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Oct 19, 2010


Readers, do you have good taste?

Tell the truth; I can keep a secret.

At a time when nearly anything goes, from sagger jeans to pierced septums (septa?), is there such a thing as bad taste?  If so, how would you define it?  (Britney Spears for Candie's perhaps?)

The book above is a favorite of mine.  This 20-year-old classic, hilariously written by Jane and Michael Stern, includes extended entries on everything from Ant Farms to Zoot Suits and a hundred things in between.  While some choices -- Chihuahuas for instance -- seem wildly off the mark, most are spot-on to this day.

Let's face it: there's a lot of tacky out there, especially right here in the US of A.

But if it's easy to identify bad taste -- especially in others -- what exactly is good taste and who gets to decide?

Is it something you're born with or something you acquire?  (And what's up with those Parisians?)

If we were really confident about our own taste, would people like Martha Stewart be as popular as they are?  Isn't the appeal of the celebrity designer label -- or any conspicuous label for that matter -- that you're acquiring the good taste it confers and telegraphing it to others?

It's complicated, though. Is a Chanel quilted bag really that beautiful?  Yet my hunch is that most women would carry it with tremendous confidence, knowing it to be a symbol of (good) taste and sophistication.   

Conversely, think Frederick's of Hollywood -- p. 126 in the Sterns' Encyclopedia.  A lot of what they're selling is not very different from the Jessica Simpson collection or Victoria's Secret.  The stripper aesthetic -- for lack of a better description -- is everywhere.  It may not be Chanel, but it's not shocking.  Times change.

So what is good taste?  Modesty?  Good fabrics?

Assuming most of us here do have good taste -- at least in sewing blogs -- did you ever have bad taste, perhaps at an earlier age when you didn't know better?  Does someone close to you have bad taste?  What makes it bad exactly?

If good taste can be acquired, where do we find it?  London?  Milan?  Unidentified location, somewhere in Europe presumably?

Has sewing helped you acquire it?

Please -- the taste-challenged among us have no time to lose!

PS - There has been sewing taking place here at MPB: by hand and at glacial speed.  As we say in romantic Rimini, Pazienza!


  1. Having just come off wedding planning and all the wedding blogs (boo theknot. yay a practical wedding! double yay offbeat bride!) I'm recovering from the 'oh, that's so tacky' sentiment and I think it's just something we need to get past. Good taste, bad taste, as long as it's what you want, it's your taste and that's the end of the story.

    Now for a little linguistic trickiness... personal aesthetics. (defined as... taste minus status considerations?) I like things simple. Martha Stewart rules, twine and white furniture and kraft paper to wrap gifts. A bowl of apples to decorate the kitchen. Check. check. check. I can certainly veer into holly hobby territory, but try to keep it restrained. And yes, slutty pilgrims are very simple, therefore tasteful (hee hee). I think in general, things that don't clutter - whether visually or congnitively are considered tasteful because they don't make us confused, nervous or overwhelmed. That's if you leave status out of the picture...

    which brings me bags. AWFUL! And don't even GET me started on all things Coach. Great. Googly. Moogly.

  2. That's a tough one. What is considered good taste is very individual I think. I must admit that I've never liked those Chanel bags. I've been told by someone who used to work for a fashion magazine that couture fashion was all about signalling membership of an exclusive club. It doesn't matter if the clothes are flattering or stylish as long as other people "in the know" can recognize you as a fellow Fashion Elitist. In that world the label and the current seasons fashion is more important than anything else.

  3. I think I have excellent taste, but others sometimes disagree. As the saying goes, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and taste is equally subjective- i mean, apparently at the very least one of the people who designed that Britney for Candies ad thought it was tasteful(?). I detest designer purses, and clothing/accessories bearing large logos in general. I have always felt that the companies that sell these items would have to pay me to advertise their garbage.

  4. I remember growing up we shopped for clothes locally in my largely working class Bronx neighborhood and it was WAY different from what you'd see on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Think "Welcome Back Kotter." The clothes WERE pretty tacky: garish, trendy, and largely polyester. Then in high school it was all about Lacoste shirts and Brooks Brothers -- a shock!

    I remember when I first visited Italy in 1984, I was traveling alone and the first thing I did was buy a copy of "L'uomo Vogue" and I STUDIED it. I thought it was the bible of good taste. I knew I was going to have to restyle myself from head to toe if I was going to blend in. Preppy was out, Armani was in.

  5. As my mother used to tell me, "you may never be beautiful, but you can always be stylish", but that was back when pretty was one look (blonde) and women were supposed to be petite. No one want their Chanel purse? Oooooh, I'll take them!

    I think good taste is wearing what makes you presentable (no scaring the horses), comfortable within reason (no jammies as daywear), and able to do whatever you're doing without the clothes getting in the way. Add something that makes the clothes yours, what they used to call your signature (Madelaine Albright pins, anyone?) and forget it. Stylish is not having to fuss with the clothes once they're on. It's also not making other people uncomfortable. Where does one look when a person is wearing a topless, bottomless, backless, frontless dress?

    So, I'm comfortable in a bright yellow coat and huge hat. Sue me. Put me in a pale pink ruffled anything and I'm hiding, or a navy pea coat and I'm depressed. You have to be who you are, but, no scaring the horses, eh?

    Now, bad taste: did anyone see the hideous furs Karl Lagerfeld trotted out in his last show? Eeek! Eskimo on acid. What happened to the man who can cut cloth like few others? As for other designers, well, there's a lot of nasty/boring stuff coming down runways, stuff that's a waste of beautiful fabric, that people should be ashamed to show as it's so amateurish and derivitive, ill fitting and just plain useless. Fashion looks like it's going the way of modern art, to where most people wear whatever they want as they can't find much that's wearable from the fashion industry. I'm sure there's talent out there, just that it's not getting the $$ to set up in business. I'm going off to hug my sewing machines.

  6. there seems to be only two styles in the US these days-expensive slutty clothes and cheap tee shirts and jeans made in China. I miss the days when women sewed their cresses and skirts and looked beautiful

  7. I think I have great taste -- when selecting items for ME! LOL Taste is subjective. While I may think something is subdued (for me), others may thinks it borders on garish. And yes, I look back on pictures of my youth. Being a teenager in the 80s, yes poor choices in taste! LOL Think Salt 'n Pepa! Asymmetrical haircut and gold door knocker earrings!

  8. I'm positive that I definitely have the BEST taste. Regardless of what anybody tells you about floral prints or semi-mullets in the past. DO NOT BELIEVE THEM.
    (Also I am not a fan of quilted bag of any variety)

  9. Taste is relative but I like my taste and think it suits ME! As a teenager I was a tom-boy and that part of me has never left and still plays significant part in my taste of clothes

    On a none taste note, Peter your pad stitching seems to be very straight and not angled as it should be. I can tell you that this will affect the roll of your lapel.

  10. Bad taste is a lot easier to define than good taste. We all know bad taste when we see it. Last Sunday my breakfast club was at a local restaurant and every one of us commented on a woman with huge breasts who was wearing a polyester top that hung around her neck from a tie. No bra, and she didn't just jiggle when she walked; she started a tsunami. I think good taste is more subtle. I have to agree with Anonymous on good taste. I've just about come to realize that in the workplace if no one compliments your clothes, you're dressed just right!

  11. What's up with those Parisians??
    As an adopted Parisian and now new yorker (ok, it's Syracuse, New York not New York, New York) I can say that nobody was born stylish. IF you grow up in Paris you acquire a sense of style from who revolve around you. And if you grow up in, let say Syracuse New York, you learn how to wear sweat pants and sneakers...

  12. I love the Sterns, but I hate books like this because they're meaningless. Honestly, in the United States of America of 2010 there is no such thing as bad taste. It's all been done. The Mapplethorpe exhibit was over 20 years ago already. It's like asking "What is Art?" we all know, "Art is a man's name" (Andy Warhol)

  13. I think of good taste as quality. I can't really afford lots of good quality clothes, and really I don't need them in my life right now anyway. But I have decided that at my age, I need to be pressed, clean and well-fitted. Hair in good order, makeup on but not obtrusive. Sandals with a pedicure. I guess it is grooming as much as expensive clothing to me.

    Another quality is color. Wear color you like on yourself. Even if black is everywhere, you can still wear color around your face. A lot of good taste is self awareness, I think.

  14. I have good taste. Now whether I can always afford to wear classy clothes, no, I cannot. Neither does my lifestyle allow me to wear the delicate silk knits I covet.

    I find myself resisting "fashion" more and more. If it involves high heels, I'm out. If it involves being uncomfortable in any way, I don't even want it.

    If I'm considered tacky because I wear machine-washable, stretchy clothes, then oh well. Anyone who wants to judge me is welcome to cover their eyes.

  15. When I was a child, I had horrible taste. My mom didn't give me any guidance, so I followed my brother's lead and wore baggy boy's clothes. AWFUL. Then in middle school and high school, I had a helmet head, with bangs straight across my forhead. Only after I started college and was able to work and earn more money did I learn some valuable lessons. I'm still learning though, and I think that what has helped me most are books. It's easy to look in a magazine and discount an outfit, but when Tim Gunn is telling you something, you take notice.

  16. I don't know that taste is so much what you wear as how you act. I think that having good taste exudes from within and shows itself in what we wear and how we wear ourselves. Personally, I think it has alot to do with tact as well. Taste and tact seem to go hand in hand to me. Someone who is tactless also exhibits a distasteful quality to me. Maybe that's why many of us find certain celebrities so distasteful, because they lack tack and grace.

  17. I may be in the minority, but I think the Chanel bag is ugly. I wouldn't carry it. I don't know if my taste is good or bad, but I like it and I'm at that time in my life where I'm past caring what anyone else thinks. That's why the label I've made for all my home sewn clothes reads 'Fug Divino'.

  18. I think I agree with the sentiment that defining taste is about as useful as defining art. It seems more about advertising one's belonging to a particular group (be it Goth teens or upscale housewives) than about any objective scale of restraint or attractiveness (as if either of those things could be objective). What was tasteful in the fifties may or may not be tasteful now, and what's tasteful now almost certainly wasn't back then. At best, you could define good taste as the search for a classic aesthetic resistant to fads and trends but even then it's going to be strictly limited to our own cultural frame of reference.

    As usual with discussions of style, I'm torn between two objectives---on the one hand representing myself, as truly and authentically and joyously as possible, and on the other hand being aware of the effect my presentation has on others, the impression I make, and tailoring my appearance to manipulate and achieve the desired response from my target audience. The idealistic vs. the practical response.

    Sorry, I'm feeling a tad anthropological today ;)

  19. I have medium taste.

    Hate the Chanel bag, don't like tennis bracelets, find most engagement rings homely, am tired of seeing women hobble along in heels that ruin their stride....

    So how much of "good taste" is a willingness to conform, and how often do things previously considered "bad taste" become The Next Big Thing?

  20. Hee, I love that first photo you chose.

    I'd echo the theme of self-awareness: know what flatters your body (and love that body) and choose utilitarian for everyday wear. Heck, go utilitarian all the time--that dress in the first picture seems... a tad impractical, if one actually wants to stay clothed without constant tugging and readjusting, for example. (Elegance isn't a single moment, it's a continuum.)

    To go into some of your specific questions:

    Yes, sewing has made me much more aware of my own body shape, of fabrics and finishes, etc.

    Modesty and good taste--I think it's in good taste to acquiesce to some degree to a sense of what's decent in public. Of course, some people aren't actually cultivating good taste as part of their public image.

    My own rule for good taste in addition to the things I've already mentioned: I don't want to be a walking advertisement. A discreet logo is fine; a bag covered in that logo is NOT in my range of good taste. Or maybe it's just not within my range of what I'll pay for. (Why should I have to pay money to be a walking advertisement?)

  21. I have no taste at all. I honestly cannot tell if an article of clothing or accessory is ugly. Other people sometimes comment on what someone else, either in person or in a picture, is wearing, and say it is in poor taste, but I can almost never see it. I can tell the difference between poorly made and well-made, but that's about it. This makes me wear all kinds of things that are totally not age or SAHM appropriate. But then, do I really want to dress like a 40-something SAHM?

    Oh, and my Chanel handbag was stolen, so I can't even rely on that to pull me into good-taste territory.

  22. Interesting discussion! I think it's useful to distinguish people's taste (as in, their preferences and dislikes) from some culturally defined notion of Taste (with a capital T - a set of seemingly agreed ideas around what counts as "good" style, etc). In either case, though, I reckon Bourdieu was on to something when he wrote that "taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier", i.e. people's ideas around taste say more about their perception of themselves than about the inherent value of the things they 'have a taste' for.

  23. Great contributions, guys! I definitely think of taste (small "t") as quality, reserve or modesty (nothing that screams "LOOK AT ME!"), and classic design. Colors should look harmonic and not clash. It can be bohemian or unusual but not cheap-looking (in terms of quality) or too ostentatious. But of course these are subjective terms.

  24. While I don't think my taste is bad, I'm unsure if it's good, either. I have what I call "classic" tastes. I make clothing that wouldn't really have been out of place when my mother was a kid, and doesn't raise eyebrows now. I don't think I'm alone, it this, either--people ask me where they can buy what I've made.

  25. I'm happy with my taste, its mine, I think thats enough. And Peter, I hope i don't offend but I agree about the Chihuahuas; not even a real dog.

  26. Hello there...I just stumbled upon your blog...LOVE IT!! Im going to add myself as a new follower...cant wait to read more.....!!!

    Happy to meet you!

    Enter my Tulle Giveaway♥

  27. I used to think ill of chihuahuas until we accidently adopted one. Now I'm a convert. Their good qualities may not be apparent to strangers, but they are very special.

  28. I know this post is four years old, but I just stumbled onto it (thank you very much, Linked Within) and had to chime in because your comments about designer jeans and Chanel handbags really resonated with me. I worked as an interior designer for 12 years and I came to understand that it's not so much about good taste versus bad taste as it is fear and insecurity. There is a huge market for designer labels because people are insecure about their own ability to judge quality and create style. They know that they "can't go wrong" with labels like Chanel, Armani, or whatever, so they fork over the money without understanding what it is about what they are buying that makes it so desirable. Of course, unless that person also has a stylist putting their outfits together, even the most exquisite designer accoutrements can be made to look ridiculous (classic Chanel quilted handbag with hot pink sneakers and velvet GAP sweatpants with too-tight underpants creating a series of mountain ranges across the buttocks, for instance). And I found that with design clients, as well -- some were just busy, or wanted access to fabrics or other items that are only available To the Trade, but many of my clients were just horribly self-conscious about themselves and their homes and wanted an "expert" to tell them what they should like and prevent them from embarrassing themselves when they entertained.

    I think that true, authentic style involves fearlessness, creativity and individuality. It's not really Audrey Hepburn or Jackie Kennedy, because they are icons of borrowed style, dressed by others. Give me Cindi Lauper and Gwen Stefani and Pink, or your lovely cousin Cathy -- those who are definitely inspired by fashion's tastemakers, but who take that inspiration and personalize it, making it their own, without asking anyone's permission.

    1. Thank you, Rebecca! I really appreciate that you brought empathy into the equation (intentionally or not). It's easy to understand why a person who simply doesn't have the time or experience to know what goes with what, or what's "in" would want to hire someone who does. Nothing wrong with that!


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