Just ask my 10th grade English teacher. She read the journals into which I — straight-A student and card-carrying Good Girl that I was — spilled all my secret fantasies of rebellion. (I saved the really juicy stuff, however, for my secret journals at home).
By the time I finally got around to some actual rebellion — drinking beer! hitchhiking! hanging out with Deadheads! — it was too late. I was in college, so everybody else was doing these things, too. Even in rebellion, I followed the crowd.
Rebellion plays a similarly conflicted role in the world of style. On the one hand, we look for designers and style icons who will push the boundaries. On the other hand, wearing the “wrong” outfit can cause scorn to be heaped upon you from afar. Just ask any celebrity who’s ever been dissed by Joan Rivers.
But I think we secretly admire Those Who Dare. Sure, Lady Gaga got laughed at by millions of Youtube viewers when she tripped on her crazy-ass, high-heeled boots and fell down in front of everybody. Still, she’s a huge star, largely due to her original style. And for everybody who trashed Helena Bonham Carter’s wacky dress and mismatched shoes at the Golden Globes last week, there were plenty of others who admired her originality and attitude.
It’s the age-old, often-quoted dilemma of fashion: Do you dress to stand out or to fit in?
Me, I try to toe the line. I’m not comfortable standing out too much. But I wouldn’t mind doing what I like to call the “Stealth Stand Out.” By this I mean fitting in and looking like I belong, but then surprising people with some little detail that takes them off guard — something unusual that captures the eye because it’s striking or, even better, unique.
I’m not sure that I ever actually pull this off. But on some level, it’s my goal. I want to look appropriate but not boring. Professional but not stuffy. Done but also slightly undone. Dressy enough, but with enough casual or funky details so that it doesn’t look like I’m pretending to be somebody I’m not. If any of that makes sense.
To complicate things further, I teach for a living, which means I need to project certain things. I need to look responsible and professional, yet also friendly and approachable. I “perform” in front of others every day, but I also have the freedom to dress a little more casually than folks in many other professions. Come to think of it, teaching may be the perfect venue for the “done but not too done” look that I prefer.
I’ve never done a Helena Bonham Carter or a Lady Gaga. My attempts at overt quirkiness have been limited. I’m pretty sure the red high-topped sneakers I wore with baggy pants in the eighties looked awful, though I can’t be sure since –thank God! — no photos survive. Besides, everybody was wearing red shoes and baggy pants in the eighties, so how original can they have been?
And then there are the quirky things that I’ve totally chickened out on. Take this arty, hand-decorated “lunchbox” that I bought to carry as a funky purse. Cute, isn’t it? Well, I’ve had it ten years now, and it’s never left the house.
When I toy with fashion “dont’s,” they’re usually don’ts born of neccessity, not rebellion. Scrunchies, for example. No, I don’t wear big ugly patterned ones — mine are small, and black — but they are THE way to do quick ponytails and (casual) updos without damaging the hair. I don’t care how much attitude you give me, I’m not giving them up.
Or what about fleece and sweatpants in public? I don’t care what they say on What Not to Wear — If I go for a nice long walk and want to stop for lunch at the pub on the way home, I see no reason to change out of my perfectly respectable track pants, long-sleeved tee, and (fitted! Not baggy!) dark grey fleece vest. I think this outfit looks cute, in a sporty sort of way. What, like everybody else in the pub is wearing head-to-toe Armani? Please! I love you Stacy & Clinton, but you are dead wrong on this one.
But are sweatpants and scrunchies really the extent of my rebellion?
The truly rebellious among you will say I’m grasping at straws here, but I do stubbornly hold onto a few style-related habits that are — I believe — somewhat rebellious in nature. I suppose they might also just be my own personal style, or my own way of being “done but not too done.” In any event, these are the don’ts that I love to do (or, in some cases, the do’s that I don’t!)
1. I refuse to wear a matching suit. All of my jackets are separates, mixed and matched with various bottoms. To wear a matching suit, to me, feels like dressing up as a lawyer or banker. I am neither.
2. I tread carefully around jackets, period. Don’t get me wrong — I love the look of a great jacket. But I find that a jacket so easily becomes too stiff unless it’s paired with something more casual. Jackets with jeans, jackets with flowy tops or creative jewelry, these are my loves. I also ADORE the softer jacket substitute — tailored cardigan, vest, or other slightly less formal alternative.
3. I refuse to wear traditional ladylike pumps. My shoe woes have been well-documented elsewhere, but simply put, I’m much more comfortable in knee-high boots or shoes that are a little “chunkier” in style. I know the style experts say we should be careful with chunky shoes — they can be frumpy, they shorten the leg, they make you look heavier. But I feel more like “me” in shoes like these:
4. I will never, ever wear a nude stocking. They may be out of style, anyway, but this confuses me because it seems like women in conservative fields — with the matching suits and the ladylike pumps — must still have to wear them. Not me. Nope. Never.
5. I won’t straighten or pull back my hair for work. There are those who say that it’s unprofessional for women to wear their hair long or curly in the workplace. Phooey to them! My hair isn’t crazy long — it’s above shoulder length — but there’s a lot of it, and it has an irregular wave with a mind of its own. I do take care with my haircuts and styling, so it’s my hope that the hair looks neat and done, at least. But it is what it is, it does what it does, and I’m not going to beat it into submission.
6. I don’t care too much if a bra strap occasionally peeks out. As long as it’s black…. and the strap is designed so that it looks more like a tank top than a bra.
7. I love a deep V-neck, even at work. They are just SO flattering. Some would say they’re a “no,” because even if you have as little cleavage as I do, there is that teeny-tiny bit of vertical line shadow that shows. (Just ask Hilary Clinton!) I don’t care. Hey, my students are adults, not adolescent boys. They don’t care! Besides, I am a woman, after all…… and I’m not dead yet.
8. I don’t wear traditional gold jewelry. All right, I can’t afford traditional gold jewelry. But even if I could, I think I would prefer my funky strings of beads. When I see elegant, coordinated gold and gemstone jewelry on other women, sometimes I do think it looks JUST gorgeous. But not for me.
9. I hate, hate, HATE to carry a traditional Lady Purse. I like unstructured totes, soft hobo type bags, mini leather backpacks, things of this nature. And one of these days, I’m going to carry that lunchbox!
What about you? Do you like to rebel? To what degree are you comfortable standing out? What are the do’s that you don’t and the don’ts that you do?