Clothing Commentary

Oh, how I love this skirt. It’s romantic yet funky, playful yet sophisticated, and ever so fun to wear. It’s also, in essence, a grown-up version of a tutu. And whenever I wore it to the office, whenever I wear it now, it draws lots of comments. Lots of curiosity. It’s an attention-grabber, and causes people to come out of the woodwork to share their thoughts.

And no one has ever said anything nasty about it. Not directly to me, anyway. And I’m able to field whatever questions and opinons get thrown at me, no problem. But I’ve had years of practice and given it loads of thought. And at our Strong, Sexy & Stylish events, several attendees have mentioned that they love the idea of dressing smartly and stylishly, but worry about how peers will react. Specifically how often peers may comment upon or question any noticeable changes in personal style. So I thought I’d offer up a few suggestions for dealing with clothing and style commentary from your peer group.

Mentally prepare

If you’ve gone barefaced for 15 years and suddenly start wearing full makeup every day, people will likely notice and comment. If you’ve worn jeans or pants for ages and start bringing skirts and dresses into the mix, you might get a few questions. One reason why these inquiries feel difficult to handle is that they surprise us. Just knowing that your changes may prompt a few curious questions can help you feel more prepared to react and respond.

Role play

If you’re very anxious about how you might handle potential comments and questions, have a friend or loved one do some role playing with you. You can probably imagine most of the stuff that’ll come at you: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in slacks, Jane!” “Wow, new hair. Big change.” “You look so different!” “So dressed up. Going for an interview, or something?” Jot them down, and do a quick dialogue. You’ll be amazed by how this exercise will prime your mental/emotional pump for the real deal.

Have short and long responses

Even if the role playing thing seems a bit too in-depth, consider mapping out some potential replies to questions and comments. Different questions require different levels of response. You needn’t launch into your personal style journey or decision-making process that led you to switch from heels to flats or long hair to short. Not with everyone. “Wow, new hair. Big change,” can get a simple, “Yeah, it is. I’m loving it!” On the other hand, “So dressed up. Going for an interview, or something?” might necessitate a bit more background. Something like, “Nope, just felt like it was time to mix up my personal style a bit. I’m having such fun with these changes!” Judge for yourself who merits a quick reply and who needs a deeper explanation.*

Give it two weeks

This nugget comes from the ever-wise Husband Mike. Several years ago, he decided to wear suits to his SUPER casual office. Every day. He wanted to make it his personal uniform. And, as you might expect, he got a stream of “job interview” jokes and curious comments. But they lasted for two weeks, then tapered, then stopped completely. Now, this will only help you if you’ve made a relatively drastic change and plan to stick with it consistently from here on out. If you wear the occasional adult tutu, that’s a different deal. But if you get a makeover, switch styles drastically overnight, dye or cut your hair, or do something similarly permanent, count on about two weeks of inquiries. Your peer group should acclimate by then. (Hopefully.)

Stay positive

I try so hard to assume the best about everyone, but I do feel that this kind of question/comment behavior requires some guardedness. If a coworker points out that you’ve changed your appearance and you shrink back in dismay or alarm, you’ve revealed a chink in your armor. If instincts kick in, your coworker may start asking more questions, or teasing, or prodding for more information. You made these changes because you wanted to, because doing so boosted your self-confidence, because you want to look and feel fabulous. Make sure to say so! If a fellow student saunters up to you and says, “Whoa. Why on EARTH are you wearing high heels to class?” say, “Because they make me feel gorgeous!” If your aunt says, “I wish you hadn’t cut off all your beautiful hair,” respond with, “Well, I did. And I think this new ‘do suits me perfectly!”

Of course, if someone is being rude to you, butting into your business, and commenting on your body, appearance, weight, or anything about your physical self, you always have the option to tell them to butt out and eff off. Your body, your business, PERIOD. However, in some ways, you’ll reclaim more of your power by acknowledging their observation, owning it, and putting your own positive spin on it. When a person offers a negative or teasing comment on your appearance, they are likely trying to get a rise out of you. It’s a classic bullying technique. Swearing, silent treatments, and rants can feel awesome. Denying a bully the satisfaction of an outraged or hurt response feels even better, in my experience.

Clothing, grooming, and appearance-related commentary is such a mixed bag. Compliments are like tiny little blessings, and can inspire unexpected joy. Comments and questions can cut both ways, and often make us feel scrutinized, judged, and targeted. But I hope that the possibility of generating curious queries won’t keep you from tweaking, finessing, or even completely changing your style or appearance. With a little bit of knowledge and foresight, you can field those questions with grace and aplomb.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of appearance-related questions or comments that caught you off guard? How did you react? Any quick responses that seem to work across the board? Is your peer group likely to get chatty if you change how you look in any small way? Why do you think that is?

*If anyone. You have no obligation to explain yourself to anyone at all. But in terms of diplomacy, it’s often more beneficial to offer truthful information than withhold everything and let people make their own assumptions.

  • Eliza

    I always go somewhere where I don’t know anyone before wearing radically different items around people who know me well. Somehow having that window of time where I get used to the change myself before having to field questions/comments really helps! My responses to people are more relaxed when I’m already somewhat comfortable in my new clothing!

  • Anon for this one

    I’ve worked at my current job for five years, and twice I’ve cut my hair from below-shoulder-length to chin-length. Both times, a certain co-worker has commented, loudly, about how she would NEVER cut her hair so short if she had such lovely hair as mine, and just how she doesn’t UNDERSTAND why I would ever want to cut it so short! It made me feel really self-conscious at first, but then I started to wonder why anyone else would feel so invested in my hairstyle. I think when people make a big deal about changes in your appearance, it is often more about them than it is about you–maybe they envy something about your appearance, or wish they were daring enough to make such a big change themselves!

    • Wendy

      My mother-in-law loves long hair and she always makes comments when other people cut their hair short. But I understand the reason – she has always felt that her hair was thin, and she has always wished that she could have long, thick hair. It’s really about her own insecurity and there’s no reason to feel self-conscious if your new hairstyle makes you feel good.

  • Sonja

    Yes, I’ve had lots of reactions regarding the changes that I’ve made during the last two years. With my few very good friends that has not been a problem, but I used to lindy hop (more than now) and have a very big group of dancing acquaintances that I neither see often nor know very well. And among them, there have been two common reactions – not recognising me and commenting “Oh my God, you look SO MUCH BETTER now.” Not diplomatic at all. But well, I’ve got used to it, smile graciously and say thank you.
    And yes, you have to be prepared. I have been to a wedding two days ago, dressed conservatively and tried to look and behave elegantely the whole day. Also unfortunately the weather has been quite gloomy. So when I woke up yesterday to a radiant, sunny day, I wanted to dress funny and sunny as well and make people smile. I put on dark blue jeans, a very, very yellow sweater, sneakers in the same colour, a big red statement necklace and chose a big red handbag. The first reaction I got when I took the subway was not the smile I was going for, but snickering and whispering. But, you know what? I thought – well, somehow I amused these people, cheered them up. Wasn’t that what I wanted? It was okay, but only because I had dressed very consciously.

  • Villanelle

    Another possible technique is to ease into the changes. Instead of going from bare-faced at work to a full face of makeup, add a new item for a week or 2, and then another item or two, and so on. Instead of going from your uniform of black and charcoal to a hot pink skirt and bright orange top with cobalt earrings, try a bright belt with the black dress, then colored shoes and a cardigan, then some earrings, then gray pants with a bright shirt, etc.

    This will not only (hopefully) help minimize comments that make one feel exposed, but it’s also a way to help oneself be more comfortable with the changes, and to make outfits still feel genuine and not costume-y or poser-like for the wearer. If I put on a full-on badass outfit tomorrow, I would feel like a poser, and my discomfort would probably read a bit poser-ish to outside observers. But to add some biker boots to a dress in my closet that I am comfortable with, and that’s a bit softer, will push my limits while still feeling mostly like “me”. That’s easier for me, and I think people sense that it is more comfortable and are less likely to sense that the change is huge, and comment accordingly.

  • http://www.natashafatah.com Natasha Fatah

    I’m so happy I’ve discovered your blog…it’s so much more than the average style/lifestyle blog. Great post, and that skirt is a dream. :)

    xoxo
    N

  • http://modernmrsdarcy.com Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy

    I love this. Wonderful advice and I’ve used a lot of it. I am sloooow to process people’s comments sometimes, and having a scripted response helps me stay composed instead of letting myself get flustered. (Sad to say I learned that the hard way over many, many years.)

    Love the anecdote about HM. And that skirt is killer.

  • http://www.weartheshift.com madge

    first off, i just wanted to say how much i ADORE that skirt. the outfit above may be my very favorite i’ve ever seen on this blog! sooooo pretty!

    also, yeah, it can be strange when people comment on changing styles. in my case, i wore extremely weird stuff in my youth — and while i still dress kind of funky now, and with what i hope is panache, i’m not rocking knee high glitter boots at the office anymore. some people thought that meant i sold out to “the man” (whoever that is) when really it just meant i graduated to well made classic funky stuff rather than teenager funky stuff …

  • lynne

    I once had someone say to me “well, you’re not afraid of colour, are you?”, to which I responded “no, are you? Cuz that’s weird. You should probably see someone about that.”

    • http://www.heirloomsbylaurie.com Laurie in Mpls.

      I just wanted to tell you that I *love* that response. :) Good for you.

  • Emma Hill

    I got this a lot when I travelled for work. I’m European and used to travel to Northern California (silicon valley) regularly for work. In Dublin and London my dress style is very unnoticeable, in Palo Alto and Chicago airport I stuck out like a sore thumb. Or rather my shoes did. Specifically I like to add a pop of colour to an otherwise fairly classic outfit with brightly coloured shoes, usually loafers: lime green or bright red or yellow, and so on.

    I can’t count the number of times colleagues and perfect strangers have come up to me and said “Your shoes are green”. Depending on my mood I either grin maniacally and say “they are indeed” (the manic grin is just to confuse people) or glance down, look startled and say, ‘oh my, so they are!’.

    It freaked me the first time a random stranger felt the need to tell me I was wearing coloured shoes but the 10th time? No biggie.

  • J Anderson

    I received a nasty comment after I DONATED my hair to kids with cancer. The person (who USED to be my friend) said, “I don’t like your hair.” She could have encouraged me on donating my hair even if she didn’t like the hairdo!!! This person is no longer a friend of mine because this was not the first or the last time she said something rude and hurtful. I too find that other people’s comments have more to do with them than with the person they make them against. Some people just can’t say something nice!! Oh well. Do what you want and laugh at the nasty comments!!! At least you know you are happy!

  • Stacy

    I’m a contractor for a government agency, and my customers have a much more relaxed dress code than I do. I also work with about 85% men, many of whom are clueless. :) So when someone comments on my appearance (I wear lots of color and pretty funky shoes), I reply, “If I can’t wear jeans to work, I’m going to have fun with what I can wear.”

  • Diane

    This topic reminds me of my reaction to a comment the other day. I work from home as a dressmaker and I decided it was time I ramped up my style. I sometimes just worked in jeans on the days when I had no clients visiting (and sometimes when they did!). I was in a cute trench and lovely heels at the local supermarket after morning school run and a fellow mum said I looked nice and what gorgeous heels; so why did I feel the need to say it was because I had clients coming when I was just going back home for a day of sewing on my own? I won’t be doing that again!
    Oh, and I must just say I love this blog Sally, so glad I found it.

  • Anne

    I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for ten years. I see the same people day after day and I still get comments about being too dressed up. Most of the people that know me well, know that this is my outlet but I still get the, “Are you interviewing?” question a fair amount. I used to always make a self deprecating comment but now I’m more inclined to say, “Naw, I just felt like it.”

    When I see another woman in my peer group starting to smarten up a bit I always try to make an encouraging comment. I think hearing good comments makes some of the random comments easier to take.

  • http://weirdinedgewise.blogspot.com ONEWEIRDWORD

    After getting a Mia Farrow style pixie cut, I had a colleague say to me, “You look better with long hair. A LOT better.”

    I didn’t have a comeback at the time, but since i go short with some frequency, I now just say to those commenting on the negative, “I’m a short-hair person. Long hair makes me feel like I’m in drag!” Let ‘em puzzle over that.

  • Diana

    I couldn’t agree more. I agree with HM that after a little time, people will be used to it! I work in a lab environment where most people are either very casual (jeans, tee, sneakers) or nice-but-boring-uniform (buttondown, khakis, lace-up shoes) so my rather funky, fashion-forward ensembles definitely drew some stares and comments for the first few weeks but after a while everyone got used to it. In fact, I get comments now when I dress more in tune with the environmental norm because apparently nobody has seen me in sneakers before!

  • chrissandra

    So many of the people close to me have had neurological conditions such as head injuries that cause them to blurt out those kind of comments that I have learned just to remind myself that I too am thinking those kind of thoughts and just not voicing them, and that there simply is no such thing as a bullet-proof appearance everyone is going to love and move right on.

    I am much more vulnerable to the stealth passive-agressive “Oh, that looks great on you, but I could never carry it off”. It always feels like a subtle way of reminding you that you’re wearing something that’s, well, unusual, dear.

    That hardest criticism for me is the subcultural, “you don’t look X enough” criticism. I mind because my loyalty is being questioned but also because in a sense they’re right. I’m not the sort of person who thrives by mastering all the fine points of a way of being and then defining myself against some other group. It just makes me feel claustrophobic.

  • http://www.befabulousdaily.us Cynthia

    I get a fair number of comments because I don’t dress like my fellow academics. I just rely on the power of “Thanks!” and a big grin, unless the comment is too obviously snarky for me to pretend obliviousness.

  • http://NoOneWatching.com Grace

    Great tips, and that skirt is AMAZING.

  • http://www.meganmaedaily.com/ Megan Mae

    I always wind up with people making really obvious statements (like another commenter said “Your shoes are green”) or going “omg I love ____” so I consider myself pretty lucky.

    I’ve heard the “I could never wear blank” and I usually respond with “Sure you can!” I just tend to brush off people. I drastically changed my clothing choices over a short period of time. I still get occasional WTF stares or Why are you wearing heels to class, but by now everyone I know is used to it. People do adjust, don’t let ‘em talk you out of change. If you love it, wear it.

  • sigourney

    I think it’s perfectly legitimate to respond in a passive-aggressive way if it befits the situation: “Oh, my hair, yes. You know my husband loves it and that is REALLY important to me …”

  • Alicia C.

    Oh my! Thank you so much for this post! I have totally fallen into the trap of not dressing in skirts and dresses at work but a couple times a year precisely because when I do all I hear is, “Oh, where are you going tonight?/What’s the special occasion?/Why are you so dressed up?” (Yes, I’m “normally” a jeans and t-shirt gal.) I hate myself for letting it bother me so much because I’m generally a very self-confident person and I like what I wear no matter what style. It always makes me happy. However, the comments get so old so quickly, and I’ve actually been told that I can wait to move equipment or boxes until tomorrow when I’m not so dressed up! That just irks me more: What?! So now you’re going to tell me when I can wear what now?!?!?! I will definitely put these recommendations to use this week!

  • http://revasrags2roses.blogspot.com reva

    I just can’t say anything for looking at that beautiful skirt!!! I want ;)
    Hugs always
    Reva

  • Lydia

    I notice also that sometimes when I do not receive comments on my new appearance/ item/ hair/ etc.. (from other women especially), it looks good! Not that I use silence as a gage for my appearance, but in many instances, the lack of comment (accompanied with a once over look) on an obviously new look is a sign that others may actually admire/ envy/ feel insecure with my effort in appearance.

    I have had this happen at work — my husband, mom, friends, complimented something I had on, or done to my hair, while another woman at work said nothing, but arrived the next day with an almost identical hair style/ or outfit. I realize that imitation can be the more sincere form of flattery, but the silence gaze can hurt as much as the comments. I would rather someone say — that is neat, or looks good, rather than give me a cold stare and wear the same colour combo or hair style I chose the next day. I realize that I may be misinterpreting the ‘stare’ but I honestly don’t think so (I am pretty intuitive and spot on…most of the time!)

  • http://ragsagainstthemachine.blogspot.com/ Terri

    I am occasionally on the receiving end of comments…though blogging helps us field some of those comments. One thing I wanted to add here is that sometimes our sartorial experiments give a sort of silent permission to others who may be longing to take a risk in their dress. It may be my imagination, but it seems to me that some of my colleagues have taken more risks…since I started to a couple of years ago. ‘Course, it may just be that I am paying more attention to such things now.

  • Elise

    I encountered this kind of behavior about a year ago after I lost some weight. Suddenly all these people I had worked with for years were commenting on my appearance and weight. Most of it was positive and well meaning, but there was the occasional back handed comment about how I looked sooooo much better now. Had I looked that bad before? Anyway, it was nice, but it made me feel uncomfortable sometimes, like I was on display. It was a relief to move to new workplaces where they didn’t know how I used to look.

    As far as clothing goes I get comments about what I wear at my current workplace. I recently switched into a different field in a more rural area where people seem to care less what they they wear. I think I need to reframe some of the comments as you’ve discussed, since most of them seem well meaning I need to come up with some positive ways to respond. I don’t want to feel self conscious at work, but at the same time I don’t want to lose any of the personal style I’ve worked to cultivate in the past couple years. I suppose in some ways these feelings also stem from the feeling that I don’t fit in within my new town and with my new coworkers.

    Anyway, thank you for a fabulous post, that I plan to use a regular pep talk to myself. I also love that skirt and have been scouring eBay for one like it.

  • Eva Lynn

    I’ve been waiting for a post like this. I moved to a larger town for work a couple of years ago and it was a great opportunity to reinvent my style there (flamboyant vintage, heels). I work in a conservative government area where people dress conservatively. In the new workplace I would get occasional compliments, some ‘no comment’ looks, and after a while a few girls started experimenting with their style a bit more (which made me happy that you can make others feel that its ok to dress more creatively).
    But then I moved back to my old town and workplace and I got a few sneery comments from the old crowd along the lines of “Dressing in your (insert name of city) clothes eh, yer a bit dressed up fer here, yer never used to dress like that” (yep, insert banjo music). The implication was – you think you’re pretty good dontcha. Anyways as much as these comments annoy me – and I’m still getting them 6 months after coming back- I’m not changing because I enjoy getting dressed up – its my daily creative outlet. And lo and behold at the old workplace I’ve returned to a few girls are starting to get more dressed up now. I think that lots of people want to do this but just try to fit in with their peers.
    PS the ones that said – ‘you never used to dress like that’ obviously missed out on or forgot my earlier phases: 50s frocks, ball gowns, mod etc.

  • http://ejegmama.blogspot.com/ Stephanie

    It wouldn’t work for everyone but sometimes I tell people that I let my daughter pick. She tends to ask me to wear fluffy dressier skirts on weekdays. Usually when I say this its true but not always.

  • http://pacificrain.blogspot.com sarah

    you know, Sal, it didn’t even OCCUR to me until just now, reading this post, that after I changed my hair colour again this spring, I have received HEAPS of “you changed your hair!” or “new hair colour!” or “every time I see you your hair is a different colour!” comments. Which, actually, is not true, but it’s funny that people have this impression that I am the wild chameleon. I’m so used to receiving these comments now that they seriously do not even register. My go-to response to “your hair is different”? “All the time, man! All the time! Gotta keep things interesting!” and that is IT. Now, I never get negative comments to my face or backhanded compliments. Or if I do, the negativity isn’t registering. But just in case someone ISN’T playing nice with their response, I think the “gotta keep things interesting!” kind of response gives the commenter the opportunity to reframe the comment as a positive one, or else it’s an easy-out and we can get on with our lives and talk about more important things than my hair colour, my weird hat, or my colourful skirt.

  • tere jo

    A little over a year ago we switched churches for various reasons. When I went back for a wedding, people couldn’t believe how long my hair had gotten. They keep making comments {I’ve never seen your hair that long before} and asking how that happened. I thank them and just add that it finally started growing back after my chemo treatments! That promptly shut them up, as they all know I lost every bit of it when I was going through chemo. I have to admit – I kinda chuckle inside when they do.

  • http://juliacrow.blogspot.com Juliann

    I love the skirt but I’m noticing that the scheme is completely monochromatic. It looks subtle in spite of the fact that it’s a tutu. So there’s balance not just tutu, glittery heels, neon tights and cowgirl vest, although those might be great for some occasions. Your outfit shows dressing as an art, which I think it should be about if it’s not entirely practical. I’m really interested in clothing as rhetoric and the balance between what we communicate with our clothes and dressing for ourselves.
    I went back to school after I had two kids and people always thought I was divorced or a wild party girl, although I thought I was only dressing creatively. I didn’t like the stigma attached to my leather jackets and doc martens, so I shifted into more classic pieces. People act differently around you, trust you more if they identify with you, and as someone with kids, it’s important to fit in to a certain degree so my children aren’t suffering for my personal expression. I guess it’s all about balance. Thanks for this interesting topic.

  • http://unacasaconjardin.blogspot.com.ar/ romina

    Hi Sally, I love your skirt! I have always have an issue with cleavage (I’m a 38C) I remember one particular ocation when my brother in law made some comments about my cleavage as I was bending to talk to my niece who was 1 year old at that time. He mentioned something about my new t-shirt and that I was showing up more skin that I was used to. I told him ‘I have boobs, I could bent wearing a round neck or even a turtle neck and still there will be a cleavage!’.But I’m still reluctant to wear clothes that show some cleavage, it’s something I want to do but I do not how to deal with the unwanted attention I will get.

  • Jean

    I’d love to see you write a post on clothing commentary from *strangers*. After losing some baby weight and discovering style blogs a few months ago, I’ve been trying to dress more stylishly. I’ve been enjoying the commentary from friends, family and acquaintances but I’ve gotten quite flustered by the comments from strangers in the dry cleaner or creepy dudes in the grocery store. Even in my young, single days I never quite knew how to handle it when men (even ones I knew, but especially strangers) were vocal in appreciating my appearance. Now I’m a married mom and I find myself quite confounded when a strange man compliments my outfit or strikes up a conversation about my statement necklace. I mean, it IS a compliment and I am wearing a STATEMENT necklace. Having spent time and effort trying to look nice, maybe I’m supposed to enjoy those comments but instead I get an icky feeling that can be hard to shake. Thanks so much. Love your blog!

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  • Liz Remus

    Thank you so much for writing this. I will keep this as a reminder to me. There are many times I want to make changes to my wardrobe but I hate the comments that people give, well-intentioned or not. It just makes me feel self-conscious so I really appreciate this post. It gives me the tools and courage to be able to pull off some different fashion choices that I wouldn’t normally wear.

  • Maria

    This is my issue… I work in an environment where my coworkers are mostly middle-aged to senior, and I do get some looks and whispers and giggles about my clothes. It makes me feel bad and insecure, though there are those who give their compliments as well, or say things like “I wish I dared to wear something like that.”

    Everyone wears shirts and jeans and I wear skirts and boots and whatever I feel like wearing. But I realise that a year into my job… I’m wearing the same things as them, even though I feel very ‘uncreative’ with my recent wardrobe changes. In the morning, I can just imagine the comments, and end up wearing something that will fit in.

    How do I deal with the giggles? I can deal with smart-aleck comments, even ignore them, but the giggles make me feel ridiculued and not taken seriously, which is really what tears my self confidence down.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Maria, that’s a tough one and I’m sorry you have to deal with such a difficult situation. Maybe the next time one of your coworkers compliments you or actually speaks up take her/him into confidence and ask about the giggles. Storming over to the gigglers and confronting them probably won’t work, but sending an emissary to say how much it hurts you to see that behavior might help.

      If things get really out of hand, you could also consider talking to someone in HR and getting input from a supervisor who knows the environment and could offer other suggestions.

      I hope you don’t feel like you must stunt your dressing creativity to avoid reactions … but understand why you might. It must be exhausting and frustrating. Hope you’re able to find a solution.

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