Women Unite Against Stupid Fashion (Thank you Michelle Obama)

This morning (December 6, 2008) Teri Agins wrote in the Wall Street Journal about fashion designers looking to Ms Obama for design inspiration for middle-aged women. As I read it I was hopeful, amused and chagrined. Clothes shopping has not been fun for quite awhile.  The vagaries of the “It” look, the “It” bag, and the emaciated celebrity have taken their toll. No matter how fit I am I am not going to change my proportions, coloring, and height. And, I’ll never give up my love of fashion and creating my own style.


As I read how fashion companies quickly added images of Ms Obama to their image books, videos, and storyboards a startlingly simple idea occurred to me. Why don’t fashion designers include looks for all shapes in a collection? I love jackets in tweed, wool, satin, leather, and cotton. But for the past few years I have been frustrated. Exhibit I: The short “It” jacket. For short waisted women, like me, the short jacket monopoly has meant that we have either had to do without, search endlessly for more-often-than- not uninspired longer models, or buy jackets that are not quite right. It seems to me that a smart designer who wants to stay in business and gain a large following would say, “I know that middle-aged women like contoured shapes” (as Ms Agins reports and I concur.) After all middle aged women need to show something for all those hours in the gym not to mention the need to move effortlessly through the day but also need jacket proportions that fit their shapes.” 


No short-waisted woman wants to look like she is wearing a sausage casing that’s been tied in the middle.  So while I love the color and length of the jacket that the tall, longer-waisted Ms Obama wears in the photo accompanying the article, the belt would never work for me. It would look ridiculous making my bust and hips meet most unhappily in the middle, just like a cinched sausage, not a pretty sight. So why doesn’t the smart designer make a set of jackets that while sharing common elements such as contouring, fabric and color palette provide proportions for both long-waisted and the short-waisted women?


Too complicated? Too time-consuming? Too costly for production? Too mundane? Or, perhaps, a lack of imagination? The designer might worry about not creating a signature look for the collection. How would magazines like Vogue, Bazaar, and W know what their headlines should read? How would store buyers know what to buy? Maybe what this says is that fashion merchandizing needs a whole new modus operandi.


On Project Runway, I cringe as I recall how difficult it was for the designers to create clothes for women other than their young, tall, and skinny models. For the most part their creations for other types of figures looked uninspired and dowdy. They were totally unflattering and painful to look at.

When shopping at even the best department and specialty stores I almost without exception find sales people who don’t know the merchandise, act like they are doing you a favor to wait on you, or are on some other planet as they blithely buzz by with, “Hi, my name is Alice, (or Amy or Alicia or whatever). Let me know if you need anything.” Of course you never see them again or if you do the Alice, Alicia, or Amy can’t help you anyway.


How many times have you asked a sales person to find something similar in your size and they bring you back a pile of stuff that has absolutely no resemblance to your request. As they enthusiastically stuff it into your arms they say merrily, “Well, we don’t have something similar in your size but I thought you’d like these.” At this point it is blatantly apparent that the sales person hasn’t even looked at you. With a quick once over and the knowledge of the style I did choose, she would never have brought me this pile of immediate rejects. I suppose the sales psychology is : Tell her she can’t have what she wants and bring her something else so she’ll buy and I’ll get my commission.


Middle-age is not old. But the fashion industry’s thinking is. I LOL when reading, “Many fashion companies steer away from being too closely associated with Baby Boomers–for fear of typecasting their brands as old.” I don’t get this. According to Ms Agins, Baby Boomers spend over $53 of the $109 billion spent annually on women’s apparel. That’s a lot of dough baby. And, they do not define themselves as old. They don’t think old. They don’t act old. They don’t dress old.


But now, I get it. There is a complete disconnect between designers, the fashion industry, and this market segment. This is why the designers of Project Runway could only turn out frumpy and too horrible to contemplate clothes for middle-aged models. If this is what designers are bringing to the marketing and merchandizing side of the industry no wonder a quiver goes through them–Brand death by Baby-Boomer association. Now I’m thinking about a friend in her seventies who dresses better than most women in their twenties. She has a limited budget but she has a great eye. So if the Baby Boomers are in trouble, imagine what’s it’s like for her generation.


There is hope. Take J. Crew Online for example. A woman of any age can put together a casual or professional look from their catalog and look great. When you go to their online store you choose women. That’s it. There are no X Generation, Y Generation, Baby-Boomer, or Silent Generation categories. The difference is nuance. It’s the way women choose and assemble a look.


Of course there is the problem of size and color. I have been disappointed on more than one occasion when bright red has been the only option. It is very hard for red heads to wear red. Believe me. And, then there is the sizing. It is just a bit baffling. For example for size M ( 8 – 10) the bust measurements are 36 1/2 – 37 1/2. For size L (12 – 14) they are 39 – 40 1/2. So what do you do if you fall into the 37 1/2 – 39 gap? You do trial and error. Sometimes M fits; sometimes L. You play the roulette table and hope you win to avoid those nasty returns.


In the end, no one can have it all. But, hopefully we can have it better than now. Thank you Michelle Obama for showing the fashion industry what the rest of us have been unable to do. Do you hear us fashion industry?


All original content copyright 2008 Mary E Slocum


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