if a chic falls in the forest…

Source

Lovely reader Cecilia sent the following note to “les femmes” (yours truly and Tish of A Femme d’un Certain Age). I think this speaks to a challenge that many of us have faced: dressing to fit in vs. dressing in accordance with our personal style. Today we both respond.

Dear Unefemme and afemme,

My question: Are you chic if no one around you thinks you are?

I am writing to you both because I would like to get both a French and American point of view on my question.

I am a 56-year old woman who is often told I look at least a decade younger. I credit this to good genes from my mom and staying out of the sun for the past three decades. I have always tried to dress in what I would describe as a classically elegant way; however, over the past ten years, I had resorted to a very basic wardrobe of either jeans or black pants and a t-shirt, turtleneck or blouse in synthetic fabrics (or cotton) and bright colors. I did not buy the cheapest clothes, but certainly not high quality ones either. During that period, I put on and took off the same 15 pounds. Although it has been almost three years and I had stabilized at about + 10 lbs. over my weight at age 18, I still did not want to invest a lot of money in my wardrobe until I finally lost those 10 pounds. About 6 months ago, I decided to accept my size 8 weight (low by American standards and high by Parisian standards). I started reading a lot of fashion blogs and have found that your two blogs are most aligned to my tastes.

I have read your book Tish, as well as the one you recommended by Inès de La Fressange and really love all your, Ines’ and unefemme’s suggestions on how to dress. I have been buying fewer, much higher quality pieces and having started wearing them to work. I feel so much better!! I really was quite surprised at first. I am an administrative assistant at a large hospital in an outlying suburb of a mid-Atlantic state in the US. I never felt it was worth spending money on nice clothes because very few people in this area wear nice clothes. This brings me to my question.

While I wholeheartedly embrace the French way of dressing, few people here do. This may sound like a vain, silly thing to say, but, while I feel so much better about how I dress, I have received very few compliments. In fact, the only time I receive compliments is when I wear a bright color or a statement necklace. (These were a few pieces I bought when I first start viewing fashion blogs written by younger women in the U.S.). So, I guess my question is, are you really chic, if no one around you thinks you are? (If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?)

I am a native New Yorker, who lived in Brooklyn, Queens and then Manhattan for until I was 26, and I have always felt that my clothing choices did not fit it here. I even stopped wearing certain things because I felt I would stand out too much. Not because I was dressing in a tacky, garish way, but because I was dressing in a chic, elegant way. As I said, I prefer chic. Most women here dress in very inexpensive, poorly made clothes and walk around with low-designer handbags with large logos purchased from outlet stores. This makes me sound like a snob, I fear, but I don’t like wearing logos, big or small. Yet, I am the one who doesn’t fit in (and I don’t want to)!

So, again, are you chic if no one around you thinks you are?

I would love your thoughts on this question.

Thank you both for your great blogs. I will continue to follow both of them as I build my Parisian Chic wardrobe.

The short answer: yes, of course you are!

The long answer: “chic” is one of those very subjective (and often overused and mis-used) terms that often has different meanings depending on who is wielding it. Here’s what “chic” means to me: smart, simple, put-together, dressing in accordance with one’s taste and lifestyle, with attention to quality, fit and incorporating a soupçon (or even a large ladle) of individuality. I think it’s hard to feel chic when you are dressing to please others rather than yourself.

Sometimes that means you are out of step with those around you. But if you are confident in your choices, if your clothing feels like a part of you, that’s bound to come through. If you feel good about what you’re wearing and projecting, people will react to that even if they do not notice or respond to you style choices.

“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”

― Coco Chanel

Isn’t choosing what to wear about presenting our best self to the world? Chic is as much about attitude as style. And I’d bet good money that there are people who admire your style, even if they do not say anything.

Still, the pull to feel like one belongs in one’s community can be strong. And cultural norms change over time. I think you have the right instinct: to add an accessory or two that nods to what those around you find stylish, while at the same time staying true to what feels right for you.

I looks forward to reading what Tish has to say…go here to find out.

And Cecilia, thank you.

Bon weekend!

Stay in touch.

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21 Comments

  1. susie
    October 10, 2014 / 3:27 am

    Oh yes, you are chic allright- in your own territory, as I ask: Can you honestly run to WalMart in a pair of clean or dirty stretchpants and a Duck hunter t shirt- (or the shirt you also wore yesterday…) or can you run by the Mall in your tennis clothes you have yet to break a sweat in to run a quick errand, or pop by a supermarket straight out off the sofa? These are the moments that speak volumes about ourselves. How we present ourselves all the time, not just to get to work or go to a party………I want to be dressed how I feel the best about how I look all the time!!

  2. Patricia
    October 10, 2014 / 4:00 am

    Like Celia, I tend to dress in a classic, understated way that I think is pretty chic. But yesterday I wore a bright patterned blazer that I almost gave away because I didn’t feel comfortable in so much pattern near my face. Boy, did I get the compliments on that jacket. You’ll notice I say “compliments on that jacket,” not compliments on how I I looked in that jacket. I think people tend to respond to bright things, perhaps because those items almost beg to be noticed.

    I agree with une femme when she says that people probably are noticing and admiring the way you dress, but may not say anything. And even if your coworkers don’t appreciate the way you look, I bet that others with whom you come in contact (on the street, on the bus, etc.) do. You are probably inspiring leagues of women with your outfits but don’t even know it! 🙂

    As une femme suggests, you might want to add some different accessories or periodically change up what you’re wearing a bit so that what you wear isn’t predictable. It bothers me a bit when someone says of an outfit in a store: “that looks like Patricia…” Every now and then, I like to wear something that doesn’t look like me, but still is something I feel good in.

  3. October 10, 2014 / 5:13 am

    I dress completely different from the other teachers in the high school where I teach and actually…I love it. I think it is more important for me to be confident and feel great than for me to conform to what others my age are wearing around me. Chic is always in style and confidence is always attractive. Own it and don’t worry about it! Love this post…thanks to Celia for reaching out to two of my favorite bloggers.

  4. October 10, 2014 / 5:27 am

    Well, Chérie,

    You did it again, a perfect analysis of “fitting in and being individual.” After living in France for almost three decades “fitting in” means looking like yourself, not like everyone else. Interestingly though (at least for me) when I was at a divine party in Florida in February I discovered that my way of dressing was much more subdued and understated than the other women. It was fascinating to me. The women looked lovely, many in bright colors, and there I was in my black and white. I know though that warm climates tend to imply colourful clothes.

    Your headline is hilarious.

    Hope you’re having a wonderful time and that you’re not too, too jet-lagged.

    Pam, you are giving your students a great lesson and a wonderful gift.

    xo,
    Tish

  5. Louise
    October 10, 2014 / 6:29 am

    People are funny about compliments.They often comment on the clothing than on your total look, perhaps feeling that the latter might be misconstrued or might cross some workplace code of behavior. Or maybe they think that perhaps you get lots of many compliments all the time because you are well-dressed — why add one more? Rather than worrying about what others think, celebrate that you are healthy, well-dressed and gainfully employed (and with health insurance)! Blessings all!

  6. DocP
    October 10, 2014 / 6:41 am

    I must disagree – just a bit. Of course, you are still chic. While no one should blindly follow the herd, clothes send a powerful social signal. Dressing too differently sends the message “I don’t belong” to the group. People who know you well will usually just assume, “that is how she dresses” and get on with life, but your style of dress at times may be an unspoken barrier. Only you can decide if you care or if it is important for your job and/or social relationships. There are probably ways to adapt your look without compromising on fit or quality – easily changed out accessories can be one, the judicious use of color another.

  7. October 10, 2014 / 6:48 am

    Great thoughts and advice. I find I must be true to myself and be a classic woman! Jeans and a sweatshirt or worse can be the norm when you go to the store…I do not want to look like that. Jeans with a crisp white shirt or turtleneck and jacket with scarf, casually elegant as I call it!

    xoxo
    Karena
    The Arts by Karena

  8. Hostess
    October 10, 2014 / 7:09 am

    What an interesting topic and one that will resonate with me for awhile. I think you need to dress to please yourself and not necessarily for others but I do understand how one likes to fit in with a peer group. Compliments might not be flowing but I am sure people must notice how chicly that you are dressed, they even might be a bit threatened by the simplicity and have a quiet respect for your restraint. Coco Chanel dressed for herself and was very different in her approach to style, yet today her fashion is iconic and timeless, the ultimate in chic…I think you should stay the course and be comfortable in your chic choices, you may even find a few of your peers will take note and those compliments may follow.
    Thank you for sharing your story here.

  9. October 10, 2014 / 7:16 am

    I do hope never to fit with anyone, but that you know.
    Have a lovely weekend
    I will see you Monday.
    XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

  10. Susan P. Frierson
    October 10, 2014 / 7:39 am

    Personally, I think she has bigger issues at play… The place she has chosen to live (mid-atlantic suburbs) is not in alignment with who she really is. She feels like an outsider (and superior) to the people she lives and works around. They aren’t of her ilk.

    She should really consider moving back to NYC – or to a more urban area – for two reasons. One, because she will enjoy being around like-minded folk, and two, because the act of constantly judging people who are just living out their own lives (and enjoying their knock-off purses) begins to wear on you emotionally after awhile.

    I am not saying this in a mean-spirited way, but rather, as a reflection of my own experience. I lived in Richmond VA for over 20 years, and felt like a total outsider myself. The books I read weren’t of any interest to the people in my neighborhood who read romance novels. My tastes in art, music, and literature seemed snobbish. I didn’t care about soccer games and swim meets like they did.

    After much soul-searching, I ended up selling my big house in the suburbs, and all of my belongings, to move to a teeny tiny apt on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That was 12 years ago, and it was the best thing I ever did. I am in perfect alignment with my surroundings, very happy, and far less judgemental.

  11. E E Faris
    October 10, 2014 / 7:51 am

    I have lived in six different states in the past ten years, and I can completely identify with Celia. I hope she continues to hold the line, and wish the same for myself. Because if you don’t feel pretty then it does not matter what one wears.
    This is different than taking into account the climate, as was so cleverly managed in the recent posts on packing for Hong Kong.
    In defense of the locals: I believe that sometimes women give up because they go into department stores that are filled with what marketers have decided is right for a certain demographic. And this results in a profound underestimation, combined with the cynical practice of only offering the garments cheapest to make (cheap fabric, cheap construction).
    To me, there is a huge disconnect between what one sees in fashion magazines and blogs and what is available to buy. And heaven help a woman who has special sizing requirements.
    I can go through a mall in the Midwest or the South and not see a single thing that I would want to buy. It always seems focused on the lowest common denominator.

    • October 10, 2014 / 10:15 am

      Your statement hit home to me. I have always had problems finding clothes I like where I live. I’m red haired and blue eyed – the majority of people in my area are Hispanic, Asian, Persian. There are lots of lovely clothes if you have darker skin and hair, but none for me! I’ve found myself shopping exclusively on line lately, with the exception of one store near my home.

    • Cecilia
      October 10, 2014 / 10:17 am

      Hello Une Femme. I am thrilled that you and A Femme have addressed my question! Thank you so much for your kind words and great advice. Thank you also to all your readers who provided their own thoughtful comments. It certainly does appear that I am not the only one who feels a bit like a fish out of water. I just would like to say two things–I do not wish to criticize those around me who choose to dress differently, I do not “judge a book by its cover”. And, I also don’t feel a great need for complements. It is just that one feels that if others rarely complement you, you are doing something wrong. However, as many of you agree, we each have to be true to ourselves. I have long been one to “march to the beat of my own drummer”. Thanks again to all you lovely ladies and to you, Une Femme, for your kind comments. You have all made my day. And, to Susan P., you are most correct. I chose to move here to raise my children and it has been a wonderful place to do that; however, as of June 2015, my youngest child is off to college and I have plans to move on to a better place for me. Wish me luck! Cecilia

    • Ellen
      October 10, 2014 / 1:11 pm

      I think this is a major problem (being one who lives in a midwestern city), and its hard to get around it, especially if financial resources are limiting. And yet many of the stye resources: fashion mags, media personalities (listen to Zac Posen), are quite derogatory about these people (“it looks like something that came from the mall”). I worked in a professional position in more than one midwestern hospital, and I also have to add that I was seriously underpaid; for most healtch care employees, professional or not, mall stores are pretty much where the budget tops out.

      On the other hand, it is possible to become complacent about looking understated and chic, but maybe being so understated as to be boring. Its important to keep re-evaluating, and sometimes those investment pieces can be too much of a good thing. I am retired now, and as one of the first of the boomers, becoming invisible is an issue on so many levels. I’m actually looking to make a statement:”I’m still here” , not only in the way I dress, but in many lifestyle and cultural issues. Its something (else) to think about.

    • Linn
      October 13, 2014 / 6:35 am

      Thanks, E.E., for defending the locals. There’s much out there that doesn’t go up to my size (US 14) & it’s easy to get disheartened (or perhaps disheartened is the same as Normcore?). Add to that the few local high end boutiques that judge you by your size — they’re much more helpful when I shop with my 20-something daughter, but when I’m solo I am just not worthy. So yeah, I end up looking dated (or classic?) because I hold on to my older, well-made clothes & don’t see much worth buying these days.

  12. Molly
    October 10, 2014 / 11:48 am

    I am acquainted with several French women who live in the same US city as me. One in my book club, one the French teacher at my kids’ high school, and one a parent of a boy on my son’s soccer team. What impresses me about their style is how they have managed to both fit in to the general look of the women around them, yet retain a definite French flair. Thus, the soccer mom shows up to a Saturday morning match in jeans and jacket like the rest of us, but somehow looks more stylish and chic. I wonder how these women would dress in Celia’s situation — maybe the real skill of French dressing (I use that term to include all those who have the knack for it, regardless of nationality) is to incorporate the norms of the herd but somehow elevate them and make them both personal and stylish?

  13. Lynn
    October 10, 2014 / 2:29 pm

    I sense some air of superiority here, just to point out. Not every one can afford designer bags or buying clothes from fashionable brand. Not to get personal, I love this blog and check it here often; however, I am unable to afford the fashion featured here. I make top 5% salary but am unable to afford $1000 bags, $400 cardigan, $700 jacket, $200 hair cut, etc. I think these things really add up.

    I think dressing nicely, chic or fab or elegant, so much of it is for ourselves, not for others. I bet most patients you encounter wil only remeber your smiles, your professional courtesy. They most likely have no clue what clothes you were wearing. Honestly, who cares. You enjoy clothes, do it for yourself.

    • October 11, 2014 / 6:49 am

      As a sixty-something retiree on a limited income I once balked at the thought of spending a lot of money on clothing and accessories. Then I realized that by shopping carefully I can find well-fitting, high quality items often at sale prices that are a much better value than many of the “fast fashion” offerings. A major insight for me was realizing that I don’t need a LOT of clothes to dress well.

      Over the past few years I have curated a core wardrobe of well-made clothes that I feel and look good in and I have probably spent less money than my neighbors who are constantly replenishing closets full of poor quality ill-fitting clothes. For example, I am still wearing a pair of jeans that cost me over $100 (on sale!) about 7 years ago. They still look nice and the fit often garners compliments. My raincoat is 18 years old and water still beads up on it. Looking at cost per wear is key for me. My jeans and raincoat have cost me only pennies per day over time.

      I dress in what makes me feel good; sometimes I get compliments but it doesn’t matter if I don’t. When I read the blogs and salivate over some of the clothing items I think about what I might need and what I can afford. I use the examples only as a style guide. If I see something I like I save my money and wait for sales on my favorite brands. If I can’t find an affordable item I do without. I know I can manage to dress in the manner in which I like to present myself without breaking the bank because I shop based on my core wardrobe needs which usually means replacing an item after years of wear or simply adding a seasonal accessory.

  14. October 10, 2014 / 3:22 pm

    Ah, our 50s. It’s a challenging time in so many ways. I have heard menopause described as “reverse puberty,” and I think there’s a great deal of truth to that, not only in terms of biological changes but also in terms of psychological ones. Feeling “out of step” with others can be part of it.

    I could go on and on (and on), but I will just quote one of my yoga teachers, Julie Lawrence: “Sometimes the struggle is exactly what we need to become more fully who we are.”

  15. Duchesse
    October 11, 2014 / 9:47 am

    Compliments, especially given by people with limited exposure, are usually about the giver: I’d like to wear that. So getting complimented by someone with a marked aesthetic difference to mine is actually an “uncompliment”. I don’t take that personally, but at the same time I realize I’m only dressed in they way they like.

    Excellent advice! May I expand only a tiny part of your definition, Pseu? Chic need not be simple. McQueen, Galliano, Lacroix and other designers are chic but not simple. But the simple-chic clothes are way more wearable for those of us living everyday working lives!

  16. October 13, 2014 / 11:32 am

    Celia’s question – and the many wonderful, thoughtful responses – reminded me of this line from a book by one of my favorite authors, Alice Adams: “Lucienne wore, that afternoon, an old Balenciaga, whose extreme chic no one in the room could recognize; they thought her rather plain, with her short gray hair, that brown dress, no jewelry to speak of.”

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