I have a three-year-old article pinned to my bulletin board in my den where I work on the blog. It’s from a series in Harper’s Bazaar called “Women of Style.” In the article Franco-Morrocan novelist Leïla Slimani talks about what fashion means to her. Slimani is a very smart woman. An accomplished woman. Who loves clothes. And who believes that how she dresses expresses who she is. So, how do smart women who love clothes dress? Well, however they please, my friends. However they please.
I don’t claim to be smart or particularly accomplished. Not like Leïla Slimani or Linda Grant, whose book The Thoughtful Dresser I often wax lyrical about here on the blog. But I have always, always loved fashion and clothes. My clothes, clothes in magazines, in stores, on other people. Ha. I always compliment other women on what they’re wearing. A great outfit is pleasing to me. So I tell friends, and lately, fellow shoppers, other women in coffee shops, or in stores that I like what they’re wearing. And of course I talk and talk about fashion here on my blog.
And I collect articles like the one I’m writing about today. Articles and books about fashion written by women I respect. Perhaps I do this to shore up my belief that loving fashion and clothes isn’t superficial. Not entirely, anyway. When smart women talk about how they dress, I listen.
In the Harper’s Bazaar article, Leïla Slimani says that her clothes “tell the stories of the various stages of [her] life.” She says that a few weeks previously she’d been interviewed by a journalist at her home, and he examined her bookshelves, asking about her favourite authors, and books she’d loved as a child. She writes: “After he left it occurred to me that he would have been better off looking in my closet than my library.” But of course she didn’t mention that to the journalist because, as she honestly admits, she was afraid that he might find her “trivial, superficial.”
Slimani goes on to say that “female intellectuals sometimes feel obliged to be ultraserious, to think of their appearance as unworthy of consideration. As the famous expression ‘Sois belle et tais-toi‘ (Be pretty and shut up) makes clear, if a woman chooses to care about her appearance, she is in some way giving up on being heard.” Certainly Slimani, herself, has had experience of this, especially of being criticized for making her love of fashion public. Even her editor warned her that as a serious writer she should avoid “frivolous events” like a Chanel fashion show to which she’d been invited. She ignored him, she says, and went anyway.
Over the course of my career in teaching I sometimes felt that by loving clothes, and caring about my clothes, I was being put into a box, perceived as being a bit of an airhead. Sometimes I played it up. Other times it pissed me off… if you’ll excuse the profanity. Most of the time it rolled off me because I did as Hubby suggested and “looked to the source.” I knew that colleagues mostly thought I had an enormous closet, shopped all the time, and was a terrible spend-thrift. It was useless to try to counter these assumptions, so I mostly ignored them.
I hoped that those who came to know me saw me as a smart woman. And as I said above, smart women dress however they please. And it pleased me to care about my wardrobe, plan my acquisitions, make lists, and shop wisely. I spent more on individual pieces than some of my friends. But you all know how I feel about quality over quantity.
Recently when I was shopping for a few pieces for our upcoming trip to Portugal, I had some time to kill and went “off list” you might say. In Schad, a shop on Sussex Drive in downtown Ottawa, I found a lovely green silk shirt from Frame and bought it. No, it wasn’t on my shopping list for the trip. And no I won’t be packing it. I splurged on this one good and proper, and I don’t take my really good clothes when we travel.
I love this shirt. It triggered that little flutter some of us get when we try on something that feels just right. I knew right away that it would come home with me. And that I had lots of things in my fall wardrobe that I could wear with it.
I tried it first with my very old Alfred Sung houndstooth blazer, above. I bought this in the late eighties. I know, it’s ancient. But it still fits and I still love it. I buttoned the blouse to the top, pulled on my old Citizens of Humanity Rocket skinny jeans, my Vejas sneakers, the blazer, and a new green tote from Everlane that I bought in the summer sale a few weeks ago. This outfit felt like me. Kind of classic and conservative, kind of modern, definitely comfortable and casual.
For Outfit #2 I tried the shirt with my Levis 511 men’s jeans, the Vejas sneakers, and a suede moto jacket that I won on Alyson Walsh’s blog That’s Not My Age back in 2016. This outfit was not as successful. I didn’t like the green shirt and the green jacket together. I prefer the jacket with a bright white tee shirt underneath.
Outfit #3 was okay. For this one I tried my new black, straight-leg, slim jeans from Uniqlo, my old black Stuart Weitzman loafers, and tied a soft green polo-neck sweater from Everlane around my neck. I like this outfit, but it was a bit boring. So I tried it with a bright gold Michael Kors tote bag. That was better. But I think I’ll wear the sweater and shirt later in the fall with my black leather pants and my black ankle boots and feel more me.
When you know, you just know.
Outfits have to feel right. They have to make me feel like me. And when they don’t feel right, I just know.
As I’ve waffled on ad infinitum, the me I am dressing for now is not the same me that I was in the nineties when I was in my thirties and early forties, or the me that I was ten years later. Even though some of the pieces I wore then are still in my closet and still work, I don’t wear them at all the same way. Some of this can be accounted for by looking at the changing trends in fashion. But mostly the way I dress now is because of who I am. Now. And the “me” I want to project.
That’s part of what Leïla Slimani was saying in her article. That over the years her clothes tell the story of who she is, or was, at that moment. They tell the story of the woman she was, or who she wanted to be.
As a thirty-seven-year-old teacher I dressed a particular way. I loved clothes and wasn’t afraid of wearing trends, but I was always aware of my role in the classroom. As a sixty-seven-year-old retired teacher with white hair I dress in a different way. Surprisingly the older I get the less seriously I dress. And I know the way I dress now is partly because I do not want to be put into a “retired teacher box.” Whatever that might mean.
So I’m very interested in what smart women say about how they dress. And why they dress the way they do. And I love to talk about clothes and what they mean to me. As my friend Nancy might say, I love to philosophize. Except now most of my philosophizing is about clothes. Ah, the freedom of retirement, folks.
I think that it’s worth noting that the editor who counselled Slimani to not attend the Chanel fashion show, and the journalist whom she was afraid would see her as superficial were both male. As was the columnist who criticized her for taking part in a magazine photo shoot in Paris saying that “the photo shoot proved [she] was not a serious writer.”
I know things have changed a lot over the years. There are many serious women, like Leïla Slimani, who have seriously great personal style. But clearly young women like Slimani who are smart and accomplished still feel the pressure to fit into the intellectual box created by society. A woman can be shallow and love fashion or they can be serious and intellectual. Not both. As Slimani admits in the article, she played the game with the journalist who interviewed her and talked about herself only in relation to the books she loved and loves. I wonder if she wishes she could go back and, if not give him a tour of her closet exactly, at least tell him that her identity can be seen just as easily through what she wears as what she reads.
What about you, my friends? Do you know any seriously smart women who have seriously good style? I’m off to order a couple of Leïla Slimani’s books from the library. I’m ashamed to say that I have never read anything she’s written except this article.
P.S. Many, many thanks for all the coffee you have bought me since I installed that “Buy Me a Coffee” button. It is very much appreciated. Very much appreciated. xox
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