"Express Wardrobe Challenge", Week 2

So I'm smiling, but it took effort. 
Merino v-neck, Hermès pointu

The clothes and the temps (18C today!) have not lined up, a burst of golden Indian summer causing everyone to cavort in shorts and t-shirt one last time.

Have not been able to wear several items, just too heavy, and I'm not willing to cheat...yet. 

So, working about 6 items hard: two lightweight matte jersey skirts, the black techno pant, the two light merino v-necks, and lightweight grey wool tunic. (Considered swapping a wool sweater for an identical one in silk but really want to see this experiment through.)

In the photo, one of the merinos and the pointu, a useful wisp of accessory. But temps will slide down after today and the dusty pink cardi and black cashmere sweater are thrumming on the runway.

What I've learned after two weeks:
- On a capsule wardrobe, forgetting to pick something up at the cleaner's is a big deal
- Missing wearing a few things desperately but have kind of forgotten about 70% of my clothes
- Deeply enjoying the less-is-more life
- If I were in an office environment I'd likely feel more pressure to display more variety
- Got a navy manicure. It has to come out somewhere.
- Hallowee'n is Sunday night and I'm using my Free Pass to be a '50s car hop, in none of the Express Checkout clothes! How about a root beer, honey?

How's it going for those of you hanging in?

How to look happy: Julia's Eat, Pray Love wardrobe

India: Happy, getting happier
I went on discount Tuesday to see "Eat, Pray, Love", not expecting much plot, craving eye candy of the scenic and human varieties.

Julia Roberts (playing the author Elizabeth Gilbert) embarks for a year in Italy, India and Indonesia with only one large duffle bag–an extended version of my month-long "Express Checkout" wardrobe experiment. Good, I thought, I'll see what she does with it. 

Ha! She doesn't wear a single item of what she wore in one location in the next. 

Her costume designer (the late Michael Dennison) wanted to show her evolution– from fraught to joyful– by changing her wardrobe her for each phase. Let's track the transition.

NYC: City-casual
1. Point of departure, New York: Julia in big-city black, flats, jeans: a look any woman will parse as urban uniform. 

2. In Rome, a crisp shirt dress and ladylike sweaters, more femmy than NYC. Losing the black, but still contained.
Rome: Beginning to lighten up

India: Wedding guest's sari
3. India: The movie and Julia burst into colour: silks, a gorgeous brocade sari, gauzy pants. The European sewn gives way to the Asian draped. Bangles, pendants, sashes, ornamentation.

4. Bali, the last locale: Vibrant and free, costumed in batiks and casual cottons, islandy blues and greens, and–to saunter with Mr. Right in Asia Lite, Javier Bardem– a floaty, sexy dress in peach and taupe tones. 

Bali: Girl, you know I'm in loooove

To look maximally happy (and possibly enlightened): reach for your colour-drenched shawl or chiffon scarf.  Leave highly structured clothes in the closet. Wear dresses that swish, supple cotton or rayon pants rather than jeans. Rich hues– including textured neutrals, but not black– reflect a renewed heart.

I thought of a longtime friend, Laura. After several difficult years, Laura felt hard and cold; "There's a gate on my heart", she told me. She determined to break out of that constricted place.

Bali: Blissful in batik
So she paid attention to colour and texture, the weight and fluidity of fabrics, deliberately changing the way she dressed. For example, she wore black, but as fluid silk charmeuse or lace. She bought a melting mohair cardigan in sea green, knee high caramel suede boots, soft ecru velvet jeans.

It worked; as her spirit lightened, new ease and love appeared.

Sometimes I see shots of women in the media and flinch; that toughness sneaks up on you, and the camera doesn't help. 

"Eat, Pray, Love", light as bamboo wind chimes, provides a pretty travelogue with a bonus, a three-locale lesson in blissed-out dressing.

Long, grey and mad at Mum

Commenter Susan wondered whether I'd seen the New York Times article, "Why Can't Middle Aged Women Have Long Hair?" by Dominique Browning; here it is.

Browning is disturbed by her mother's hatred of her long grey hair; her "worried sister" and "concerned friend" sing backup. This article could well end at para 2: "I feel great about my hair."

Instead, she catalogs and rebuts the complaints. To the rap, "You're still living in the '70s", Browning replies, "And why not? I like being 55 going on 15." Might a teensy bit of growing up be in order here? If a woman behaves, looks or thinks like a fifteen-year-old forty years later, she might better see a therapist than a hairdresser.

When family, friends or complete strangers comment on hair, it's data, not Ultimate Truth. But also consider the saying, "If three people come to your gate with a message, pay attention." 

Get an opinion or two from expert hairstylists, someone with a fresh eye, not the person who's seen you for a decade. Then do what pleases you

As for the belief that "it's aging": maybe in long and grey, you look fully your age or even a few years older. If you enjoy the pleasure, versatility, and aspect of your personality that your swath of grey asserts– so what? 

Your hair could well not age you, either– it's the critic's own projected fear of age you're hearing (and this is my guess about what Browning endures.)

If "is it aging?" is the sole criterion for choice, we are shackled to the vain pursuit of an ever-more-distant past. Isn't liberation the point of rebellion?

Browning notes that most mature women didn't wear their hair long and loose generations ago, grey or not. That's true, unless you were arty-eccentric or a member of certain religions.

Somewhere past forty, you put it up in a proper chignon or perky beehive by day, or cut it shorter. But times and styles change.

Harris' glorious grey
Two generations ago, no respectable woman (and there's a term you don't hear anymore) would let her bra strap or slip show. My friend Jennifer's 85 year old father still maintains that open toed pumps are worn only by prostitutes. Browning's mother, at least 75, is shaped by her times.

Today, some women with long grey hair look like they're out on a day pass, while others toss chic, shimmery manes. Much depends on the hair's health and how the rest of the package– makeup, teeth, clothing, even posture– reads. See Emmylou, patron saint of glam, groomed greys.

She says, "My mother still makes me feel like a 15 year old" and "My mother has a lot to say about my looks"– and I sense that isn't a shower of compliments. Browning's real challenge is what's between the two of them, not what's on her head.

Express Checkout: Week One

Piece of cake! No felt pain at this early point, but the rest of my closet stretches out longer than the Rockettes chorus line.

Day 6: Black v-neck, scarf, black pants
I'm not tired of my 12 items, but talk is cheap, and I have over 3 weeks to go. 

Invited shopping with a GF this weekend, up for it but less curious about what's out there. (If I lived with 12 or even 24 items, I'd hardly ever have to shop.)

In the photo, I'm about to meet Donna and Vicky for dim sum. With my stack of scarves, I could try for the astounding efficiency of Six Items, but would need a same-day cleaner or 100% washable clothes.


1. Had vivid dream that I was placed in a detention centre for vandalizing a car (innocent!) and the warden took me shopping, saying "You'll need clothes in here". I said, "I only shop at Prada".  Is my subconscious is telling me something?

2. Most under-used, over-bought item in my closet: coats, probably a Canadian anxiety about being warm enough.

3. Fran Liebowitz has worn the same button down/suit combo for over 20 years. How does she do it?

How are those of you 'playing' doing with your choices? 

Next "Express Checkout" Update: Thursday, October 28

Life lessons: Making a necklace

"How hard can this be?"
It all began with this necklace, three strands of quartz, jet and bone beads, a gift made by my long-lost Montreal friend Susan.
"Beading is so relaxing", the effervescent Susan said, "and to think that I–a retired investment banker–make pieces that people buy off my neck!"

When a local bead store offered a class that taught how to make a similar necklace–$100 plus materials for a Saturday of "expert instruction in a small class"– I signed on. Like Susan, I would make smart necklaces from interesting beads. I would enjoy my new hobby.

I arrived early, advised to buy materials ahead of class. Why work with cheap stuff, I thought, and bought a strand of green turquoise nuggets with nice matrix and a heap of other beads.

Women beading, better than I
Four hours later, after arduous stringing, bending and crimping in a tiny, airless studio, I had my creation, a busy mess of green turquoise chunks, ebony balls and sterling rondelles that weighed as much as a small dog.

I loathed it. Despite classmates' convivial coos, I'd never wear the monster.

When Le Duc picked me up, I confessed my three-digit mistake and asked him to drive straight to our jeweler's, where I felt like a kid presenting her Gummy Lump to indulgent, startled parents. They were kind (the colours work) and forthright (the design, not so much).

Rescue: simply strung
They'll restyle it, stringing only the turquoise to make a simple, casual piece. All other material goes to Susan.

 Dadgummit! The mistake put my head in a vise; at home, I applied two Advil, then a grande... martini.

For my investment, I learned that beaders, like knitters and sewers, need an artful eye and surgically precise technique to produce a piece that doesn't look earnestly awful. One misplaced section and the whole deal reads "occupational therapy". Or you rip it up and start again.

While design requires mental energy, fabrication is physically taxing. We did some wire-wrapping that torqued my wrists till my eyes watered. I'm a workbench wimp.

I have renewed respect for the artisans who create beautiful objects with patience and skill. They paid their dues and rose by dint of talent and effort to polished proficiency. Like musicians, they enhance our lives while making labour look like fun.

Now, I'll assess jewelry with a much keener sense of the value of workmanship.

As for the hobby angle, I'm sticking with cooking. At least we (or the cat) can usually eat the mistakes.

Pearly gifts, petite prices

If you observe the tradition of Christmas gifts for friends and family, it's time to plan. Those charitable contributions are noble and needed, but perhaps–given these prices–you might both delight and donate.

Here's where to find pearls from $22 to $202, for gift or wish lists.

Because a woman is even more beautiful in pearls. She just is.

Tahitian pearl and black diamond pendant
October special: Tahitian drop pearl and diamond pendant, a hip combo from the usually conservative Pearl Paradise; who knew?  

9mm-10mm peacock Tahitian pearl and .30ct black diamond briolette, on a substantial 18-inch white gold chain, $202; $185 for the 16-inch length. Thirty-day return policy; free shipping in US, $26 to Canada.

Huge lavender baroques
Lavish lavender baroques (up to 15mm) with a decorative vermeil clasp, not perfect rounds, but pearls of character and charm. Note that the necklace is choker length, 16 inches. Price, $189 from etsy seller Yvonne's Pearls. 

Sold  as a set with pretty ametrine bead and lavender baroque earrings. (Give the earrings, keep the necklace? Naughty girl!)

Mauve pearl and ametrine necklace
If you like long necklaces, Yvonne's Pearls offer a floating 8mm-9mm, 24-inch mauve freshwater pearl and ametrine necklace strung on pink silk, a feminine, delicate layering piece. Sale price, $22. (I've bought tights that cost more.)

Wouldn't this make a delightful stocking stuffer?

Hydrangea ring with pink pearl
Amie Plante is one of my favourite etsy sellers; in a sea of earnestness, her work stands out. The eloquent Hydrangea ring is offered in various finishes.

Shown, copper multicoloured patinaed silver with a pink pearl. Price, $120. (Allow up to three weeks to produce and ship your order.)

Exotic natural coloured studs
You have to be wary of eBay pearl sellers– especially those in Asia; the pearls shown are not always what's sent. I've had excellent results with pearlunar; you do get the pearls pictured. (And unlike most vendors, returns are accepted.) The eBay store is called Pearluna Pearls Only.

These lavender blue-green 8.5mm studs are notable for their exotic natural colour and very good luster. 14k gold posts. BIN price $80, with free shipping to US and $5 to other countries. (This pair is item #360300200238.)

Firecracker salmon, peach and lavender strand
Kojima Company's specialty is the unique and rare, and though that kind of pearl love can dent the kitty, a number of delights are under $200.

A 10mm x 14mm "firecracker" strand of glowing, natural colour salmon, lavender and peach certainly pops! The 16-inch strand is $120, which includes stringing. (Stringing adds 1 1/2 to  2 inches.)

When you order, you can select a clasp in silver, gold plate or gold, for about $10-$175, depending on size and material.

I hope I've served anyone who wonders, What could I give that's special, but doesn't cost the earth?

As Chanel said, "There is not a woman alive who does not know how to wear jewelry". I've known a few who don't (and I guess Home Depot will be relieved), but if she enjoys gems, consider pearls: timeless, treasured, and never more accessible.

The end of Fat Talk

Next week, October 18-22, 2010 is Fat Talk Free Week, sponsored by Delta Delta Delta, the American women's fraternity, and its partners.
"I can't stand my hips", "I'm so freaking fat", "She should never wear a two-piece swimsuit" and the insidious "You look great! Have you lost weight?" are examples of talk the Tri-Delts would trounce. Fat Talk can be negative or positive, but each statement reinforces the need to be thin.

The week is part of the Reflections Body Image program, aimed at university-age women– the age when body-size distress is reinforced, if not begun. As the web site notes, ten million women in the US are dealing with eating disorders. 

Alison (a Tri-Delt alum and former Miss Florida who successfully overcame her eating disorder) says:
"...If you make a conscious effort to eliminate certain statements from your daily dialog, I guarantee you will feel better about yourself and set a positive example for your family and friends. Remember, your own self doubt can cause others to become self conscious of their own body image. Instead of tearing yourself down, put your efforts in more meaningful pastimes that will not only enrich your life, but the lives of those around you."

If it's not body, it's age

"Fight ageism; you are not getting any younger."
First we beat up on our bodies, then we live in terror of age, a double whammy of anxiety and despair. 

Among women past 50, I hear plenty of negative body talk, and, equally distressing, unconscious ageism in phrases like, "I asked my hairdresser to give me a style that doesn't make me look old", or "That colour is aging."

This poster, retrieved from salamantha.de, echoes my comment on someone's blog: you will get older if you are lucky; you will look older when you get there. I'm fed up with being told, "Oh, you don't look it", when I state my age, as if looking 62 is repellant, like physical evidence of tertiary syphilis. 

I know many of you reject Fat Talk, especially those who have raised daughters while making a conscious effort to model healthy body-image and eating.

All of us, whether we have daughters or not, can serve as an example.

I realized, reading their post, how I'd absorbed Fat Talk into my language, beginning in my teens. Next week–and from now on– I will not compliment my friend by telling her a dress takes off ten pounds, I'll just tell her how wonderful she looks.

"Express Checkout" Experiment: You're invited to play

I had no idea some of you would actually want to try this, but why not? You are a bold bunch, and thanks for the encouragement.

I've been asked for "rules", which I'm loathe to issue. This is a gentler version of Six Items or Less, an experiment in awareness and choice, rather than a competition or restriction.

When? No time like the present!
Start date: Sunday Oct. 17, right outta bed
Sun. Sun Nov. 14, end of day

How many items?
Your choice– if too many, it will not be very 'experimental'. I'm going for 12 items, please pick the number that intrigues you. 

Commenter Jane W. did 6 and now lives with 10; Deja Pseu's thinking of 10. I'm going for an even dozen. 

That's double the Six Items, and might only feel–as materfamilias suggested–like dressing on a trip, but I still expect to be challenged.

Does not include:
1. Accessories (shoes, belts, bags, scarves, stockings, hats, jewelry, gloves, dogs)
2. Lingerie, if worn inside
3. Specialized wear for specific activities (sleepwear, exercise/sport clothes, Halloween costume)
4. Items required by your workplace (safety vests, uniforms, pasties)

Free Pass: 
Weddings, funerals or other occasions requiring formal dress. You will know. Free Pass not applicable if only blue, bored, or forgot to do laundry. 

What's the point?
The experiment may affect our perception of need vs want, notions about desire and attachment, and each person's aesthetic sense. How do you feel? What surprised you? What items were indispensable, what was superfluous? If you stop, why? How do the unworn things look to you after a month 'away'?

Each Thursday during the month, I'll report my observations and ask for yours. Feel free to drop in/out of the experiment, pare it down further, or make any other adaptation.

My 12 items:

My "reduction" represents a lavish wardrobe in many parts of the world, and to the poorest, it's a joke. Still, it's a start toward reducing and refining.

2 pr pants: 1 techno (black) 1 flannel (grey)
3 skirts: 2 matte jersey (black), 1 pinstripe (navy/grey)
5 tops: 2 lightweight wool v-necks (black, ink), 1 light wool tunic (charcoal), 1 cashmere cardigan (dusty pink), 1 leather tee (black)
2 coats: 1 padded nylon jacket (black), 1 trench (stone)

Montreal: Pleasures and possibilities

The family spent most of last week in Montreal, visiting son Etienne and prospecting a potential move– an empty-nest possibility– to "the most European city in North America". 

Living for a week in a pretty Belle Époque apartment away from tourista central gave a sense of local life.

The women of Montreal are known for their style, which varies by neighbourhood. The city has countless friperies, or used-clothing stores, running the gamut from places that look like the Mad Men wardrobe department to  conservative shops stocked with last season's Féraud and YSL.

Whatever the price point, their verve and individuality make for fabulous people-watching.

You'll see more colour, more pattern-mixing, more audacity than in my native Toronto, more risk and twist. A woman in her late-50s wore a felted-wool skirt with a single applique'd calla lily that wound up the entire front, a cashmere t-shirt and over-the-knee boots–always boots once October arrives. (Shown, Muse by Christian Chenail, winter '10.)

Tavan & Mitto are an example of the best Montreal offers, knife-sharp tailoring wrapped in a feminine envelope.

Loved the dress above, its fluid wrap and potential for layering. (Alas, T&M sizes are only up to a 12–which fits like a narrow 10– that is, till I move there and bug them.)

Marie St-Pierre: If you said "take me to one place that captures un certain regard, her boutique would be my choice.  The coats are exceptional.

Look at the glove sleeves on the double-knit jersey ecru cape:

And we could not miss Ça va de soie, the temple to minimalist knits in merino and cashmere, all in neutrals or  whisp-of-colour Italian yarns. (Shown, Rebel dress.)

This trip, though, was about other delights. 

I met commenter lagatta, avid cyclist, bonne vivante and possessor of the most beautiful (newly undyed) silver hair.  She introduced me to a charming Outremount bistro, Terasse Justine, where we talked, laughed and shared small plates. 

We ate exuberantly: tuna sashimi in the sheerest veil of truffled oil and miso at Kaizen. Ravioli in wild mushroom sauce at L'Express. Dinner en famille at the apartment, joined by Etienne's sweetie, Tash.
A stroll to Café Olympico to mitigate the effects of tarte au noix.

And on our last evening, a raucous, freewheeling feast at the tiny Le Chien Fumant, where Etienne's roommate Liam is learning his trade.

How members of a group Chinese journalists could fall asleep at their table while a merry crowd, high on house-made charcuterie, clamoured around them is one of life's mysteries. We suspect jet lag.
And above these earthly indulgences, Mont-Royal drenched in sunlight, dipped in autumn colour, as if to say, "Here I am, in all my splendour! Bienvenue."

Does anybody really care what you wear?

A Parisienne friend has been in therapy. One of her issues, she says, is an obsession with her appearance.

Her therapist asked her to try an experiment. She was to dress in mismatched separates, "more than just mismatched", she told me, "really jumbled, random things", then run errands in her chic quartier for an entire day. "What do you think happened?" she asked.

She didn't get a second glance, let alone a pointing finger.

This is the same result reported by men and women (who mostly seem to be in their twenties) who've tried wearing si
x items for a month. Many went for weeks without anyone, from partners to work colleagues, noticing their wardrobes were condensed.

On the Six Items or Less web site, they posted insights about identity, culture and consumption during their month:

"... one’s ’total public presentation’ is largely made up of a combination of
clothing, skin, and attitude. Of the three, I am more convinced than ever that clothing is the least important to spend time precious thinking about and optimizing. Nobody really cares what you wear unless it negatively effects work performance or visually offends." -ATX

"...on a grand scheme of things – no one, except you, cares about what you look like. It’s all in your head. And the nice thing is – you’re still you. Whether you feel it or not." -Proxikid

"I finally understood what
quality was." -thekhesirekat

"Simplicity, conservation, and preservation are
harder to learn later in life but I’m trying. The kids (and I) really will live through and benefit from the less is more mantra." -Shannonandkids

"Stress and complexity in life is most often a self-inflicted malady. There’s lots of opportunity to reduce that stress by reducing ones reliance on material things.

"(I learned to) quit buying things just because one day I might wear them." - Addy

"My mom’s friend came to visit this weekend and I heard while they were talking, she said that shopping was her hobby. My mom said that’s what she used to do too. I actually think that’s how most people are today."-Addy

Could you do it?

Even if others barely notice, you might feel choosing your outfit is an embodiment of your creativity and autonomy. That's what I thought– but I wear about 25% of my clothes at least 85% of the time, a wardrobe Pareto's Law.

Anyone try the experiment? I'd be willing to sign on for ten items, just like the supermarket express lane.

Last summer's batch of experimenters had it easy; in Canada, fall means a jacket. And I don't want to live in my gym clothes. Ten to twelve would work; limited to six, I'd cheat.

Twelve year old boy interviews his mother

Joshua Littman, a 12-year old boy with Asperger's Syndrome, interviews his mother, Sarah, in this revealing and remarkable 4 1/2-minute animation.

The film was made by StoryCorps, an organization dedicated to "recording and preserving America's stories".
Thanks to my son Jules for sending it to me.

Mickey Drexler's merchant's mind

Mickey Drexler with his J. Crew team
The September 20, 2010 New Yorker contains "The Merchant" by Nick Paumgarten, a profile of Millard "Mickey" Drexler, CEO of J. Crew, currently the most famous merchandiser in the world.

Tucked between some tedious store visits and the tale of Drexler's emotionally sterile, sad childhood are some gems about how merchants think:
"A merchant is someone who figures out how to select, how to smell, how to identify, how to feel, how to time, how to buy, how to sell, and how to hopefully have two plus two equal six," Drexler told me. 

"We buy and sell goods. We buy low and sell higher– that's all we do to make a profit. But I consider a merchant someone who has a certain intuition and instinct, and–very important–knows how to run a business, knows the numbers. 

Does the merchandise speak to you numerically? There's a rhythm. You see goods as numbers. 

And the numbers have to work out."
The 'merchant gene' is like the 'go fast gene' of Formula One racers: you have it or you don't. A good merchandiser is a conjurer, spinning a web of delight and longing with only a few tables and racks and an artful assortment.

Conversion, the piston for sales, is a key measurement. Conversion is the percentage of buyers vs browsers- in other words, how much of your traffic actually buys. You've probably heard about all the tactics to increase buying behaviours: scents, table displays, promotions, free coffee. 

But these days, people are so much more resistant to buying; I've seen downright surliness as browsers flip price tags. Conversion is maddeningly difficult: traffic is down, the average sale, lower. Don't feel entirely welcome? If conversion stats are low, the merchant isn't getting much sleep, but the theatre of retail requires him or her to act relaxed.

A woman asked the saleswoman at a large uspcale department store if a jacket (already double marked down) would be reduced further. "No", the saleswoman replied, "the store has to make some money." The woman stomped off.

Yeah, I thought, if we want the store to be there, we have to let them make a profit.

At another point in the article, Drexler pushes his team to produce a piece at a lower price, to give value– make a profit, but not markup too much: "three times, not five".

Read the piece to know what it's like on the seller side of the fashion fence. Drexler personifies merchandising mojo–what customers think of as a hustle, and practitioners as a calling.