Posture, Poise, Elegance. Part, I.

A lot of what I have written, so far, has covered areas of recent personal discovery on subjects I am only beginning to appreciate and understand. In this regard, I must hold myself to be a peculiar and imperfect model. So I thought I’d take a short moment, today, to discuss something that has always come a little more naturally to me, and that is posture.

Most everyone is familiar, from childhood, with the basic precepts of good posture. If our own parents didn’t scold us, we saw parents telling our counterparts on television: stomach in, sit up straight, shoulders back, head held high — that sort of thing. This is, I feel, a serious problem in talking about posture. None of that is wrong, really. Anyone who does these things on a regular basis is technically going to have better posture — at least in the sense that they are not straining their neck or back and are showing their poor stomach to best advantage.

But that is not helpful, in a social setting. Here we are looking at something to which posture, itself, is merely symptomatic, and that is poise. Poise is looking and feeling confident, calm, and self-assertive. Whether a person comes across as intense or easygoing, their sense of poise is a critical factor in calculating that person’s social charisma. We want poise, and posture is a huge factor in that. But here is where things get tricky.

 

Postural Stasis.

If you have ever watched people who feel uncomfortable with their surroundings, you will see them pull off a pretty close imitation of what we normally think of as good posture. Legs together, spine rigid, they do not come across as poised. Their posture may be an improvement over their normal, slouching state, but they do not come across the better, for it. Why? They are being formal. Their posture shows them to be pulling in on themselves. That formality signals an unwillingness to relate with others. They are immediately seen to be “stand-offish.”

What is the difference, here? Well, the first is in the shoulders. They are generally not held back, but scrunched forward, if only a little, in self-protection. But the real difference is stasis. Social interest is primarily indicated through movement, and when we allow our bodies to get stiff, our “good” posture conveys aloofness or discomfort. My grandparents’ generation would have referred to their posture as “stiff as a poker” or “poker-backed,” and if you imagine someone holding their back as straight and unyielding as a fire poker, you have a fairly clear image of how this posture comes across.

Take a look at some of the great villains of cinematic history. These are not people who pace about and flail their arms. They are people who command presence by their inactivity, who only move suddenly and rigidly. The first person who comes to mind for me (nerd that I am) is Christopher Lee’s Saruman. The reason this behavior draws us in is because we inherently mistrust this stillness. It is deeply antisocial, and so it disturbs us.

Think of when and where people go out of their way to use good posture, and you can understand why inspiring this reaction would be more than a little problematic. Posture is emphasized in high-performance situations where we deeply care about the outcome of our appearance. Whether it’s a job interview or approaching a potential love interest, the outcome of our interaction matters to us. And disturbing the other person is the last thing on our agenda.

 

What to do about it.

One of the most important things one can learn to do is practice good posture in motion. Sure, we spend much of our time sitting at an office desk, and good posture there can save our bodies pain, over extended periods. But for the social aspect of posture, I recommend taking a course in pilates or yoga with a teacher who is meticulous with body alignment. Pilates is especially helpful for its emphasis on finding and holding the spine neutral and strengthening the core (and especially the oft-overlooked pelvic floor) throughout the entire exercise program. What this does is retrain the body to experience posture as an active phenomenon — the first step in moving from “good posture” to real social poise.

 

Next time, a look into the social and psychological dimensions of poise: how to share space with other people.

Pyjama Craze

Five days ago, the last of my college applications was turned in. How gladly must I now rejoice! And, cooped up as I am by an unseemly gorgeous bout of snow, I am cabin-feverish enough to embark on a glorious sewing project. And so, I am determined to make myself pyjamas. Well, not technically pyjamas. It is actually a nightgown, but nightdress is nightdress, and most nightdress these days goes by the name of pyjama. I have several prospects, but all look to be fairly simple, elegant projects, difficult only in the delicacy of the material from which I might choose to make them.

Nightdress is a bit of an odd choice of topic for a fashion blog, as the sort of gown I am interested cannot qualify as lingerie and thus are not generally intended to excite romantic attention or be presented to anyone else in the world. This being said, I have found one thing to be true, over the course of recent years. The more shabbily I dress to bed, the less inclined I am to dress well, the morning after. If I sleep in a t-shirt, I am rather inclined get into a t-shirt and sweats. Waking up in handmade cotton nightgowns provides an unusual sort of social context — as I can well attest, my grandmother having made so many of them for me, in the past. There is something deeply historical about it, especially if the fabric itself has an old-fashioned feel to it, and as a child I would imagine myself to be living on the American frontier in the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, waking up to some huge blizzard (which, given snowfall in the year I began these imaginings, was not so very great a stretch of the imagination). During the day, I would be a gypsy woman in an old green verticle-striped nightdress I inherited from my mother’s college years. The more adventurous the association made, the greater the impact on my daily life. And what can be more adventurous than a handmade garment? To this day, these sorts of associations can give me a sense of propriety or modest delicacy or similar sentiment that connects me to a half-remembered past where appearance was, indeed, important. And as such, it naturally occurs to me without much effort, to dress well the following morning. Subconscious though it usually is, I find it highly motivating.

I am deeply curious to know if anyone out there has similar tokens to remind them to dress well? My sister, who in high school alternated between ‘fashionista’ and ‘jock’, would always dress well, when she was carrying her very fancy purse to school (and, given that she was using it as her book bag, this was not so much an accessory as the foundation of her entire wardrobe). Please let me know if you (or someone you know) have similar ‘tricks’ to keep you motivated to look your best! On a similar note, did you ever have everyday clothes that inspired your imagination, as my nightdresses did? Please tell me your favourites and how they inspired you, in your childhood!

To Long for Long, or Not to Long for Long?

I am beginning to have mixed feelings about my hair. As you will recall, when I first cut it, I intended to grow it out, again. That has not transpired. I just recently cut it short again, in a style reminiscent of (and in fact inspired by) Orlando Bloom’s hair in the movie Troy. I love it. It is delightfully androgynous, equal parts urban chic and boyish charm. But that is not the problem.

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Hair Wars: The Long and the Short of It

The problem is that I know longer know where I am headed. Shall I continue wearing my hair short, or shall I grow it out, again? I am quite adamant that my hair must be worn long for my wedding, a few years out, even if that means wearing wigs. It would almost be offensive, at a personal level, to do otherwise. I feel that in my gut and brain, alike. But curiously, that does not translate over to my decision-making for the everyday. Clearly, long hair is important to me in a ritual sense. But that, in itself, is not a reason to grow out my hair. I have several years, at least, until my wedding (ours is a very long-term engagement), and so it does not have a direct bearing on my decision.

My thoughts are further complicated by the knowledge that what I am comparing my cut hair to is not, itself, full length, but rather the length I had it when I graduated high school. Unfortunately, it has been three-and-a-half years, since then, and frankly I don’t remember that haircut very well, beyond a very vague memory of a favorable impression and that it still responded well to curlers. Lucky for me, cameras were invented before that time.

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Yup, I wore a sari to the Prom.

So between the two, I am coming upon a very difficult decision, in the near future. It is primarily an ideological one, which puts this strikingly at odds with my other attempts to master my fashion sense. But while I am uncomfortable with the notion of putting ideology before the impression I convey to others, I am more uncomfortable still with continuing to conceive of my “Self” in a way that I no adequately longer represent, externally (i.e., a shorthaired “longhair”). Who knows? Perhaps there is a happy medium.

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Cleaning House

As applications season wears on, I find the task of dressing well increasingly frustrating. I have given up on my hair, altogether, and when I can avoid leaving the house, I wear whatever seems most comfortable, without much regard for appearance.

I will be glad when this task is over. Applications is largely a matter of regurgitating the past and projecting into the future. It leaves little room for the present applicant. Nonetheless, in some sense it feels like cleaning house. I have brought my accomplishments to the forefront and laid aside some old concepts about myself that no longer represent my current position in life. If it weren’t so heady and stressful, it would be quite a lot like what I am doing here. Except that what I am doing here is largely constructive. There is no looming deadline, no price to pay for being merely adequate in my performance, no sudden swings between the ecstasy of self-affirmation and the depths of frustration, no sudden bouts of dread or radical ambivalence.

But if it hurts, a little, it can be a great catalyst for change, yet another place of separation between the old and new. As it happens, I am house sitting, this week, and I will be gone to Canada, come Christmas, so there will be plenty of other things to distance me from my past, as well. But of course, that distance comes at a price. If I abandon this blog and its mission, during this stressful period, then that may well prevent me from returning to my goal with the same zeal I carried, earstwhile. Hence this blog entry, dull though it might be to read. I hope to be back with you soon, my as yet non-existent audience.

See ya! ;)

In Times of Trouble

Being as I am in the middle of applying to various graduate schools – the first of which have their deadlines at the beginning of December, I can currently attest, firsthand, to the destructive nature of stress on fashion, in general, and on attempts to develop a positive sense of style. Nothing removes the necessity of fine clothing more than shutting oneself up in ones room to fill out forms and write essays and statements of purpose. The art of discrimination is turned inward, and the only emphasis on appearances is conveyed through the written word, not the external presentation. For now, at least.

That being said, I am still applying to jobs and visiting professors and counselors and all manner of people to whom I should not look like the slovenly wreck that I currently am. So what’s a girl to do? I have found my answer in a number of short, grey dresses with built-in belts. All are very distinctive, but being one-piece garments, they present a very formulaic and routine means to getting dressed. All I need to wear is black shoes, hose, a slip, the dress, and some piece of jewelry or a touch of color, to stand out. Currently, I have a very striking broach on one of them – a Viking replica depicting Odinn’s horse Slefnir. It is one less thing to think about, when I am getting out of the house.

I cannot begin to describe how secure it makes me feel to know that I can operate this way, to know that I am representing myself well, without having to expend the conscious effort on this process that I so desperately need to conserve for my academic life, right now. The first thing I am going to do, after the angst of applications subsides is to buy myself a proper suit for mourning – a conservative black gown, accented only by blackwork and jet. Something that I would be appropriate to any funeral, and that need not distract my attention with what, at such times, seem such petty and trivial concerns. I cannot begin to describe how upset I was, as a child, leaving for the funeral of a man who was like an uncle to me, and watching my parents bicker over whether my mother’s skirt was appropriate for such an occasion. It seemed so far removed from everything I was thinking and feeling, even though I knew, deep down, that their concern was not so much for appearing “proper” or “elegant” as showing their devotion to him by honoring his memory through their dress.

In short, I am finding it wise to have pre-planned, easily assembled wardrobes for times of stress and sorrow. These should preferably be one-piece ensembles with built-in adornment and few areas for indecision or concern. In the case of clothing worn when sick, they should also be machine washable, in case of stomach upset. But most of all, they should be thought about in advance, in order to provide maximum comfort on one’s body and security in one’s self image.

Patterns Galore!!

My grandmothers are both beautiful women who grew up on farmlands, were orphaned as young teens in the Depression, and worked their way through most of their early lives. And despite the natural implications of this image, both were also extremely stylish young women.

This is my Nana (my mother’s mother):

And this is my Gramma (my father’s mother):

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They are both incredible women who have had a tremendous impact on me, both in terms of my perception of strength in femininity and the legacy their love and hard work will have on me for my entire life. Nana lived in Michigan, throughout my childhood, and eventually moved to a retirement community in Florida, so we do not get to see her as often as any of us would like. Fortunately, Gramma lives closer.

Indeed, I write this because the family visited her, yesterday. She is recovering from six broken ribs, right now (actually recovering, at age 91 — what a fighter she is!), but she still found time to usher my sister and me to her sewing room to scout out the most interesting patterns and pieces a lifetime of sewing has to offer. It is a veritable treasure trove. Gramma’s eyesight has been too finicky for sewing for some time, now, and the room itself is unfortunately cluttered beyond use. The closet is filled to the brim with beautiful handmade clothes, the walls stacked with shelves upon shelves of patterns sitting pretty in little shoeboxes for easy access. My sister and I take one shelf at a time, seeking out the most interesting and useful patterns for our purposes. And luckily for me, my sister’s tastes are so inherently different from mine as to present little competition, between the two of us!

When I get home, I sort the lot by Silhouette and place them gently in my filing cabinet. The options this presents me with are exceptional. If an easy-make item of clothing is not in fashion, I am able to simply make it myself. And when items of clothing do come into fashion, I have broad visual references of what I intend to wear with it. It’s all well and good to have a general idea of what ‘Silhouette A’ looks like, but to see it demonstrated over an extended period is extremely helpful to understanding its flexibility to current trends. And indeed, there have been several Silhouette concepts that I have not accepted for everyday wear precisely because the silhouette does not play out, over time, without significant changes. This does not mean I won’t wear these shapes, but it does mean that I am not deluding myself into thinking that these are ‘timeless’ pieces that I can center my entire wardrobe around.

More than anything, I think the sharing of information between grandmother and granddaughter is deeply important. Gramma is my father’s mother, so drawing on her considerable sewing expertise links us in a way that does not supersede my important functional relationship with my mother, who after all takes me shopping, listens to my crazy ideas, comments on my reference pictures, talks me out of wearing corsets to job interviews, and actually guides me through the sewing process when I get lost in the work or the machine starts talking back at me.

I am lucky. In an age when many girls do not have anyone to show them basic household skills (cooking from scratch or sewing functional fashion), much less any interest in absorbing such information, I have three wonderful women to light my way — even if I did come to it a little later in life than might be desired.

Post scriptum.

Nana cannot travel much, anymore, so these pictures are from the last time we were all together. I think I must have been a freshman in high school, or younger. I still have bangs and my trademark Jedi-braid.


Before vs. After

It’s been a while, and I must apologise, despite my current lack of audience. These pictures were taken a week ago, on the day I cut my hair. I am not able to tend to it so carefully, as it dries, as the woman at the salon, so it tends to hang a little longer, now, with looser curls — which, seeing as I am only just now learning how to dry my hair for optimal curl, is not so very bad, in my opinion. I especially like it worn a little messy with clean, crisp clothes for contrast.

One unexpected bonus is that, unlike my earlier attempt at shoulder-length hair, this look has almost zero maintenance. I do not have brush my hair or anything. I just use a little curl activator, after showering, and scrunch it up, as it dries. My normally floofy hair is happy to remain within its curls. When I wake up in the morning, I merely play with the part to balance the volume on each side of my head. It is already ready to go!

But the best part of this new ‘do is (not surprisingly) the silhouette it creates. Everyone who sees me has been telling me how tall I look. My hair, as long as it was before, tended to dwarf my head, whereas these short curls open up my face and draw attention to the length of my neck because of the gap between the curve of my bob and the curve of my shoulders. And with all that weight off my shoulders (literally) my neck is even learning to to stand a little taller than before.

Post scriptum. I’ll be adding ‘before’ shots to this post, just as soon as I can scavenge them from the other camera.

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