Mistakes Were Made: Walking the Stations of Quality, Taste and Style with Fashion Guru, Tim Gunn

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Miss me, dear ones? I’ve been so busy scrubbing the extra layers of dermis from my feet in anticipation of sandal season that before I knew it, the rough spots on my heels and the entire month of June had vanished. But I promise today’s gathering will be worth the wait.

This afternoon, we are hosting none other than Tim Gunn, debonnaire fashion scholar and cucumber-cool star of Project Runway. Mr. Gunn is here, in gorgeous pinstripe, to impart the lessons of Quality, Taste and Style, and to help Rhapsody understand why her own wardrobe is one step away from being deemed a Superfund site.

Now, when I say Tim Gunn is here, perhaps I should be more precise. Which is to say, he is not. Gunn is a busy man who tends not to accept invitations to pretend salons, so we’ll have to use our imaginations, and a very narrow interpretation of the term “libel.” Today’s topic may be surprising to some Rhapsody readers, but as my friend Daphne says, “There’s a reason I’ve left myself such a mess. I’m simply making it easier for Tim Gunn to find me!”

And find us he has, my friends. Rhapsody has spent countless minutes poring over Gunn’s book “A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style” and quite a bit longer wandering the walk-in closets of the internet, sampling interviews in which Gunn wears those devastating suits that seem to have been sewn directly onto his body by a team of Lilliputian fashion designers.

And, oh, Readers, the topspin that man can put on a rhetorical question! Why won’t straight men ever learn to talk like that?

I’m know I’m very late to the party of idolizing Tim Gunn. “A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style” is seven years old, and he has several other books including a brand new one I’ve not yet bothered to read. But these are timeless lessons in style, and I will spend a lifetime misunderstanding them, so why rush?

We’re serving Manhattans today, of course. Gunn’s hometown is Washington D.C., but he practically owns New York, so it just felt right. And let’s have none of this “skinny cocktail” nonsense, please. If you only want half a drink, then for heaven’s sake, hand it to me first.

Now, then. Shall we begin?

** * *

My Fashion Confession

I’ll get this right out of the way: I hate clothes. And given the way they bunch unattractively on me, I suspect the feeling is mutual. When it comes to managing my appearance, I’ve always been too busy attending to something more important. Which is anything I can possibly think of.

I resent the way articles of clothing have come to be known by experts and amateurs alike as “pieces.” It’s outrageous. As if all the condiments in the refrigerator door began demanding to be called “taste profile elements.” And now these “pieces” must  be curated into some sort of Me Exhibit, including “a pant” and “a shoe” and a red “lip.” If it occurs naturally in pairs, I see no reason we must refer to it in the singular.   I don’t know where all this nonsense began, but like anything else that’s gone wrong in my life, I’m blaming Gwyneth Paltrow.

Given these feelings, my reaction to Gunn’s book was nothing short of bizarre. From the first pink chapter heading, I was disconcertingly moved by his message that dressing well—or at least less disastrously—might be viewed as a kind of self-respect. Even a regard for the feelings of others.

I continued to turn pages eagerly, as though I was being told something I needed to hear. But, as I’ve said to any book, friend or therapist who’s made me feel this way in the past: Not so fast, sir. I’m not playing that coy little game.  

I see what’s going on. There’s a formula to books like these, and Gunn does not deviate from it. He can’t see us (because it’s a book, darling) but he understands. He knows that we want him to lead us on the redemptive walk of the fashion-backward pilgrim—as friend and confessor, coach and personal shopper. And he’ll take us, in exchange for our spirit of cooperation and slight subjugation.

Well, nothing wrong with a classic pattern, I suppose. Tuxedos haven’t changed in 100 years and still work perfectly. So, all right. I’ll give this a try, Tim. If it’s not too hard. Or expensive. And no one laughs at me.

* * * *

Gunn begins with this winning declaration: “Understanding and acknowledging who you are is the most important key to the content of your wardrobe” and he stays close to genre format, through chapter one. All is chummy and cheerful, with a glass of rosé.  You are you! Everything is possible! Fashion: wheeeeeee!  

A few over-reaching comparisons are made. Fashion is a form of semiotics. It bears relation to Soren Kierkegaard and Roland Barthes. (Really). And of course, although we are admonished to always be ourselves, a few notions must be relinquished before the penitent can advance.  For example, my habit of wearing pajamas out of doors. I’ve always preferred to think of this as Dressing for the Job I Want, but Gunn is firm: “If you want to look as though you never got out of bed,” he intones, “then don’t.”

Oh, fine. Even if I wanted to disagree with that—and I can’t—I’d go along because it’s such nice phrasing. I can see we’re going to need a very sharp seam ripper to take you apart, Mr. Gunn.

Other news is more reassuring, for example, owning lots and lots of black things: “It’s black. It goes.” Easy to remember. Good. And of course there’s Gunn’s signature “Make it Work!”, an idea applicable to wardrobe, screenplays or divorce mediation. Tim explains the Make it Work ethos: “Important learning occurs when a struggle is examined and analyzed, diagnosed and a prescription offered. Ergo, make it work.”   You can scream it at an outfit not assembling itself, a curdling white sauce, squabbling children, or a troublesome manuscript. The uses are endless.

* * * *

In Chapter Two, we are schooled in Gunn’s holy trinity of style: fit, proportion and silhouette.   A quick inspection of the clothes on our person right now, and those in the closet confirms that 95% do not fit and never did. Others can only be worn by being assembled in forced-marriage outfits in which the sum is much worse than the individual parts. Pencil skirt and Birkenstock. Off-the-shoulder lace camisole eaten alive by Fred Rogers-style cardigan. Proportion? We are a lacking. Must we even speak of silhouette? It seems cruel.

Chapter Three is more to our liking, for it’s ruthlessness and speed: the Purging of the Closet. Armed with knowledge from chapters 1 and 2, we assess the contents of our wardrobe with a convert’s zeal, and Tim’s calm critique to keep us on course. If it doesn’t fit, out it goes! If it’s unflattering, impractical, dowdy, ripped or irreparably stained: goodbye!

Let the honest appraisal begin.

Cargo pant, cargo pant, cargo pant, cargo pant. T-shirt, t-shirt, socks. That covers the dresser. On to the closet. Ah, here’s my new fleecy vest, purchased in 2001, and which, but for a few pills and shiny patches, looks just fine. Excluding the summer months, I’m nearly always wearing a vest, which I like to think gives me a francophone, apre ski sort of look. It’s July so I’ll put these in a “Consider at a later date” pile.   And here are the ugly boots I bought, not once but twice. Boots, you say? Boots are a fabulous statement piece! But I’m not talking about those boots. I’m talking about these, which I purchased in red, then realizing they were dreadful, returned, then forgot that episode and bought them again in powder blue.

What’s the core of the problem here? Is it the fit? Proportion? Silhouette? And how do I account for the amnesia leading to the second purchase? Is there some kind of perverse doubling-down strategy at work here? When Mr. Roboto saw that the awful red boots I’d bought before had returned, still awful but now in blue, he held them up and said, “Sweetheart, WHY?!” I could only haltingly explain that I had something like this effect in mind, this LOOK, this attitude:

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“Honey,” he said, quietly, “have you met yourself?”   Blue boots: adieu.

Our blouse section looks like a page of the Benjamin Moore paints catalogue—one hundred shades of off-off-something and damned if I can tell the difference. Sweaters are impeccably plain, Downton Abbey grey. Because of my inconsistent approach to shopping, half are from Goodwill and half from Nordstrom and all of them do not fit. Itchy. Boxy. Moth-holed. Out, out, out!

Pants. Aren’t there some pants in here? Guess not. Here are a couple of shrugs, those cute little sweaters that forgot to be anything but sleeves. They can go. And some work suits, black, black and navy for wild days. Better keep those, until blogging in a negligee can pay the bills.

My, it’s getting echoey in here. Isn’t there more than can be saved?

Gunn does allow amnesty for a category he calls “The Soul Stirrers,” meaning that you can’t hang on to it for fit, proportion or flattering silhouette, but you love it anyway. That’s our Soul Stirrer pile, and for the next seven days, we have to wear all the stuff in that pile. For Rhapsody, it’s the Liz Claiborne sleeveless, backless, nearly-frontless cream-colored chiffon tank with the plunging—I mean the fabric meets at my sternum—neckline. If I can’t summon the bravery to wear it to that fancy-dress party seven days from now,  I will give it up. (Hold yourselves high, girls! We’re going out on the town!)

And with astonishing speed the closet is empty, and I’m alone except for Mr. Roboto’s ties and a couple of beach towels.

On to Chapter Four where we meet our Fashion Mentors.

You knew this was coming, didn’t you?. Every woman’s magazine asks, “Which celebrity best exemplifies your personal sense of style?”   I always want to say “Mario Batali,” but I know that’s not the point of these exercises.

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We’re supposed to choose either Katherine or Audrey Hepburn, depending on whether we like our pant leg flared or tapered. And Tim offers us a few new options—Vanessa Redgrave, Catherine Deneuve, Sofia Coppola.  For a moment I thought maybe Patti Smith could be my fashion icon and then I had a terrible, shaming vision of what Patti might say about that…

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…and I just moved right to chapter five, in which we learn how to avoid Dowager’s Hump.

I can’t stop looking at the fleshy bumps on other women’s necks now, but I am holding my own head a bit higher. And it’s not only my neck muscles that are taut. Gunn shares with us a clever tip for better posture, borrowed from another book, “Your Carriage, Madam” by Janet Lane. It’s called The Bistro Position. Basically, you tuck in your pelvis by imagining that you are trying to slide gracefully between two tables in a crowded restaurant, without brushing anyone’s salad nicoise as you pass by.

I tried this, Readers, and while it did pull my pelvis into better alignment, there were problems. I found that I was walking crabwise, without meaning to, and furrowing my brow—an unfortunate result of tightening the glutials. The effect was more Mr. Bean than Heidi Klum. Not as bad as the involuntary eyebrow lift produced by doing kegels, but certainly awkward.  Perhaps we all just need to practice. Ready, friends? I want you all to scoot through the narrow space between this paragraph and the next. Shoulders relaxed, head high, and here we go! Tucktucktucktucktucktucktuck….

Very nicely done. That makes the perfect segue into Gunn’s advice for beauty routines at home, which is basically this: stop washing your face ten times with ten different potions and just take a veerrrry long time washing your face once.

Oh, and he wants us to use “whimsical” headbands while we do this—preferably something containing silk flowers or feathers. “There are few chances in life to wear fake orange chrysanthemums on your head,” he says. “Doing so while you wash your face is a lovely way to begin and end the day.” We should also “…pat on some eye cream while doing leg kicks…These are good for the bottom. Keep the pelvis in bistro position…” [italics by Rhapsody]

I’m sorry, Tim, but I believe this sort of beauty routine is best left to drag queens, and I say that with the utmost, serious respect for drag queens. The only way you can gain enough ironic distance to make this kind of femininity work is to be, in fact, a man.

And now, unavoidably, we go shopping.

Sometimes I like to have a fashion talk at home, just Rhapsody and two uproarious sock puppets called Tracy and Clinton. Our chats aren’t long, or complex, but they are useful. The trench coat episode went like this:

Me:  I’d like to have a Burberry trench coat.

Clinton: That’s genius. Every woman should have one.

Stacy:  Oh, you’re so right! And a Burberry trench is only $3,000.

Me:    Christ in the Foothills! Never mind.

Tim’s Top Ten list begins (as do most others) with “A Trenchish Coat.” We’re to get a trench, a “sweat suit alternative,” a little black dress, two pairs of boots—one fancy one plain—same with the jeans, plus pumps and ballet flats, a whole bunch of “foundation garments” in nude, blouses, blah blah blah blah what? I’m still following. I am! Pants. Excuse me, pant. Day dresses. This is way more than 10. An after-five look. And one piece of awful, cheap crap (not more than $20) from H&M, to keep us happy and prevent recidivism.

Tim’s idea for the sweat suit alternative: “Why not try a cardigan with a crisp white tee, some black Capri pants and a pair of skimmers?” And mine: how about a sweat suit? No time for arguing, says Tim. It’s time to shop!

But, oh I hate, I hate I hate I hate I hate shopping. My usual method is surgical strike, in and gone as quickly as possible, without looking, hesitating or entering a fitting room. Mr. Roboto says I would buy a three-legged pair of pants if it was the first thing I reached on the rack, and he is probably right. Try as I might, I cannot get past this aversion, so I’m resorting to what I know is a gamble: internet shopping. No chance of knowing exact fit until it arrives in a wrinkled little ball by mail, but at least it gets me out of having to park at the mall.

Soon I’m bouncing around the Nordstrom website, unable to find any pant that does not presume my legs are the width of pencils, hip to ankle, ending in sharpened points. Frustrated, I google “Katherine Hepburn pants” and end up at a strange party called Tradesy, where the bouncer won’t let me in until I create my own “Style Feed,” so that content pitched at me will be “curated” to my size and preferences.

That awful word again: curated. Pardon me, Tradesy—I forgot I have a previous engagement at NPR.org. Growing peevish, I search the words “just tell me what to wear” and land on the doorstep of “Your Sacred Calling: Inspiration for the Passionate Housewife.” Jesus in a Checkered Apron! Sorry to barge in during dinner. I’ll just let myself out….

And in only minutes, I feel an old familiar despair coming over me. A reckless, rudderless feeling. What if I just disguise myself as Phyllis Diller and see if anyone notices? I bet they won’t.

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At least I have love in my life. Mr. Roboto and I are a beautifully matched pair, fashion-wise. He doesn’t care either. And I say this on the record, friends: I would choose the company of a man wearing socks with sandals any day over having to endure a 40-something man growing rock-a-billie sideburns or a hipster beard that looks like a blacksmith’s apron tied to the lower half of his face.

Given my general state of distress, I should have been willing at this point to go to an actual brick-and-mortar shoe store, I know, but I can only metabolize so much change at once. So I continued my rudderless on-line shopping, for ballet flats.

I looked up “ballet flats.” I meant to get ballet flats. I looked at ballet flats in many sizes and colors, even some with bows. But what I wanted—what I in fact bought, readers—was saddle shoes. They’re tan and green suede and I think they might look kind of clever with jeans and a polka-dot Peter Pan-collar blouse and that Fred Rogers cardigan. No? Well, at least it wasn’t the ugly boots again.

OK, stop. Let’s just stop it right now. You know what’s really tacky? Complaining about how hard it is to buy the right thing, or the pain of owning all the wrong things. Aren’t we damn lucky, we who get to voice this concern at all? I’ll stop myself now, because a palette of self-righteous doesn’t flatter our skin tone either, but I think you get my point.

One more tip worth the price of admission

I didn’t stick around for Tim’s final chapter on special dress occasions (although I appreciate that the wedding section is divided into Royal and Non-Royal.) Frankly, he lost me when he started in about the “scent families” of perfumes. I mean, really. The Wimbledon ladies finals were on. I had socks to fold. My hair needed a wash. Anything. Please.

But there was one suggestion on this topic that interested me: Gunn says I may venture outside the boundaries of ladies scents and see if a man’s cologne is more my style. It’s just marketing, right? Parfum is parfum. I don’t know if this strategy is for me but it’ll be fun to startle a few Macy’s sales clerks by trying it.

I think we all should.

* * * *

I want to end our salon meeting with a thank you to Tim Gunn, who definitely had better things to do today (and did them).

Tim, the overlapping area of your interests and mine is a slim as a silver bangle, but you seem like an awfully nice person, a very smart guy and—dare we use such a weighty term? —authentic.   Because of your book I have weeded my closet of some truly bad clothes, and probably lessened the chance of their being replaced by items even worse.

And I found the bravery to buy a really wonderful big blue hat for the summer.

Now, don’t cover your face, Tim. I think it’s a step in the right direction. I think just maybe this hat is the beginnings of a new kind of Coco Chanel elegance I’m cultivating. That, or that I’ve already lost a marble or two. It’s hard to say.

But I’m wearing the hat anyway. It’s like a writing teacher once told me: sometimes when you hit a wrong note and it’s too late to back out, the only thing you can do is play it for all it’s worth. Don’t try to fix it. Celebrate it. Play that wrong note, loud and long. Play it with everything you’ve got.

There is a kind of brilliance in the commitment. In making it work.



P.S. While I pour us another round of Manhattans, treat yourself to this interview with Tim Gunn by Time magazine. As for what he supposes has happened Cindy McCain, I can only say that I’ll be first in line to try it, Tim. And thank you. You’re a doll.


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