You can always count on them: the fashion rules that appear in every magazine, newspaper, Web site and store window. They used to be seasonal; now they’re constant. Fashion mavens and style gurus are ever at the ready, telling women what to wear and what not to wear, what looks good and what doesn’t. Yet even the most cherished rules are arbitrary. So what the heck— I can get in on the act, too.
1. A Black Dress Is NOT The Backbone Of Every Woman’s Wardrobe. I am sick and tired of being told that black looks good on everyone. There is, in fact, no such thing as a color that looks good on everyone. Colors that look good on you depend on your complexion, hair color, facial characteristics and age. I have dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin and dark circles. Black has never looked particularly good on me, though I could get away with it in my 20s and 30s, especially with bright lipstick and the black off my face, as in a portrait collar or strapless neckline. But now I’m 50, and in black I look like a wan anemic in widow’s weeds. If you’re a blonde or a redhead, you probably look stunning in black. You can also carry off bronze, taupe, caramel and other colors that are blah on me, which brings us to No. 2.
2. Do NOT Keep It Neutral And Monochromatic. Wearing the same color from head to toe supposedly creates the illusion of one long line, with no individual features standing out. The neutrals that are relentlessly recommended are black, camel, khaki and brown. Every color on this list makes me look like a dead fish or, as my mother would put it, “death warmed over”— and I know I’m not alone. Why should women want to minimize individual features anyway? Why is blending into the woodwork desirable?
3. Don’t Dress Like Audrey. As in Hepburn. The exhortation to “dress like Audrey” comes from so many sources and gets trotted out so many times I’ve lost count. We can’t all dress like Audrey because we’re not all built like Audrey. The gorgeous gamine look worked on her lithe little ballerina body. It doesn’t work on most women. And how about those other Audrey features— cigarette pants, ballet flats? If you have no hips and no rump and legs like twigs, then, yes, those clothes will work for you. But on most women, cigarette pants are best relegated to the fate of their namesake, and ballet flats make one’s legs look like tree stumps.
4. Banish Tab-Front Pants. Oh, the horror! Designers and retailers have been shoving these down our throats for at least the past five seasons and I have had it. Women’s bodies are not made for tab-front, fly-front pants. A tab-front doesn’t lay flat. It adds girth. It sticks out as much as a half-inch. Do you need an extra half-inch tacked onto your stomach? Unless you’re trying to cross-dress or have the abs of an Olympic gymnast, you should not be in tab-front pants. Side-zip, flat-front pants are the way to go.
5. Give Up The Gargantuan Grab Bags. Stop the madness! What are you carrying in there? Are you an emergency room physician? An astronaut, ready for the next space mission? Or maybe you’re going on “Let’s Make a Deal.” It’s not possible that your daily accouterments require so much room. Lemme guess— you have a liter of water in there since in the parched deserts of 21st-century civilization you never know where the next water fountain or faucet will be. Better yet, you’re trying to cover up one of those “individual features” mentioned in No. 2 and the monochrome outfit didn’t quite do it.
6. Go Easy On Ethnic Dress. Dressing in a bright little folkloric vest from Provence will not make you look like you’ve just been to the most beautiful region of France. Instead, it will make you look like you don’t know the difference between clothes and costumes. My ancestors came from regions around Rome, but I don’t go around in white puff blouses with black dirndl skirts and bright ribbons in my hair. National pride is one thing; looking like a tourist board poster is another.
7. A Size By The Same Number Is Not The Same. Ladies, quit telling me that “Marilyn wore a size 12.” A size 12 in Marilyn’s day is equivalent to a size 4 or 6 today. Marilyn Monroe was stacked, but for most of her career she was also slender. Her shape was more akin to Madonna’s than to Anna Nicole Smith’s. Not only is vanity sizing rampant nowadays, but the average woman’s body has changed since the 1950s. We’re taller, have broader shoulders, bigger busts, bigger everything. If believing Marilyn wore a 12 makes you feel better, have at it. But it’s not the same 12.
8. Dress Your Age. OK, now, that doesn’t mean dressing like a frump if you’re over 40. It also doesn’t mean dressing like you’re 16. Don’t make yourself look like the train wreck that is Mariah Carey. Or adopt the frightening California-girl stylings of Goldie Hawn. That worked when she was playing the ditzy party girl on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” but it doesn’t anymore. And I do hope we don’t have to go into the bare-midriff thing. If I see one more bare belly sticking out over low-slung pants— on a woman of any age— I’ll run screaming into the hills. It’s not sexy, gals; it’s tacky. At best, it belongs on the beach, not on a city street. As for those babydoll dresses, spare me. I’m all for flirty and feminine, and I rejoice that dresses are finally back in stores, but if you’re a grown-up, wear grown-up clothes. You can’t complain about the media’s obsession with youth and then go around trying to look like Barbie. I take that back— even Barbie had more sophistication. After all, Oleg Cassini designed some of her clothes.
9. Long Skirts Are For Everyone. So many of my petite girlfriends won’t wear long skirts because they’re afraid of looking shorter. But long skirts sway gracefully and confer a lovely fluid line. They give the illusion of length, no matter your height. On the contrary, several shorter pieces— top, jacket, skirt— can chop you up visually and give the illusion of shortness. (Then again, maybe the schoolgirl look is what you’re going for; if so, see No. 8.)
10. Beware The Ann Taylor Uniform. I’m not dissing Ann Taylor (though they do peddle the unspeakable tab-front pants), but there’s a dullness and uniformity to their clothing. I’ll never forget looking around a Washington, D.C., restaurant one day a few years ago and seeing every woman in the place, including me, in the same black pantsuit (though at least I had on a bright blouse). The lack of imagination was positively depressing. If you can’t express yourself through your clothing, then what’s the point? You may as well go around in pajamas. Oops. That’s right. Some people do. Juicy Couture, anyone?