Morphing la mode - une femme d'un certain âge

Morphing la mode

Picture from here.

Back around third grade during science class, we were introduced to the concept of body somatypes (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph). Though the concept of body types was originally developed in the 1940’s in part to catalog personality traits attributable to each (not surprisingly, now debunked), the somatypes are still used today to generalize basic physical traits.

I remember my eight-year-old self thinking, “aha! I’m an endomorph!” Yet despite the fact that somatypes were presented as inherited and relatively immutable, the idea that having a rounder body was indicative of basic flaws of character (weakness, greediness) also held sway, at least in my family and culture. So I spent decades trying to starve my endomorphic body into ectomorphism. Even at my thinnest, I never achieved the willowy, angular look I so coveted. At best, I achieved a smaller version of my softer, rounded self. (I remember my first boyfriend who used to pinch the “flab” around my waist, even when I weighed 99 pounds. Yes, I eventually broke up with him.)

Fast forward a few decades, and I was re-introduced to the concept of body somatypes at Imogen Lamport’s workshop in May. It turns out that ectomorphs are best suited to more structured styles, endomorphs to more soft styles, and mesomorphs will probably look best with a middling amount of structure. The hedonistic part of me has always loved and gravitated toward clothing that flows and drapes, though I’ve spend many years trying to wear more tailored, structured styles in the name of “professional” dressing, and in an attempt to emulate classic looks that have inspired me since I was a girl and first became aware of fashion.

But lately those stiffer fabrics and more architectural garments just haven’t felt right, and I’ve slowly been moving toward softer silhouettes. I still need to look polished and professional for work (“professional” being much more casual than a decade ago), but cardigan sweaters have been inching out the more constructed jackets, and tees or silk jersey shells have replaced woven blouses.

Call the resulting aesthetic “Hippie Chic” or maybe “Bourgeois Bohemian,” but I really can’t see myself going back toward a more strictly tailored, structured style. Regardless of the nomenclature, I seem to be getting closer to creating a wardrobe mix that integrates what works best for my body with the basic stylistic elements that have always appealed to me (clean, simple, natural, chic). That accord between body and head seems to be an essential component of bien dans sa peau, without which “ageing gracefully” is next to impossible. As someone who has always felt pulled in conflicting directions style-wise, and has been (probably unduly) influenced by others’ style pronouncements, having more of these “click” moments where what I’m wearing feels Just Right is like a balm on my psyche.

What about you? How do you incorporate what appeals to you aesthetically with what works best for your body type? Has the formula changed as you’ve matured?
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22 Comments

  1. July 15, 2009 / 1:50 pm

    That’s so interesting. I’m probably technically a mesomorphy, i.e. prone to muscle more than anything else. I have found that once I crossed the 50 barrier I had to give up the cardigans and move to jackets. Go structured. That the unstructured look that had made me look, in my mind, fluid, flexible, now made me look, um, dumpy.

  2. July 15, 2009 / 2:06 pm

    Meso, but passing as endo when thin b/c I’m tall. I have shed really structured clothing as I get older, just because it doesn’t feel good and makes me look (IMO) kind of uptight and stiff. But I do love beautifully cut clothes and have learned that just because a piece does not have a lot of structure, it still can be marvelously cut.

    I had a boyfriend who dumped me b/c we went to a rock concert, it rained, and my laboriously ironed-straight hair ended up wildly curly.

  3. July 15, 2009 / 2:23 pm

    As always a very interesting post.
    Personally I always feel more inclined to a hippie kind of style but for professional reasons and because floating styles don’t go particulary well with my body type I’ve never worn them.
    I think that now that I’m aSAHM and can dress as I please I’m heading towards letting my inner hippie have it’s saying without loosing to much structure.

  4. July 15, 2009 / 3:06 pm

    I’d say I’m probably on the meso side of endo (or the endo side of . . .), and I do love the flowy but guard against it as I haven’t much height. Like you, I’ve been moving towards getting the flow in more controlled, clean lines — long, slim, finely-knit cardigans, especially.
    good post!

  5. Dea
    July 15, 2009 / 3:59 pm

    “Yet despite the fact that somatypes were presented as inherited and relatively immutable, the idea that having a rounder body was indicative of basic flaws of character (weakness, greediness) also held sway, at least in my family and culture.”

    Just before I came to your blog this morning I was horrified as I read the article and especially the comments at the following link:
    http://www.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/feature/2009/07/15/regina_benjamin/
    Or if that doesn’t work, try
    http://tinyurl.com/nswllc

    It’s pretty obvious to me from both the Salon article & its comments that the prevailing cultural attitude still remains that size/shape/body types are indicative of character. As if it’s not enough that Dr. Benjamin has had to overcome any cultural or institutional prejudices of being born black and female, and though her achievements and dedication are unquestionable, she’s now subjected to public scrutiny directed at the size and shape of her body. It begs the question: would a portly man of similar accomplishment suffer similarly harsh scrutiny?

    Plus ca change, plus ca meme.

    So I image-googled Regina Benjamin to see what the fuss was all about.
    http://tinyurl.com/mff6gv
    It would seem Dr. Benjamin has not gotten the memo about unstructured looks for endomorphs. It’s also apparent that Dr. Benjamin’s wardrobe choices closely mirror others in her profession.

    Much as I believe that personal choices regarding things such as wardrobe and decor originate in the purely practical, I also believe strongly that these choices have strong semiotic associations (both conscious and unconscious). We’re social animals…it’s our nature to transmit and interpret such signs and symbols.

    Whether an aesthetic is highly cultivated or developed with minimum effort, I think it’s fair to consider the nonverbal information we share. Where I draw the line is when character judgements are inferred from essential genetic information. Ultimately I don’t think it matters whose idea was the peachy cardigan sweater vs. the tailored business suit, or even why. What matters is the information imparted and received, and both the wearer’s and viewers comfort level with that message… i.e. what is being expressed and how well is it being received?

    (And though this may be a digression, I can’t help thinking about these messages within context. What do the costumes tell us about Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo, for instance? Would all hell break loose on the train if the Captain were out of uniform? And is Rogers only maintain that sense of casual dominion within the confines of his neighborhood? Is that why he needs the sportcoat when he’s away from home? Or aren’t these garments really symbols that, while providing for warmth & modesty, also indicate “here’s how I am with myself, and also how I am to you” — two differing messages of calm and security to a young audience?)

    And yes, beneath that all is the goal of bien dans sa peau. Good luck to Dr. Benjamin and to us all.

  6. July 15, 2009 / 5:00 pm

    LPC – it’s funny, but I started having the same feeling about the more structured stuff…that it made me feel stiff and frumpy. I still have some jackets that see a lot of wear in cooler weather, but they tend to be of very simple cuts and lightweight, softer fabrics.

    Duchesse – that’s very true about less structured clothing being well cut. My Banana Republic shawl cardigans, though serviceable, don’t lay nearly as nicely on the body as the ones I’ve bought from Eileen Fisher. The latter seem to pay more attention to the fit and how the garment will drape.

  7. July 15, 2009 / 5:04 pm

    nurmisur – it sounds like your situation is allowing you to experiment more with your style. As Duchesse mentioned in a recent post, so often there’s such a wide gap between our work and home styles.

    Sher – yes, definitely have been stocking up on cute cardigans in recent months! I think you’ve definitely found a mix that works well for you. And I’m with ya on comfort! I won’t wear anything that binds or pinches or digs.

  8. July 15, 2009 / 5:15 pm

    materfamilias – yes, the trick is to get the flow without the volume, and to keep the lines clean and horizontal. I’ve learned to avoid anything that has the word “chunky” in the description!

    Dea – I generally find Salon to be a bastion of fat bashing, at least from the commenters. People who would blanch at judging someone based on skin color or hair texture have no similar compunctions about judgements based on body shape. One note about Dr. Benjamin’s pictures you’ve linked to, they almost all appear to be professional, PR-type pics. If I were to have my picture professionally taken for a work situation, I’d probably don a suit too.

    Interesting your comments about signalling. I think one of the reasons I’ve also moved away from suits and more structured traditional work wear is that our corporate environment has changed a LOT in the last few years, and “corporate drag” as Duchesse calls it seemed to be signalling too much rigidity, hierarchy, and distance from staff and co-workers. One of my IRL work style icons is one of the attorneys who always looks very pulled together, but with softer silhouettes and clean, modern jewelry. I’m pretty sure she pays a fortune for her wardrobe but she signals “professional and approachable.” That’s what I’m going for.

  9. Anonymous
    July 15, 2009 / 5:23 pm

    In my 50’s, ‘loosening up’ is what I move toward. Tight clothing, tight shoes, tight hair – none of that works for me anymore. (Not does a tight attitude, for that matter!) To keep the professionalism going, I try to blend softer colors & fabrics with classic shapes. Long boho skirts won’t work for me in the office, but a Boho-influenced top with a more tailored pair of slacks or underneath a softly structured jacket seems to hit the right balance.

  10. Jen
    July 15, 2009 / 5:48 pm

    The tone of this post is so lovely — your writing conveys how good you are feeling. I remember the “strict” dressing post from some time back, and that didn’t sound fun at all. This seems to be a much more comfortable approach for you, in every sense.

  11. July 15, 2009 / 7:04 pm

    Jen: In France, “strict” is style of dressing, which is not constrained or formal (as I’ve heard term is applied occasionally in North America); it’s refined and quite simple, relying on the beauty of fabric and cut rather than embellishment. A French woman might refer to a colour palette as “strict” meaning it is not wild, jumpy, teeming with colour. For example, strict would not mix three prints in one ensemble, but it can include wit and verve. I’m offering this comment as clarification because I like the style, and it’s elusive.

  12. July 15, 2009 / 9:45 pm

    Anon – a Boho-influenced top with a more tailored pair of slacks or underneath a softly structured jacket seems to hit the right balance. Yes, that’s what I’m talking about! I’m not showing up at the office looking like Stevie Nicks, but just incorporating some different elements.

    Jen – thanks! Actually, in some ways I’m still able to incorporate the elements of “strict” (clean lines, good fabrics) that initially drew me to that aesthetic. But I’m not trying to copy that look exactly.

  13. July 15, 2009 / 9:47 pm

    Sal – I was definitely heading in that direction, but Imogen’s workshop helped me to understand *why* and to better clarify what will work for me, both in the sense of what works for my body and conveying a stylistic message that’s more aligned with who I am now.

  14. Sher
    July 15, 2009 / 2:48 pm

    You’ve got me thinking that I should probably look through my wardrobe. I know my style has changed as I’ve matured.

    In my 20’s it was tight, short and my interpretation of sexy. Think of Ally McBeal suits.

    After I had kids, I went to the other extreme of loose, baggy and on the verge of frumpy. Think of Lands End and Little House on the Prairie merging.

    Now I do like structure, but boy do I go for comfort first (except in shoes;D) Love my knit jeans. Taking advantage that Cardi’s are instyle. Actually I’m more comfortable at being “me” than every before.

    Great Post Deja!

  15. July 15, 2009 / 10:06 pm

    Interesting – glad that it’s helped you redefine your style.

    All the more tailored clothes I have are in softer fabrics – so jackets made from knitted fabrics, or softer fabrics rather than more classic suiting fabrics and the like.

  16. July 15, 2009 / 10:36 pm

    Regardless of age/weight I have always favored fitted, somewhat structured clothing. I seem to be somewhat between endo and meso lately. More endo for the majority of my life though.

    My clothing has never been stiff though. I have worn a suit maybe 3 times in my life. The shapes/style that look good on me have stayed pretty constant. I have always worn a lot of vintage mixed with modern, and I think vintage clothing allows you to find your shape and what works on it without pressure.

    I tend to feel feel claustrophobic yet at the same time lost/swimming in too much flowyness

  17. July 15, 2009 / 10:49 pm

    hahaha — when I saw the meso and endo, all I could think of was that I’ve morphed into my Ukranian great-grandma – short, round, stocky. Needless to say, I avoid babushkas like the plague and tend toward a little bit of flow and something I can put shoulder pads in because I feel, delusionally perhaps, that they make me look a little bit taller and a little bit smaller in the waist.

  18. Sal
    July 15, 2009 / 7:39 pm

    Fascinating stuff, lady. I, too, long for structured, minimalistic garments, but am finding that they simply don’t suit me. Do you think it took Imogen’s input to really make you see the light about what styles truly suit YOU? Or were you headed down that road anyway?

  19. July 16, 2009 / 3:20 am

    Imogen – I feel like I’m still absorbing bits and pieces from the workshop…so much information!

    hollarback – I’ve also found that vintage garments not only are generally better constructed and fitted, but the fabrics seem to drape better, even on items like jackets. I wish I had more time to really shop the vintage stores in LA.

    FB – do you find that being an ecto makes it easier to shop and wear the styles you prefer?

  20. July 16, 2009 / 3:22 am

    Toby – I too seem to have some of that stout European peasant stock in my ancestry. Shoulder pads if done right can help jackets hang better.

  21. FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com
    July 15, 2009 / 10:41 pm

    Definitely an ectomorph with apple-like tendencies 🙂

  22. July 16, 2009 / 6:49 am

    I especially hear you on the being torn between different “me’s” part. I’ve gone through a: I’m totally classy, a I’m so casual it nearly hurts and many other periods already and I’m only 25. Atm I try to face the person that I really am and the features that my body displays and then bring my wardrobe into accordance with that.
    What I’d love to achieve is what I call a “french version” of me, in the sense that when I step out the door, the things that I’m wearing look like I had no other choice but to put them on, because they are just right for me.
    That’s the feeling you’ve got with those french women, isn’t it? They always just look about right.

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