Fancy. What a word. It’s regularly applied to canned tuna, mixed nuts … and, of course, pants. As in “fancy pants,” a term I’ve used around these parts quite a bit to describe expensive, frilly, or otherwise out-of-the-ordinary items, styles, or garments that I’ve worn. I use the term with deepest affection, of course, but realize that it carries some vaguely negative implications. And, lately, I’ve been pondering the dual meanings that “fancy” seems to encompass.*

Good fancy

Fancy can mean beautifully designed, upscale, intricate. Fancy can mean high quality or above average. A fancy dress can make you feel stunning, a fancy necklace can make you feel glamourous, a fancy hairstyle can make you feel regal. Fancy things and fancy looks are special, and often reserved for special occasions, so they often carry significant emotional weight.

Bad fancy

Fancy can mean ostentatious, overly complex, conspicuously expensive. Fancy can be hurled out as an accusation, too. The observation, “Well, aren’t you fancy?” is hardly ever uttered without a hint of judgment, and can really wound its recipient. The bad kind of fancy tweaks some of my least favorite concepts, including the notion of “shouldn’t wear that” and the idea that certain items are just too precious for everyday wear.

While I certainly understand that ballgowns make awkward office wear and tiaras might attract a lot of attention if worn to the multiplex, the idea that people are discouraged from wearing showy, fun, outrageous, glamorous, or eye-catching items saddens me. I believe that we should strive to wear everything that we own and love, carefully but joyously, and I see no reason why those who attempt to do so should be targeted and ridiculed. Using “fancy” as a put-down shames people, polices them, quells their potential creativity. It enforces the idea that there should be a homogenous dressing norm, and that non-conformists are rocking the boat. Dangerously. But what’s threatening about a tulle skirt or or bright eyeshadow? What harm could come from someone wearing enormous platform sandals or a dramatic dress? Aside from startling observers, what’s bad about looking, dressing, or being fancy?

Fancy isn’t for everyone. But even if it’s not for you, consider how important it might be to others before using it to put them in their place.

Image via Craftster.

*In the U.S., that is. I know that “fancy” as a verb and an adjective has other meanings in other countries. As in, “Susan, I fancy you.” (Vid contains a swear word.)

Originally posted 2012-02-24 06:14:31.

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38 Responses to “Fancy”

  1. Roisin

    I’m VERY fancy 🙂 So I take it as a compliment when someone says it, even if it is not intended as such. My boyfriend frequently quotes Steve’s mum from – the first time she meets Miranda she says “Oh you’re so FANCY” in a brilliant Queens drawl, and it’s a mixture of compliment and disdain, but I love it – so when I’m dressed up he says that to me!

  2. Cynthia

    I’ve been accused of being fancy for what I consider totally tame style choices — just the fact of a little effort being made to coordinate an outfit or wear something that isn’t a plain, solid color is enough to elicit a comment on being fancy in an academic environment.

  3. Lili @ Relatable Style

    I have little to offer in daily occurrences with the word “fancy”, but if I replace it with “chic” which actually has a German translation, it’s just the same. You can use it genuinely and as a (more or less) hidden insult. If someone uses it in reference to me, I thank them if it’s genuine. If it’s not, I act like it was genuine (but so that they know I noticed it ^^), saying “I am, right?” with a big smile. That’s usually enough, hehe. I believe it’s ok to be overdressed, if you look more put-together as everybody else there anyway.

    I do have a little story about the word “fancy”. My boyfriend and I treated ourselves to dinner in the Eiffel Tower a few years ago. We ordered rosé champagne as we liked that better then. A few sips in, our waiter came along and asked my boyfriend “Do you fancy that, sir?”. He said yes, it was very nice, but actually felt a little bit like the waiter had an attitude about us drinking rosé. Like he had meant a little “you sissy” swing between the lines. We both highly doubted that a waiter in such a “fancy” (teehee) restaurant would do that, but who knows. If we were right and he intended to do it, it was the best way possible, as it left us stumped and him feeling superior in the subtlest way imagineable 🙂 We actually make little jokes about the phrase still, adding phrases like “Is your pink champagne bubbly enough?” ^^

  4. erin

    Honestly, when I hear the word “fancy”, I think of children. Maybe because my niece will wear whatever she feels like, including a Christmas party dress to school today (with a red/white/blue Fourth of July skirt underneath). But I always think of adorable little children dressed up all “fancy”, not adults.

  5. Emily I.

    The word “fancy” makes me smile. A few weeks ago one of my husband’s Korean coworkers was in the states. He had instructions from his wife to buy their youngest daughter, who is around 6 yrs old, a new dress for a party. Vincent hates to shop, especially in English, so I volunteered to help. We took him to some nice children’s clothing stores in a St. Louis mall and I asked him what size his girl is, if the dress was for summer or winter, and if the dress needed to be “fancy or casual.” He called his wife back in Seoul and asked her for the information and I thought it was strange that he kept asking her “Fancy or casual? Fancy or casual?” in English. My husband had met Vincent’s wife last year in Korea and said she doesn’t speak English. After a bit of that, Vincent hung up and asked me, “What does ‘fancy’ and ‘casual’ mean?”

  6. Valentina

    Generally when I hear the word ‘fancy,’ it’s a not-so-subtle putdown from someone who is feeling less than secure in his or her current wardrobe choices. I’ve heard the most casual dress imaginable called ‘fancy,’ and it amazed me. Perhaps ballgowns and tiaras (as Sal mentioned) are wholesale ‘fancy,’ but all dresses? All dresses? I prefer to relegate ‘fancy’ to “I fancy rose champagne,” (great story, Lili!).

  7. Anne

    I love Erin’s comment about “fancy'” be related to little girls. When the girls in my neighborhood were little they lived in their princess costumes from the moment they got them until they were in tatters. Same thing with the dance recital costumes. All the adults laughed and indulged them. But when adult women want to spruce up a little everyone starts talking like the church lady from SNL.

    In my neighborhood you see women who live in yoga pants and ponytails, you see moms that are wearing the same clothes they wore before having their 7th graders, but you only hear comments when one of us mostly SAHMs dresses up a notch. When someone makes the comment , “Oh, you’re so fancy today.” I look them in the eye and say, “I live in a house with all boys, sometimes I just need a little pretty.” After that, most people smile and seem to understand.

    Just a random musing here but to you think that some of that negatively perceived tone that we feel we’re getting is just buried insecurity?

    • Lisa W.

      “I live in a house with all boys, sometimes I just need a little pretty.”
      Amen to that!

    • Tabie

      I live in a house with a dog, baby that spits up on everything I own and my husband that lives in big t-shirts and jeans. Now that I have a new bracelet I won playing Bingo at a Lia Sophia party and I get more stuff when I have my own party, I will be rocking it at the grocery store! So what if I don’t go any where? I miss dressing up.

      I can’t afford to buy new clothes and I gained a lot of weight. I still have all of my old clothes (put in a cedar chest so I can’t see them) in hopes of losing the weight. Right now I have very few things that fit and live in stretch pants at home so dang it I will wear fun stuff in public!

  8. Rachel

    I just graduated from art school and was going out with a guy who hung out with the fine art crowd. His friends told him that I dressed too fancy and I certainly must not be too interested and serious about my art if I dressed fancy. . . Needless to say it ended quickly.

  9. Miss T

    I’ve been accused of dressing “fancy” since I was about 12 years old. At that time, either I or my mother sewed all my clothes, so the concept of “fancy” was inextricably linked in my mind with the time, talent, accomplishment, and skill that went into the creation of my wardrobe at that time.

    In terms of my current clothing choices, I go “fancy” every chance I get! I love it, and am actually more comfortable in fancy attire. I think there’s a certain boldness/courage associated with dressing fancy, and in some sense, that’s what people are reacting to. Fancy is always provocative.

  10. Anneesha

    In relation to what’s appropriate – I remember a church discussion regarding appropriate dress (particularly cleavage issues) for Sunday service – that basically that what someone was wearing shouldn’t be a DISTRACTION from the purpose for being there. I think that works as a good guideline for majority of professional situations.

    But I love the word Fancy! We need to use it more!

    • alice

      I completely agree! I personally prefer to be dressed up, as long as what I’m wearing is still appropriate and suitable to my activities and the occasion. I can go to the grocery store just as comfortably and easily in nice flats, well fitting jeans and cashmere sweater as I could in flip flops, sweatpants and tshirt. And people definitely treat me much better in outfit #1 than they would if I wore outfit #2…

  11. Eliza

    I love fancy. When I was a teenager, one of my mom’s friends told me that she thinks it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed in any situation, and if people look at you like you’re crazy you can just assume they’re feeling not fancy enough. I’ve tried to live by that.

    Maybe it’s because I tend to feel better about how I look when I’m dressed up, but I never take anyone’s comments about my fanciness to be a backhanded insult. I have a charming, gentlemanly friend who always comments that I look fancy when we’re somewhere like at a coffee shop and I’m wearing, for example, a sleek dress with hose and indulgent boots and a marvelous trench coat, while he’s wearing jeans and Converse shoes and a hoodie. Those comments make me happy.

    Hell, now that I think about it I’ve had people ask me if I’m giving a presentation at work or something or what the occasion is when they see me wearing a dress and a blazer. Even those comments have only made me feel good about my fanciness (in the face of absurdly casual scientist clothing).

    So either I’m too clueless to notice that people are actually being catty when they call me fancy, or everyone who has the nerve to comment is just being nice. Again, I think my perception of these comments as complements may stem from the fact that I feel great about myself when I’m wearing something fancy and there’s really no way anyone could make me feel overdressed.

    • Anne

      I think the wise woman who writes this blog once said to believe that people have good intentions when the make comments. Looks like you are right on the money. Good reminder.

    • alice

      “…absurdly casual scientist clothing”

      Agree! I long to impose a ban on athletic workout shoes worn as normal shoes.

      • Anneesha

        I would help promote that ban! Unless you are engaging in said sporting or athletic activity, NO GIANT WHITE SHOES for either gender!

  12. Genevieve

    Once when I was moving in grad school I labeled one of my boxes “Fancy clothes.” These were my work clothes from my previous career working in marketing. Man did I catch a lot of flack for that box. My boyfriend made fun of it. My sister made fun of it. My new roommate looked at it as I moved in and said “Fancy clothes?” Everyone was eager to see what was in that box. They were all sorely disappointed to find trousers and button down shirts. That box label was over-promising.

  13. Megan Mae

    I love being “fancy”. I get that a lot, but it seems to stem from people viewing dresses/heels/skirts as “fancy”. Usually it happens at school, where people reaaally dress down, or around friends who also don’t dress up as much as I do.

    It doesn’t feel negative to be called fancy, I just feel like I’ve dressed how I feel. Sometimes I wanna feel fancy.

  14. Rachel W.

    Hm– I wonder what’s going on in people’s heads when they call someone ‘fancy.’ English has a lot of good words– why not ‘put-together’ or ‘polished’ or ‘chic’ or even ‘you look nice today’? ‘Fancy’ seems to imply some sort of conscious exclusion. “I am dressed fancy because I am dressed more elaborately than my normal clothing” is pretty neutral, but so why is “you are dressed fancy today because you are dressed more elaborately than your normal peers” more judgmental? Does it depend on who is doing the describing?

    I started dressing a little bit more like an adult lady this past year (only the merest tiny bit– shedding my college zip-up hoodies for cardigans and wearing more sundresses than tank tops). Husband will occasionally catch a glimpse of me before we head out the door, say something like “oh, you’re so much fancier than I am!” and go change his tee for a button-down shirt. He doesn’t want me to change my wardrobe, but he does sometimes fret that the (alleged) fanciness of one person in a group makes everyone else’s shabbiness sort of stand out by contrast. I’ve met a coworker of his on the street before and gotten “oh, you’re always in a cute dress.” I felt a bit uncomfortable and convicted until she added something like “It makes me embarrassed. I ought to put on something more than jeans.”

    Hmm. Is ‘fancy’ inherently comparative? Does my fancy dress make your jeans and tank top shabbier or more casual by comparison? I guess I mean, does fanciness create insecurities in other people or does it just bring them out?

  15. Irene E

    This thread makes me think of a few different things. First of all, Fancy Nancy, and her definitions of “fancy” and “not-fancy”! Plus, how it seems like a lot of people automatically consider skirts or dresses to be fancy. A few years ago, my kids and I went to an egg decorating party. My daughter wore an old, hand-me-down playdress that already had a stain. The hostess (who only has sons) was all concerned about the dress, and had never heard of the concept of a playdress! (It was a fairly typical knit Gymboree dress, for the record).

    Personally, I don’t think anyone has accused me of being too fancy, but there have been a few times when I’ve felt overdressed simply being in a little bit nice work clothes, say, at an after school activity, and other moms are in yoga pants. But, most of the time I am in something like bootcut jeans, cardigan, nice tee and a scarf, so not exactly all that fancy! On the other hand, there are a few moms I know who are almost always perfectly put together, and it is nice to sometimes see them in jeans and a t-shirt and a ponytail – it makes them seem a little more human and non-perfect.

  16. rb

    I LOVE the word fancy and I use it all the time! I have been known to say, “you’re so fancy!” to people, but I hope that by the way I’m oohing and aahing when I say it, it is very clear that I do not mean it as an insult.

    I started using the word a lot ~15 years ago when I met my friend’s yiddush-speaking grandmother from New York. She was telling me about some “fancy” shoes she wished she had brought along on her trip to CA. She probably said “fancy” about twenty times in that conversation. I loved her and her accent and her description of her shoes so much, I immediately incorporated it into my own everyday vocab.

    Call me fancy. I’ll love you for it.

  17. Bubu

    Oh my gosh, I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. I hid in shlumpy stuff for years (until I found your blog, really) and then realized I love fancy, and I don’t care if i’m the dressiest person in the room or office or playground. There is a wonderful children’s book series “Fancy Nancy” about a little girl who just loves all things fancy, and her wonderful family who supports and loves her for who she is. Definitely great for all kids (even my two very boyish boys) to embrace all of us and our eccentricities as they are.

  18. BrokeElizabeth

    I’m definitely starting to dress in my ‘fancy’ clothes more often, because I’ve been making a conscious effort to wear all of the clothes in my closet on a regular basis. I’ve never actually heard the word fancy be used in a judgemental way, at least that I am aware of. Occasionally, I get a ‘why are YOU so dressed up??’ which does make me cringe.

  19. Lisa W.

    If someone I know tells me I look fancy, it’s usually because I put on a little makeup, or have something other than jeans and a t-shirt on. It’s meant as a compliment, but I immediately think, “Oh, ’cause I’m a slob every other day?!” And I think, yeah, apparently I haven’t been making much of an effort lately!

  20. Sheila (of Ephemera)

    I’ve had the accusatory “fancy” aimed at me, usually when I’ve shown up to an event in a very dressy outfit. It doesn’t bother me, as it’s generally a reflection of that person’s lower self-esteem – inevitably, she (always a she) is not dressed up or is in jeans.

    But I love being fancy! Life is too short to wear boring clothes!

  21. Terri

    Fancy isn’t a word I use, but I am all for pushing the style boundaries. Personally I like being challenged by the way others dress…and read that as permission to do so myself.

  22. M

    In general, for me, it’s good, but I think context is important! I’ve had pet (domesticated) rats for over 10 years now. They are also commonly called “fancy rats” to separate them from wild rats – and in this instance it’s fancy as in “like”. Since I love my pets and the joy that my pets bring into my life, it has a good connotation! My boyfriend sometimes tells me things I make or wear are fancy (I actually hear his voice in my head when I think of the word), but he means it in a nice sense. The Lady Gaga “Fancy Pants” also pops into my head, which I enjoy and others may not…

  23. Casey

    Back in a college level art class, several of my male friends ganged up on me and started telling me regularly I was too “fancy” and I needed to learn to be more casual. At the time, I was wearing mostly simple dresses and short pumps, or jeans and nice blouses with aforementioned pumps. Everything had a quirky twist, was very girly (as I tend towards!) and something I felt comfortable and fabulous in. But to them, my dress was too “fancy” and I needed to wear sweatpants and tshirts in order to not rock the boat and make others feel inadequate (their words, not mine). It’s stuck with me ever since. Not because I felt the need to tone it down, but because I realized that not everyone understands why some people prefer fancy more than others! It’s the way it makes you feel and for me is infusing a little fun in life which can sometimes be too mundane. 😉 Now when people say I’m “fancy”, I look them in the eye and say “thank you” with a big grin. 😉

    • Tabie

      Hm, maybe that’s why my former classmates teased me. I was in a few classes where I was the only female and some where I would have to crawl around a studio to plug things in. Of course if I was doing studio work it was a pants/shorts day I wasn’t trying to flash anyone my tush! However, I wear skirts even in snowy weather. The guys made fun of me all the time for it, I don’t think they realized I had struggled with self esteem and learned that I loved myself more in dresses that twirled with me and things that showed off my curves.

  24. sarah

    I love fancy! As a word, it overlaps a lot with “whimsy” for me, and I know I’m drawn to “romantic” and at times “fanciful” clothing. I don’t actually get called fancy very often. Or ever? Trying to think of a single occasion, and I’m not coming up with anything. Even if I’m wearing lace, ruffles, frills, you name it – mostly the people in my department will say “you look great!’ or “you look so nice!” and always very positive.In fact, now that you bring it up, I’m not sure I’d actually know how to read a “you look so fancy” compliment (whether backhanded or genuine). But I do love the word!

  25. molly

    i am a recent settler in the midwest from manhattan, and i get accused of being “fancy” all the time, usually in a derogatory manner. it doesn’t bother me — i generally don’t care what other people think of me, but i do notice that when people remark that “you look fancy today” – they really mean, you dress too nicely.

    • Anneesha

      Welcome to the Midwest! I remember having a going-away party at a large company I worked at in a small Wisconsin town … and a co-worker told me someone said, “Is that party for the woman who doesn’t look like she should be working here?” I guess I was too fancy. 🙂 Moving to Minneapolis helped (somewhat.)

  26. April

    It’s often too tempting to slip on the same sort of t-shirt and jeans that everyone else is wearing. I’m back in school after a long hiatus. I’m older than most of my classmates, and for some reason I’m feeling self-conscious about differentiating myself too much by dressing fancy like I used to in my work world. But I also know that I feel terrific about myself when I do dress a little “fancy” aka “skirt or dress” and that my classmates, while younger, seem to appreciate my efforts.

    Thanks for sharing your stories, everyone!

  27. Anneesha

    I’m enjoying this post – and it just dawned on me that I’m NEVER too fancy when hanging around with my AfrAm friends – is it just “white culture” that doesn’t appreciate an effort to look as nice as possible???

  28. Erin B.

    I’m a first time visiter to your blog and came across this post and the subsequent discussion of the commenters. I really enjoyed this! I live in CA, and after living in SF for a few years, I moved back to my hometown, a sleepy small city halfway between SF and LA. I realized then how much I over-dress for things, and have had some friends comment “well, don’t you look fancy” in that passive-aggressive way. At first, it bothered me, but now, who cares? I love to dress nice – I like to look good and I take pride in my appearance. If they think I’m too fancy or over-dressed, then that’s their problem. Not mine! I feel and look great!