Dress to impress.

Back in college for a particularly brutal political science class, two good friends and I started the tradition of dressing up for exams. Even after pulling a 4am night together, the girls would put on a dress and heels and the guy would don a nice button down and maybe even khakis–both ensembles a far cry from the pj pants our peers showed up in. And you know what, I honestly think we sat up a little straighter while penning our essays, we turned our blue books in with our heads held a little bit higher, and I even venture to say we scored a mark or two better because we felt  like respectable human beings.

I hate to say it, but I will anyways: one of the first things we always notice when we go back to the States is how sloppy everyone looks! There are so many more mid-riffs, velour sweat outfits, and visible skin generally. And of course people are a whole lot larger. It feels like, especially in San Francisco, that Lululemon pants has replaced jeans in literally every situation. Here in Hong Kong, despite the heat, locals don’t even wear flip-flops. And I’m not going to say people are super stylish, but if you walk through Central or any grocery store, you’ll see a whole lot of black and white, but very little jeans or tank-tops. All these thoughts ran through my mind when I read Always Dress to Impress by Annette Tapert (June 15, 2012 WSJ), on my friend Darcy’s Blog.

“I CAN’T UNDERSTAND how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little, if only out of politeness. And then, you never know, maybe that’s the day she has a date with destiny and it’s best to be as pretty as possible for destiny,” said Coco Chanel.

Chanel’s words, I assume, had a romantic provenance. After all, a few of her affairs were fortuitous encounters that brought love plus fashion inspiration and career advancement. Destiny aside, I’m more interested in what she termed “politeness.” In other words, respect for others.

The first time I realized it was disrespectful to make a public appearance of any kind without looking pulled together occurred in 1988. I was at home writing in sweatpants and a baggy sweater that I’d had on since taking my daughter, then 8, to school that morning. When it was time to pick her up in the afternoon, I didn’t bother to change. I reached to take her hand as we exited the building, but she pushed it away and glared. “Why don’t you dress nicely when you pick me up?” she asked. Kids do say the darndest things. She was simply embarrassed, but, in truth, my shoddy outfit exhibited disregard for her. Ironic when you consider that I was a stickler for making sure she was well-dressed and groomed when she went anywhere with me.

“Frankly, I couldn’t go mail a letter if I didn’t feel I looked right,” the late Nan Kempner once told me. In the last two decades since that seminal moment with my daughter, I’ve often lapsed into the “Oh well, I’m just running out to do an errand” frame of mind. But recently, I’ve had Nan’s dictum on my brain. A couple of months ago I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror at the Neiman Marcus shoe department. I’d taken a quick detour on my way home from the gym. I was trying on a pair of Prada platforms in workout clothes (and not Lululemon), no makeup and a baseball cap. I grimaced at my reflection. Never again, I promised myself.

I polled a few of my stylish friends and colleagues to hear what they had to say about looking good no matter what.

Sarah Gore Reeves, stylist and fashion editor for Vogue Latin America and Mexico said: “Looking good is important to me as a woman. As a child it was something never discussed but quietly observed. My mother was always, and still is, beautiful and stylish. She’s the president of the Humane Society of New York and she looks as good going to work every day with all the dogs as she does out at night with humans.”

For writer Susan Fales-Hill, it’s a topic she’s dissected for years, and not merely because she’s a member of the International Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame. Her mother was the late Josephine Premice, a noted black actress and singer who crossed racial divides in her industry. “My mother, the chicest woman I’ve ever known, and her friends used sartorial splendor as their armor in an unjust and oppressive world,” she said. Barrier-breaking black performers couldn’t control their access to roles, but they could express artistic genius through unrelenting elegance. “Their motto could well have been ‘We shall overcome, in couture,’ ” said Ms. Fales-Hill. “Though I never knew a 16th of the hardships my mother experienced, like many black women, I was raised to use elegance as a pre-emptive strike: Do not give people the opportunity to dismiss you or mistreat you by looking less than your best. That means everywhere, even to the grocery store.”

Amy Fine Collins, fashion and style correspondent for Vanity Fair, observed: “I appear to be the only one in my Pilates studio who changes in and out of workout clothes. The other clients appear to wear theirs to and from the sessions. I just can’t do that. There’s a kind of decorum of the street I like to follow. It is, of course, a respect for other people as well as a form of self-respect. It’s just wishful thinking that you won’t run into anyone you know, or would like to know, when you’re looking your worst. Also, it’s quite amazing who you see even if you’re gliding by in a taxi. I often receive emails and calls from friends telling me I was just spotted at X corner wearing Y outfit—people observe, comment, notice. Who wouldn’t want to look good for those fishbowl moments?”

Gigi Mortimer, an accessories designer, believes “all of us wish we had the time to look our best when we leave the house. Even when there is no time I have two quick tricks: a tinted moisturizer from Laura Mercier does wonders for the face and a stylish coat can hide a multitude of sins. As a child I remember my mother throwing a fur coat over her nightie to drive me to school. Even though I’ve have been married for 23 years, I always want to look nice for a quiet dinner at home with my husband. The question is how to be comfortable and still look acceptable. In the summer, I love to wear caftans for dinner—they are a glorified nightgown, comfortable yet stylish.

And lastly, I asked Georgia Howe, an interior designer and co-founder of the furniture design and textile company Carolina George. She also happens to be the daughter who scolded me for my sloppy appearance all those years ago. She recently moved to Los Angeles, where it’s perfectly acceptable to be seen in gym attire even at chic restaurants. “I wouldn’t be caught dead on the street in workout gear,” she said. “But in an attempt to blend into L.A. life, I purchased my first workout ensemble. On several occasions I have stayed in it and met a friend for lunch, but it certainly won’t be a habit. I felt uncomfortable and even found myself apologizing to my husband for looking like a slob. To a degree I dress for my husband and make an effort to be put together, but more than anything it’s for me.”

Once again, my daughter is right. In any venue, public or private, making an effort makes you feel good. Now when I write, I dress as if I’m going to an office or a casual lunch date. Maybe it’s a placebo effect, but I think I’m more efficient, more focused, and it adds a little spice to an otherwise lonely profession.

Someone once told me that “glamour has no alarm clock.” I won’t lie, trying to be consistently pulled together takes extra time and dedication. Which reminds me of a story Oscar de la Renta once told me about Daisy Fellowes, the stylish Singer sewing machine heiress. In the 1950s, she invited fashion designer Antonio Castillo to her house in the south of France. The two traveled together from Paris on the overnight luxury train, which was scheduled to arrive at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin shortly after dawn. Long before sunrise, Mr. Castillo was awakened by a commotion coming from the next cabin, where Daisy was ensconced. When she emerged from her quarters shortly before their arrival, he thought to ask why she awakened so early. Then he realized that Daisy was perfectly dressed and in full makeup.

“Is there a gentleman waiting for you at the station, Daisy?” Mr. Castillo asked.

“Only my driver,” she replied

“Then why are you dressed up? Why not just a pair of sunglasses?”

“I did it for myself.” Daisy explained. “It’s a question of discipline, you see.”

It SO is a matter of discipline… and I couldn’t agree more with the author that it’s especially important when you work from home as I do. This article has given me an extra little push to get properly dressed in the morning and to do my best to fully pull myself together, which is easier said than done when you’re 8+ months preggers and it’s ridiculously hot and humid out there!

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12 responses to “Dress to impress.

  1. Natasha, I thought you’d relate to this! We landed at the airport at 1 AM last night and I had an early morning of work… but I thought of this and still managed to put on heels and blow dry my hair! It won’t happen every day, but hopefully it will motivate me to do a little something more than I otherwise might.

    And 8+ months pregnant – time flies! Thinking of you!

  2. I agree; it always makes one feel better to be appropriately dressed — I would not feel right in heels at the gym any more than in sweats at the office!

    But at the same time, I think it’s important to remember the “do what you can” rule (which I’m sure you would agree with! I certainly don’t mean to imply anything to the contrary) when holding yourself to this kind of standard. I just can’t find certain clothes within my budget that properly cover my nursing mama chest, whether at thrift stores or at regular stores, and that’s the reality, excepting one particular t-style shirt from one particular store. I don’t like the shirt very much, but I have 5 copies of it in different colors, and they are what I wear. I get down on myself a lot because I don’t like how I am dressed, but I try to be satisfied with saying to myself that I am doing what I can to look tidy and cheerful. I had to wear one of these shirts to a wedding the other day, and so I just put on a nice skirt and heels and accessorized with my baby and went with it.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that maybe there are particular values that each woman might want to hold herself to in dressing well, rather than trying to always look as put-together as she would like. Tidy, cheerful, practical, and maybe also always some little beautiful thing — scarf, hairpin, slip 😉 — on those days when our options are limited. Maybe she can be glad of the pretty pattern on her shirt even if it the she is having to just make do with the cut. Even having a pretty burp cloth (rather than just an old prefold diaper!) sticking out of your jeans pocket can cheer you up. Some days the jeans just have to be jeans, and the pretty burp cloth must be enough.

  3. Meh, sometimes I think life’s too short to worry about this stuff. My amazing college friends are proof that you can wear sweatpants or even Crocs to almost any occasion and still be an incredible, accomplished person beloved by everyone around them. 🙂 I dress up when appropriate because I enjoy it, but being back in grad school, I’m having fun lounging around in my jeans and sweatshirts and focusing on my brain rather than my wardrobe! Luckily, I’m entering into a profession with an unusual amount of freedom when it comes to attire.

  4. I agree completely Natasha! How I dress makes a big difference in how I feel, and I am a stay-at-home mom who homeschools. If I am to do a professional job (as a teacher and homemaker), I need to show my respect for my work, my family and myself by how I conduct myself, including how I dress.
    Remember this when the baby comes . . . the most important thing for me to do each day when I had little ones was to shower (my little one would be in the bouncy chair/playpen/car seat on the bathroom floor if necessary) and dress. On a really bad day, washing my face, brushing my teeth (don’t laugh, some days were tough), and tidying my hair was critical to being able to do anything else. Once I had accomplished this, with some clean clothes, I was mentally ready to tackle the rest of my day.
    I understand where Gina is coming from, however, like it or not, people meeting a person for the first time will judge their skills and abilities by their appearance. It either sets one up or gives one obstacles to overcome, even in creative fields. I have had several occasions when a friend has referred me to someone (interior designer, art teacher) and said, “She is really fantastic! Don’t let your first impressions throw you. She is actually very good at what she does.” Do you want to be known for your work or your appearance? I’m not saying Gina is wrong, I’m just saying here is another perspective to consider.
    Also, this applies to men! I can’t count the number of times my husband has come home from work (professional work environment) and commented on the number of men who didn’t bother to shave that day. Not that they are consistently sporting a stylish (?) scruff or growing a beard, but just didn’t bother that day. In his words, “I don’t know how someone can show up to work without bothering to shave! It is so disrespectful to the people he is working with.”
    Thanks for voicing a pet peeve of mine! :>

  5. Thanks for the inspiration. I love to look good – makes me feel good even when circumstances are not so good. I succumb to yoga pants only at home, and then, when I’m sprawled on the sofa.

  6. oh, I wanted to say: my husband always makes sure he looks sharp when he goes to get a haircut. He gets a better haircut every time.

  7. natashamlawler

    Thanks for all the great comments! I think the main point I was trying to make is that you dress up for *you* and not for anyone else. I think this is especially true for anyone (moms or otherwise) who work at home. And I definitely don’t think you have to be dressed up to be put together. The best dressed person in a room can be wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but they’re doing it in a thoughtful way and maybe they’ve taken the time to brush their hair. All of this is definitely being said within the ‘due what you can’ context for sure. I can definitely relate to Dixie and having limited options when you’re expecting or a new mom… I often find myself wearing the same thing over and over during this pregnancy! Lastly, of course, you can’t always be pulled together–I love my ugly, old pjs as much as the next gal–but I did appreciate a little reminder that a few minutes of care for yourself can really make you feel a whole lot brighter!

  8. natashamlawler

    Oh and also — Margo! I totally agree with your husband. Dressing well can often result in better service.

  9. I also notice all the overweight and sloppy dress Americans in airports when returning from trips overseas. Great post. All we can do is lead by example.

    Enjoy reading your traveling posts, as we are planning a trip to Asia next year.

  10. RubberChickenGirl

    All I can think of is three words “First World Problems.”

    I get the point of self-respect…. but it sure feels like “I wasn’t haut couture when I left the gym …..”(fill in the blank with how hopeless and dim the future is as a result of such laziness and disrespect for the human race). In the 70’s, all the average church Moms I knew used to look absolutely frumpy–baggy jeans, puffy down coats, etc But now, if a Mom wears a cute Nike sweatsuit and athletic shoes and they have a cute hair cut and lip gloss, I am not gonna judge them/begrudge them they’re not wearing $200 Diesel or True Religion or whatever designer jeans and Ray Bans (or whatever high fashion people feel is acceptable this week–I had to look up the names of those jeans as I cannot afford anything higher than $30 at TJ Maxx). High fashion is a brutal mistress.

  11. I just got an email from Gap with a new item that made me think of this post: Slim fleece sweatpants (“skinny” but “slouchy”) that are meant to be worn with a blazer and heels. Really? So now business casual includes PJ bottoms? Come on people, leave your weekend-wear at home!

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