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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Casual Friday fashions for men and the women who dress them

One of the most traumatic sights in my life was a rather large woman wearing green sweatpants and an orange sweatshirt in Philadelphia airport. The impact of this shocking vision was exacerbated by the fact that I was just on my way home from Paris. While not everyone in Paris looks like he or she had just stepped off the runway, these folks certainly know what not to wear. I don't think I saw a single person wearing sweats in Paris - not even among those who were jogging along the streets and around the parks. Back to the lady in the airport - I didn't mind that she was large. I know many large women who look quite stunning because they know how to dress themselves. I had a problem with what she was wearing.

Of course, orange sweatshirt and green sweatpants make a bit of an extreme combination, but let us face it - our casual attire landscape doesn't look so great. Jeans, t-shirts, sweats, cargo pants, sneakers - month after month, city after city, regardless of age, gender, or body type. The endless gray terrycloth and blue denim had permeated everything - from family restaurants to concert halls. On a very special occasion the forever-in-sweats ladies might pull out an odd sparkly top and a flowery skirt, and gentlemen might be talked into a button-down oxford shirt and a pair of khakis - none of which work for a truly formal occasion anyway.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? How did our casual wear degrade into this limited selection of sweats, jeans and t-shirts? What you wear during weekends and vacations, backyard barbecues and kids' birthday parties can and should be comfortable and washable, but does it have to be sloppy and ugly? Plus, if you work in a casual business environment, wouldn't it be nice to have a few versatile pieces in your wardrobe that can go from work to weekend to vacation and back to work, depending on what you combine them with?

First of all, ditch the trends! Just let them go. Not everyone can wear skinny jeans and leggings, capri pants only flatter the best of legs, cropped t-shirts belong in a teenagers' closet (and not every teenager looks good in those either), stiletto heels should only be worn if you know how and with appropriate attire - certainly not to work where you have to run around all day and not to a family picnic where heels are certain to sink into the ground. Guys, overly low-slung pants don't look good on anyone - not even on the Gap models, make you look like a blob. Tapered pants are bad for everyone. Just don't wear them. Just don't. Trust me.

Second, get a full length mirror and never leave your house without doing a quick look over in front of it. Ladies, in your case this includes putting on your coat or jacket and your handbag, because it all has to work together. To save time, set your clothes out the night before and pack all your stuff into the right bag - that has an added benefit of regularly getting rid of the junk that we tend to accumulate in our purses. Hang your clothes by outfit (instead of pants with pants, shirts with shirts, dresses with dresses, etc.) Get a look book - a binder with static pages (like the ones they have in photo albums to accommodate all sizes of photos), and as you leaf through catalogs and magazines, keep an eye out for looks that would work on you and for you, cut them out and stick them in the book.

Gentlemen, you may think this sounds ridiculous, but actually you need a look book even more than the ladies do. If you are married and rely on your wife to pick out your clothes - she can't be there all the time, what if she goes on vacation or on a business trip? And if you are single and fashion-challenged - there is no shame in getting advice from people who dress others for a living.

By the way - a small deviation from our topic: the look book works for other things too. My look binder has a section for clothes, a section for interiors, organization and landscaping. I may not be able to afford an interior designer, but why not borrow ideas from folks who put together Pottery Barn catalog spreads?

Now, for the specifics. It's not that I hate jeans - I own a few pairs myself. However, each pair of my jeans is a different color and none of them are baggy, although none of them are super-skinny either. Rather, they are all the style and cut that flatter me and are comfortable.

The two blue pairs are my work-in-the garden jeans, plus a black pair and a pale sand pair - for my crisp casual looks. A good alternative to jeans? Khakis or cords, all of which are now available in washable fabrics and in a variety of colors. Ladies, splurge or scour eBay for the Not Your Daughter's Jeans pants (they are not just limited to jeans - they have dress pants, khakis and cords too, including talls and petites). They will change your life. I don't have a daughter, but I do have a pair of NYDJ chocolate brown corduroys and it's the most comfortable pair of pants ever!

Incidentally, khakis and corduroys are not dress pants, gentlemen, but they will happily replace your standard baggy jeans for you, especially if you splurge on a few pairs that fit you well and have a flat front. Contrary to popular opinion, the pleated front pants don't hide the belly bulge - they enlarge it, and that goes across genders.

Just as I do not despise the jeans - just certain kinds of them and certain ways they are worn - I also do not hate t-shirts, as long as they are not baggy, are the right cut and flatter your figure. Guys, for the fiftieth time, I know you feel attached to your alma mater, but wearing your ginormous orange, bright green or acid-yellow college t-shirt into your mid-thirties is not a fashion statement you want to make. If you want to support your college, make a donation to the financial aid fund, but find it in you to grow out of your college memorabilia.

Ladies, please pay attention to the neckline and the fabric of your t-shirt of choice. Fitted does not equal skin-tight - the former makes you look trim and pulled together, the latter shows off your love handles and your belly roll. High round neck only works on gals with small breasts - in any other case your boobs will look like a big lumpy shelf attached to your chest. If you have some serious cleavage, wear v-necks, but not so low-cut that you are at risk of flashing everyone whenever you lean down to pick something up from the floor. Scoop necks work well on gals with breasts too. If you are flat-chested, do not despair - wear boat necks or slash necks and show off those sexy collarbones.

Check out the length of the t-shirt - are you planning to wear it tucked in or out? Try it both ways, see which one works better. If you are wearing it untucked, throw on a belt over the t-shirt and see how that looks. Try on several different tops in a variety of colors - don't just grab a stack of them and run because they are on sale. Sometimes it's worth spending a few extra bucks on something that makes you smile when you look in the mirror and keeps you looking sharp and comfortable all day.

As an alternative to t-shirts, there are loads and loads of button down shirts for men and women that come in light crinkly fabrics and wear great - perfect for summer!

Jackets... A jacket can have a huge impact on your casual outfit - it can bring it all together or ruin it. If it is a denim jacket or vest, make it fitted and please don't wear it with the same color jeans hits you just under the waist, your behind will suddenly look huge. Guys, if you think this doesn't pertain to you, think again! You are no more immune to wearing a jacket with a wrong fit and wrong length than we girls are.

For cooler time of the year (fall and spring), consider investing in a light leather jacket - something that goes well with jeans and with business pants and skirts. For warmer months, there are lots of options in lighter fabrics out there both for gals and guys.

Casual for ladies doesn't always mean wearing pants. A safari dress or a solid cotton t-dress with a fun belt can look great (with the right shoes and accessories, of course). Heels don't always work for casual events taking place somewhere with dirt or sand, however you can compromise with wedges and, as far as I am concerned, there is no better wedge sandal than an Onex sandal.

Speaking of shoes, just as casual clothes need not mean jeans and sweats, casual shoes need not equal sneakers. We are finally starting to learn from the British, how to make a comfortable shoe that doesn't look like it only belongs at the gym. The Brits call them "trainers". They are still light and soft, like tennis shoes, but are also stylish and come in all shades of brown, tan, sand, dark blue and gray. The ladies' options go even further - you can have them in pink if you really want to. I also love the hurache sandals, if you are looking for comfy summer flats - these would go fantastic with linen pants for guys, and those fabulous light gauzy fluttery pants for women.

As you put it all together, don't forget your height, shape and complexion. Caribbean green might be in right now, but why wear it if it makes you look like a corpse or a wilted bit of salad? And yes, you may have been told that black goes with everything, but (a) it's not true, and (b) if you are pale and have a tendency to work late, black will bring out those bags under your eyes and make you look even more washed out and tired than you actually are. White might be the most commonly used t-shirt color, but it does make things look bigger - if it makes you look like Michelin man, don't wear it.

Consider the occasion. If it's going to be reasonably sedate, wear lighter colors and, ladies, throw in some fun jewelry. If you anticipate having to muck in and do a turn at the grill or a lot of running around with kids armed with soaker guns, wear darker pants (for ketchup and barbecue sauce accidents), combined with a shirt that is stylish, but can stand all the running and rolling in the grass. Ladies, if water fights are on the agenda, please make sure you wear proper undergarments - there is a time and a place for a wet shirt contest, but your family picnic or a child's birthday is not it.

Lifestyle staples? Take good care of yourself. Your worn-out face, cracked skin on your hands, unkempt hair and chipped nails can and will detract from your outfit. Get some rest, moisturize (consider tinted moisturizer during winter months - it adds just a hint of color to your skin while protecting it from the low-yet-brutal winter sun), get regular hair cuts. Read positive books, watch funny movies - laughter is a great natural de-toxifier, anti-oxidant and anti-depressant and it's FREE! Dress well, eat well and have fun!

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