Modest style: A trend or a shift?

Margaret Howell Spring 2017
Margaret Howell Spring 2017

This recent article in the NY Times on the trend towards modest dressing is one of several over the last year.  The skeptic in me wonders if it’s a natural part of the buying cycle – sheer, short and tight have been in, shopping is declining, time to launch a new trend – loose, covered, and long. So the question is, are we looking at a trend or a fundamental shift?  Let’s consider.

It’s fair to say you will consume what is available, and for those of us not inclined to wear low-waisted, tight pants, sheer tops and short skirts, the last decade has been a challenge.  A change is welcome.  But the change I’m look for is one beyond the buying cycle.  Have we reached the point where we will no longer select clothing through the lens of the male gaze?  And to be fair, it is a perceived understanding of what men find attractive.  Mass media frequently underestimates their discernment often reverting to cliche.  What options have they had?  The infiltration of pornographic images into mainstream media, proliferated by the internet and sadly, the music industry, have inundated all of us with a narrow view on what is attractive.  Fortunately, for the vast majority of women, the level-headed man does not embrace the cliche, though I think it is a particular challenge for young men and boys developing into men to keep a balanced perspective.  It’s said that the formative years are where many of your life-long perspectives develop (guilty as charged – still love the clothes of the ’70s and that’s what I see coming back into play now) and so what the young of today have witnessed in clothes, behaviour and culture in the last decade will inevitably have an impact.

How will we know if it is indeed a shift rather than a trend?  Hard to tell what the future holds.  It’s really up to us to make the first move – to dress for our gaze alone.  To rebalance priorities that focus on our taste and comfort, and for what helps contribute to a reasonable approach to consumption – one that doesn’t jeopardize financial security.  If we can resist the lure of new for the sake of newness, break the compulsion to buy, spend our time on more rewarding (and often simple) pursuits than shopping, then we will be in control of whether it is a trend or a shift.  That’s real power.

Links and resources:

For more on modest dressing

The sublime style of Margaret Howell

A bit of women workwear from Nigel Cabourn

The reliable and affordable classics from Muji


An even younger you

older before and after


Nothing about this post is new.  The relentless pressure to, if not look 25, then at least be seen to be working at it continues. It is, of course, behavioural control which if we worked together, would lose it’s power.  So let’s work together on this one.

It’s one thing for women my age who are endlessly targeted with before and after images (like the overused ad featuring the woman above) of what one sort of filler or another can do to change our features, it’s quite another when the women targeted are even younger, and from what I can see in the younger women I know, they are succumbing to the pressure in alarming numbers.  When you’re my age-ish the issue is primarily one of employability.  Does having a few lines and gray hair signal your thinking is beyond value?  That seems to be the inference. (Though it does make me wonder why so many male CEOs and board directors are well into their 5th, 6th and even 7th decades.) I’m fighting the resistance there and we’ll hope I will succeed in overcoming the oppressors.  If romance is what you’re after then any potential mate who defines him/herself by the age of their partner has issues and that sounds a bit exhausting at my stage of the game.  I’d rather shovel some snow. That’s where I stand but I largely stand alone when it comes to naturally graying hair, and a naturally ageing face.  I can’t really fathom the energy and expense required to be in your 50’s and have to try to look even 45.  It would be a fulltime job for me.

When women in their 30’s and 40’s are choosing intervention to change the nature of their lovely faces, that’s a worrisome thing.  Let’s face it, a woman’s 20’s are not the easiest time, and here’s just a sample:

What am I doing with my life?

How will I make a living?

Who am I?

Who are you?

Do I like this?

Is this normal?

Do I really have to put up with this?

You know what I’m talking about.  It’s tough, and though it was a long time ago for me, I certainly remember those years as being full of ambiguity and indecision.  What is easy, is that you look young.  More like, deer-caught-in-the-headlights young.  And that has it’s attraction. But once in your 30’s you’ve sorted a lot of this stuff out, and through the sorting out you’ve gained character, maybe become more of who you are (personality) and gained a modicum of wisdom.  That will change you inside and out.  It’s really only the relentless force of consumption that puts a negative lens on any of this.  Yes, you won’t be mistaken for 19, but you’re all those questions don’t leave you reeling anymore.  There is also the crushing pressure to have a family, whether that is really the right choice for you or not (more on that in an upcoming post).  This pressure requires a mate, and so the all-consuming distraction is around attracting and securing said parent in a timely manner.  The other scenario is that you nailed the partner/kid thing but the relationship did not survive the effort and you find yourself in your 40’s with a keen desire to find a better match.  All reasonable motivations, all ripe for youthful interventions.  Men are also being targeted for many of the same messages.  There just seem to be a larger number of them who don’t seem to care.  The parallel issue (and one that we’ve all commented on) is how an ungroomed/unattractive man frequently attracts his polar opposite.  While I don’t think women are any better than men at spotting the ‘good’ in people, I do think that men have not been effectively marketed to, and so women may simply have lower expectations around what the potential might look like.  If you’ve ever heard a man comment that he likes a woman with long nails then you know the power of advertising.

Now if we were all to stop this nonsense then expectations would reset.  We could all stop sporting long hair and bangs into our 50’s when we’d really rather just let those curls curl, wearing short short, tight skirts with 4″ heels when we could wear a long, full skirt, or even a men’s cut suit (me), cut off those skinny jeans once and for all (and I don’t mean into shorts) and present ourselves fully as individuals – clean, mind you – but without fillers, buffers, paints and plasters.

What say you?  Shall we go for it?

P.S. More on family life in an upcoming post.  And I warn you, I don’t hold back.


Like a fly on the wall

dressed for work
Photo:  The Sartorialist


I just read The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control and of the many things I learned from the book is that when emotions are at risk of getting out of control, a successful strategy is to picture yourself as a fly on the wall, watching the seen unfold before you.  The vantage point helps you to see what is really going on, taking you (and your ego) out of the picture just enough to view the goings on with dispassion and hopefully more clarity.

That lesson alone is worth the price of admission.  And then I thought, how often women feel they are subject to more intense scrutiny based on their emotional reactions to situations.  In my experience, emotional intensity, or lack thereof, is more of a human quality than a female quality – maybe there is some quantitative evidence that women respond more emotionally to things, but most of what I see is anecdotal.  What if we weren’t subject to gender bias thinking on a whole slew of things?  What if we looked at all kinds of areas of our lives like a fly on the wall?  What might I change?  What would you change?

I’ve been doing more and more of that fly-on-the-wall-thinking, let’s call it FOWT for short.  So from my FOWT perch, one of the areas I’m contemplating is time-wasters.  Things that I do somewhat habitually that take time, cost money,  and don’t add much if any value.  One of them is the myth of variety.  Two areas where variety seems to me anyway, to be a complete waste of time and money is food and clothes.  I like something delicious to eat as much as the next person, but in my case, cooking is simply not my thing.  After decades of trying to prove to myself (and my poor friends and family) that I can cook, I’ve finally thrown in the proverbial towel.  What a relief –  really for everyone.  I leave it know to those  who love to cook, and happily focus my scant talents on a few hors d’oeuvres and what I hope is scintillating conversation.  As for looking after myself, I’ve come to rely on a routine of meals to get me through the day.  An omelette for breakfast every workday morning (mushrooms, leftover potatoes, bacon, cheese when I’m feeling frisky), chopped crunchy vegetables (radish, celery, peppers, snap peas) and cheese or some bit of leftover meat or tuna for lunch, and a steady stream of nuts and greek yogurt as snacks.

Image result

Dinner is more of a hit or miss operation because there are other mouths to contend with.  Eventually, I will routinize that one and have done with the whole damn thing.

The second area is around clothes and specifically work wear.  The outfit above is terrific. She looks great and if that’s what many women consider workwear, it is pretty standard stuff.  In fact, women have been wearing that outfit or versions of it since the 20th century.  But activating my FOWT, that little voice inside my fly-like ear says, that is utterly insensible.  The shoes speak for themselves, and I must admit that beyond the impracticality which is now trite, there is something going on with the fetish around women’s feet that eludes me.  Surely women are not buying and wearing these things because men might notice them – men don’t and most women (if not all) are smart enough to get that.  So she is wearing them for herself – because she can.  Because they are structural phenomenons packaged in pastry-like filigree?  Because your feet and legs ache at the end of the day?  So the FOWT would say, stop it.  Don’t do it.  Stop wasting your money, give your feet/legs a break.  Let the shoe manufacturers adorn our feet with shoes as beautiful and beautifully constructed as men’s shoes.  Which, frankly, make me froth at the mouth – and for a fraction of the cost.

Moving up the outfit, bare-legged or pantyhosed – those legs in February in NYC are freakin cold. How does that make any sense to a fly whose own legs are lovingly wrapped in a furry coat.  We shave off our furry coat so there’s no natural warmth left.  That just makes no sense, besides the fact that if you go the pantyhose route (as most northern women do) the life span is about 3 wears, longer if they’re tights but if you get half a season out of one pair you lead a careful existence.  And then, dear friends, the dress.  And as much as I love dresses, these are for the summer and summer alone.  There are few advantages in gender-based dressing but the one that we can really crow about is the summer dress.  Nothing is better when it’s 32c with a humidex of 45c than the cool delicious pleasure of a cotton sheath.  Yes, men will be truly our equals when they, too, can don a 100% linen, sleeveless dress with sandals (sans socks).  Barring a temperature above 25c, there is absolutely no place for a dress for those of us who are still packing some kind of lunch, and I think that’s most of us.

The point this fly is hoping to make is that we do, in fact, have the freedom to question our choices.  We should take more opportunity to flex our muscles and choose what makes good sense to that fly on the wall.

Simply couldn’t resist another stellar example of women’s workwear on Amelia Earhardt





Changing spaces

The more I stand to work the more interested I’ve become in alternative ways of using the space I have.  For example, I like the idea of one long table down the centre of the room with chairs or stools surrounding with plenty of room to eat, to read, to place the laptop, to leave the sewing machine out and ready at a moment’s notice.

It is an idea, though possibly not as practical or flexible as this approach featured in the always delightful Ponytail Journal Instagram.


Truly, the Japanese do have the advantage on the likes of me – only a deeply sophisticated culture can arrive at such a simple solution.  Floor mats in a pleasing neutral, smooth wood floors, floor to ceiling glass framing green and water, and so perfect for anything you want to get at, long low tables – spaced to kneel or sit cross-legged, and should your legs feel cramped, simply roll away and stretch out on the floor.  When it’s time to stand for a while then the long narrow counter running down the length of the wall provides plenty of standing work/eating/reading room.

Could I let the mid-century modern go in favour of this approach?  I think I could.

And what better thing to wear than a pair of baggy, soft and sensuous coveralls.


What's In And What's Out For Spring 2015, According To Google | The Zoe Report:

I’ve already got the grey hair so nothing else need change.  🙂





Beyond biology

Image result for second world war women working together in factories


Why do men continue to dominate in the workplace? How can it be that organizations and industries (advertising as one example) are over-populated with talented women and yet are largely led by men?  Why do women choose not to compete for top jobs, or bail on traditional career trajectories to forge their own path?  Why – and this one may be the most puzzling – do girls continue to be the nastiest bullies in the schoolyard?

Allowing for established power structures, generational divides and biases, I continue to struggle with these questions with reports of girl bullying  being the most disturbing both because it is so difficult to shutdown and has gotten a second wind via social media.

Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes by Joyce F. Benenson provides an interesting explanation.  Benenson challenges the notion that women are more social than men, that we are naturally more cooperative and work well in groups.  She puts forward the theory that men are in fact the social beings and that evolution, and their fundamental requirement to protect their communities from enemies enables them to overlook differences and come together behind a common cause.  It’s the quality that allows them to be enemies one day, and then next partner with those enemies to fight an even bigger enemy – to be one team today, hell-bent on beating the other guys, only to switch sides the next and feel precisely the same way.  Women, on the other hand, constrained by their biological fate to have children and look after until they are competent and capable (and how old is that?  Seven?  27?), find themselves competing with other women for resources.  The theory is that we are biologically driven to focus first on the survival of our own progeny.  Unlike men who are charged with the ensuring the survival of the community at large (and having to form alliances with a network of unrelated men), women are more likely to rely on related women (mothers, aunts) for help rather than other women who are engaged in the same focus on their own children. The general idea is that when you’re competing for limited resources  you’re likely to feed your kids first before all others.

Needless to say, I’m over-simplifying and Benenson brings nuance to the theory along with loads of examples.  While working my way through the book and example after example that illustrates her theory, I found myself feeling quite hopeless.  How can behaviours of girls in the 21st century continue to be driven by biology?  If there is one thing Western women  in the recent past enjoy is control over our biology.  Birth control has changed everything for women. Or has it?  What has worked for men over centuries has transitioned nicely into working for them in the workplace.  Success to a greater extent is to work effectively with unrelated individuals towards a common goal.  Teamwork, project-based work, collaborative work – school curriculums are increasingly shaped by the need to engender more team-based work because that’s what wins. Finland is changing its already successful school system to focus even more on collaborative work and making connections because that’s what drives innovation. If women continue on the path laid out by biological patterns then we are limited to working effectively only with a small number of women and often those if not closely related, at least those we feel an intimate connection to.  In short, working with women we like and want to be friends with can lead to some pretty dysfunctional situations, often confusing workplace relationships with close friendships can be challenging when issues need to be addressed, as anyone knows who has alienated a boss or colleague and suffered the long-term consequences.  Describing a female colleague as ‘nice’, ‘friendly’ or to the other extreme, a ‘bitch’ is pretty typical though atypical (in my own anecdotal experience) when women or men describe other men.  Men are defined by being a ‘good guy’, ‘hilarious’, or ‘tough but fair’, and then to the other extreme, a ‘real prick’ – and that’s a guy everyone just wants to avoid like the plague.  I’m going to say there are more women called out as ‘bitches’ than men as ‘pricks’.  It’s no secret the baseline for women is set pretty low.

Where am I going with this?  Greatness is greatness – it should have nothing to do with biology, and particularly now for women but it all begins with girls.  The brutal bullying that girls continue to inflict on each other is a rueful reminder of that biological drive that should no longer relevant.  As parents, we need to deal with behaviour that isolates and stigmatizes some girls from the closely-aligned pack. We’ve got to be brave enough to get our heads out of the sand and not blame the victim, the school, social media run wild and directly deal with this behaviour in our own daughters.  Let it go, move on, what’s done is done, leave it.  Boys do this so well, and it is remarkable to watch it in action.  Parents don’t like to admit that their girls participate in this sort of thing, but they do it all the time and we need to nip it in the bud.

In my view, we also need to curtail the ‘princess’ games because they continue to instill the prince as prize and so the competition begins.  It sets so many things in motion and even now leads to the current insanity over weddings that have gone well-beyond what makes any sort of reasonable sense.  Never has there been a time when we’ve needed to get married less, and yet women seem more in the thrall of weddings with all the trimmings than ever before. The hoopla around these stupid engagement scenarios where the guy has to come up with this elaborate show that becomes the focus of the engaged couple, along with the ring.  And this when they are already living together.  It does astonish me.

To achieve the greatness that is our destiny, we must consciously and intentionally move beyond biology, taking our girls with us.


Image result for girl guides from the '50s

Resources and links

Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes, by Joyce F. Benenson and Henry Markovits

Finnish school system is absolutely fascinating and successful

How Finland broke every rule — and created a top school system


Great woman – Amelia Earhart



Pilot, author, adventurer, innovator, equal rights crusader – Amelia Earhart was all those things at a time when women had so few options that it is hard to imagine just how she was able to achieve so much in such a short period of time with her final flight and ultimate disappearance culminating in her death at the age of 42.



As a young woman she was determined to live an independent life rather than following the convention that would have seen her married by the age of 20.  She volunteered as a nurse in the First World War, became a social worker after and, once introduced to the world of flying never looked back.  For Amelia becoming a pilot was a calling and she changed every aspect of her life to pursue it.  At a time when Charles Lindbergh was making a name for himself flying across the Atlantic she set out to do the same, not just as a woman but as a pilot.  Though committed to the ideal of female emancipation and the freedom to choose a career outside of convention, she was intent on tackling the same challenges as male pilots and even going beyond what they had achieved.  She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and one of the first pilots.  Her list of achievements is extraordinary, breaking one record after another.


Amelia remade herself in the image of the pilots she admired, donning the same clothing and style as her male counterparts, softening the look as time went on with a scarf rather than a necktie. When you look at these images (and there are so many more) it is an interesting contrast of a rather shy looking woman with the heart of a lion, demonstrating the courage to thwart convention and live a truly independent life.  She wore what worked effectively for the job she was doing, and the life she chose to lead.  Almost 100 years later debate persists around appropriate work wear for women, and convention continues to dictate, even when it makes no sense at all.


This quiet and persistent disregard for convention was also reflected in her relationship with her promoter and spouse  George Putnam. The relationship began as a business partnership with George seeing a business opportunity promoting Amelia through books, newspaper articles and events all geared to create a celebrity.  Then the relationship developed into a romantic one in which Amelia agreed to marry in 1931 provided certain conditions were adhered to (read her letter to George), and freedom to leave being one of them.  She knew her own mind and had the courage to stay true to what she knew was right for her.

Fellow pilots at the time have said she was not a great pilot, that she didn’t put in the hours and hours needed to prepare for the final round the world trip.  She didn’t learn enough about radio and navigation, relying too heavily on celestial navigation (JFK Jr. made the same mistake) and perhaps not the best judge of character when it came to choosing her flight crew (alcohol causing one to drop out and possibly negatively affecting the performance of Fred Noonan her navigator).  It was an ambitious adventure and success depended upon so many things both within and outside of her control.



Whatever happened on that final flight doesn’t diminish her many accomplishments, her true greatness and her continuing influence and inspiration to chart your own course, pursue your dreams, become who you choose to be.

Resources and  links

A quick history:

PBS American Experience:

Amelia website:

Hollywood’s version:  Amelia, starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere

Buy replica clothing and dress like Amelia:

A great podcast:

Women’s work jeans

Margaret Howell – Painter Jeans

I would like to permanently remove any relationship of jeans to fashion.  Jeans have no business being skinny, containing lycra, being flared, artificially faded or torn, whiskered, having studs, spikes or fancy embroidery – unless it’s the result of your own needle and thread. Jeans should retain some relationship to the work pants they once were (and can be again) and should go anywhere any fashion jean might go so long as they’ve been laundered recently.

Jeans for the great woman should be all of the following:

  • Indigo dyed – dark and allowed to fade naturally through work and washing
  • Stiff when purchased – softened by toil and trouble
  • Straight legged (and that means straight down from the widest part of the hip not straight from under the butt – that’s a contoured leg and there’s no place for that really in any pant)
  • Waist-high – meaning sit at the waist but not tightly – they shouldn’t fall down to your hips without a belt but they should be loose enough to give purpose to a belt (we all like to be usefu).
  • Long enough – breaking at the boot or potentially rolled depending upon your preference or what you’ve got to walk over
  • Adjustable back cinch –  useful for keeping your shirt tucked in and particularly for those glorious women with a decent set of hips and a much smaller waist (good for you).

Here are some examples, and I’m sorry to say some are ‘fashion’ jeans (Margaret Howell above who does just about everything right) but only because they’re so rare they’ve been rediscovered by cunning designers and so have a certain cache.




Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset
Gamine dungarees


Dickies Carpenter Jeans

Women should be as comfortable in jeans as men.  Jeans should not be substitutes for leggings and absolutely not designed to emphasize what we’ve got or what we’ve got a lot of, a.k.a. butt-hugging.  The eye will need to adjust to seeing women in jeans that fit like jeans and it may take another generation or two but if we don’t begin now then when?  How much longer do we have to roam the world blind to the sexism that is embedded in the fashion industry.  Not only don’t we question the money we spend on jeans, the contortions to which we subject our bodies to fit into these travesties of what they once were, we do it willingly.  All this when we look so much better in loose jeans.  Think of the ‘50s and how cute women looked in loose jeans.


Woman jeans '50s

They still looked like women, there is no hiding a woman’s shape in a skinny jean or otherwise (a skinny jean does not render the wearer skinny – and why should we want it to?) – you will look more attractive, you will move with greater ease and by moving with ease you will look more confident, and from that more stylish and inevitably more charismatic. It is a simple equation, but it is true.  If you don’t feel that way, then try it for a while but you need to wean yourself from feeling that women in skinny jeans look skinny/sexy/attractive/hot and so on.  Brace yourself though – you will need to go shopping in the men’s department (as more and more women are all the time) to get yourself a real pair of 100% cotton, straight-legged jeans.

Ultimately, it is the woman not the jean – and all women – to my eye anyway – look better, feel better, are better in jeans that are fit for purpose and that is an active, liberated, comfortable life.