The horsewomen of the apolocalypse wear low-rise jeans.

Commentary on clothing, women's body types. Plus: "fashion tips."

Steven has made a special note of a very rare event on his calendar: I went out and bought clothes.

Every few years, at about the time when my clothing begins to fall apart, I bite the bullet and go out into the hell that is the women's clothing world, and attempt to purchase sewn pieces of fabric that will cover my body somewhat modestly and protect me from the elements. I do this reluctantly, because this activity gives me no pleasure, and is frequently an experience that makes me doubt the future of humanity. I will hold up something from a rack, look it over once, and wonder what kind of idiocy is rampant on this planet that would encourage anyone to go out in public dressed like such a fool. (When I am lucky, I then replace that item on its home rack, flee the store, and return home to try to sew together the fraying remains of the previous year's outing, to gain just a bit more use from it... When I am unlucky, I go on a fruitless quest for a less foolish version of the same item of clothing, and become very, very frustrated.) This is different from my experience of attempting to buy women's dress shoes, which effort makes me wonder why they permit sadists and women-haters to design goods for mainstream public consumption. But these experience are not sufficiently unlike for my tastes.

The ideal women of the advertising age are supposed to take pleasure in the many inanities of shopping for clothing. Advertisers court this person, who can be flattered into wearing nearly anything through pervasive marketing in countless "women's" magazines, magazines which say nothing to me about my life (or my definition of womanhood, for that matter). I am not that particular, commercial ideal of womanhood. I know many people who are, and I'm sure it's nice to find satisfaction in something as basic as a sewn piece of cloth which complies with the fashion directive of the moment, but I can't really relate to that.

There are many causes to my displeasure with the clothing and fashion industries. Some of them are likely incurable: for example,

I do not like being told what to wear.

I will automatically rebel, to the extent possible, if I am not being paid to wear a particular costume. (The law firm world paid me to wear a costume, which I found to be worthwhile financially, and so I complied. That was a sensible, consensual business relationship. I referred to my office clothes as a costume throughout my career.)

But there are other reasons.

I am not easily excited by novelty.

The evolution of clothing has been endless, and quite fascinating, but it's damned difficult to inspire me to get excited about the frivolous, non-functional revision to a collar detail, or the way a pocket is riveted on, or the way a pant leg is flaired - revisions which are unlikely to be perpetuated beyond the current seasonal fashion cycle. The changes often aren't flattering to most people I know, and aren't especially useful. Worse, once a trend catches on, that's all store buyers will purchase, and so you'll want to go in for something that looked good on you a year ago, but only have slight variations on the new novelty to purchase. Seriously, if I had my druthers and any substantive sewing skill, I'd just make my own damned clothes, instead of choosing between going pantsless and wearing bell bottoms because that's what's 'in' this week.

I have difficulty finding clothing suitable for my proportions.

Here is something that has been true for me since about fifth grade: the mannequins and body forms used to design and cut clothes do not look like me. In an age of mass production, where economics dictates that clothing is not custom made, my options are limited.

I've often read that the average American woman is five foot four inches tall and is a size 14. This means I was taller than the American woman by the time I finished fifth grade. I am currently five nine and a size 12, which makes me "lucky," but doesn't mean that most clothes fit me in a flattering way. I have the arm span of a six foot woman, and have a helluva time finding sleeves that reach my wrists. I have a thirty two inch leg inseam, and live in a city with more than its share of petite (or just plain short) women. I have often been told by saleswomen that a cut of pants that I'm interested in is available in petite, short cut, or medium cut, but that there is no point in stocking "talls," because there aren't enough "talls" around to make it worthwhile.

Do you remember when it became fashionable for kids to wear pants that covered their feet and frayed along the bottom edge from being dragged along under their shoes when they walked? That was a great time for me, because it meant I could find pants long enough to reach my ankles.

I'm not saying that shorter women necessarily have it better. A colleague of mine who was about five foot three was once in the bathroom with me, and we realized that we were wearing the same skirt in the same size. The skirt was a "medium," and we both had medium waists. However, on me the skirt was mid-calf length with a slit that came to just above my knee. On her it was ankle length, with a slit that came up nearly to her underwear line. I think it was pretty clear they hadn't had her in mind when they sized the skirt. (But, then again, she bought it.)

Many current cuts of clothing do not favor grown-up women, or young women of average proportions.

During this recent clothes-purchasing outing, which lasted for several hours one evening, I was at a shop where I had purchased one of my favorite sweaters years ago. I was one of the tallest people in the shop, and perhaps the broadest shouldered, though there were other grown women present. I tried on several shirts before finding one that was cut adequately across the chest and shoulders to accommodate me, and I am not buxom. Also, the largest size of anything I could find on any rack was a 12. Keeping in mind that the average woman is a 14, and that the 12s had an especially revealing cut in both pants and tops, I began to understand why so many women I see are bulging out of their clothing in unflattering ways and multiple directions. (Have I ever quoted my favorite article from Mirabella about a buyer at a fashion show? I have the precise quote written down somewhere, but to paraphrase, the quote was: 'these clothes are cut for elves. My customers are not elves.')

How many people have you seen who have been flattered by those tight, low-rise jeans? Especially in comparison to all the people you've seen who are NOT flattered?

I know our culture has a youth fetish, and wants us to try (in vain) to look like skinny teenagers most of our lives, since that provides more opportunities to try to sell us products to help us look unnatural. I had the odd luck of BEING a skinny teenager, and it lacked the glamour it has in ads: I had no hips to hold my pants up, I couldn't fill a bra, clothes hung on me like I was a block of wood with bones protruding here and there, I was periodically accused of having an eating disorder... One summer I received an award from some other swimming teachers for the remarkable feat of 'having two backs' (being flat chested). (Yes, I'm sure they've all received fates they deserved by now for being so obnoxious, and this is the only public mention of them that will occur until they are paroled or turn up as the losers on some talk show. But still.) I'm never going back to that. Even if I could, I wouldn't.

In fact, last year's bout of fatness, brought on by a few months of anti-ulcer antacid-type treatments, was actually... how can I put this... a chance to really experience being a fleshy woman. Every possible curve a woman could have, I suddenly had plenty of. I had to purchase bras that involved some amount of engineering. Pants stayed up without requiring a belt. My boniest parts suddenly were all... cushiony. It was an educational experience to see how padded I could become under a certain combination of circumstances. There were a variety of disadvantages to being so heavy: one of them was that I needed to buy a pair of pants at one point, and had great difficulty finding anything flattering. I am thrilled that I took that weight off, and that my body feels more like 'my old self' now that I'm back to the size I've spent so many years at. But it was interesting to have more than the usual reasons to be amazed at how many items of clothing are unavailable to a heavier woman, and realize that, if you cared enough to REALLY want to wear certain things, you'd wind up doing what so many women I see on the street do, and wear the wrong size. And wind up showing your back fat to all passersby.

Clothing is manufactured in a wide range of dubious conditions, and it's very difficult to find out where and how a particular item of clothing was made.

I would love to be able to go to a place that sells the simple sort of clothing I wear, and see true statements in which the manufacturers can gloat about how respectable their manufacturing plants are, and how good their employment practices are. I've gone out of my way to order clothes from companies that can do this, but they tend not to have their own stores (on-line ordering is great, but trying on clothes is useful) or do have their own stores, but only carry a limited range of items (t-shirts, sweats, etc.).

Price is no indicator of quality.

I'm sure you've seen a presentation by a labor group, in which they hold up a pair of pants, and say that the same pants were being made at one particular plant in a foreign country for six different brands: the only difference between pairs when sold at retail stores would be the label sewn inside, and the price. In that particular example, the retail price ranged from about $30 to over $200 based on label value. There was no qualitative difference.

There are surely clothes that are made that really do represent higher quality that is proportionate to price. I've purchased some locally made special occasion (dress-up) clothes which are lovely and worthwhile. But the folks who make those aren't also necessarily making clothes that I would wear on an ordinary day.

So, all I want is (1) sensibly styled clothes that (2) are suitable for my body type and generally (3) suitable for grown-ups and the full range of "normal" people, which (4) are manufactured humanely and (5) are priced what they are worth. Which makes me some kind of 'hater.'

Bonus Material: "Fashion Tips!"

I am a fashion criminal. I am not stylish (in the bland, conventional meaning of the word). I am not coherently anti-stylish or part of an anti-aesthetic movement, such as Grunge or Punk. I just wear a range of clothes that I feel comfortable in, many of which are not especially flattering, nearly all of which would turn up in some fashionista's nightmare version of hell.

If I had to describe my clothing choices in a few words, I would fail to capture the complete range of my non-look. It varies between 'suitable for cleaning out a barn' to 'late era reform school girl' to 'office drone' to 'capable of biking medium distances.'

There are very few rules with regard to the wearing of clothing that I follow. They are summarized in vague language below, because they are not REAL rules, and I certainly don't expect anyone else to obey them. These are provided only for entertainment and novelty purposes. Use them seriously at your own risk.

  1. Black Chuck Taylor high tops with white shoe laces are suitable for most casual occasions.
  2. For those occasions when high tops are not suitable (funerals, job interviews), consider black Doc Martins.
  3. For those occasions when Doc Martins feel too formal, consider cowboy boots. (Note that it is more difficult than it should be to find vegetarian cowboy boots. Note also that cowboy boots are rarely made out of actual cowboys.)
  4. All of the aforementioned footwear goes well with skirts of any length.
  5. Opaque black tights go with everything, and are appropriate for all seasons.
  6. If you cannot sit down comfortably in a pair of jeans, they are not your size, and you should not buy them. Your plans to change your shape, weight, size, or proportion to make them fit is a very bad plan. Drop it.
  7. If shoes are not comfortable when you try them on in the store, they will not become comfortable later. Do not buy them.
  8. Black is the new black. It is also the old black.
  9. When working in an environment where everyone else is already wearing black, it is acceptable to begin wearing garish colors such as navy blue, forest green, burgundy, or plum so as to avoid blending in.
  10. Taupe is the new taupe.
  11. Do not wear tube tops. Ever.
  12. Jewelry will only cause you trouble when the martian turns on that giant cartoon magnet in order to capture you, pulling you (and dozens of inanimate metal objects around you) toward it. Save yourself the trouble. Except silver earrings, including silver with any kind of beads. Those are fine.
  13. If you elect to wear a fashionable watch, wear one that is also capable of providing a time that you are reasonably certain you can read. Unlike the lovely watch I am wearing now. Which I received as a gift. Which makes it okay. Sort of. Unless you really need to be certain about the time, more certain than plus or minus one hour.

You get the idea.

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last updated december 10, 2007

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