Clothing Commentary

I’ve begun updating some of my greatest hits posts so they’re more current. This is one of them!

tiedye_outfit

This is my Audra Jean underbust harness. (That link is prolly not quite safe for work viewing …) I’ve had it for years, worn it in a variety of ways, and loved it all the while. It’s funky, badass, the perfect piece for bringing in a floaty A-line dress like this one, and a pleasure to wear. It is also a piece that some say has a design influenced by BDSM, and although I respect the BDSM community it’s not my scene and not why I like this harness belt.*

And no one has ever said anything nasty about it. Not directly to me, anyway. And I’m able to field whatever questions and opinions get thrown at me, no problem, because I’ve had years of practice and given it loads of thought.

But many readers and friends have mentioned that they love the idea of dressing smartly and stylishly – or even edgily and unusually – but worry about how peers will react. Specifically how often peers may comment upon or question any noticeable changes in personal style. So I thought I’d offer up a few suggestions for dealing with clothing and style commentary from your peer group.

Mentally prepare

If you’ve gone barefaced for 15 years and suddenly start wearing full makeup every day, people will likely notice and comment. If you’ve worn jeans or pants for ages and start bringing skirts and dresses into the mix, you might get a few questions. One reason why these inquiries feel difficult to handle is that they surprise us. Just knowing that your changes may prompt a few curious questions can help you feel more prepared to react and respond.

Role play

If you’re very anxious about how you might handle potential comments and questions, have a friend or loved one do some role playing with you. You can probably imagine most of the stuff that’ll come at you: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in slacks, Jane!” “Wow, new hair. Big change.” “You look so different!” “So dressed up. Going for an interview, or something?” Jot them down, and do a quick dialogue. You’ll be amazed by how this exercise will prime your mental/emotional pump for the real deal.

Have short and long responses

Even if the role playing thing seems a bit too in-depth, consider mapping out some potential replies to questions and comments. Different questions require different levels of response. You needn’t launch into your personal style journey or the decision-making process that led you to switch from heels to flats or long hair to short. Not with everyone. “Wow, new hair. Big change,” can get a simple, “Yeah, it is. I’m loving it!” On the other hand, “So dressed up. Going for an interview, or something?” might necessitate a bit more background. Something like, “Nope, just felt like it was time to mix up my personal style a bit. I’m having such fun with these changes!” Judge for yourself who merits a quick reply and who needs a deeper explanation.**

Give it two weeks

This nugget comes from the ever-wise Husband Mike. Several years ago, he decided to wear suits to his SUPER casual office. Every day. He wanted to make it his personal uniform. And, as you might expect, he got a stream of “job interview” jokes and curious comments. But they lasted for two weeks, then tapered, then stopped completely. Now, this will only help you if you’ve made a relatively drastic change and plan to stick with it consistently from here on out. If you wear the occasional foofy tulle skirt but generally stick to pencils and A-lines, that’s a different deal. But if you get a makeover, switch styles drastically overnight, dye or cut your hair, or do something similarly permanent, count on about two weeks of inquiries. Your peer group should acclimate by then. (Hopefully.)

Stay positive

I try so hard to assume the best about everyone, but I do feel that this kind of question/comment behavior requires some guardedness. If a coworker points out that you’ve changed your appearance and you shrink back in dismay or alarm, you’ve revealed a chink in your armor. If instincts kick in, your coworker may start asking more questions, or teasing, or prodding for more information. You made these changes because you wanted to, because doing so boosted your self-confidence, because you want to look and feel fabulous. Make sure to say so! If a fellow student saunters up to you and says, “Whoa. Why on EARTH are you wearing high heels to class?” say, “Because they make me feel gorgeous!” If your aunt says, “I wish you hadn’t cut off all your beautiful hair,” respond with, “Well, I did. And I think this new ‘do suits me perfectly!”

Of course, if someone is being rude to you, butting into your business, and commenting on your body, appearance, weight, or anything about your physical self, you always have the option to tell them to butt out and eff off. Your body, your business, PERIOD. However, you may reclaim some of your power by acknowledging their observation, owning it, and putting your own positive spin on it. When a person offers a negative or teasing comment on your appearance, they are likely trying to get a rise out of you. It’s classic bullying. Swearing, silent treatments, and rants can feel awesome. Denying a bully the satisfaction of an outraged or hurt response can feel even better.

Clothing, grooming, and appearance-related commentary is such a mixed bag. Compliments are like tiny little blessings, and can inspire unexpected joy. Comments and questions can cut both ways, and might make us feel scrutinized, judged, or targeted. But I hope that the possibility of generating curious queries won’t keep you from tweaking, finessing, or even completely changing your style or appearance. With a little bit of knowledge and foresight, you can field those questions with grace and aplomb.

*Think this is unusual or dishonest? Consider how many people own motorcycle jackets but not motorcycles, or how many wear cowboy boots but have never been near a ranch. Lots of task-specific or community-specific pieces end up in the fashion mainstream, and since Taylor Swift is a fan of harnesses, who knows? They might be next!

**If anyone. You have no obligation to explain yourself to anyone at all. But in terms of diplomacy, it’s often more advantageous to offer truthful information than withhold everything and let people make their own assumptions.

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

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10 Responses to “Clothing Commentary”

  1. Fishmonkey

    “Compliments are like tiny little blessings, and can inspire unexpected joy. Comments and questions can cut both ways, and might make us feel scrutinized, judged, or targeted.”

    But so can compliments. There is often a subtle if not non-existent difference between them. Like “wow, you lost weight” is comonly meant as a compliment but may not be received as such. There’s a weird assumption that people uncomfortable with compliments are insecure, but of course it’s often not the case: compliments still feel like judgment, or, more accurately, a lot of people making comments/giving compliments are not particularly thoughtful or kind.

    • Nebraskim

      So true. When people say “you look great today,” it makes me wonder, “so, did I not look great any other day?” I have learned to make NO comments about weight loss, or gain, after overhearing a person say to another’s effusive “you’ve lost so much weight!” comment the following: “Thanks for noticing. Weight loss is a common side effect of my chemotherapy.”

  2. Nebraskim

    This is an excellent post. I’ve had to negotiate the “you cut your hair” and the “why are you so dressed up all the time” comments when I worked outside the home. Often it depends on the tone of voice and also just your general relationship with the commenter. My last supervisor, who was a bit of an odd person who made odd and not necessarily stylish clothing choices sometimes, asked me once why I wear blue nail polish. It’s the only color I wear, although I wear different shades of blue. I said, “because I like it.” End of conversation. A few weeks later, i noticed she was wearing blue polish. I said to her, “I like your nail color.” She beamed. I like to think that I silently mentored this woman’s style, as during the two years I worked with her, she did in some ways copy my look, but she also dropped a lot of the “just plain weird” things that she had been wearing (and that were made fun of behind her back.)

  3. Kelly

    I used to go barefoot for about half of the year. Inevitably, I
    would meet people in the winter. They would absolutely lose their minds
    when spring came around and the shoes came off. Inevitably, I would
    meet people in the summer. They, in turn, would absolutely lose their
    minds when winter came around and I’d begrudgingly spend more time in sandals. It struck me as ironic, at the time: it seemed that people made a bigger deal about me wearing shoes, than not wearing shoes. Sadly, I wear shoes or sandals almost always now because my eyes have started to go and I can’t see the ground like I used to.

    Last year, I finally became aware of my gender, and I started coming out a few months ago. I gradually started introducing more and more feminine pieces to my wardrobe. The only thing that got comments was when I started painting my toenails. And really, that was the only “sudden” change. In my barefoot years, I got accustomed to the startled looks, the staring, and the ceaseless stream of commentary from strangers. I expected a lot worse out of people before I started to transition… all in all, this has gone pretty darned well.

  4. Anamarie

    So what do you say to the annoying coworker who grabs your arm as you’re walking by and screeches, “what are you wearing???” while giving you a crazy-eyed up and down stare? I’m often told that I always look “so put together” or that I accessorize well, so I think she means it as a compliment. I just hate being grabbed and placed on the spot and never know how to respond.

    • Sally McGraw

      Yoiks. if possible I’d have an offline conversation with that person. Let her know you’re happy to chat about style, but feel put on the spot when she accosts you in the hallway. Would that work? If not, maybe when she does it say, “Let’s chat about it later!” and keep going.

  5. Ruth Slavid

    I think the first time I had a comment of this kind was when I was 12 and was asked ‘why do you always wear eye shadow?’. and the truthful answer was ‘No, the skin around my eyes is just naturally blue’. I had a phase when I was uncomfortable with my weight and made some bad clothing choices and had a ‘when is the baby due?’ question. And also ‘I think you have some food in your hair’. ‘No it’s just really bad dandruff’. So I guess I am, although quite sensitive, also quite hardened. But if you change your look then it is because you want to look different, and so at some level you are expecting people to notice. So I think comments, provided they are not too hostile are fine. You’ve kind of invited them. You just need to learn not to be embarrassed when they come.

  6. Thursday

    Whilst I do believe you are expressing genuine respect towards members of the BDSM community here, I do think your footnote oversimplifies some of the issues that come into play when mainstream fashion co-opts fringe fashion. “Edgy” trends make their way into mainstream, trading on their fringe appeal, bringing something raw, powerful, fresh, whilst also at the same time marginalising the communities they arose from. At times, those expressing their identities outside the mainstream fashion did so out of a sense of rebellion, or outright rejection of the status quo or to express an authentic self, and could be subject to a whole spectrum of negative behaviour because of that, including physical violence. So whilst I have no intention of policing people who enjoy BDSM or punk or goth etc. inspired fashion, I think it’s important to acknowledge this history and appreciate your own freedom to choose even if it draws surprised or curious commentary.

  7. Samsdeb

    Thank you for this post Sally! I’ve dealt with this in the past and it always puzzled me how some people are totally thrown for a loop just by one person wanting to look nice, that’s all. I personally don’t like drawing attention to myself and dress rather conservatively. It occurred to me when I hit a milestone birthday a couple years back that I wanted to make some changes. Nothing drastic but I started to add jewelry or a scarf or a pop of color to my otherwise bland outfits. It freaked out one of my coworkers, who would make cat calls across the cubicles if she saw me wearing something new to the office, or speculate that I was trying to attract the attention of certain men at our workplace. It was enough to drive me back into my sartorial shell, so to speak, for a while. But I now dress just the way that I want to and you’re right, after a couple of weeks people simmer down and find something else to talk about.

  8. Molly Shadle

    I’m glad you were able to address issues with body image that do not deal specifically with weight because it is much more than that! I recently read a different post that explained body image as having anything to do with a persons outward appearance as a whole and it is so true! The post mentioned things such as women in third world countries bleaching their skin so they would be more desirable for an arranged marriage. It is crazy to think that amount of things we change about ourselves not because we want to but because someone else told us what we were before wasn’t good enough or we did not see images of people ourselves being portrayed in movies or on advertisements. Dress should be the same way, people should be able to wear what they love and feel good in without having to worry about it, so thank you for the post encouraging people to do what makes them feel good!
    mtshadle@mix.wvu.edu
    mollyshadle.wordpress.com