18 September 2007

My suburban style transition

"You know, most people have trouble picking out an outfit for a formal event, not a casual one," S said to me last Friday night over the trill of Joel McHale's impression of Kendra Wilkinson's laugh and the intense scraping of spork against an empty pint of Phish Food frozen yogurt, "honestly Johanna, this (motioning to the enormous pile of discarded outfit options at the foot of my bed) is ridiculous. Wear some jeans, wear a shirt, wear some shoes, a coat if it gets cold and get it over with. Hurry, 'Sunset Tan' is starting."

Until I’d actually begun the process of casual-ifying my wardrobe for a weekend in the upper-Midwestern suburbs – a three day stint where the majority of my time would be spent in lowkey social situations, not the biannual milling about my parents' home in size L JV volleyball sweats and the overpriced Hammacher Schlemmer Androscoggin Sheepskin slippers I begged and begged Santa to buy me and then only one of which I wore (purely for decoration) when I cracked my shin and fractured my ankle during my "crutch phase" of '95 - I thought, hey, no problem, just like transitioning from a Treo back to a regular ol' cell, taking a break from the thoughtfully assembled ensembles of gunmetals, blacks, wines, impractically tall heels, high-waisted this, and rosette necklined that I normally wear in favor of could-do-it-with-my-eyes-closed casual would be something I could achieve with relative ease.

After all, a t-shirt is a t-shirt is a t-shirt, right?

As soon as I delved into the pre-packing project, it became clear as Spencer Pratt's conscience the effortlessness with which I assumed I could scale back my day-to-day fabulosity was far more challenging than I'd originally thought it would be.

"Workout tee, workout tee, workout tee...do I have anything in here that hasn't seen a 10x10 set of squat thrust lunges?" I thought to myself, pawing to the bottom of the top three drawers of my dresser.

"The grey ones are too skinny, the red ones are too Fergie, these are too bootcut, these are too faded, these are too big, these are waaay too big...don't I own a pair of jeans that falls somewhere between hipster on U Street and Girbaud in the '80s?" I asked aloud in a pitch so acutely frustrated it incited Monte to give my aggressive hanger shuffling a lift-and-tilt so cartoon-like I could actually see the question mark hovering above his sweet, little head.

10pm soon became 11:30 which soon became 1am, and after S left and Monte had his final walk of the night, I looked at my very small "to take" pile, which included one set of running clothes, underwear, toiletries, my iPod and phone chargers and an Archie comic, and decided, despite my allegiance to all songs Dido, to raise that white flag, tuck three days' worth of DC style wardrobe components into my little Samsonite satchel and join my sweetpuff in the stretched-out spoon he'd been waiting three hours for me to complete.

The next morning, I applied my usual face (i.e., concealer, Eye Basics, wide swipes of bronzer, double coat of mascara, thin stripes of black liner on top and bottom, Kiehl's lip balm and Dior Ultra Gloss in "reflect") to polish the look I'd created with these, this, these (last picture) and something similar to this, gave myself an "uh-huh" up-and-down in my full-length mirror and set off for Reagan National.

Against my better judgment, I felt confident during the 13 minute cab ride to Terminal A in my decision to just be the 'DC me'. I felt good as I passed through security; I felt comfortable standing tall - very tall - in line at gate 4; I felt fine the entire hour and nine minutes on the plane; and as I made my way through Detroit Metro to the tiny corridor where those of us heading to America's more modest destinations are corralled, I still felt good. I still felt I'd made the right choice.

But then, just as I turned the corner and found gate A14, just as I took a seat in between a woman knitting an Ohio State hat atop her personalized Bible and another reading a Dora the Explorer book to her daughter in the no more 20-chair waiting area, the lump I thought I'd successfully averted came into my throat with full, guilty force.

I'm near sure my clothes and my obvious attention to trend and fit and color and cut didn't offend or make insecure a single person in that waiting area. No one was rude. No one shot me a who does she think she is? look. Quite to the contrary. The woman to my left (the knitter), in fact, used my knee to prop herself up and even asked if she could "fetch [me] a pop" on her way back from the restroom.

Upon seeing in her eyes the hope that I would, I accepted her offer and a few minutes later she handed me a 20 oz Diet Sprite, saying with wink, "I could tell you were a diet kind of girl."

For the first time since I started this blog last December, I looked down at the outfit I'd carefully chosen and felt a searing sense of regret, even embarrassment at my own hypocrisy. In wearing what I had that morning, I not only violated my wear what makes you feel most confident, not most comfortable dictum but perhaps infringed upon my venue-appropriateness rule as well.

A t-shirt may be a t-shirt may be a t-shirt, but DC is not Dayton is not Daytona Beach is not Durham. Now, I don't advocate dressing for others or choosing looks in an attempt to meet the expectation of what people in a certain city hope to see when they step out their front doors each morning, but I have to tell you, after my weekend, one that saw me anxiously reach each day for the same workout tee I'd packed for my long run instead of the cute trapeze tops and pouf-sleeved sweaters I'd planned to don Saturday and Sunday evening, I know I won't soon forget I need to shut InStyle every once in a while and listen more carefully to the Midwesterner inside of me who knows, when in my native fly-over land, I may be more comfortable in painted-on pants and sky-high stilettos, but I'm more confident in an beat up pair of jeans and a hoodie.

Sans the black eyeliner.


Cynthia said...

You see, this is why I pre-mailed my companions in Cincinnati that weekend asking if skinny jeans had made it there yet. They snickered, but I went boot cut and felt very comfortable. Although given that we ended up hanging out at a bar/restaurant area where we counted 17 brides out for their bachelorette parties, I could have also been wearing a cheap veil with pink plastic penises sewed to it and been fine, too.

bff in chicago said...

Please tell me you wore that outfit to Meijer. I just need to imagine all the soccer Moms wondering what the hell kind of slut had wandered into the produce section.

Ha ha, remember, when your readers kept calling you a slut? okay, no longer funny?

love's ya!

p.s. weekend was good, eh? uh-huh...

msu guy said...

Ahhh, so good to have you back.

I love that you're from the Midwest and use (or recognize) words like "pop." Puts a smile on my face.

I have to agree with Cynthia's friends in Cincy. The thought of skinny jeans roaming around the suburbs here would cause question marks all around.

Anonymous said...

It's not that difficult, Jo -- wear what you want when you want, and all will be fine.

Candid Cool said...

Another wonderful read

Maxie said...

I had a similar run-in over the weekend. I went to a birthday party at a bar that someone had rented out for the occasion. I thought it was the perfect time to breakout my new mary-janes that I bought last week. I paired them with a jersey-material "going out" shirt(as I like to call any shirt that is too clubbish to be worn to the office) and black slacks. Oh, and did I mention I added wayyyy too trendy gold jewelry (yea, hind-sight is always 20-20)?

I meet my friend. She is, as usual, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but I thought nothing of it because that's her every day attire. We get to the bar and there is literally a sign that says "Casual attire required." Every single person at the bar was wearing a t-shirt and jeans...and flip flops.

Basically, I'm trying to say I know the feeling.

Anonymous said...

Those heels in an airport? Girl, you cray-cray-crazy!

brown rowergirl said...

that was me! that was me! accidentally pressed "anonymous".

Marsha said...

i deal with this dilemma whenever i travel to indiana or wichita, kansas. i am constantly feeling inappropriately dressed. (although the outfits are super duper!) i get the looks... the really bad looks. it's bad enough to be ethnicly ambiguous to the people of these areas but throw that on top of "dressing up" and you have every eye on you... judging.

Scott said...

I love this post.

Last weekend I was at a family reunion in NC where there was no alcohol because everyone makes their own, and the main topic of conversation was how the corn crop was lost but they'll make it up in soybeans.

And there I was in linen and a sportcoat...

I've been there before though, but not with the same crowd, so I worked to make others feel comfortable with it. When the opportunity came up I was the one who got the pop, (although it was usually Carolina BBQ and hoe-cakes).

It's a technique I learned from my mom: always play the host in a strange room. It usually works.

Angelina said...

I actually think this post is condescending. Why do you assume that people who live in suburban or rural areas can't appreciate good style? You don't wear and can't afford Chanel, nor do the people in your social circle, but I bet you'd enjoy seeing a lady dressed in a Chanel suit on a plane with you. What if she noticed you looking at her, and felt self-conscious that if someone like you noticed her, perhaps it would've actually been better to slum it in a get-up from Anthropologie just to disappear in the crowd? Pretty ridiculous, and pretty demeaning.

Johanna said...


This post wasn't about condescension, in fact, it was meant to come across as quite the opposite. I didn't dress down to to make those around me feel more comfortable (they were fine with what I was wearing!), I dressed down because that's what made *me* feel better, more confident in the social situations I happened to find myself.

Believe me, I'm the last person who would consdescend to Midwesterners -- I'm much more one of them than I am an East Coaster.

And believe me, if that woman wore that suit to the bbq I attended on Saturday night, she and everyone else would have felt ridiculous.

Oh, and if I could afford Chanel - which, as you rightly pointed out I can't (though a lot of my girlfriends can, so you're wrong there) - I still wouldn't buy it. Much more a Prada, L'wren Scott, Bottega Veneta kind of dreamer...


brown bear '02 said...

I thought your message was clear, too, babe. Not at all condescending!

Good to have you back. Thought the lure of the OH might be enough to keep you there forever!

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Editrix!

But I do have to pipe up in the comments and say that I am from Indiana, and some of the most stylish women I've ever seen--including my Grandma--live in that state.

Whether on Dupont Circle or in the Circle City, as Indianapolis is called, you will find women who put a lot of thought, time, and care into their look, and a lot of women who will think that sort of effort is not worthwhile.

Johanna said...

Oh, and also (to Angelina and anyone else who thinks this is a post about Midwesterner condescension), this was never an issue of expensive/cheap clothing but rather one of appropriate/inappropriate. Here in DC, my short black nails, tight skinny jeans and super high heels are fine for daytime fare, but in a place like Ohio or Michigan, it's just not as socially acceptable.

At least that's the way *I* perceive it, having lived there 18 of my 27 years.

This was, as you shouldn't be surprised, a post about ME, not you, not your friends and not at all a guide to what you should do if you take a weekend trip to the Midwest.

A musing, if you will.


angelina said...

What I got from your post is that you felt like your urban chic was too stylish for the Midwest and that you had to tone it down to basic wear because it's just not a stylish place. I think it's a reasonable reading of your post when you replace your pretty outfits with a gym shirt to "feel more comfortable."

Anonymous said...

I agree with the point Johanna's making here. When I go home and visit my high school friends, I feel out of place if I wear my city clothes (formerly LA, now DC) to go out to restaurants and bars in my hometown (which is actually on the East Coast, but still in the suburbs). I finally realized that it's better to wear more casual, less stylish clothes and just enjoying seeing my friends. Of course, this realization may have come out in full force after I extracted my high heel out of a mud hole after a friend's Christmas party last year...Heels are just not practical for all situations.

angelina said...

Also, my Chanel analogy was not intended to put you or your friends down, but to illustrate the following point: we can appreciate and admire styles on other people that we would not wear ourselves.

So maybe we don't have to be worried so much about what other people might be thinking. Maybe it's totally appropriate to stick with our personal style.

(And yeah, a Chanel suit would be inappropriate at a BBQ. Thanks for cluing me in.)

Anonymous said...

Hmm this blog is getting really "wordy". It's really hard to read an essay with managers hovering around my cubicle.

erin said...

Angelina, you need to simmer down. You came here to make a point it seems, and when Jo addresses it (in a much less argumentative fashion, btw), you continue to make her point but this time with a sarcastic slam. I often disagree with our Editrix's ideas, both style and social, but I know she's smart enough to get whatever point it is I'm trying to make on the first try.

I'm from Ohio and didn't find this piece condescending at all. It was a story and got across a feeling she had. I didn't see here, as in other posts, a browbeating message.

but that's just my two cents...

sarahsouth said...

love your writing.

your musing makes me wonder:

is it possible to reach a point where feeling comfortable and confident go hand-in-hand? or do you think that's only attainable for people who are fashion-oblivious? can those who follow fashion dress as they please and derive confidence from their outfits no matter who their audience is?

i think it's possible... but it requires a hefty degree of immunity from others' judgments that's hard to attain. i suppose we're all on a spectrum. confidence for some people is internally based, while for others it's shaped more by external factors. of course, if external factors were totally irrelevant, trends and fashion would probably not exist.

Melissa said...

First of all, who (except Nina) is aloud to call you 'Jo'? This post begs you to address a crucial topic for those in Detroit or Durham: your top tees. I'm talking designers such as Barking Irons (are they still around?) and Threadless or band tees. The Detroit and Durham uniform, at least among my friends, is a hip tee, vintage athletic shoes, and either skinny jeans or an a-line skirt. But you can flex a structured dress and 4-inch heels in NC anytime you like, Nina said so.

Melissa said...

I meant 'allowed' not 'aloud', pregnancy destroyed my brain cells in charge of spelling.

Anonymous said...

Delurking to comment on this post: I've been reading Johanna blog for a while now, and whilst I may not agree with a lot of what she has to say, I agree that people DO judge you for what you wear, no matter where you go, especially if it not considered socially acceptable within their circle. Case in point: when I first moved to DC to go to law school, I came from a city much like NYC, very fashionable and very, very trendy. In fact, it was considered inappropriate to dress dowdy at the office.

Thus, when I went to the welcome orientation, I wore a pencil skirt, with stilettos and my Prada tote bag; this is what they did in my old town. Suffice to say I felt like Elle Woods when she first went to Harvard Law School. Everyone else was wearing jeans and not only did I get the "look," people started whispering and staring, and I was told that I was being "flashy." So, it goes both ways. Judgment can come from either side and it's not a very good feeling either way. Sometimes tweaking your wardrobe to "fit in" is a good method to put your best foot forward. Cheers!