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Elements of Style #2 | Manolo for the Big Girl

Elements of Style #2

Yesterday we talked a bit about how developing or expanding your personal style can be daunting, and today we’re going to talk about developing a vocabulary.

When I say “developing a vocabulary” I mean two things: having some understanding of the fashion lexicon and being informed in at least the broad strokes of what’s coming down the catwalks.

Before you get on your huffy bikes about having to do homework for something as simple as getting dressed in the morning, think about this: knowledge is power, and the more knowledgeably you can speak about something, the more control you have over what you do and do not want.

I call this the Cerulean Sweater Principle:

The most time-efficient way to get yourself a working knowledge of fashion terms is to spend an afternoon or two immersing yourself in a glossary, the absolute best of which comes courtesy of apparelsearch.com. It’s the best on the web and  a great combination of useful fashion stuff and arcane terminology.  Click on a letter and skim skim skim.   Also useful is Stylopedia, a brief illustrated glossary you could skim through in 30 minutes.  I can’t over-emphasize how important this is since it will give you both practical knowledge AND the confidence to hold your own in the face of opinionated sales assistants, well-meaning but crazy-making mothers and that frenemy from college who wore white to your wedding.

The second element to developing a vocabulary is a bit slower going, and that involves knowing what’s  happening on the runways.  Are you ready for some heresy? Burn your fashion mags. Unless you get British, Paris or Italian Vogue –all worthy publications and available for around $250/yr– pretty much any fashion rag you’re likely to encounter is going to be pre-chewed, thoughtless pap that’s useless at best and soul-wreckingly counterproductive at worst.

What you want is pure, unadulterated access to information, so you can form your own opinions without undue influence. Well, you know, except for mine.

See, there are a whole heap of so-called fashion experts, especially online, who wouldn’t know their ascots from a hole in the ground. They’re going to try to tell you what the “in colors” are this season, or the “hot shapes” but odds are unless you know they’re poring over the runway shows themselves (which is time consuming and tedious to say the least) like as not they’re  just swallowing what’s being fed to them by advertisers and clothing companies or just making stuff up.

So what’s a girl who likes to think on her own two brains to do? Go straight to the shows.

Style.com offers every look for all the significant shows (and some not so significant)  from New York, London, Milan and Paris and is an invaluable resource.

But how do you know what shows to watch for premium trend-spotting? Here are ten of the most important houses to watch:

Alexander McQueen
Balenciaga
Balmain
Chanel
Christian Dior
Jean Paul Gaultier (and his work for Hermès)
Lanvin
Prada (also Miu Miu)
Marc Jacobs (also his work at Louis Vuitton)
Yves Saint Laurent

Of course, if you can’t stand to do all ten, just be sure to hit Prada, Marc Jacobs, Dior, Chanel and YSL.

So why are we watching impossibly skinny women wearing impossibly expensive clothes for created for events that in our daily lives seem well, impossible?

Because runway shows are about ideas, not pieces; and it’s ideas, not pieces that make us who we are.

Case in point:

Over the past few seasons, designers have been showing clothing with extremely defined, sometimes over-extended shoulders.  These strong shoulders don’t just exist because Christophe Decarnin at Balmain decided to tack on some extra material.

balmain-jacket

A strong shoulder signifies strength, protection and disciplined power. It references military apparel and toys with androgyny, but also nods to the early 40’s and the Make It Do bonhomie of wartime rationing. (Interesting side note: part of the reason big shoulders were so in during the ’40s was that embellished clothing was in short supply so  women turned to creating increasingly baroque hairstyles. The broad pads were used to balance out these complex ‘dos, which would’ve visually toppled a softer shoulder).

When a look appeals to us, it’s more than likely not the clothing itself but the message that clothing conveys. By thinking about the message the designers are trying to convey we can decide if that’s something that applies to us.

Do you like the designer’s ideas? If so, did you like the execution? If you liked the execution, what elements struck your fancy the most?

It’s from there that we pluck out an idea or two, refine it and incorporate it into our wardrobe. More on that tomorrow, ducklings… same Plum-time, same Plum-channel.

8 Responses to “Elements of Style #2”

  1. Constance November 4, 2009 at 3:22 pm #

    An interesting post! I am drawn to these quasi-military jackets, and now I understand why. I really am hungry for power!

  2. Rose November 4, 2009 at 11:10 pm #

    Well, I’m hooked. What a great idea for a series.

  3. TeleriB November 5, 2009 at 11:38 am #

    having to do homework for something as simple as getting dressed in the morning

    THIS.

    I’m an amateur musician. I don’t expect to be able to play well without practicing. And yet, it seemed colossally unfair to me that developing style took work. But it’s not really unfair – it’s a skill and like any skill, it takes work and practice. If you have a natural talent for it, maybe you can skate by with less, but for the rest of us…

    It also lets me place it, without a lot of baggage or freight, onto the list of skills I’d like to learn. I don’t have time for all of them, so it’s up to me to prioritize that list. If “learning style” falls off the bottom of this season’s “to do” list… well, it’s hardly alone and I haven’t failed as a (female) human being. It’s just like not learning the violin or Spanish cooking – yet. There is a time for every purpose under heaven, and all that.

  4. lucylang November 5, 2009 at 12:00 pm #

    Plumcake, you are kinda the best. Thanks so much for these tutorials! I’ve spent a really long time basing my outfits off of fashion mags wondering why all the looks I created weren’t really relevant to me.

  5. Style Spy November 6, 2009 at 12:07 pm #

    The complaint I mostly get from my… shall we say, less successfully dressed friends is time. Oh, I don’t have time, oh, when you have kids you just don’t have time for this sort of thing, Oh, I can’t spend all my time just looking at fashion magazines. Teleri is right, it’s a skill set and developing it does take time, and practice, and you have to prioritize how important it is for you. But like many other skills — riding a bike comes to mind — once you’ve learned it, you can pull that arrow out of the quiver at a moment’s notice and use it. The other complaint, of course, is money — oh, I just don’t have the money to spend on that sort of thing. Right, fine. Then don’t complain when instead of buying that amazing cocktail dress that I pointed out to you that was on sale for a steal and you said, “Oh, I don’t have any use for that,” you’re running around like a headless chicken the night before your boss’s daughter’s wedding trying to find a dress that fits and you wind up spending three times more than that dress you had no use for because you’re in a panic. Or when you find a pair of pants that fits you like they were made for you and I say, “Buy three of them,” and you say, oh no, I can’t spend that kind of money and then next year when you’ve worn them to rags you have to go out and buy ANOTHER pair of pants that don’t fit as well and also cost 10% more due to inflation. I just don’t get it. People put money in savings accounts — why is not your wardrobe a similar thing?

  6. Mona Peluda November 6, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

    This series is fantastic. I’ve been working on my own style ‘education’ for the past year or so, but this post is incredibly interesting, especially the section on linking current runway trends to a collective mood in society in general.

    Love it! More, please!

  7. Margo November 8, 2009 at 1:22 pm #

    Reading glossaries and dictionaries and specialist works for fun is perverse, and I am that kind of pervert. Ohh yeah, define that noun, baby. Define it goooood.

  8. Marie Piascik November 1, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    Let me start by saying I have longtime reader, but this is my first comment. I figured I should probably say thanks for posting this piece (and all your others), and I’ll be back!