"She can wear a paper sack and look good--she's got such great bone structure." People often said this about my oldest sister in a way they might have hoped would trickle down to the rest of us as a genetic compliment. It was true. Johanna is very tall and has cheekbones and tons of sharp, jutting attitude that could pull off anything. Dare to tell her she didn't look good in that floor-length embroidered, nomadic goatherd's leather coat with the shaggy fur collar, the cowboy boots over her corduroy overall pants legs or the holly twigs in her fierce, swept-up-'do. The thing is, she would put them all on, as if donning a sack. And, on her, damned if they didn't look good.
I knew what they really meant by my sister's 'great bone structure.' She was thin. While my other sisters and I were shorter and periodically on the upholstered side, Johanna was a sort of high-backed shaker chair-- an elaborate coat-hanger--for her hip-hugger jeans, tiny tees, and ultramod miniskirts.
I was thinking about this as I flipped through the fashion spread of W, where edgy, apparently sleep-deprived models who have worn themselves ragged with hard living in oddly clean urban alleyways, have been reduced to wearing actual paper sacks. What is this supposed to tell the rest of us about fashion? What are we supposed to do with this information? Is this a new trend? Are we all going to rustle around in recycled paper frocks?
W doesn't make a lot of pretense, which I like. We normal people aren't supposed to do anything with this except maybe to feel unworthy. Perhaps they were thinking the same thing about the model and using the fur coat like a rain poncho--'she could wear a paper sack and look good!...hey...'
But lots of women's magazines would like you to believe that, with a certain amount of fashion know-how, any woman can take fashion from the runway to their own driveway. With a few simple tips, anyone can look leggy, young, six feet tall and 110 pounds. The thing to remember is to play up your assets and hide figure flaws! This is all fine and good.
But I'm not buying it. Oh, sure, dressing in one color from head to toe can go a ways to lengthening your lines, shiny spandex pants makes your thighs look huge and "Where's the Beef?" printed on a beefy crew neck tee shirt on a girl with big boobs and a thick neck won't do her any more favors than it will anyone else. The thing is, if you are on the fluffy side, you can't be slouching around in just anything. Stylishly shredded boyfriend jeans? "Look at you, you're Moonbeam McSwine," as my Mother would say, referring to the filthy-but-stacked slattern in Li'l Abner. Shabbily chic ruffled blouses and slouchy, ruched dresses made for elfin tubercular heroines? Most of us are in serious danger of looking like we're wearing doilies on overstuffed sofa slipcovers.
Swimming in these treacherous waters takes skill and nerve and at least a Queen Latifah-size attitude. Companies like Anthropologie and Sundance have made a floor-to-ceiling fantasy of lanky cowgirls and bony-chested bohemians draped in slouchy, dull-colored cashmere cardigans and thick tweedy skirts, perched on miraculously clean vintage pickup trucks, looking like spindly orphans fresh from the train, facing their grim new lives with begrudging, childless homesteaders. Eventually, we know from the stories, the spunky orphans will win their hearts and go on to become famous writers, or alcoholic wives of state governors. For the rest of us, that truck had better be clean, otherwise the only image a girl that doesn't have that exasperated, twangy, sharp thinness of a barbed wire fence will send out is "corn fed."
You can learn all the little tricks--the nipping in at the waist, the drawing the eye this way and that, using prints to camouflage a thousand sins. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. If you're feeling fat, the bravado goes by the board. If you're not feeling the fabulous, you've got to flip them the finger, so don't forget to pinch off a little attitude with those textured hose that make everyone except the 19th century matchstick girl look like Gumby.
Lots of home magazines and design books would also like you to believe that, with a can of enamel paint and a little elbow grease, you can turn that flea-market find into a chic, witty treasure for your home. This is...well fine--not completely garbage, but take a good, hard look at those flea markets. The pictures show Saturday morning hipsters in their groovily ratty boyfriend jeans and those dull-colored cardigans wandering through row upon row of open air aisles of nubby postwar modern chairs and dappled but still elegant beveled mirrors, nobly beaten Chippendale secretaries and graying, galvanized French flower buckets. Where are the tables of Avon Skin-So-Soft and fringed Harley Davidson tee-shirts that state with a certain, cheeky menace to "put your ass on some class?" Where are the creepy reproduction Victorian dolls and the little calico outfits for the manatee that holds your mailbox? I've been to flea markets, believe me--I've even gone to my share of French flea markets, and all those vendors of perfume imitations, Sophisti-twist hair gadgets, cheap tube socks, cracked vinyl purses and curled shoes interestingly never make it into the photos.
Still, just because something's old doesn't necessarily make it an antique, and a spindly table with scruffy paint won't make your home "shabby chic." Sometimes old stuff is just old and shabby. Minus the chic. And face it: most of us don't live in that four story, Belle Epoch-era apartment in Paris' 2nd Arrondissement with the floor to ceiling casement windows, or the 1957 California modern original; we live in some 20th century apartment or tract house with double glazing and flimsy hollow core doors. We bring that slouchy armchair into our 1961 ranch style home and cover it with a white sheet and it looks like we're hiding something, which, of course, we are. It sits there slouching and leaking stuffing like some slobbering, urine-soaked drunk we brought home and propped in the corner. The frilly vanity with the girlish mirror turns out to be a rickety Ethan Allen repro with peeling veneer held on sheerly by the viscous strength of thick layers of sickly yellow paint and daubed on stencils.
Look--it can be done. You've got to find high quality: good construction, good finish. You've got to think about where it's going: shiny spandex bicycle shorts if you have a huge ass isn't going to work any better than the big, dark walnut sideboard with the carved boars' heads in your 1967 tract house in St. Pete with the 8' ceilings. You've got to keep it clean and simple--dirty, cluttered, and overdone is always going to look bad. There needs to be some other saving grace: sentimental value, quirky knobs, the outline of the Virgin Mary in the grain of the wood, whatever. Shabby and chic are all very well and good, but it all has to fit. It has to work with the bones: your bones; the bones of your house. Otherwise, it's just old rags and second hand crap.