In Defense of Shorts
And the art of dressing appropriately.
Shorts have never been a go-to clothing item for me. In fact, I can't think of a single instance in my adult life that I've intentionally shopped for shorts. When six years into my marriage a friend gifted me a pair, my husband was bemused. It hadn't occurred to me how seldom I wore shorts until I slipped them on and he remarked, "I have never seen you dressed like that before." And it was years before he saw me dressed 'like that' again.
It wasn't a decision I'd made consciously; I've always kept a tiny trousseau and shorts just hadn't felt necessary. So if I didn't wear them in my teens, and I didn't wear them in my twenties, and I've made it nearly to the end of my thirties without wearing them-- why would I consider wearing them now? Now, when I'm pushing forty and on a quest to achieve dignity and refine my style?
Well, as it turns out, adding the right pair of shorts to my wardrobe is helping me realize one of my number one goals-- the art of dressing appropriately. That might seem ironic if you have a knee-jerk reaction to the word appropriate; we tend to associate dressing appropriately with dressing modestly. And shorts do not come to mind when we think of modesty. But the actual definition of appropriate is 'suitable and proper for the circumstance.' And while modesty is important to me, and I appreciate modesty in others, it is an ever changing standard impossible to pin down, having more to do with motives than it does hemlines. Appropriate clothing, though, is definitive. How much more productive might we be if instead of preaching modesty to young people, we taught them about the appropriate dress for the occasion.
It is not now, nor will it ever be appropriate to wear a parka to the beach on a 90-degree day, even though parkas are decidedly more modest than swimsuits. Humans grasp that so they should be able to grasp this: You can wear flip flops or a revealing top to a wedding, but it isn't appropriate to do so. While you may attend many weddings, this one, in theory, is the only wedding this couple is going to have. You've been invited to witness a ceremony that will change their lives forever and casual footwear isn't fitting for the event's significance. Nor are revealing, hyper-sexualized outfits because they detract attention from where attention belongs-- on the bride and groom. Jennifer L. Scott's guidelines for narcissistic audience members also applies to narcissistic wedding guests; we don't go to weddings to get noticed. Receptions are not upscale clubs-- you're not there to attract a mate or make your ex jealous. These concrete, reasonable rules of thumb are difficult to argue and easy to understand.
This spring my daughter and I walked into TJ MAXX to see if I could find a little gift for my nieces who were to visit during Mardi Gras. We were in the city on a Sunday for Divine Liturgy, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to shop. Nearly an hour later we emerged with gifts for my nieces and a couple of other pieces my sparse wardrobe needed-- and one item it didn't-- a pair of Ralph Lauren shorts.
There was just something so classic about the shorts. I couldn't pass them up without trying them on. 'Just for fun,' I told my daughter. I added two sizes to the pile of blouses in my arms, and we headed to the changing rooms. Since my 'Sunday best' always includes pantyhose, I was wearing a very nude pair of thigh highs. For the sake of time and our menfolk sitting in the car, I slipped the shorts on over the hosiery. Let me tell you, if we all wore hose under our shorts, we'd all be shorts wearing fools. I didn't feel overly exposed in the shorts while wearing stockings, but modest and dressy. And my legs looked great. I popped out of the changing room; my daughter cheered. I kept alternating sizes-- the smaller looked more tailored, and just fit me better, but I panicked last minute and grabbed the larger size reasoning that I might feel more covered up with the extra cm of fabric. (Rooky mistake. Choose the best fitting garment always, regardless of your size hangups.)
But by the time I got them home, I'd lost my nerve. I kept the shorts and the receipt in my car for ages, knowing I'd never wear them and should return them as soon as possible. What had I been thinking? It had been an impulse buy. Spring Fever. TJ Maxx was a product placement marketing minx! I tried to imagine wearing them around town, but couldn't even picture myself wearing them around the house. What if we had unexpected company? Would I feel comfortable or would I try to explain myself? Would I want someone from my church to see me in shorts? Would the sweet little Greek ladies that kiss my cheeks, compliment my prosphora, and tell me how well-behaved my children are think less of me if they knew I wore shorts?! And just how much of one's identity should be tied up in NOT wearing shorts before it becomes a sort of reverse narcissism? I put the heavy questions on hold; the shorts floated around the back of my car, and life went on.
And then one day, just a few weeks ago, I came across an old photograph that changed everything.
That's me in front (wearing shorts!) circa 1980-81. I'm standing next to Willie Mae who is petting Honey, my grandparent's golden retriever. And standing behind me is Gene St. Romain, my Grand-Mère. She would have been 60 in this photograph. Grand-Mère, my very own Madame Chic: proper, southern, religious, well-traveled, warm yet distant, the matriarch of a large family, glamorous, and wearer of shorts. WHAT?! But the more I thought about it, the more I came to understand-- my idolized impression of her style wasn't because she always dressed well, which she did. I regarded her style because she always dressed appropriately. Her generation, the first to wear shorts, had a handle on that; they wore the proper clothes for the proper time. They wore what was suitable to the occasion. My grandparents had an adventurous and outdoorsy side to them, and throughout their lives, they spent time at their river camp. Some of my last visits with her were at the camp. I sat across from her at the ancient picnic table and watched her perfectly manicured hands with her iconic diamond ring, raise boudin on wonder bread to her mouth and wash it down with beer straight from the bottle. Being a woman of poise isn't synonymous with a closet full of tea length skirts, any more than it is synonymous with a diet consisting solely of tea and crumpets. The only real rule is to carry yourself well in the moment-- and wearing the right clothes will help.
That photograph of my Ma-Mère was illuminating. If shorts could fit so beautifully into her cultivated life-- why couldn't they fit into mine?
I retrieved the shorts from my car.
I put them on sans hose.
It wasn't so bad.
I slipped into a fresh pair of white tennis shoes fit for a duchess.
I felt confident. I felt comfortable.
Why had this revelation taken me so long? I started thinking about the one principal that has never let me down when it comes to outfitting my closet and wondered why I hadn't applied it to shorts. My goal is to have a classic version of an appropriate outfit for each occasion in my life. My wardrobe, while small, is full of suitable-for-the-occasion clothing.
Bird hunting with the boys? I have a shirt for that.
Shopping in the city? Pretty blouses and cute, comfortable flats aplenty.
A hike in the woods? I've got the boots.
Rainy day? Got it covered.
Business meeting? Dressed to impress.
Funeral attire? Wouldn't be caught dead without it.
Community Theater Date? See you at six!
Loading hay at the farm? Ready when you are.
Early morning walk? Nothing to slow me down.
Wedding? Not just yours-- mine too.
A friend laughed at the true story I told her about my wedding dress--a simple white dress I already had hanging in my closet.
"That doesn't surprise me in the least," she said.
And now I have what I need for a backyard pool party with a few mom friends and our broods, which is precisely where I took my shorts on their first outing. A year ago, at the very same pool party, I wore jeans over my suit. I styled them for summer and felt put together-- but I wasn't as physically comfortable or confident as I was last week in shorts. And I was doubly thankful for minimal fabric as I walked in the gate and an enthusiastic tot soaked me from head to toe with a water cannon.
Below are photos of our last family trip to the river camp with Grandparents present.
Left: Me (in a borrowed pair of shorts) Grand-père & my sister, also in shorts-- sitting like ladies, of course! Right: The Grand Dame herself, MaMère wearing camp clothes more typical of her taste.
HOMEWORK: Jot down a list of the various occasions of your life and how often or seldom they occur. The more repetitive events will require more suitable clothing options. Group the occasions by clothing type, say, for example, outdoor events. The shirt I bird hunt in is also one I can grab for a hike, or wear to trim trees at the farm, and now to the stables with my daughter. My funeral dress can be worn to church, and I can even don it with sandals, fun jewelry and a ponytail to a more casual affair. You don't need a separate outfit for each circumstance; you just need to make sure you have something to wear to the ALL of the events that present themselves. Pay special attention to the times you find yourself without something to wear, say to a winter wedding-- be specific about what's missing and put it on your list. Was it footwear? A winter dress coat?
Bonus tip: Looking appropriate for the occasion should never look costumey-- the clothes have to be suitable for you before they can be suitable for the circumstance.
When everyone from Duchesses to Duggars are wearing shorts-- you can't help but reevaluate.
HRH the Duchess of Cambridge has turned the art of looking appropriate for the occasion into a bonafide science-- if you're a bit lost on this way of thinking about your clothes, she's the specimen to study. Not for her iconic coatdresses and high heels, but for what she wears to sporting events, to travel, to run errands, even to the zoo. While she has more pieces in her wardrobe than you and I do, she wears the same styles on repeat, simulating a smaller wardrobe. As far as case studies go, the Duchess is hard to beat. The woman has never put her foot wrong when it comes to style. The woman also has an inconceivable budget, a large household staff, and the world's top designers at her beck and call so we won't get carried away in comparing oranges to apples.
Click on the gallery below for inspiration. Pay special attention to the footwear-- it's not all nude pumps for the Duchess-- in the first photo she's wearing her Supergas. (I recently ordered a pair from Zappos and the pair of Converse you see in the first photo of this post. The Supergas are what I chose to keep.) My least favorite look is the cowboy hat. It's a little over the top, costumy even-- maybe because her husband is wearing a matching one? As someone who lives in a community where growing up to be a professional cowboy is an achievable goal-- this look shouldn't be so hard for me to swallow. But I think she would have looked better without the hat and with a toned down belt. I'm betting she hasn't had the occasion to wear either one since!