothes when shopping.  No pajamas in public. Flip flops can be worn at the beach or pool, but not to school or work. You get my drift.

A return to elegant begins with each of us. As individuals, we need to develop our own "elegance code" and set of etiquette rules that set personal standards for ourselves as women and our families. Your code may differ a little from mine, but I think that if we look back at a time when society was a little more formal and polite, we can learn a great deal about how to behave and dress in ways that present a pleasant appearance without feeling stuffy and formal. It can be done, but it's going to be an uphill battle and a big change.  It all starts with individuals like you and me making little changes. If everyone did that, we could return to elegance. 

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