Rocket's Gorgeous in the City

Monday, November 21, 2005

Subculture: What are they thinking?

Most parents of teenagers, or "tweenagers" (previously known as children) are baffled by the way their offspring choose to dress themselves, the music they choose to listen to, and the way they behave.

Alright, so there's nothing new here. Parents and their kids have always had different cultures, partially because the parents can't believe that they were ever so young and naive (they were) and partially because fashion moves on.

But for the parents of young people who are members of a subculture, their decisions can be simply baffling.

Put simply, why do children refuse to conform to social norms yet seek to be exactly what the subculture requires of them?

Back in the old days, before subculture arose, rebellion was a clumsy matter, taken one stumbling step at a time. A risque haircut would be followed by a pair of torn jeans. The teen would question the assumptions of his or her parents, yet have no basis to form a new philosophy. Slowly, the rebelling teens would learn what they could get away with and find new compromises, new ways of relating to the world. Eventually, they would meet at a middle ground, and thus their generation would forge its own identity.

In my parents' day (the late 70s and early 80s) the world was becoming a larger place. Television and migration were speeding up the circulation of ideas. Looking through the photo album, one sees pictures of a teenaged My Dad with various cute Japanese girlfriends (good choice Dad) and a beard that would make ZZ Top question their masculinity. Mum, on the other hand, is seen as a long-haired flower child, playing guitar for Jesus. Since it was all rather crude and improvised, they were more mainstream than alternative: Dad could get good jeans, tear all the labels off them, add a t-shirt and go have a seance and Mum would plait her hair, choose florals at the conservative clothing shop and sing soprano in the Church choir (guitar close on hand).

In many ways, they are just like their parents, but dressed differently and doing things their own way. In most ways, I'm just like my dad... it would be fair to say that my mother and I are very well acquainted but barely know each other. My personality is much like my dad's, my interests mirror his, but my subculture is very different.

My dad was a hippy. I'm not sure what the hippies were like in Southern Victoria, but I get the impression they weren't particularly political or innovative by the time dad was hanging out with them. Like today's hippies, they were more or less just kids amusing themselves and taking it easy.

I'm a scifi glamour girl. I don't know if we really have a name; I don't think so. During the X-Files I was a bit goth (but glitter goth if you catch my drift) and after that I went very Star Trek glamour (K'Ehleyr and Lwaxanna are my heroes). During the Matrix I wore a lot of shiny black stuff and during Star Wars and my Dune phase, I tended to get a bit mythical in my wardrobe. My interests follow technobabble, Eastern philosophy and whatever I've just learnt in physics and maths lectures.

I was the only person like me in my little school, but I knew exactly what I was doing.

Subculture gives young people the opportunity to be empowered in their choice of identity. While they are experimenting with their self-identity, they can try on an entire community, engage with it and behave appropriately. They can see what they like and what they dislike about their chosen community and from that basis, they can move into a more personal self-image.

Most parents assume the conformity to a subculture is a completely passive process, where the teen observes a fashion and mindlessly imitates it. In my experience, this is actually not true. Teens have enough personality to decide whether Avril Lavigne or The White Stripes more accurately reflects their experience of life and musical taste. The decision of which TV shows to watch and what clothes to wear are also chosen by the individual aesthetic.

After observing and identifying with subculture, most teens fit naturally into a subculture which will be their first point of reference for self-definition. After engaging the world from within this subculture and seeing how their image can be altered to meet various external requirements, the teen is supremely prepared to interact with the world. By observing dress and manner, kids can immediately identify who is likely to be similar and who is likely to be different. They can fit in with the group of people who are most like them, and not feel alienated when they have an unusual personality.

With the Internet, kids can be the only member of their town to join a worldwide subculture. It gives them strength and courage that they might otherwise never learn. It also gives them a sense of perspective and the subjectiveness of their own values. Goths have one philosophy, punks have another - neither believes that one group is more informed or correct: it's simply a matter of taste. Adults with a proper understanding of subculture might be the first generation to accept that although people are "different", this difference is nothing to be feared: they could be the first generation to bring about a change for peace and acceptance.

So although your kids might look a little foolish, remember that they are learning to fit into a very different world, one where the Internet and globalism gives them a worldwide social net, one where the dizzying flow of information can only be dealt with by limiting the reception, and one where the young identity is still being formed. As they become more comfortable with themselves, they will learn to adapt to a broader social net, just as their parents did. But subculture will remain an important and defining part of our society. I just hope they all keep speaking the same language.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Rocket by Request: Warm weather office wear

As requested by Bruce, I've put some thought into what clothes you can wear to the office as the weather warms up.

There are many obstacles to consider: I've had the misfortune of being in the freezing part of the office under the air conditioning and had to keep my jacket on all Summer (inside anyway). You need to be comfortable to work well, but for many of us, the worth of our work will be judged on our presentation and grooming; these goals may be in conflict. Women seem to have the advantage in that our workwear is less well defined and most things can be changed to fit it, but as I have said before, many women are in danger of appearing unprofessional when dressed in casual/street clothes that seem appropriate.

Business dress is essentially timeless. Colours and cut change slightly each year, but a classic suit can remain impressive for ten years until the mode has dramatically altered. I tell all my male professional friends to buy new ties every season, but essentially the basic black business suit from the '80s is unchanged 20 years later. (You need to banish your 70s brown suit with flares and your safari suit. That was fun, but it's time to be serious now - we're all working very hard on Business here!)

By the way, my male professional friends usually ignore me. I buy my boyfriend a tie every now and then and shuffle the ties in his tie drawer so that the passable ones are in the front, but many people I know are getting around in their awful old ties and nobody could say why they look a little clueless, but they do and it's because their tie looks so stupid!

Business dress is not a fashion, rather a loosely defined uniform. Your goal is to appear as though you are in uniform. The key to it is in the details: collar and buttons, black and white, good tailored fit, pinstripes (if appropriate), sparing use of colour.

Let's look at some specific garments:

You want to wear shorts, so wear lightweight slacks. I used to love going to cheap shops like Westco and getting super-lightweight polyester pants to wear to work. They're in the cheap shops because they're a simple design, and the polyester works. People expect it to be hot like nylon, but if it's woven, it can be surprisingly cool and light. You can also get some very good linen/cotton/polyester blends that won't crumple by the end of the day.
The details: Look for a close fit (but not a tight one) and a straight leg design. Try to get machine washable, unless your washing machine is a front-loader with a hand-wash cycle. If you are clever you can hang them so they dry flat. It's not so important during Summer, but in the in-between seasons, you can give them a crisp look by ironing a fold into the front and back as a heavy suit would be pressed.

You want to wear a skirt, so wear one, if you are a woman. Unfortunately, men don't have the luxury - business wear is about fitting in, and most people realize you won't if you "cross-dress". Just a few notes: a business suit for a woman is a skirt and matching jacket in a dark or neutral colour with a white shirt, stockings and matching shoes. That is, research has shown this is the safest outfit to wear if you want to be seen as a professional and not as a woman. Admittedly, this research is a bit old: it's quoted in The Beauty Myth. If you choose to wear a skirt, make sure it's part of a suit. You don't need to wear your jacket all the time, but you should have it around. Wear knee-length (just above or below depending on what suits you) and choose a tailored fit.

Very overweight women can get loose, long skirts to wear to work. I usually find that they are awful patterns and cheap-looking styles, but with more fashion shops for larger women, it's getting better. If you're not certain about how you'll look in a skirt, or if the specific skirt you're looking at is professional or street wear, then my suggestion is the lightweight pants suggested above. With a nice business shirt, you can even get a tie-around or elastic waist - just wear a reasonably conservative shade (dusty or muted colours or something up-to-the-moment, tan and grey) and if you press a seam into the front and back, it will look like an ordinary pair of business pants in a comfortable fabric.

You want to wear a singlet, so wear a white shirt with short sleeves, a collar and buttons. The collar and buttons will always save you! If you're wearing black pants you can wear almost any crisp shirt - something with stripes and sleeves, something white and sleeveless... Women can get vests to wear alone, which can be worn with the matching pants or skirt, or with black or maybe navy pants. If you're wearing navy pants, you can wear any shirt with blue in it. You can be a little creative, but don't overdo it. You should wear exactly one colour (other than black or white) somewhere in your outfit (grey counts as a colour); patterns should be limited to simple stripes.

Women who want to keep their look a little more professional can probably find lightweight tops with three-quarter sleeves. I've got one with a pinstripe weave, i.e. white pinstripes woven into a white top - it always looks great with everything!

You want to wear a dress, so wear one only if it's very professional. Business dresses exist, but they're very specific. You need it to look fashionable and businesslike at the same time. I've seen it done with clever use of colour and cut, usually on a Meditteranian with gorgeous olive skin (or at least a very dark tan) and a very slim figure. Good luck!

You want to wear thongs, so wear something else. No, really - pretty shoes aren't professional, professional shoes are professional! The usual deal is pumps (or Court shoes) for the ladies and tie-up shoes for the men. In Summer, ladies should wear something similar to their winter pumps, but you can open it up to get some air circulation. Try some elegant mary-janes or use your judgement with some mostly-closed sandals. Men, you can wear those nice loafers I've seen around this season. They're very sleek. As the weather warms up, you'll be able to find nice ventilated shoes.

Girls - wear toe socks! They feel great!

A few tricks

Wear a jacket (one that matches your trousers, of course) for arrival and departure. Keep it on for up to half an hour after you arrive and before you leave so that everyone sees you in it. Say hello and goodbye to everyone, unless nobody does that in your office. Wear the jacket at any presentations or meetings you might be going to. It will feel weird but it's a good compromise.

Do your hair well and make sure your makeup (if any) reflects "business conservative". Women who don't wear makeup might consider mixing a little foundation into some moisturiser, and wearing a basic brown eyeshadow, mascara and lipgloss. If you're well-groomed, you're halfway there.

Fit people with beautiful figures and olive skin can wear less. It's a type of grooming. If you're not one of them, don't take your fashion cue from them.

One colour! Canberra usually gets this wrong and wears three. And wear dark pants.

For the super-strict dresscode
If you're not lucky enough to work in the sort of office that relaxes its dress codes in Summer, you are not entirely out of luck.

Look for a suit made of light woven fabric. Get a loose cut. I'd suggest hemp, but it's hard to find.

Wear a Summer shirt. There are Summer shirts and Winter shirts - the Summer ones are cooler because they're woven from natural fibres and not at all fussy. They also come with a gentler neckline - an extra centimetre means that you can relax your tie without it looking relaxed. This is fashion's way of undoing the top button and tugging down the tie by just a centimetre.

Wear cool socks and shoes. It makes a big difference. You can use a little corn starch on your feet if you get sweaty shoes. Then go straight to a good shoe shop and ask for cooler shoes.

You don't need to wear your jacket at your desk if you wear it at arrival and departure time, and lunch time. (Assuming you're the sort of person that has lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant...) If you want extra wallop, then wear your jacket when you go to meetings and even just around the office.

Women in this sort of office should really do what the men do. If Bruce can't get away with short sleeves, then his female colleagues should be sesitive to this gender-gap. The first woman who goes to work in a skirt-suit and long-sleeved (3/4 at least) white shirt, with stockings and pumps is saying "The other women are slacking off while you all sit here and suffer, but I'm here to work, just like you men". The women will probably subtly pick up on this and treat her differently, too...

Between seasons
Keep it flexible with layers of lightweight fabrics, or wear a Summer suit with an overcoat. Wear your Summer shoes and make sure your sunglasses are smart.

Resist the urge to wear street clothes to work even if they are smart. Business clothes are more than just smart - they're business!

As always, this is a democratic blog - hence the comments page. Your input can be valuable to other readers.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Get your Summer Sunnies

As noted on my unpopular personal blog, my wrists are getting a little weak. Thus, posts will be short.

The best place to get sunnies is still your local chemist. They have a variety of shapes and colours so you'll find something that suits your face and suits your style. They are usually quite plain, so you don't have to worry about matching. And best of all, you're not getting ripped off.

Logos on sunnies are really annoying. There's even a brand that has "rich" written down the side - a perfect way to alert people to the fact that you're not.

Expensive logos indicate a personality crisis, and cheap logos indicate personality crisis combined with total lack of clue.

The only logo I wear is Tux - because I think he's great. I'm not a computer programmer, but I'll happily contribute to the Creative Commons, which I consider to be a sort of sister project to linux.

So head down to your chemist and try on a pair of Polaroids. Nobody will notice them and comment on them... but that's what you want. You should be wearing your glasses - not the other way around. You'll look fantastic in the right pair, and if that attracts comments, you'll be successful at sunglasses fashion.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Bold is the new black

Since spring has been a flurry of frills, baubles and patterns, it's time to take a more leisurely and elegant approach to summer dresses.

Simple dresses with little details here and there are the most exciting thing to buy right now. Single-colour dressing is making a huge comeback, with colourful stripes reserved for lounging around at home.

Black is still required in Melbourne, I suppose, but elsewhere, you can wear all sorts of interesting colours like chocolate brown and peacock blue.

The more interesting shops are dropping out of big patterns and scribbled-on shirts (bogan alert triggered to anyone still wearing scribbles) and instead filling their window displays with single-colour dresses with subtle rouching, tie-around waists or small frills.

The summer casual feel is felt through the simplicity of the dresses and the lack of silly adornments. Do not attempt to dress up these frocks with too many beads, baubles and sparkleys. A simple beaded necklace or small drop pendant should do the trick.

I love the return to simple colour and shape. It looks practical, but it also looks absolutely gorgeous. Star Trek designer Robert Blackman always preferred to put women civilians into just one or two colours.

If you've got a figure you're proud to flaunt, then choose a sheer fabric and go with it.

If you feel your shape is best dressed in something more conservative, try sticking to two closely related colours and going for a more flattering skirt and blouse set. Look for something tailored that shows you as curvy rather than frumpy.

Happy dressing and happy summer!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Skinny?

I'm not a fan of diets, but it's important to be healthy.

So when I see another article about how fat people need to shape up, I get conflicted.

Recent research has cast doubt on the old assumption that simply being fat is a significant risk factor for disease. It seems that if you want to be healthy, you should just take good care of yourself and let the scales say what they will.

When put under pressure to conform to a cosmetic body mold, rather than a health programme, "overweight" people often respond with inappropriate diets, swallowing down the diet coke and eating only junk but in small quantities. It's much better to eat a big meal of vegetables.

Overweight people with an unhealthy diet who were put on a healthy diet and exercise regime lost a little weight - not a lot. But they were so much better off for it!

Overweight, it seems, can be caused by a slow (energy-efficient) metabolism that favours that shape, or by too much chocolate and chips.

Now here's where I rock the boat.

There are things you can do to become more skinny - like not eating or eating and purging, like taking hormones or herbs that discourage fat depositing, or developing an exercise disorder. Some of us are just skinny.

We can overeat and gain weight. We can exercise less to help keep it on. But like the fat person deprived of basic nutrition by an extreme diet, it doesn't do us a lot of good.

So consider this next time you tell your skinny friend to eat a sandwhich. She may be eating many sandwiches already and feel under pressure to conform to a cosmetically acceptable body image rather than the healthy body shape to which she was born. A healthy body may be longer or slimmer than some, but will always be given away by good skin, good hair, bright eyes and a healthy muscle structure.

If you or someone you know is too skinny and has trouble gaining, make sure the diet is well balanced. It should include fat, protein and carbohydrate and all the vitamins. Eat lots of nuts, grains, legumes, vegies and fruit. If, after that, you're not happy with your weight, see a psychologist.