Posts Tagged ‘The Style Series’

#20 of Blogging with Friends

When I moved to Thailand to work in the NZ Embassy for three years, I discovered a nation where the women were impeccably dressed. When I’d been there as a student, I’d lived in my school uniform (it helped to identify me as “local,” someone who was not a rich tourist, someone who could not be ripped off when bargaining for goods!) or jeans and t-shirts. So when I returned as an adult, it was a little shock to the system to see the high standards the Thai women kept. They’d even dress up going out on the weekends, whether meeting for lunch, shopping in a nice mall, having afternoon tea in a 5-star hotel, or going to the beauty salon for a massage. So I felt I needed to maintain similar standards, to represent the Embassy and my country well.

Despite the fact that, ten years on from my student exchange, Bangkok had become quite cosmopolitan, it still catered to the tiny (compared to me) Thai women. So I couldn’t go to stores and buy clothes, and there was zero chance I could buy shoes. I found a tailor, and a shoe-maker. Oh, happy day! For the first time in my life, I had shoes that fit and were comfortable. It was bliss! (I actually got my sister’s wedding shoes made there – she sent an outline of her longer-and-narrower-than-mine foot, and we agreed on the design, et voila!) And I went to the tailor (which the Thai women did quite often too) to get blouses, suits, etc all made to order in my three year term. They were all simple, elegant, but practical, using good quality fabrics. I stayed away from a lot of the synthetics the Thai women wore (contrary to the common fallacy that people in hot countries live in cotton and linen), but took advantage of some of the lovely silks. A purple Thai silk suit was a favourite.

Coming home after three years, I found a different, more interesting, clothing market in New Zealand. My style hadn’t really changed – I still didn’t like fussy clothes, clean lines flattered my body, and with my height, I could carry off length. My return home to NZ saw me gradually put on weight, but my style stayed much the same. Then in the mid-90s, I started working at a new company, and met sometime-commenter Peony. And she introduced me to Penny. Danger, danger, Will Robinson! Let me explain.

Penny was a business woman who had run clothing stores in the past. She brought in clothes from selected NZ and Australian designers (and I remember a French brand too), and helped her clients put together a seasonal wardrobe. Appointments were free – she got a commission from the clothes we bought. So they were more expensive than I would usually buy. I thought I knew how to mix and match – frugality teaches you that – but Penny took it to another level. She didn’t have any boring clothes, and she didn’t mix and match them in boring ways. If I cringed at the price, she’d help me put together a group of clothes that could work together in multiple ways. “Throw on a cheap white t-shirt from a chain store,” she would suggest to complement a fabulous jacket, or outrageous skirt. She’d throw my favourite item on the floor, and then show how others would work together with it or with each other. Anything that was insufficiently versatile would be discarded. Unless I adored it. Penny taught me to have fun with clothes.

It helped that business attire at the time was just starting to change. And perhaps more that all my clients lived and worked overseas. So I had a couple of more boring suits that were great for travel and business; they were my “meeting clients” clothes. Most of my fun clothes were kept for NZ. I loved the surprise of asymmetric clothes. (I remember my father looking at an otherwise very simple, asymmetric black coat, saying, “but why?”) I discovered that I loved clothes with a bit of embellishment, a sense of fun or daring, but that weren’t too fussy.

I had a favourite beige cotton jacket that I would wear with black pants or jeans – it had very simple lines, but had pirate (it’s the only way I can describe it) white lace frills at one cuff and under the front panel of one side, and the other side was just plain. My girlfriends loved it. I loved it. My husband and male colleagues all shook their heads in puzzlement. I remember going to the supermarket once after work with my husband. He saw someone he knew, then looked at me, and moaned, “oh no, you’re wearing that jacket!” I could only laugh! That jacket pretty much represented my style in those years. Clean, elegant, but with a fun surprise. I had some great, fun, skirts and shirts, and over the years bought two winter coats that were just not available in most of the shops. Oh, I felt so good in those luscious coats! For about six years, I had fabulous fun with clothes, albeit tinged with guilt at the amount I spent at a single visit. But then I didn’t shop much elsewhere, so it probably all evened out. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! I had never before enjoyed clothes so much. Never before felt that I had clothes for every occasion. Never before felt that my clothes presented how I wanted to be in the world. Calm. Sophisticated. Professional. And a little bit daring and fun.

Read Full Post »

#1of Blogging with Friends

When I was growing up, style was a thing that other people had. It was a thing that adult women living in the city possessed, not schoolkids (or even their families) in a farming community/small town. School and sports was our social life – so many of us travelled to and from school on a bus that we just didn’t meet up outside of school or special events. There was nothing much to do in our town anyway. So we wore school uniforms during the day (or sports uniforms on the weekends when we playing sports). There was no competition amongst my schoolmates – we all looked and dressed the same. There was a freedom in that.

When we were at home we had hand-me-down or basic homemade clothes that were made for warmth and endurance in our lives on the farm. Functionality was key. Style was irrelevant. My sisters and I would get one or at most two outfits for “good” – for going out or special events. And seasonal casual outfits for going to town on the weekends to visit my grandmother, or as we got older, to meet up with friends on a rare, non-sport or non-school related event. Because of the sheer scarcity of my clothes, I can remember many of them as a result.

My mother was a sewer. In New Zealand in the 70s, pretty much all mothers were! She had to be, as in those days, locally produced clothes were expensive, protected by the high tariffs and import restrictions that I would learn all about on my first job, and that were dismantled in the mid-late 1980s. In the 1970s/early 80s, it was cheaper to make our own clothes – sewing AND knitting.

My first purchase from my work as a university tutor was a sewing machine. I still have it. I made my own clothes, I remember making Christmas presents, and even as I began work, many of my clothes were personally made. Poring over Butterick, Style, Simplicity and Vogue pattern books were my version of going clothes shopping. (Even for my wedding dress.) Gradually though, as imports were opened up in the 1980s, clothes became cheaper (which was necessary for those struggling) and more varied, and sadly but inevitably, many NZ manufacturers went out of business.

So as a teenager, I didn’t have much practice in developing a “style” at all. 95% of the time, I wore clothes that fitted, were cheap or quick and easy to make. I was aware of some fashions, and had my likes and dislikes. But oh, I dreamed of beautiful clothes and shoes. I dreamed of looking good, of a bit of glamour. Very occasionally, I got to make something special, but there was huge pressure in that one garment. I remember one or two skirts when I was 16, that I was particularly pleased with. And my mother made the dress I wore to my School Ball at 17. I chose the pattern and fabric. When I think about it, it reflects the style I maintain to this day. It was a simple but elegant design – a little different, but not boring. The colour scheme was dark, jewel colours.

I remember making one significant clothes purchase with some money I had saved from a holiday job. I went to the one “modern” shop in our small town (other than a very boring department store), and sifted through all the tops and jerseys, hoping to find the right combination of price, style, and colour. Of course, I found and fell in love with what turned out to be one of the most expensive tops there. Sadly, this trend of expensive taste has continued, but these days it is rarely satisfied! It was a beautifully soft pale brown (mohair?) knitted cowl neck top. It was the 70s, people! It suited my green eyes, and was the right shade for my skin. I loved it. It was my “date” top. Not that I had too many of those!

Between school and university I spent a year in Thailand. Again, school uniforms dominated. I was tall, and buying clothes there – even if I had had the money – just wasn’t an option! Nothing new for me.

University years were filled with jeans and T-shirt variations, and I remember only a couple of basic outfits from those days. A boat-necked jersey I had knitted when boat-necks were all the rage, and jeans tucked into ankle boots when I was a graduate student. I felt so cool in that! I also remember a strappy yellow print date dress. I don’t think I’d wear that colour now, but I also made a buttercup yellow dress I wore for an interview. At the group interview in Wellington, we were shown around the organisation, and C gave a brief presentation to my group. Four months later, I started working there and one day wore the same dress. She saw me, and exclaimed, “congratulations, you made it!” That was in 1986, and we had dinner out together about ten days ago. Thanks, yellow dress, for getting me a friend for life.

Finally, living and working in the big city, my style began to develop. My first purchase with my first full-time pay packet was a delicious emerald green woollen dress. I loved that dress – the colour looked great on me, despite having avoided anything green previously (perhaps because our school uniform was a deep forest green – though looking back, that colour suited me too – and my mother also hated green, though I’m not sure why). It was so soft, but elegant too – long lined, which I could get away with because I was both tall, and slim. (Those were the days!) In that dress, (I think) I looked like I wanted to look. It was a rare feeling.

And as I began figuring out what to wear at work, I started developing my style. I knew what colours suited me. I can’t remember if “having your colours done” was a 1980s or 1990s fad, but when I learnt about it, the basic ideas about it seemed natural to me, and I used the principles to check whether a colour was right for me or not. (So I never felt the need to “get them done.”) I always gravitated to those jewel colours, colours with a blue base. I knew that orangey-reds looked bad on me, but blue-based reds looked much better. I knew which rich browns would bring out my green eyes, and which would make me look washed out. In fact, other browns, yellowy-greens, olives, or mustardy colours generally aged me by 30 years. I would take a colour, drape it in front of me, and could tell if it suited. So colour has never been too much of an issue for me.

I liked tailored clothes too, and the 1980s was the era of the power suit, complete with shoulder pads. I had my fair share, even though I have broad shoulders as it is! I sewed my first suit for work, and deliberately chose a pattern that was a little different, with extended front panels of the suite jacket, down into a sharp point. I don’t think I have a photo, and the suit itself is long gone. I never liked boring clothes – I wanted clothes that would be just a little different, whilst still being appropriate. But I was never brave enough to wear something truly wacky. I never coloured my hair pink, or wore grunge (too much of a throw-back to my farm clothes perhaps). I blended in, but not completely. I remember a colleague calling me a fashion-plate when I was wearing a simply outfit of pants, a soft t-shirt type top with a high neck, and an unstructured knit jacket I’d managed to pick up in Sydney on a business trip. It was not a particularly fashionable or outstanding outfit. It was just a little different. But it was one of the first compliments I ever got on clothes, and made me feel so good.

In many ways, that reflected how I wanted to be seen in life too. I wanted to be just a tiny bit different, whilst still fitting in. I wanted to be a little bit sophisticated or interesting – perhaps fighting back the farming background – but never fussy or too ornate. I wanted to remain grounded, down-to-earth. I wanted to be approachable. And I wanted to look good. None of that has changed.

Read Full Post »