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Clothing Communicates in Tones From Shouts to Whispers

January 21, 1994|ANN CONWAY and PATRICK MOTT

Clothes may speak to us, but do we listen? And if we do, what do we say back?

More than simply body covering, clothing helps us connect with people around us. But can it also be the catalyst for one-upmanship, snap judgments and unfair perceptions?

We take a brief look at the language inherent in clothes and attempt to decode some of it.

SHE: In a fashion world where designers have specific trademarks--Calvin Klein's minimalist suits, Giorgio Armani's easy boxy jackets, Chanel's peripatetic gold buttons, Donna Karan's sarong skirts--it's become easy to identify with total strangers. When I walk into a restaurant and spot a woman in an ensemble created by a designer I like, for example, I feel a sudden kinship with her. That's not to say I don't feel warm toward other women in the room, but clothing I recognize becomes something I can share with that person.

HE: Clothing tends to be less of a catalyst for a bout of male bonding, but there are a few things that guys wear that will trigger happy recognition and maybe a comment or two. Anything with a sports team logo on it, for instance. If I see a guy wearing a Dodger warm-up jacket--one of the real ones with the quilted lining that can turn back a gale--I smile and think, "Here's somebody who has the devotion to spend some real money on quality stuff and who also has the guts to wear it in Angel territory."

SHE: A fashion item can also be a turnoff. Take the fake Chanel bag. If a woman is not going to carry the real thing, why does she bother? I do get a kick out of the woman who can't wait to tell me--over the consomme--that she picked up her quilted bag with the interlocking C's at a swap meet in the desert. I have to admire her candor. Her thriftiness. But not her style. I'd much rather see her in a plain leather bag from Nordstrom.

HE: Wouldn't that be sort of a tight fit? Oh, never mind . . .

It's unfair on both sides, but we all routinely dress to influence people's opinion about us, and then we grouse when that opinion doesn't turn out to be a good one. Forming opinions or judgments about people with the clothes on their backs as the only yardstick is foolish and often wrong.

For instance, I routinely jump to a conclusion when I see a guy--an adult guy--dressed in saddle oxfords and what used to be called go-to-hell pants. I think, reflexively, "Aging prep school weenie." But I keep getting brought up short. Most of these guys have turned out to be really good sorts and not at all like Thurston Howell III.

Of course, if you see somebody wearing a T-shirt that says "Ax Murderers Make Better Lovers," you have my personal permission to jump to any conclusion you like.

SHE: Show me a person dressed in clean, pressed clothes and I'll show you someone I admire. I don't use clothing, per se, to form an opinion about someone's character. But I do look for clues. If they take care of their shoes, for example, chances are they're self-respecting and will treat me accordingly.

When I was young and thinking about getting married, my dad told me I could judge a boy by the way he took care of his feet. "Check out his toenails," he advised. "If he takes care of them, he'll take care of you." Turns out the man I married has immaculate feet.

HE: I'll interpret that little piece of advice as permission for me to quote Carl Bernstein, who appeared in a recent issue of Esquire with this handy tip: Check out the way a woman puts on lipstick. Women who can't get it on straight are, he asserts, "invariably crazy."

God forgive me, I think the man's right.

SHE: Some women just aren't handy with a tube of lipstick. And some simply couldn't care less. A better clue to where a woman's coming from is how she cares for the inside of her purse. To get a handle on the character of a person, you look at the grooming areas that are hidden. For me, the biggest turnoff on a woman is a dirty bra strap hanging on her upper arm. On men, it's, well, unkempt feet.

HE: I tend to be biased in favor of starch. To me, its use indicates a willingness to go one extra step in the quest for clean dressing. When I see a rumpled cotton shirt or blouse I'm not necessarily galvanized to summon the Fashion Police, but I can't help thinking how much better those garments would look with a little stiffening agent in them. I discovered starch in my 20s, and I've been a booster ever since. The secret: a professional laundry that understands the meaning of "medium." You want it crisp, not bullet-proof.

Of course, if you see somebody wearing a T-shirt that says "Ax Murderers Make Better Lovers," you have my personal permission to jump to any conclusion you like.

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