Tabletop dressing

From Ellen Warren in the Chicago Tribune: "What if you could look more fashionable than ever and cut your spending in half? It's so much easier than you think.

Here's how: Stop worrying about what you're wearing from the waist down. Call it Tabletop Dressing. If you're outfitting yourself for dining out, quit wasting cash, time and trouble choosing the cutest designer shoes, the latest $300 jeans or the perfect high-end trousers or skirt.
Nobody sees any of that when you're sitting at the table.

Grab some trusty shoes and an old (black?) standby for your lower parts.
Now start concentrating your fashion firepower on what goes on from the waist up. That's the territory where you'll make a statement."

I learned the hard way years ago, when I reached in my closet and to put on an extravagant pair of Gaultier pants only to realize when I got to the restaurant that I was wearing my Gap pair– one-eighth the price and they looked just as good. (The Gap has slipped since then, but once made terrific techno pants.)

I wouldn't say (defensively) that my "bottom halves" are old, but they're usually where I spend less money. $300 jeans do not look six times better than $50 jeans. But I don't agree about the shoes, and think this principle won't work if you require formal business wear.

Italic Do you apply the Tabletop principle or follow different guidelines?

(Shown: silk top by
Veronique Miljkovitch.)


Susan B said…
I also disagree about the shoes. People (and that includes men) DO notice your shoes. But otherwise, I think she makes a good point. When I dress up, a pair of plain black BR trousers or my Ann Taylor black pencil skirt are trusty lower half standby's. As far as jeans go, the expensive designer ones don't fit me anyway.

I think it's much easier to get a richer look if you keep most of the ensemble simple and accessorize with good jewelry, bags, scarves, shoes. With a less than perfect figure, I look for ways to draw attention up to my face.
Northmoon said…
I don't agree completely with this theory. A cheap shoe ruins a good look; you still have to walk to your table!

I do somewhat agree in that I don't go to many dress occasions, so a good basic black pant or skirt with a more interesting top is my fall back option.

That being said, I invest in quality - nothing inexpensive. I'm going to be wearing them often over a number of years. Fine fabric and a good cut will always look better to those with an 'eye' and last better too.

Jeans may be the exception to this, but again I'm looking for a good fit rather than the lowest price. I'm going to be keeping them a long time and I want to look good when I wear them.

Which leads to another point - part of dressing well is feeling good about myself; knowing I made the effort. For me it includes nice underwear which no one else knows about. More expensive yes, but worth it to have that confidence that I made the effort to be well dressed for the occasion.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: Through the winter rarely have worn anything but black pants or skirts- wasn't deliberate, but have enjoyed simplifying.

Northmoon: I'm going to guess she would advocate good quality, seems she is advising against super-pricey. Great point about the lingerie!
mette said…
I have always had more tops than bottoms, mainly because they are easier and more fun to buy. Maybe I only have a few occasions, which acquire top to bottom chic. A fine pair of shoes will make up the simple lower half and make you stand taller. Don´t forget the jewelry!
I do not think that you can go wrong with a basic dark denim jean or a good black pair of trousers...tops can be very versatile and one can own more tops than bottoms. A variety for different looks and I might ascribe to this theory without ever realizing, bags, scarves and jewels all come into play but are individual statement pieces.
I agree with Northmoon...lingerie of the fancy and racy, usually lacy does make me feel secretly fabulous!
lagatta en déplacement said…
For many of us, especially after a certain age, having quality shoes is also a matter of protecting our mobility. And shoes that are not harmful to our feet but also suitable for work often don't come cheap.

But I very much like simplifying, as for travel. Yes, more tops than bottoms, except opaque tights (and, I confess, at least a pair of leggings to wear when it is cold).

And do NOT forget the scarves!
Belle de Ville said…
I follow Pseu's way of dressing and wear black pencil skirts from BR and Ann Taylor, usually with a simple top and sweater or jacket. Then I play up the jewelry and hopefully put the focus on my face rather than my figure.

I also wear lots of black dresses,usually minimalistic sheath style by Calvin Klein, and that solves both the upper and lower body dressing dilemas.

While I agree with tabletop dressing in principal, if you can find that one pair of jeans that make your derriere look great, they might be worth buying even if they are $300. People may notice your shoes as Pseu writes, but men notice your figure and the correct fit in a jean or trouser is essential.
BigLittleWolf said…
Love the concept of tabletop dressing, but great shoes are a must in my world.

I also tend to a classic pencil skirt (usually black), and dress the top with greater flair.

You're a delightful new discovery, grâce à Tish.
Fritinancy said…
I was introduced to the concept of tabletop dressing when I saw the "Nan Kempner: American Chic" at the De Young Museum in S.F. (It originated at the Met.) Kempner, who died in 2005, was known as one of the chic-est women in the world, and indeed the clothes on display were sumptuous and elegant. But there was a distinct divide between top-half and bottom-half dressing: blouses were often extravagantly ruffled or collared, while skirts and trousers were understated. A surprisingly small collection of shoes was on exhibit: the very best quality, of course, but frankly rather boring. Kempner dined out frequently, and knew that when she was seated at a restaurant table she'd be viewed primarily from the waist up. Like a good editor or director, she chose where to place the emphasis.

More about the exhibit here:
LaurieAnn said…
This post really made me think. I join other posters in the need for quality shoes; my foot is very hard to fit (both short and narrow) so I'll put $$ into well made, well fitting shoes before anything else. Also, for me, my lower half is slimmer than my top half so that even while I go for sleek trousers, an excellent fabric and cut really pay off. Good trousers are one of the few places that I can usually do well at sales. I have to keep my tops unembellished and sleek, as I am short, short-waisted and busty which is an awful combination for the top half. And like Pseu, I draw attention to my face.
materfamilias said…
Because I spend so much time at the front of a room, with no comforting tabletop in front of me, this theory doesn't relate as much to me as to other commenters. As well, I suspect my work environment allows more latitude so that while I do rely a fair bit on plain dark pants or a basic dark pencil skirt, I also love print skirts in interesting cuts as well as a variety of pant widths and waist detail. And I'd never, ever, count on a plain back hide-able shoe -- where's the fun in that?!
That said, I agree that, with the exception of the shoes, one could concentrate the budget on the top half, keeping the bottom half clothed in conservative, reasonably-priced staples.
Can't agree on the jeans though -- while a $300 pair might not be worth 6 times as much as a $50 pair, I think my $200 pairs (and I have several) worth at least 3 times the $70-80 ones (or math along similar lines . . .). The washes are more pleasing, the stretch is just enough so they'll hold their shape for several wearings, the cuts are more flattering, and the fabric itself is generally a discernibly better quality. Depending what role they play in a wardrobe, the higher prices can be justified, imho.
thoughtful, fun post, as usual!
Duchesse said…
mmetscan: Like you, I am fond of jewelry so will often blow my budget there.

hostess: So, will you do some lingerie posts :)

Belle: Black dresses are "the" other passe-partout category for me.

BigLittleWolf: Welcome, Trish's blog is great!

LaurieAnn: Perhaps you think so (about your top half) but men tend to think differently.

ma: I own but one pair of jeans, they are mid-priced- so am hardly an expert on high vs low end. Do see a lot of mid-priced jeans with stretch, and many of my friends like the new Gap line as well as Not Your Daughter's Jeans.

I too don't work with a table or desk to block my lower half, but have slid into this approach anyway.
Sevenbeads said…
I didn't realize it or put a name to it but I've been Tabletop dressing for years. If I take the number of shelving feet dedicated to blouses, sweaters, jackets and vests and the number of shelving feet dedicated to slacks, the ratio is 3 to 1 in favor of the tops.
tippchic said…
Without realising, I too have adhered to this principle for some time- not that I have a career involving great amounts of dining but that it's what suits me.
However, as a VERY bottom heavy pear shape, I will pay for a good cut, good fabric, good fit pair of trousers. They tend to be simple lines in dark fabrics. I dont get rid of them- but price per wear means they work for every cent I paid for them. They are the chorus and my tops do the solo work.
Shoes? well I just love them- dont care what they cost- and they dont judge my current weight!
diverchic said…
I'm built like Laurie Ann and have been table top dressing for years. LA I have an important word for you - cleavage - or the suspicion of it. I got a kick out of my neighbour who commented that I always looked "dressed" from the neck up. One of my dear friends brings me fabulous scarves from France. This one will dress up anything.
Tish Jett said…
Years ago I did a big story on table top dressing, for whom I cannot even remember, which included everything from hair, make-up, jewels, the great top of course, and a few good, basic bottoms. (In fact that's what I've been doing with Edith for the last couple of weeks and will continue probably until the end of the month. I wear the same skirt and trousers and change the tops.)

If it's formal it could be one ball gown skirt.

What the idea here is bottom line: A good "spike" around which to build a fashion story.

I'm with you on the shoes, 100 percent.

Note too, if any of your TV anchorwomen stand-up before the camera is off of them -- not true on CNN where they walk around -- they're usually wearing jeans and they never wear the same top. (It's impossible to see their shoes. . .)

P.S.: Your French joke is lol funny. Loved it.
Duchesse said…
WhataSplurge: That's a good way to analyze it, by ratio.

Tippchic: I think she means "don't worry about it" as don't search obsessively, just keep doing what works. Well cut pants make a difference.

diverschic: You would know from cleavage ;)

Fritinancy: And Nan K. could have whatever she pleased! Remember seeing a collage of her jewelry; suprised me to see how much costume she wore. Her remarks about how she hated fat people did tarnish her 'lady' image.

Tish: Yes, come to think of it, that's the travel-with-a-carryon scenario, isn't it?
Tiffany said…
Interesting idea. Like most of the others, I disagree about shoes - I think they're important - but I can see that standby pants, etc can work.

And re jeans, I wear them a lot, being what you might call 'boyish' in shape, but I still find that I get a better fit from more expensive ones. I'd happily wear cheap ones if they flattered, but generally they don't.

BTW, the Veronique M clothes I bought (following the link from your blog) get comments every single time I wear them.
Duchesse said…
tiffany: Delighted to hear that! What did you choose? I'm eager to see her spring line when it arrives.
Tiffany said…
Duchesse, I chose the Amelie dress (in the charcoal pictured on the site) and the Haily top in a gorgeous burgundy colour. They fit so perfectly that a friend (who studied fashion design) asked me if I'd had them made for me. And so affordable!
rb said…
I totally apply this rule, but I didn't know it had a name. I have black, brown and other dark shade skirts in various shapes (pencil, a-line, etc.) all in my preferred knee-length, so the whole interest of whatever I wear is up top. Except for the shoes. I love to wear interesting shoes. Not necessarily comfortable shoes, unfortunately!
Anne At Large said…
Sounds very much like one of the standard rules of packing for trips - 3 tops for every one pair of pants or other bottoms you pack. Tops are what people see and remember much more so than bottoms. Although my sister does have one pair of fantastic orange raw silk capri pants, I would hate to have to wear them somewhere they wouldn't be seen!
I'm so with you on the shoes Duchesse! I've tried on $300 pairs of jeans and can't figure out why they charge that much for them - they don't fit or look any better on me than the $60 kind I regularly buy.

What is near your face is what we notice most.
s. said…
What an interesting theory! I like my face, hair and "rack" more than my hips, thighs or bottom so I usually dress to downplay the lower part of me. But I suspect if I had a luscious a$$, I might wear plainer tops to draw the eye to my derriere.

And Tiffany: I'm green with envy over your Veronique M items.
Anonymous said…
I've never really thought about this before (I say that a lot when I read your blog!). Thinking about it now, I realize I always wear fabulous skirts and very plain tops, damnit I've being dressing upside down!!
sisty said…
Great post, and a great recipe for a woman of a certain age. I remember when I was in college sitting around with a bunch of girlfriends polling ourselves, and each other, on whether we thought our bodies were more alluring than our faces, or vice-versa. I think for a woman of a certain age the question has been answered. Right behind our faces, after all, are our brains. There's a great article in the London Times today about this very subject -- called Why French Women Don't Get Old. I'll try to find the link and post it.

Anyway, I think her comment about shoes might have been aimed more at volume than at quality. Yes, get a good pair of quality, versatile shoes -- or two, or five -- but don't think that fabulous shoes are going to carry you very far in and of themselves.
sisty said…
here's the link: Read and enjoy!
A fun read: a few stereotypes but fewer than is usual among the "French women don't get" genre. One thing the writer should have mentioned is the persistent smoking habit - yes, smoking rates have declined considerably in France as in most other Western countries, but one does still see more "educated" types smoking there than elsewhere, and it shows on a lot of faces, in the form of nasty smoking lines - which are tissue damage, not normal ageing - and grey smokers' complexions.

And I DO know several Frenchwomen who have divorced due to their husbands' affairs.

Of course where decent-quality French readymade dressing simply doesn't exist is in garments over a size 12 or so.

Duchesse, I'm back from a short work trip to Amsterdam; I was hoping to get to Paris but had obligations here. Next time. You might not like everything there - and it is certainly not Paris in terms of style, but there is a lot of quality, classic European women's wear - but the clothing would definitely fit you. Not me; I'm far too short.

5'10" is the AVERAGE height for Dutch women, and I've seen many women over 50 in those heights as well - there was a bit of a dip during the Hunger Years of the Second World War, if not, the Dutch have had a lot of dairy for decades now.

I never take photos (I do watercolours) but I may give in and get a camera as I saw a tall, elegant woman in her 60s who looked a bit like Duchesse, heading to work I presume, on her stately high black bicycle.
Anonymous said…
I am a tabletop gal all the way. The whole point is to "serve up" your head.

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