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The Rules of Fashion

Common rules about how one should dress seem to have gone the way of white gloves and afternoon dresses, but I doubt I am the only one who is intrigued by the era when one's clothing choices were so regimented. These rules did not squash creativity- in a way they probably enhanced it, in just the same way that a school full of uniformed teenage girls shows a remarkably broad range of individuality. Books about fashion have long included rules or hints on how to dress, and these are just as popular now as they ever were, except now every hint is couched in the language of the self. Decades ago they didn't feel the need to put a psychoanalytical bent on matters of clothing and deportment, which is why these "helpful hints" from past eras are so interesting to our modern minds- their frankness is rather refreshing, even if the hints aren't always that helpful to our modern ways of dressing. The inimitable Edna Woolman Chase, who was editor of Vogue for 38 years, included a rather witty and, at times, useful list in her autobiography, Always in Vogue, that I have chosen to start serializing on this blog. This first rule is rather amusing, and though it is always said that women dress for other women, no one ever says that who we really dress for is our enemies, which I find quite true- nothing is worse than running into your boyfriend's ex or an evil coworker when you are wearing less than your best...


Perhaps this is as good a place as any to set down, as concisely as I can, that code on how to attain smartness that, over a long life and through years of dealing with a capricious art, I have found to be the most serviceable. Much of it is obvious, but every season new, young eyes become style-conscious and I believe it bears repetition.

Point #1: Study yourself with the unblinking eye of your meanest enemy. Could that throat, so like a swan to your lover, perhaps be considered a long, skinny neck, thrust forward at a cranelike angle, by one who cares for you less? Or could that short neck and submissive little chin, which make you so cuddlesome, could they, with the years, develop into a thick, indeterminate oneness, with that middle-aged hump at the back? Are your legs or upper arms too thin or too fat? Do you have pretty hands and nails, so that you can permit yourself eye-attracting gestures and jewelry, or are they large and capable, profiting from a decent anonymity? And your hair? Is it sexy or serviceable? This questionnaire will go on interminably, but its point, I think, is clear. Your person is the material you have to work with.

Study yourself with dispassionate eye and in a three-ply mirror. It is a grueling ordeal, but it pays off. Remember your enemy, the rival who sees you always in 3-D. Make sure you are at least as well informed as she.


Excerpt from: Chase, Edna Woolman and Ilka. Always in Vogue. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company Inc.,1954. All photographs by George Hoyningen-Huene.

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