True Colors | By Diana Divecha

It’s been easy in Berkeley not to care what I look like. Here, a critical mass of educated people are hip to the beauty industry’s evil forces—and as a result, grooming is a whole lot cheaper and less time-consuming. I enjoy the freedom of walking into the grocery store in pajama bottoms and flip-flops.

But I have two smart teenage daughters, and they recently took my shapeless, baggy, frizzy look on as a project. They gleefully made me watch the Saturday Night Live skit that makes fun of “mom jeans” (those elastic-waist jeans with the tummy pouch in front and the side pockets that accentuate the backside). I tried to argue that the media loves to indoctrinate women with instructions about how to dress . . . but I also saw myself through their eyes: out of step with the times, unnecessarily frumpy. So when my svelte, 50-something friend in the music industry suggested I see a style consultant, I decided to give it a try. “It’s not what you think,” she said encouragingly.

Feeling a little trivial, I faltered while composing the e-mail to make an appointment. I was flooded with memories of early fashion encounters. As a teenager in the ’70s, in a small town in northern Minnesota, I sewed most of my own clothes. For inspiration, I studied Glamour magazine’s “Dos and Don’ts”—which featured girls with visible panty lines or the “wrong” blouse—and was a little terrified that there were rules of fashion that were arbitrated from New York and enforced by the printing of innocent girls’ dress violations in a magazine. I boycotted the pressure and decided to dress in a way that said looks don’t matter, I’d rather be taken seriously.

In the 1980s, I got my first academic job in a mostly male-dominated department. My colleagues commented that I added “estrogen” to the room and wondered aloud that I could be pregnant and smart at the same time. Being a woman was clearly a liability, something to downplay, and so I retreated even further into baggy pants, ugly boots and, I hoped, credibility.

At the same time, developmental research was beginning to show a link between media images of girls and rising rates of eating and body-image disorders. Feminists suggested that if we conformed to external standards of beauty, we were downloading the patriarchy, internalizing capitalism, colluding with classism, perpetuating our own objectification, reinforcing animal testing and exploiting underpaid workers. The battle over women’s appearances raged. The frump look seemed safe, even healthier, to me, and kept me below the radar, where I pretty much stayed for a couple of decades . . . until my teenagers caught me.

They, like the third-wave feminists just ahead of them, are hip, intellectually and socially successful, politically active and don’t see how their appearances conflict with their ideals. They are young feminists defined by their politics, not by their looks. Like many teens, they use their looks to express themselves. My daughters have 13 pierces between them, and the older one periodically shaves her head. They said I should change my look, but I could barely reconcile their free and open perspective with my own experience.

So with trepidation and a lot of baggage, I arrived at the style consultant’s home office in the Oakland hills. John Kitchener, senior consultant at Personal Style Counselors (PSC), has advised 21,000 men and women, as well as businesses and organizations, in the Bay Area over the last 30 years, on colors, style, fashion, aesthetics, even interiors. Greeting me at the door, he put me at ease with his warm welcome and sunny disposition. John himself is a handsome, self-effacing man with dark brown hair, sparkly eyes and olive skin. He wore a bright striped shirt of black and rainbow colors, and exuded an uncomplicated, enthusiastic goodwill. I sat across the desk from him in his naturally lit office, and as we chatted about restaurants and ethnic heritages, he held up dozens of color swatches to my face and hands.

John analyzes physical characteristics such as hair, skin tone, eye color and body type, along with personality and profession, to create a “style identity.” A category that captures an overall “look” of a client, these style identities can be romantic, angelic, youthful, high-spirited, dramatic, natural or classic.

“You’re classic, with a little romantic and dramatic,” John declared to me, referring to a style that combines simple, clean lines with touches of softness and drama. He even suggested shapes for necklines, lapels, jewelry and accessories. Based on my face shape and body type, for example, he suggested I stay away from rectangular forms and instead repeat my existing ovals and curved lines.

While he talked, he taped fabric swatches of colors into a small three-ring binder. The way that colors are combined is also systematized, depending on hue, saturation and degree of contrast. “You are ‘subtle blended.’” John said. “No strong color contrasts for you.” He suggested that when I put an outfit together, I select three colors that are related, but not highly contrasted. Colors carry information and influence moods, he explained, showing me palettes of colors that conveyed romance, serenity, trust and power. I felt like an anthropologist learning about a whole new culture, and mentally eliminated half my wardrobe.

He rolled his desk chair over to his computer to show me pictures of women and clothing that illustrated the colors and styles he recommended for me. The photos were beautiful, and for a moment I let myself dream of looking as together as the women on his screen. “The next step is to meet Hella,” he advised. “She’ll help you translate these broad outlines into actual clothing.”

Later, Hella Tsaconas and I sifted through my entire messy closet, piece by piece. Hella is not a fashionista, rather more of an appearance therapist. She is gentle, supportive, articulate, and funny. “That looks like a Russian high-priestess,” she said about an ethnic, long, high-necked coat. “That’s a little too costume-y,” “too boring,” “too fleshy,” “too coppery,” “too dated,” “mother-of-the-bride.”

My confidence was a little rattled, but I reminded myself that I had hired her to shake things up and she quickly pointed out the positive path: “It’s about confidence, flexibility, efficiency,” she reassured. “Now this, this,” she said, holding up an outfit of muted deep turquoise and olive, “this is your power palette. This outfit says you are an authority. It’s great for giving presentations, even getting seated at a restaurant.” I scribbled notes while my pile of giveaways mounted. She double-checked my colors and advised on shapes. “Proportion is everything,” she said, and she explained that my baggy look came from combining loose tops with loose bottoms. A sharper look, she advised, is to pair a fitted top with a looser bottom or vice versa. And wearing lighter colors on top, or jewelry at the neckline, draws the eye toward the face, which is naturally flattering.

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Illustration by Susan Sanford
Illustration by Susan Sanford

Beauty, observes Susan Sontag in her essay, “An Argument About Beauty,” takes a “battering” in our culture wars. Attractiveness in nature or art is one thing, but when applied to women, the notion of beauty takes a slightly misogynist turn. While women can be worshipped for their looks, Sontag writes, they are at the same time criticized for any hint of preoccupation with it, risking charges of narcissism, mindlessness or frivolity.

Yet humans are profoundly affected by physical appearance. Anthropologists say that facial symmetry and other indicators of health like clear skin, long hair, straight teeth and height are naturally desirable because some part of our brain recognizes them as signals of reproductive fitness. Even newborn babies prefer to look at attractive faces, suggesting that we come into the world with this bias. Social psychologists find that attractive people get all the goodies and are treated better by employers, suitors, strangers, even mothers. And social judgments are harsh: Women who appear either too manly or too feminine at work are judged by both their male and female colleagues to be less competent, less desirable, even less committed to their jobs. As a developmental psychologist, I tend to worry about the playing field being level, so this was a game I had never wanted to participate in. Even when dressing up, I’d somehow sabotage my outfit, consciously or unconsciously, with the wrong shoes or bad hair.

Having opened myself to thinking about style differently, I tried to suppress the feeling of tiptoeing through a minefield, to continue my exploration. Later in the spring, I attended one of Hella and John’s workshops. They deconstructed the season’s fashions to show how individuals with different style identities might cherry-pick the offerings. There, in a Berkeley living room, a group of about 30 women sat on metal folding chairs, sipping sparkling water, watching a slide show of current fashion trends. Who knew that a community infused with so many political and social interests would also have an underground beauty and style movement?

To my surprise, these were not the Botoxed, Restylaned, lip-plumped women of L.A. They were competent, vibrant, expressive women in midlife, representing a wide range of endeavors. While John talked about color harmonies and elements of clothing that would best express our physical and psychological qualities, I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up from a 20-year sleep to find that the world had, indeed, changed.

As I listened to the conversations at the workshop, a new relationship to fashion and style emerged. “Before, my clothes were completely at odds with who I was. They were jarring,” said one woman. “I thought there was something wrong with me, with my body-image. Now what’s being projected is consistent with who I am.” Hella explained that when one’s exterior is better aligned with her interior state, the clothes then “get out of the way, letting the personal qualities shine.” In a culture where, according to one advertising executive, only two percent of women feel beautiful, clearly we have been leashing our self-image to the wrong mast. Perhaps anchoring it to an internal place, to our personalities, our desires, and our unique attributes, is more effective, more congruent, more whole.

Later that week, as I dressed for a friend’s anniversary celebration, I chose one of the outfits from my closet that Hella had combined for me: narrow harem-style pants, with a gauzy spaghetti-strapped tunic, topped by a silky Indian shawl, in shades of turquoise and green. It was an east-west blend that was just a little more “out there” than I’d previously dared but that was truly “me” nonetheless. “You look younger,” said a longtime friend who came up to me at the party. “Are you doing something different?” another asked. “You look more vibrant,” my husband commented. I appreciated the compliments, but more importantly, I felt a few degrees more comfortable in my own skin, or, in this case, my clothes. I had a slight, below-threshold feeling of being more present, more honest about who I am. And that freed me to be myself just that much more.

This year, as I turn 50, I’m taking a cue from the younger feminists who have more fun playing with their self-expression. With a little more freedom and a few more tools to rely on, I am tethered neither to the resistance that makes me sabotage myself nor to the external approval of others. Instead, as I take stock of my energies and talents for the next 50 years, I am interested in deepening my self-determination. And while these small changes may not fix pay inequities or glass ceilings or the violence, objectification and oppression that women experience around the world, they may boost our confidence and help us to amplify our voice and sense of agency. That’s a good thing.

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Diana Divecha is a developmental psychologist who writes about children and families and cross-cultural life. Her recent essays can be found in Something That Matters, a new anthology by The Wednesday Writers.

Style Eyes

John Kitchener, senior consultant, and Hella Tsaconas, wardrobe consultant. For John Kitchener: www.pscjohnkitchener.com or (510) 832-1714; Hella Tsaconas: hellapersonalstyle.com or (510) 548-1059. Personal color and style consultations, workshops and wardrobe planning services.

Women’s Clothing Boutiques

Earthly Goods, 2100 Vine Street, Berkeley, (510) 845-4564.
Ideas 4 Elements, 1774 Solano Avenue, Berkeley, (510) 525-9195.
Molly B., 2112 Vine Street, Berkeley, (510) 843-1586; 1811 Fourth Street, Berkeley, (510) 548-3103.
Personal Pizazz, 2842 Prince Street (at Claremont Avenue), Berkeley, (510) 420-0704.
Two Star Dog, 1370 10th Street, Berkeley, (510) 525-1100.

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