What not to wear: Would you speak up?

Do you ever wish you were What Not to Wear consultant Stacy London for a day? Do you remember the Glamour magazine "Dos and Don'ts" feature, with the bar over the eyes of the Don'ts?

You, impeccably dressed and groomed yourself, would say, "Miss, that dress is bunching right there", "Those earrings are too long for your neck", or "I like your jacket, but that bright green is too harsh."

Could you do that?

Sometimes when I ride the streetcar, I play a game; who would I choose, what would I say? And I'd hand out bouquets, too, especially to the man with the well-cut suit and hand-tied bow tie I saw yesterday.

I had exactly one Stacy moment. My friend S. and I attended a professional e
vent, and enjoyed a young woman's presentation. S. slipped me a note: Hair dreadful. That was true; there was a jarring disconnect between her articulate, engaging speech and her appearance. "Tell her", I replied.

What possessed us, two late-middle-aged busybodies? After the talk, we waited for our moment. I told her she was lovely (good Stacy) and S. (bad Stacy) asked if she had thought of finding an "even better hairdresser". She agreed readily, though said she had a goal of having a "not-trendy hairstyle". S. gave her the address of a talented stylist

The next day, I e-mailed her to apologize for proffering unrequested advice. She replied saying that she was grateful, and that "hair is very deep between women." I think we got off light; she graciously indulged our inner Stacys, and Stacy herself could have tackled my dress that evening.

Our presenter separated from her husband shortly after that, and I suspect her lack of style related to her life passage.

Have you ever received unbidden style advice? How did it sit?

Usually, I have to drag corrective feedback out of my friends. I'm suspicious when I receive counsel from a salesperson, especially if I'm told "I bought the same one myself" or "it's flying out of the store."

Best of all, I'd like to be a What Not to Wear consultant to myself: "Great jacket, change the shoes."


Deja Pseu said…
Having grown up in a family that constantly (and publicly) critiqued my body and clothing, I'm a bit prickly about unsolicited style advice. I also think that women tend to be very hard on each other and police each other overmuch (remember the Great Mutton/Lamb Debates of 08?). However there are times when I welcome a bit of unsolicited "there's a piece of spinach in your teeth" notice, and I've been known to give as well. I very much wanted to do this yesterday when a young woman passed by whose very short dress had hiked up in the back so that her underwear was visible, but she passed by me too quickly for me to formulate a tactful approach. My rule is, "would I want someone to tell me this?" and if not, I keep my mouth shut.
elke said…
For some reason, women seem to consider me fair game. I've been told to get contacts (I can't wear them), change my hairdresser, use more or different makeup, and so on. One woman I have to see regularly tends to pick stray hairs off me; I'm not bothered that I shed, and I do check myself for tidiness, so I wish she would not. Spinach in the teeth, an unbuttoned button, a skirt accidentally tucked into pantyhose are all things I would mention because, like Pseu, I'd want to know.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: You comments remind me abut how blunt my mother was- and also my GFs mothers, to them. I guess many mothers think it's their right, or duty. I'd tell a young woman that her underwear was visible, realizing that it might matter to her.

Among my friends, the Mutton Debate rages on.

elke: Women you know, or strangers? I am guilty of casually picking a hair off a friend.
Kathie Truitt said…
Telling someone there is spinach in their teeth, your skirt is hiked up, etc., is within he bounds of proper etiquette. It's all about making someone comfortable and saving them from embarrassment.

"Speaking Up" as you called it is a huge pet peeve of mine. It is never, ever proper and always in bad taste (not to mention a huge breach of etiquette) to critique someone UNLESS you are being paid to do so, OR if you are being asked.

I realize I am probably being a little too harsh, but it is simply classless to do what you did.
Déjà Pseu and Duchesse, do you think there was something about the lives of women of our mothers' generation that made them so very harsh and cutting with their daughters? I never heard anything but criticism from my mum, about any aspect of my life and certainly my appearance.

But while I can never pardon that, I will certainly give my mum a lot of credit for teaching me proper manners and a lot about dress and style.She made all her own clothes, and some of this was very elegant tailoring - as a result she looked very classy on a slender salary. My dad was always ill from a litany of smoking-related illnesses and finally died of lung cancer when I was 15, after two heart attacks, phlebitis etc. This and all of mid-twentieth century women's lives - great change, but still a long way from equality - led her and no doubt many of our mums to great resentment which they took out on their female children.

Of course telling someone about the spinach or parsley is simply good manners, as it can happen to anyone, and is very embarassing.

Hmm, normally I'd be as harsh as Kathie about what the young woman could see as "meddling old biddies", but I get the idea that Duchesse and friend sensed that something was really askew in the young woman's life.

Comments about people's actual bodies are always out of bounds, except for a compliment about someone you know who has been making an effort to diet or get in better shape. Remember, even someone who has lost weight could be ill, and not dieting.

I do this to myself constantly, like a mental Sartorialist. Especially cyclists in attractive urban apparel, not lycra on city streets. Or people on the métro etc, but have to make sure I don't stare, even as a compliment. I could easily be taken for a horrible coyote who tries to wheedle the favours of attractive young men... not really something I'm remotely interested in.

Occasionally I do compliment strangers on their outfits. This has never been taken badly.
CompassRose said…
The only things I would consider it within the bounds of propriety to tell someone else are the spinach-hanging TP-label tag flipped out-tucked skirt ones. And I did once tell a girl she had blood all down the back of her skirt, although I don't know if she appreciated it as she made her frantic rush to the nearest public bathroom.

As for style critiques - why? Like Pseu, I've got the scars of this from childhood. My mother is aggressively for comfort and practicality over style, and I am not, and I got regular tirades directed at me for "wasting time on my hair," or "wearing that ridiculous outfit". (Which only made my outfits, and my hair, more ridiculous, leading to me spending two Ottawa winters defiantly wearing a shredded, bleach-patterned, safety-pinned jean jacket as my only outerwear.)

Style choices are personal. I wonder, honestly, how many of the WNTW victims actually keep their foreign new looks for long - or do they drift further back into their comfort zones with every new purchase? I see this on a lot of the "hipper" fashion blogs. In fact, I just yesterday ran into an ugly flaming in the comments on Refinery 29, where several commenters were disdainfully asserting that a certain prominent (and charming) blogger was far too plain and fat to be indulging her taste for extreme high fashion, and should leave those clothes for the "pretty people" and "stick to sewing her own things".

No. Not appropriate. And even gentle "that skirt isn't flattering" or "maybe now your hair is getting grey you should wear a different style" -- what business is it of the commenter? They don't like it, they don't have to look. If I'm happy in my clothes and my hair, that's all that matters, to me.
Frugal Scholar said…
Duchesse--Knowing your fantastic taste, I would love a critique from you. For some reason, like an earlier commenter, I get lots of this. But I've noticed that it's often from someone doing it for other reasons--like the person who interviewed for the job I got, that kind of stuff.

So I listen to my blunt daughter, who loves me and is objective. Now that I think of it, my mother is blunt too. A few years ago, my mother's first words to me were "Well, you've lost your thin look."

I often tell my students their "butt cracks" are showing, however. Privately, of course.
Frugal Scholar said…
Hmmmm. Can't leave this issue alone. now that I think of it (again), it was a student who said, "You're awfully grey and it's aging." Then she came to my house and did my hair.
Another student said, "You should start to wear some make up. Buy Revlon colorstay lipstick. Get raisin. Here's a coupon."

These were meant kindly and I listened.

But my colleagues who say, "That's a nice jacket. So different from your usual style." Or "Did you color your hair? Lighter colors look better as you age." generally have some agenda there.
materfamilias said…
I'd never do it, except in the "you've got spinach in your teeth" instances. Nor would I receive it very well, although I tried not to prickle too much when a commenter on my blog suggested I get my eyebrows done. To me, that simply crosses boundaries to which I haven't yet opened the gate -- it's rude, even if it's potentially helpful. Style/dress is too much intertwined with the psyche for people to poke at one without being willing to accept responsibility for the other -- who knows what is going on in someone's life to be responsible for the unfortunate skirt length.
CompassRose said…
Besides, just think how fraught with danger it could be. I was just imagining what could happen if some well-meaning person thought to critique my mother's unflattering uniform (which she's worn for the last 25 years at least) or her home-cut, naturally greying hair. For a short, round, German woman, she is remarkable fearsome when roused; there probably wouldn't be anything left of the unfortunate commenter but a damp smear of shame on the floor when she was good and done.
CompassRose, why do you think your mum cares so little about her appearance? Yes, I know all about German practicality, but there is also a lot of German Eleganz, from highly traditional to Nina Hagen.

I do hope you wear a somewhat warmer coat in Ottawa winters nowadays (which are almost identical to ours)!
CompassRose said…
You know, lagatta, that's a good question. Particularly considering that her mother was always well-dressed; now that we're both older and can laugh about it, she will sometimes joke, "Oh, you're just like Oma, worrying about your clothes!"

Partly, maybe, because she became a stay-at-home mother as soon as I was born, and with only one income and four children, there was very little spare money for clothing. Very probably, because she gained a lot of weight with each of her pregnancies, and couldn't lose it (she is hyperthyroid, but one of the very small percentage who doesn't get skinny when her thyroid acts up, and with part of one's thyroid removed and on suppressant meds, it must be well-nigh impossible to lose weight). She was an athletic tomboy with two brothers until she married at 33, and was tiny; I could fit into her dresses only when I was at my unhealthiest and smallest, about a size 0-2 in current sizing.

When she was young and working, she did have a severe and minimalist kind of style- only a few clothes, but the best of everything, wool skirts and cashmere sweaters and silk blouses. And even now, she makes her boxy, comfy clothes out of the best materials, linen and silk, and orders (men's) cashmere sweaters from the States.

Who knows, maybe it was something of a reaction to our savage fights, too - just to prove that she was right and I was wrong. I wonder what she'd say if I asked her?

I can't believe I wandered around in winter so thinly dressed and survived! Particularly considering that I think Ottawa winters used to be even colder - I certainly don't remember any winters in my teens that the canal didn't freeze, and that's happened during several years recently. When I visit now, it's thick coats and hats and gloves all the way.
Duchesse said…
All (as your comments are forming a dialogue): In my mother's time, not that many women made their own way.

A daughter married or if not, was the subject of mild pity and curiosity. A young woman's looks were an important factor in her desirability, which in turn led to to a "good marriage".

Our mothers harped and taught and prayed that we had the goods to attract a desirable man. More enlightened mothers emphasized our intelligence or other attributes but I recall a huge emphasis on being "pretty".

Even when my mother saw, in her nearly 100 years, more and more women supporting themselves or in a union but also working (unheard of in her circle), she still put a premium on looks.

Also, she was completely against living together (immoral, and dumb!), which explains why I married the first time to a wholly unsuitable partner.

Compass Rose: SO funny and evocative about your rebel jeans jacket! I applaud your mother's creativity and skill, not easy to dress that body type. Boxy and comfy may be her look, but there's a nod to beauty in those fabrics.

Frugal: Would certainly speak to them privately. Does the college have a code? Even if not, I would still ask them to cover the crack.
metscan said…
I have much the same background as Deja. My mother always gave me negative feedback about everything. I still find it very,very difficult to accept compliments. I think that I´m not worthy of them. If someone ever said something nice about my outfit, I would literally throw that garment away. Having gone through a long and difficult psychoanalysis, I now understand my behavior. Today, I am trying to learn to receive a compliment with a smile. At the same time, I find it easier to give compliments to others too. Having gone through all this negativity in my past, I´d keep my mouth shut and not comment other peoples clothing, homes, etc.other than in a positive way.
Anonymous said…
Unless you are really very sure that the person would want to hear your advice/criticism, I think it is a mistake to give this unsolicited advice. Since it is very difficult to be sure that the person is ready and willing to hear your advice without asking her (which itself is criticizing her) I think it best not to do this.

Instead, make a point of telling people when you genuinely love their style, their hair, their.. whatever.

I have learnt so much more from reading books and blogs than I ever have from face-to-face criticism from non-family members. (Somehow it is different when it is family.) A department store makeup seller once offered to teach me how to do my makeup. My husband gallantly said "She looks lovely." or something, to which the sales girl said, "Yes but it might be good to know how to apply makeup properly."

At the time, I felt a little insulted and was puzzled by her comment, because I had professional makeup lessons 25 years ago (or more!) and I thought I knew what I was doing. Her attempt to let me know there was something amiss failed to get through to me because she gave insufficient information. But had she been less gentle in her comment and offer, I think it would have felt humiliating, and she definitely would not have got any sale from me. It was not until I read How Not To Look Old that I realized that I have a lot to learn about makeup. It also taught me that it is essential to keep half an eye on the way style more generally is changing, otherwise we (well, I, anyway) end up in a timewarp.) But whilst I am glad to know this now, I can't think of a good way for someone other than a family member to have told me. I think it would have felt bad. I don't want to make others feel bad, so I try not to give face-to-face unsolicited advice to people outside my family and perhaps extremely close friends if I have good reason to believe they want this kind of information.
Anonymous said…
Who are YOU to give advice? Have you looked in the mirror lately?
Imogen Lamport said…
Given my profession, people think that I'm always going to be criticizing their clothing etc. So that people don't feel uncomfortable with me around, I just tell them if they're not paying, I'm not looking.

Sure I see people who I'd love to improve, but not everyone is open to suggestion, and I think it can be an invasion on people's personal space, so I don't unless asked directly what I think.
Imogen Lamport said…
And interestingly my mother (step, but she is my mother as she's been there since the age of 7) never ever commented on what I wore. Clothing to my mother is completely unimportant. All I ever heard about was what is on the inside is what counts, not what is on the outside.

I doubt much of what happens on a reality tv show sticks - as the person had not decided for themeselves anything was wrong with their clothing and appearance, unlike the clients who come to me, who make a decision that they'd like to improve their appearance and so are completely open to suggestion (in the nicest way). Also, reality tv shows and makeovers take very little notice of their personality and what they want most of the time, so if they're dressed in Stacey's favourite pointy toe shoes, and they're a comfort person, they're never going to wear them at home - it's just 'not them'.
Duchesse said…
metscan: I'm grateful that your therapy brought you through this, it is a hard burden to carry.

Anonymous@3:51: I felt it was a mistake, too.

And at the same time I wish I got honest feedback more often. One of my friends said to a group of us, "How do you like my (new) hairstyle, BE HONEST." By which she meant she did not want insincere compliments becasue that's all people would say, know what I mean?

Anonymous@4:17: I look in the mirror everyday. Are you by any chance my ex-husband?
Duchesse said…
Imogen: I'll be they do! Do they ever hope you WILL give them free advice?

You can tell by the dubious, stunned expressions that some makeovers will not stick- or they are too complicated to maintain.

Anonymous @ 3:51;
I appreciate a tactful hint. Sometimes they say, "Let me touch up your makeup" and when they do, they offer tips. But I liked the candid woman at MAC who, when I said, "What do you think of the lipstick on me?" burst out laughing. Then she sold me a much better shade.
Mardel said…
The conversation following this post is as interesting as the post. I love the anecdote about the MAC counter. That would get my attention.

I have been a recipient of those comments and sometimes they have come at times when turmoil in my personal life has spilled into a kind of haphazard appearance. Usually I would be grateful, but sometimes I was overwhelmed.

I grew up in a very critical family, and the criticism was not just about style taste, but about physical looks/body/face. My mother still slings the criticisms at every possible opportunity and it is difficult to completely escape them.

Therefore I think I avoid critiques unless I know someone very well and think it will be welcomed, but I have no problem complimenting even strange people, even though I have trouble accepting compliments myself.

I avoid any kind of criticism except the spinach/underwear type situation where I too would want to know.
Imogen Lamport said…
I've always told my friends that if they want advice to ask for it, otherwise I'll happily keep my opinions to myself!
s. said…
I wonder if women who give other women unsolicited beauty/ style advice would do the same to men.

I find unsolicited advice on any topic exceptionally rude. I used to blush and feel terrible when someone would offer me a suggestion out of the blue, but now I respond with a "Oh, great, since it's clearly Unsolicited Advice Day, why don't you..." and give them a piece back. Never something nasty, but I can almost always find something about their looks/ their life/ their relationships that I think could be done better. You should see how offended every single one of them has been! I say, if you really, really want to give it, you'd better be willing to get it back.
Anonymous said…
You need to takes long, hard look at yourself! There is nothing more offensive than getting advice from an unattractive, overweight,ill mannered snob!
1:00 anonymous, I do hope you aren't referring to our lovely Duchesse! One of the reasons we like this blog is that even when we disagree, posters show good manners.

Mardel, have you told your mum (without shouting or pleading; businesslike voice) to stop criticising your dress and body?
Mardel said…
Lagatta, yes I have told my mum quite calmly and in a business like manner. She remains oblivious, and it is not just with me, but with all her children. It seems I have grown quite thick skinned when I am in her presence, and she no longer directly bothers me, but I occasionally find myself surprised by old issues I thought I had outgrown, but obviously have not completely escaped.

Generally I would think I would like advice about things that could be embarrassing or truly helpful if it seems I am having trouble with something; it is really difficult to judge sometimes whether or not an opinion is helpful or unwelcome.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous @1:00: Perhaps you could relieve the burden of your annoyance by simply stopping reading.

mardel: I'm reminded of one friend who said, "Ever wonder how your parents can push your buttons? They installed them."

Once my mother said that an aspect of my body was 'unfortunate'. I asked her (not sarcastically) which part of the family I had inherited it from. That really gave her pause to think.
JJP said…
Wow, some parents are/were really harsh on their kids aka daughters...
I really consider myself lucky to have grown up in a family with 4 sisters, no brother, a father that always complimented his daughters, loving us the way we were and telling us how the most beautiful girls we were when we were parading in our "Sunday best", and how proud he was to go out with us, his 5 little princesses!

That being said my mother was a SAHM, sewing most of her and our clothes, making beautiful things and explaining fit, fabric, etc. and mostly why something may have seem "amiss" about our appearance.

So now if someone offers me a criticism, I usually ask why, what they would do differently and how they would improve whatever it is. And you know what it is always so interesting and sometimes they are very, very right.

I think that we should take the good and leave the bad. When I don't agree, I just thank them for their interest... Just because they find somthing is "so" I don't feel that I have to agree...
Anonymous said…
If someone were a close friend of mine, I might give a criticism, but only if it were constructive. I wouldn't walk up to a stranger and offer any advice, but if I liked her outfit, I'd certainly like to make her day by telling her that. It makes me feel good to get a compliment; I hope it makes others feel good too when I dish out a sincere bit of love.
Duchesse said…
JJP: "take the good and leave the bad" sounds like a wise path no matter what the aspect of life. Seems like you were a loved child.

Karen: "Sincere" is the key. Have you had the experience of walking into a shop and receiving a compliment- when that happens every time I wonder if it is a sales technique.

s: I have seen men comment on one another's attire (if they know them) with a directness many women would find blunt. But it's often done as teasing; "Hey man, did your closet light burn out?"
Kathie Truitt said…
Okay, you have redeemed yourself by the classy way you have handled some of the 'anonymous' comments.

That was undeserved.
Duchesse said…
Kathie: I removed the third message from this anonymous commenter. While I welcome difference and debate, I will not publish gratuitous personal attacks towards me or anyone else.
Anonymous said…
I wish the anonys out there would just publish a profile so we could all know one anony from the other. Though anonys can have much to contribute to these forums, I'd much prefer to have an identity to work with when I answer them on my own blog. It's sort of like Halloween; when people have their masks on it seems they feel free to egg the neighbors' houses.

At least the more civil anonys could step forward so as not to be cast into the "rude" category.
Duchesse said…
Karen: I've changed the permission to comment so anonymous comments are no longer accepted. Each blogger will decide whether to allow anonymous posts and whether to moderate comments. Having a name, even though it's a pseudonym, contributes to taking responsibility for what one writes, which I value.

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