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May 18, 2011

FASHION POLICE 101 or "How to Tell Someone You Love You Hate Their Outfit"

So I have this friend...

Hold it right there, I know what you're thinking: this is the oldest plot device in the book, used in every third episode of The Brady Bunch.  This is not about Cindy's friend, it's about Cindy.

I am shocked at your disbelief, readers, shocked.  Next, you'll be telling me that I don't have an identical cousin, when that rumor has been put to rest again and again, and again.

But back to my friend.

He's not the most stylish person in the world -- in fact he's something of a slob -- but he does know what goes with what, and has been a follower of fashion for many, many decades.

Now, the man he shares his life with is arguably much neater than he. But it's the what-he's-neat-with that's the problem.

You see, the partner of my friend has a tendency -- some might say a  compulsion -- to wear clothes that are alternately too large (baggy twenty-year-old pants), or too tight (think former Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord), or too something (over-bleached acid-wash jeans)  And while there's nothing wrong with mixing patterns occasionally, said mixing requires a great deal of care and skill, and an eye, readers, an eye -- or so my friend believes.

The problem my friend has is what to do about his admittedly-judgmental-sounding opinions.  You see, he believes -- with good reason, it turns out -- that his partner will sometimes intentionally mismatch patterns or otherwise dress provocatively, solely to push my friend's buttons.  He (the partner) told him (my friend) as much!

My stylish-if-slobby friend, in contrast, happily solicits others' advice and is open to receiving it, never interpreting it as threatening or challenging or nobody's business but my his own.

Stylish and sophisticated readers around the world, have you ever found yourself in my friend's cute-if-scuffed shoes?  If so, how do you handle it?

Some of you will say that if you love someone, as I know my friend does his partner, that you accept them as they are, end of story.  Some, perhaps with a few years of psychotherapy under their belt, might even argue that the problem is my friend's and only my friend's.  He is the one who is seeking to control another by criticizing his partner's choice of outfits -- never a healthy strategy in any relationship.

Some might say, moreover, that personal style is entirely subjective and that what my friend thinks looks unflattering on his partner, others will find just the opposite -- that there's no objective truth to what looks good and what does not, beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all that jazz.

Then there will be other more empathic souls who know that adults who dress themselves poorly need guidance and are only inviting the criticism of others.  Better that the loved one offer constructive criticism in private than a stranger his 2-cents in public.

In closing, readers with no-doubt highly-honed, read-between-the-lines abilities,  I ask you:

Should you tell someone you love you don't like what they're wearing (with the confidence that you know what you're talking about) or shouldn't you?

How do you handle giving advice to someone you love, when no advice has been solicited, and it might make them feel criticized?

Or if you don't give unsolicited advice, do you just keep quiet, offer (at most) a none-too-subtle, up-and-down look of dismay and leave it at that?  Do you ever ask if the person is open to your opinion, knowing full well that the very question suggests disapproval?

I need guidance -- to share with my friend of course.  Crimes are being committed.

Jump in!


  1. I have a roommate like this - she's a former anthropologist turned Mom and bank employee. I lucked out because, in the transition from maternity to maternal, she did a few closet purges. I've found that the trick to getting a friend or a family member to purge their closet is to tell them you have some "upcycling" ideas. I've gotten more free clothes and performed more closet purges through claimed upcycling than any other way.
    I'm also brutally honest. I'll be doing this with my own mom soon. She's a gorgeous (just about) divorcee, and still dresses like a 1990s Mom with a million places to be after a day at work. Her best friend has gotten started on the wardrobe recreation, and my sister and I both plan to volunteer our services. And we've told her that, too.
    The key is honesty. And significant glances.

  2. You made Michael white jeans which he wore for a fashion shoot. You promised him - what was it, a suit jacket -- and then never made it. Maybe you should just make him some more stylish clothes.

    Besides, Michael is cute enough that he could wear a sack & still look good. Perhaps you should be grateful for his sartorial choices, in case it helps keep all the other people from being too interested. Who was it that jumped in to make a shirt for him in the sewalong & aren't you glad she doesn't live in NYC?

    Just hypothetically, of course --except for the part about Michael being nice to look at. :-)

  3. I have frequently let my husband know his tie looks like a couch, and a checked shirt does not go with a striped suit, and, honey, I do love you but that shirt's getting far too tight around the middle. I think the key to not making it a personal attack has always been to be clear that (a) this is solely my opinion, (b) he has the freedom to ignore me and go out in it anyway, and (c) I still will love him. That couch tie? He still wears it because he finds it funny, though he is more particular about when/where he wears it. You have to pick your battles.

  4. Hmm, I've learned to keep my mouth shut (with critiques of my partner's style) unless explicitly asked for an opinion. If he's just doing crazy stuff to irk "your friend", though, he's asking for it. :-)

  5. Some of us dress to the beat of a different drummer when it comes to clothing ... I have been told several times over the past two decades that I should have been arrested by said fashion police in late 1991 and given life in a corrections facility! LOL Sorry (not really) but I just couldn't do the grunge look, nor could I do the exposed thong and muffin top look ... the truly amusing thing is last week I was "snoop shopping" site surfing and to my great amusement see things I would make and wear anyway!

    After two decades on the lam from the fashion police ... I'll be "in style" no later than the fall season ...

    Your "friend's" partner probably won't care, and if he waits long enough he'll be high-stylin' again.

  6. Ya know, despite the fact that I dish out style advice all day long to readers, I seldom give it unsolicited to friends and strangers. If my husband is wearing something that seriously, seriously doesn't work, I'll gently let him know. But honestly? Only because he does the same for me, and with tremendous tact. We've got that kind of relationship.

    It's one thing to give someone input on a single piece or ensemble. Tackling "You should change your personal style" is more than most of us can reasonably handle.

  7. As an engineer, I'm not qualified to give fashion advice, but I will say that in order to make sure my husband looks good I buy all of his clothes. There's nothing in that closet that he can put on that will look bad. If something doesn't fit, it goes to Goodwill. If it gets worn or frayed, out it goes. Otherwise, he might revert to his bachelor days where if the clothes were warm and covered all of the things we need to legally cover, he was fine with it regardless of how it looked.

  8. A man I know has certain outfits that look like police uniforms in a small southern town (e.g., khaki slacks and shirt, all one color) -- all he needs is a badge. His SO has mentioned it a number of times. He ignores it and continues to wear them. Otherwise fine relationship. (And he never tells her anything she wears makes her look fat!)

  9. If I see someone I know well wearing something that doesn't look good on them, I just say, "I don't like it." Simple, non-judgmental, and they can ask for details if they want them. Otherwise, I keep my mouth shut- usually. With my house mate I will say something to her, but she is known to wear things that are so worn that they don't even cover her (and sometimes without underwear), so she really needs to be reminded sometimes that clothing isn't optional.

  10. "I don't like it" is non-judgmental? LOL

  11. My husband wears exactly the same thing every day. He calls it his "uniform" and thinks that's clever. We are going to a wedding this weekend and he's wearing his "uniform". He is the father of the groom. The "uniform" is a black pullover v-neck short-sleeved shirt and chinos from K-mart. I think your friend should complain a little less and sew a little more.

  12. You could tell your friend that his partner makes him look better by comparison, so any attempts to improve upon his partner's dress will only result in him looking worse!

  13. I don't care what my husband wears when he is not with me, but if we are going out, I plan his wardrobe and mine. If he chooses something that is okay, I say nothing. If not, when I know he is dressed, I ask him what he is wearing, he will say this, I say "no you're not" and pull out my choice. This became necessary early in our relationship when all he wore was (oh the horror) white dress shirts, jeans and white sneakers. Period. Seriously, that is all he would wear. I buy clothes for him and explain that they are to wear when we are going out. For that matter I buy all his clothes, and there are no white dress shirts 8-). And I can't remember the last time I had to make him change his clothes. Having said all that, I am not above "accidentally" spilling bleach on something, or burning it while ironing, or tearing it, in order to get rid of it.

  14. If someone is genuinely interested in and asking for my opinion, I'll give it (as tactfully as I can). Otherwise, I keep my mouth shut.

  15. I think a strategy of positive reinforcement may be in order. Compliment the good choices effusively... Talk about the things that look awesome all the time... And ignore the faux-pas.

    My husband mostly follows this strategy and it has had a disturbing amount of influence on the way I dress over the last decade. I still break out things he hates, but with much less frequency...

  16. I will let them have it if we are going somewhere it is inappropriate (like a wedding) because as a guest we have a job to be a good guest as they have a job to be a good host. I'm always embarrassed when there is a nice looking woman with a man that refuses to take off his jeans and tee shirt and we are at an event that dictates more. But I am appalled at how casual people dress on the west coast. It looks like they think putting on a shoe with laces is getting dressed up. I guess if someone wants to look like hell that's fine. But you want to go with me to fancy events? You better dress for it!

  17. I have to make a 'mistake' and hang things in my closet for a bit before retiring them. On the other hand, he is happy enough to tell me when I don't need to be wearing that to work any longer.

  18. "Who was it that jumped in to make a shirt for him in the sewalong & aren't you glad she doesn't live in NYC?"


    I agree with Tanit - positive reinforcement on the good choices. Mouth shut on the bad ones, unless specifically asked.

    And as so many have already pointed out, "your friend's" friend is so adorable that it doesn't really matter what he wears, although he probably looks best in teal/brown gingham shirts. ;-)

  19. Or... You could always nominate him as a case for that show on TV "What not to wear" and stage an intervention on national television, throwing all his clothes away and forcing him to the torture of shopping for a whole new wardrobe at some fancy and expensive boutique. LOL Seriously, though, if it wasn't for the fact that all my stuff and rags (even those I made myself) would appear on TV for people to see, I would probably ask a friend to nominate me. LOL I could use the advice and the shopping spree at some expensive store. :-)

  20. Oh, tread very carefully. My husband is going through a bad fashion moment. He refuses to throw anything away (it's all starting to fall apart) but I refuse to replace anything (my regular function) until he agrees to trash a whack of stuff (stuff that should be burned at this point). Anyway, it's a simmering challenge for us, some might say a control game. I wonder whether he'll be wearing threads when all is said and done.

    But wait, this is about your friend. I tell my husband all the time that he's looking increasingly slobbish / unkempt / behind the times. I can't say it's working.

  21. We're pretty straight forward around here, we call out the good, the bad, and (gulp) the ugly. I love my hubby, I care about my hubby, so I'm not going to sit on a satin tuffit and meakly placate his masculine sensibilities while he struts off into the world like some partialy color blind, half blind, handicapped former athelete locked into an 80's style. None of these things bother me, wait just that 80's item (ick).

    My hubby likes to look good so I give him tons of compliments when he does and when he doesn't I try to head him off before he leaves the house. I'm also in charge of the laundry and I feel terrible when accidents happen.

    We shop together so he gets buckets of positive reinforcement. When he does shop alone now recently, his choices have gotten better.

    Still, we all need ugly sweats day and it's nice the dogs don't care what we look like.

  22. Well, I am pretty much a free agent now, but when I grew up the atmosphere was quite different. If I came around wearing a great, new suit, I might get the odd comment, "nice suit, but really, those shoes?", or "nice suit but couldn't you have done anything more with your hair?". Despite my best efforts it seemed nothing was ever quite good enough. As a result I opt for "safe" choices now, as I sit here in my beige J. Crew pants and pink polo shirt, Cole-Haan loafers. Point to be taken: never discourage originality as long as it's clean, neat and reasonably modest. Occasionally a person just needs to wear something to call attention to themselves. I'm convinced of it!

  23. Hmm, this probably makes me a bad partner but I honestly don't notice what my husband wears unless he asks for my advice. He rarely wears anything really "off" -- our most recent discussion on the subject led us both to the conclusion that his red dress shirt should not be worn under any jackets. On the weekend, he regularly tools around in jorts and too-short t-shirts and I hardly ever notice unless said t-shirt is particularly disreputable.

    I just don't think it's any of my business unless something is really wrong (jeans to a wedding or funeral, for instance). With one of my friends, I've pledged to say something the next time she walks out of the house with camel toe. But that's it.

  24. Slightly off the subject, but I've been loving your blog and was thinking ... the world needs to be aware of more gay people like you guys. You are delightful. And too often, here in Iowa, we only ever get to become aware of weirdly troubling gay people. It's not our fault, you see, we are a small town, provincial, and you know what we read in the papers!

    You do a lot of good just by being funny, intelligent, delightful you. Good influence on others.

  25. Totally interesting conversation!

    My boyfriend is so awesome, but on his own was not much of a dresser. One fantastic ploy that has worked for both of us, has been to take him to a decent men's clothing store where the salesman or saleswoman working there can make the suggestions. If you can believe it, the first major success for my boyfriend was walking out of a Men's Wearhouse in downtown DC with several great items, thanks to the very goodlooking well-dressed salesman.

    Even if your friend's boyfriend decides to stick to a sensible budget and only buy one or two items at the store, as a sewist your friend could probably follow up with "couldn't I make you a shirt like that fantastic one you tried on at Nordstrom's?"

    Now, about 10 years after that first fateful shopping trip, my boyfriend is more confident in and proud of his own sartorial choices, which in my opinion he gets right about, oh, 80% of the time. And he still looks like a shlub too often, with the attitude that dressing nicely is only for certain occasions, not just for every day. And many of the items he bought a decade ago are out of fashion, but he refuses to figure that out.

    But you know what? He's the best and most wonderful man, and when he does dress well it looks great and he knows it and it shows. So we're both happy, and he even enjoys the extremely infrequent shopping trip for new clothes and LOVES anything I make him (which I don't do nearly often enough!).

  26. Well that was exhausting! I would tell your friend and his partner to just grow up already. Your friend, on his death bed, will hardly be going over mental snap shots of said partner is baggy pants. In the end it matters not what one wore to the party but tht they attended and had a good time.

  27. But would there be more parties if the friend's partner dressed a bit better?

  28. I think some regular-but-not-too-regular positive reinforcement will help, but not immediately. The accidental ruination by bleach or iron is however immediate, but very naughty!
    I have a bit of an issue with telling people what they should and shouldn't wear, I mean who am I to say in the first place? It depends on the person - some would take it as an insult, others would welcome any advice. I think if they ask, give them your opinion. If you're not sure, best leave it be.
    And if you do, approach one item at a time, not the whole wardrobe - I think that could easily offend a person. Well I would be slightly offended if someone, however close, decided my whole wardrobe needed an overhaul!

  29. Probably because they'd be right - lol!

  30. Or you could just blog about it and 'maybe' your friends' partner will read it and get the hint. :)

  31. I wonder if your friend's partner WANTS "help" with his look. Perhaps your friend could ask if feedback is desired.

    I'll bet your friend's partner has bitten his tongue a time or two when your friend walked out of the house looking slovenly.

    In any case, my opinion is that people in their fifth decade on Earth probably have figured out what they like and should be granted the respect of ibeing allowed to indulge in dissenting sartorial decisions that, ultimately, harm no one.

    I also know that, with a closet full of MPB shirts, I personally am making fewer questionable choices these days. Now if only I had some more pants....

  32. I have to say something else here.... Last week I'm at the atm getting cash for for my pilates class. Suddenly, I'm transfixed and NOT in a good way by some poor lady with totally obvious VPL - dress whites slacks, white briefs, both way too snug. Very bad, very bad. I sat in my car and seriously considered getting out to say something to her. But she probably would have been appalled - and rightly so, both at my lack of good breeding and at her own lack of full 360 consideration. I narrowly escaped a smack on the nose but I can't escape that vision and I feel that all day, people saw that and NO-body said a word - god forbid we say SOMEthing.

    What I'm reading is alot of dancing around the obvious. If you love me, please tell me I look like a doofus.

  33. An ex of mine would regularly say that he didn't like certain clothes of mine. These were clothes that I liked, and many other people liked. I looked cute, what the hell?
    It was a control device and I tried to ignore it, but it does eat away at you. I've realized that being loved and cared for, accepted and good company matter infinitely more than dress sense, table manners or haircuts.

    Is he happy when you walk into a room? Then swallow your opinion and smile.

  34. Peter, tell your dearest, my very dearest is in his fifth decade as well. I myself will someday be there too (we shall NOT discuss).

    So he and I decided we would both do our best to put our best foot out there, life getting perceptably shorter and ever sweeter 'n all that.

    And you know, there's nothing better than some fine 50 something, being put together and getting looks when the alternative is possibly early decay, silent stares and sans-a-belts on the golf course.

    And, you read what I said about the laundry right...what, you think I was joking?

  35. Hmm. Go Marie Christine!

    In my book, the only times to give feedback on someone's fashion sense are a) when they ask for it, in which case consider you need to share a bed tonight, and b) when you are the parent of a teenager, in which case 'what a lovely outfit, I used to have one just the same' usually deals to the worst situations.

    Otherwise - my advice is for your friend to love his man, and find something else to occupy his mind. Mah Jong? Charity work? Golf? Vintage Kens?

  36. My teenaged son has never cared what he looked like in clothes. (He will often walk around the house in the middle of winter wearing the same pair of black slacks that are his "uniform" even though he doesn't go to school anymore.) Because he has Aspergers Syndrome, he also never had close friends at school, and when he decided to go to a classmate's 18th birthday party I was thrilled. Until I saw what he was planning on wearing. I said to him, "I'm not going to take you if you are wearing that!" Next thing I knew, the back door had closed and he was riding his bike to get to the party! Wearing some horrible ensemble that I have now blocked out of my mind! (He didn't enjoy the party and didn't stay for long; Apparently he'd been promised there wouldn't be drinking or smoking there and had believed whoever told him that!)

  37. For as long as I have known him, my husband has dressed pretty much the same way - but I think the continuity is kind of nice. He dresses like his Dad who has dressed the same way since he got married some fifty years ago. I look at his dad and I know how my husband is going to be dressing in another thirty years and that's OK because at the end of the day, he's a really nice man which is what it's all about really. And I figure that once an item makes it into the house, it's game over. On the rare occasions when we are out shopping together and he tries on something that doesn't look right, I just tell him that it's nice, but that I'm sure we can come up with something even better. That seems to work.

  38. I live with this problem! Unless he looks so bad I feel he might be ridiculed, I don't say anything. But when he makes good choices, or he looks good, I always tell him. On rare occasions I have informed him I will not be seen in public with him dressed in a certain way, but he has gotten better in the last couple of decades.

    You love the guy for himself, right? Just consider his taste idiosyncratic. Don't issue an ultimatum unless the chosen duds are truly terrible.

    You could make him some clothes, too! Spoil him!

  39. Some interesting and humourous comments here but after 13 years I'm happy for my jackaroo to even change into a clean, relatively decent pair of jeans and a nice shirt when he's not on the farm. So glad we're not discussing footwear though!!

  40. Early days of a relationship, I was asked to help organize a wardrobe for a professional promotion. I was appalled at what I found, and though the transition was completed, I came away changed. I think I made too many assumptions about the relationship and the other person after the condition of the closet was revealed. I think it was the seriously worn and dirty items that were hoarded and wouldn't be discarded that broke it up. I didn't want to deal with such instability long term. I feel for you, it seems that this issue is important to your serenity, and it appears that you feel that a little passive aggression is maybe going too far toward open aggression? It is good that you can make light of the issue and be funny. I couldn't.

  41. All I know is that the moment somebody is leaving the house is not the time to ask the question "Are you wearing that?". Obviously they are.

  42. If you are in Southern California and are wearing shoes with laces, you are either wearing a tux or are a lawyer.

    My DH will comment on something he doesn't like. I will take a second look and sometimes agree and sometimes disagree. Sometimes I will comment on something he wears. It's all good. It did take several years to make him get rid of the medium brushed blue denim suit with bell bottom pants.

  43. Positive reinforcement doesn't always work. A few years ago I bought my husband an entirely new outfit from top to bottom, shoes, pants, shirt, belt etc. He looked really good in it, and we went to a big family function where almost everyone told him how nice he looked. He never once wore any of it again. I asked him why, "the pants felt funny" was his response. sigh

  44. i am the wrong one to ask because my husband wore hiking shorts and a tee shirt to OUR WEDDING. i did not say A WORD as i was just thrilled, after 8 years, he was finally marrying my ass.

    (and yes, i waited before the new princess made it cool.)

  45. Your friend and his partner could play Ken dolls together and roleplay the situation in a non-threatening context. They could also watch the Jeeves and Wooster TV shows together and discuss Jeeves' comments on Bertie's clothes.

  46. I have long felt that dog training is a power metaphor for social intercourse, generally. ;)

    My key insight from canine discipline has been always to reward desired behaviours and ignore undesirable ones, or else correct them gently but firmly. I believe the second option would be impracticable in your friend's case.

  47. I think you should tell said friend that his partner really *should* update the friend's partner's blog. That's what I think. He has suffering readers.

    makes big woo-woo eyes

  48. Peter - At this stage in life, if my husband wears something awful or looks awful (he normally looks very good), I count it as insurance that other women won't want to hit on him.

    Be glad your friend's partner doesn't dress too 'hawt' or someone might want to steal him away from your ... erm ... friend.


  49. As I pursue my personal style quest I am aware that the questions I am asking myself sometimes resonate but in other cases bother the people in my life. It's like my trying to "get it" is a reflection on their continuing not to, though I don't mean it that way, I'm just trying to learn. Some people really don't want to get it and no amount of hinting or engaging in conversation about style will change that. I know because I was one of those people.


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