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MEGHAN DAUM

What's `Do'-ing in fashion?

September 16, 2006|MEGHAN DAUM

FASHION WEEK wrapped up in New York on Friday, concluding an eight-day survey of offerings such as wicker-embellished dresses by Cynthia Rowley, perforated leather dresses by Francisco Costa and, according to Style.com, something called "bubble fur." But for those of us whose sartorial range is more limited, a new book by the editors of Glamour magazine provides the invaluable -- and very high-school-like -- service of imparting critical life lessons while making fun of people.

"Glamour's Big Book of Dos and Don'ts," which hit stores Sept. 7, is a compendium of the magazine's regular feature of the same name. A staple of the publication since its launch in 1939, the page took on its signature look in 1963 when it began shooting photos of ineptly outfitted people on the street and hiding their identities by covering their eyes with a black bar.

The "Dos and Don'ts" are great fun, mostly because they might be the closest the print media has to a public stockade. The "Don'ts" are ominous cautionary tales. A freak show of overexposed bellies, visible panty lines, ridiculous color combinations and sandals paired with socks (the all-time gravest sin, at least for non-Germans), the "Don'ts" represent the quickest possible route to making us feel better about ourselves. By gawking at the poor judgment of others, we can momentarily forget the fact that we once wore parachute pants to a college interview or, perhaps as recently as last week, donned "a strangely striped top" (see "Just Don't," page 83.)

For the record, by "we" I mean any one of us. I did not wear parachute pants to any college interview. I wore a peasant dress with saddle shoes.

Unlike the "Dos and Don'ts" page in the magazine, the book makes an effort to drive home the idea that we've all been "Don'ts" at one time or another. The very "Do"-ish Cindi Leive, who is editor in chief of Glamour and lead author of the book, writes candidly of her own "Don't" choices, including a puffy-sleaved taffeta prom dress in 1984. Invoking a spirit of togetherness, she notes that "Dos and Don'ts" photographer Ronnie Andren, who's spotted fashion stooges all over the country and shoots an average of 400 rolls of film a month, sees at least four "Don'ts" for every "Do." "If you recognize yourself hiding under [the] black bar," Leive writes, "remember, we're laughing with you, not at you."

A couple of things come to mind here. First, I, for one, am laughing at, not with, you, and I suspect I'm not alone. Second, four "Don'ts" for every "Do"? That seems a little low. A stroll down Melrose Avenue recently turned up no fewer than 20 "Don'ts" for every borderline "Do," at least in my non-fashionista estimation. Ditto for the corner of Hollywood and Highland. And don't even get me started on the Beverly Center.

And I'm not one of those transplanted New Yorkers who thinks Angelenos don't know how to dress. These days it seems the whole country is a Glamour "Don't." It's not unusual to see large amounts of flesh draped over sausage-like miniskirts, thongs rising up beneath them like a rogue sidewalk vine. Aside from the unfortunate cellulite-to-fabric ratios -- and the plain fact that many Glamour "Don'ts" would probably be "Dos" on professional models -- the way people dress these days makes even a high school yearbook from 1978 look like a copy of French Vogue.

It's tempting to say that we've become too casual for our own good, but the truth is, an alarming number of us have mastered the unlikely art of being overdressed and underdressed at the same time. We pull on jeans that look like they survived a mortar attack and pair them with Paris Hilton-style jewelry that could start a brush fire if it caught the sun just right. We emulate 14-year-olds, even if we're old enough to remember the Nixon administration.

No wonder, then, that today's wardrobe advisors are more like boot camp sergeants than the haughty, aloof fashion doyennes of the past, and thank God. With fashion taking many of its cues from prison culture, adult entertainers and the peculiar permutations of the teenage brain, we practically need military force to keep us in line.

The success of the cable television show "What Not to Wear," which gently ridicules its subjects until they submit to the wisdom of the hosts, suggests that looking better isn't just about looking good, it's about being good, about respecting yourself and others. Which is something to remember if you're wearing a T-shirt that reads "Tell your boyfriend he left his socks in my bed."

"Glamour's Dos and Don'ts" is an instruction manual, an equal-opportunity scold session and, for residents of cities where "Don't" photos were taken, a nail-biting exercise in denial or dread. But the ultimate lesson is still a bit murky. As Leive points out, today's "Don't" could be tomorrow's "Do."

Take heart all you "Don'ts" out there: Instead of laughing at you, maybe we should be trying to catch up.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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