exceptions are the rule: my top 10 list on how NOT to look like hell

We’ve all seen the ubiquitous rules on style that just about every fashion magazine publishes at least once a year – “Every girl should have a LBD (little black dress), LBJ (little black jacket), a fabulous collection of shoes and a titillating set of lingerie, etc.”

When I first published this blog, I started getting messages from friends saying they would love to see my recommendations for fashion websites (I don’t follow any) or “Catherine’s Take” on the latest trends. Sheesh! I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a fashion guru but I do have my own set of standards that I, albeit unconsciously, apply to how I dress or  what I will or will not put on my person.

I decided to pen them– if only as a reminder to myself and for the benefit of those who are interested. Obviously, obviously this is a very personal list that adheres to MY belief system and of course, there are exceptions. Super models, for example, CAN and WILL and SHOULD do whatever they damned well please. They are of a different breed altogether.

The rest of us Mere Mortals have to work at it. The net/net is, and to coin a very tired cliché — “if you look good, you feel good.” If you absolutely must leave the house if you’re not feeing good about yourself then for heaven’s sake, wear huge sunglasses, pull your hair back into a sleek ponytail and throw on a beautiful coat or at the very least, a scarf that hides your attitude.

I more often than not, don’t feel at all fabulous so I have to make a DAILY effort (even more-so on the weekends) simply not to look like hell. On that note, here goes My Top 10 Rules on Style:

1.     Dress age appropriately: Bet you think I’m going to say that if you’re a “mature woman”, don’t wear clothing targeted to tweens. That’s a given. It looks ridiculous. By the same token — if you’re 30,35,40, why the hell are you dressing like an 80 year-old? This is hands down, the biggest mistake I see women my age make every day. Dressing “up” in age actually ages you. I am sometimes shocked to find out a women’s true age because I’ve given her an extra ten years for her “sensible slacks”.  I speak from experience. I did this when I lived in the world’s fashion capital, Paris. In my thirties I wore clothes far better suited to an older woman (I thought it looked “sophisticated” at the time) but now when I see old photos of myself, I can’t help feeling like I’m staring at an escapee from a retirement home.

2.     Don’t be a fashion victim: I don’t care who the designer is or for that matter, that everyone out there is wearing it. If they are, I don’t want it. I find the expression “Prêt-à-Porter: Ready to Wear” ironic. To me, this implies that half the stuff from the runways is silly or not wearable. (Btw- I am aware that it really means that these are clothes that can be sold off-the-rack and don’t have to be specially ordered). When it comes to trends, if it isn’t you, then don’t bother. You yourself know what looks good on you or rather, what clothes make you feel good about yourself. Definitely take chances but things like this season’s Burberry aluminum foil-looking trench coat? Pass…

3.     It’s NEVER about the money, the day of the week or being knocked up: My girlfriend Tracey once described a friend of hers back in the States who only wears designers—because she can. How nice for her. And know what? She’s always “off the mark.” Tracey has another friend here in London, Susanne, who always looks like a million bucks dressed up or dressed down. Last time I saw her, she had on mismatched earrings (a tiny stud and a large dangly cross), baggy boyfriend jeans and a TopShop t-shirt rolled at the sleeves. Stilettos of course.  FABulous. She has a style all her own that has nothing to do with how much she’s spent. I should note that Susanne has a bigger clothing budget than Miss “Off-the-Mark”. My girlfriend, Maile, also has killer style. Once before a girls trip to Mallorca, she made a midnight run to our local grocery store (they sell clothing too). She bought a tangerine blouse that my girlfriends and I still talk about today.

Maile and my youngest sister, Myra, are probably the two most stylish women I know–everyday of the week. Their look is their own; it’s eclectic without being the dreaded “artsy-fartsy” and always head-turning while shunning the expected. Myra, my stylist, has nicknamed anything that’s typical “sleepwear.” Whenever I go back to NY, my sisters do a once-over on the contents of my suitcase. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown something on thinking they’ll approve but Myra will feign a great big yawn. She doesn’t think I’m edgy enough. Ultimately with style — either you have it or you don’t. She gets just as many compliments on her weekend wear as she does when she’s dressed for the office. Even more, actually. We all have to make an effort to get dressed up. I think the true indicator of a woman’s style is how great she looks – with no effort—when she’s dressed down.

Lastly, being pregnant is no excuse for letting yourself go. I should also mention that Myra is about 3 weeks away from giving birth to her third child. And yet, people notice her style first and are then shocked to discover her protruding belly when she turns around or steps away from a high counter at a coffee shop. She wears non-maternity rocker t-shirts under a blazer. She throws on very conspicuous necklaces over a plain black shift. One of my most memorable visuals of Maile pregnant with her fourth child is of her in overalls over a white tank top and flat French Mary Jane type sneakers. Her black hair was cropped short and chic. In both cases, you notice the women first–their pregnancies second — never the other way around. When I was pregnant with my first child, I wore my husband’s clothes. NOT a good look. Enough said.

4.     Seek inspiration from women whose style you admire: I love the way some of my (Montreal, NY, London, Paris) girlfriends dress. They push the ticket on style and look effortlessly amazing. And since there is no greater form of flattery than imitation, flatter away! Emulate their look by hopefully shopping in your own closet first. Moreover, if I see something in a magazine I love, I will sit there and ponder what I have that is similar to the look on that page.

5.     Nix the men’s t-shirts: I can’t think of one woman who looks good in a man’s t-shirt. Not one. The ONLY reason a girl should wear a man’s t-shirt is if she’s spent the night at her lover’s apartment and needs something to wear the-morning-after that isn’t her cocktail dress from the-night-before. Men’s t-shirts can also be used as a dress under a blazer to do the walk of shame. Otherwise any clothing that is not your size or too or ill-fitting is really truly unattractive. This is actually Myra’s touchstone. If you wear clothing that is too big, you look bigger. If you’re going to spend a lot of money on any one item of clothing, make sure, above all, it fits well. I’ve told girlfriends “Nevuh evuh wear that in public again!!”

6.     No jogging pants in public: (not to be mistaken with yoga pants—a uniform on the west coast). To clarify, jogging pants are made from a thicker material than jersey yoga pants and have elasticated ankles. When I see a girl/woman in jogging pants I think that she’s currently experiencing some sort of major stressful event or life crisis e.g. final exams, week eleven of a colicky baby, the break-up of a marriage, the abyss of depression —all excellent excuses and the obvious exceptions to the rule. If she goes out in public wearing them, I take it to mean that her life is at its pinnacle of “unbearably dire”. Jogging pants usually go hand-in-hand with hair that hasn’t been washed in over 3 days. Nobody likes to be pitied. This is a pitiable state.

7.     Be smart about showing skin: if a girl wants to be sexy — then the “less is always more” rule applies and only one “area of focus” should be on display at any given time. It’s all about balance. Want to show cleavage? Great. Make sure that your skirt isn’t too short or your jeans aren’t too tight otherwise it’s look cheap and tarty. Super skinny jeans with heels? Very cool—especially paired with the right jacket and jewelry. Make sure your top isn’t too tight though. One exception — the only tight-fitting top that I think works well with skinny trousers is a turtleneck (called polo-neck in England).

8.     Tennis shoes are for tennis: This is from my Texan girlfriend, Tara: “If you catch me wearing tennis shoes, it’s because I’m playing tennis.” Tennis shoes* with jeans are just NOT okay. Traveling on long-haul flights is where I’ll make an exception to wearing tennis shoes/trainers (but only with yoga pants!) without playing the actual sport. I personally never wear trainers on flights but for long-distance travel I do understand that function trumps form. That said — flats were designed for a reason (*to clarify — sneakers are not tennis shoes. Converse, adidas/Puma weekend flats, Superga or any French baskets– are all hot). This rule recalls something I saw from my home state. “New Yorkers – tolerant of your political beliefs. Judgmental of your shoes.”

9.     Crocs are a No-No: Are you younger than 8 years old? While you can get away with wearing these plastic rubbery excuses for footwear, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog. Miss Catherine uses bad words sometimes. Do you garden? That is the only place Crocs should be worn. (Tara has reminded me that surgeons also wear Crocs. Doctors are exempt from my rule. Nurses too. My girlfriend, Kristy, who used to be a graphic arts director for an architectural firm, switched careers and will soon graduate from nursing school. She posted on FB that she’s gone from stilettos to spongy clogs. I’m still not over it. Ugly footwear in medicine is an occupational hazard).  I personally would rather trample barefoot through the snow then put those things on my feet but that’s just me.

10.  Impressions are based on your “whole look”:  I remember going to the theatre back in San Francisco in my early twenties. There was a girl sitting near me in a non-descript, non-offensive black dress – perfectly appropriate for a night at the symphony. The hall must have become chilly for her because she draped a powder-blue ski jacket over her shoulders halfway through the performance. This was May. I don’t care if it was December! Ski jackets are best left for the slopes and never to be paired with a cocktail dress. She moved from “non-descript” in my book (I hadn’t noticed her until the ski-jacket) to “downright unforgettable.”  When you’re putting together your look, take absolutely everything outside of your outfit into consideration—hair, make-up, shoes and outerwear. That girl made an indelible impression on me never to mess this rule up. No exceptions.

6 responses to “exceptions are the rule: my top 10 list on how NOT to look like hell”

  1. Tessa seems to break quite a few of theses rules. Oh my! I must mend my frumpy ways! So glad you are my funny, opinionated friend!

  2. Ah, Cath, I miss you (and your fabulous wardrobe!). Love from your “have never been in your fashion league but I do admire it” westcoast girlfriend (who does own crocs, but only to garden and take out the trash!)

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