"Today's women dress so badly because they all follow fashion," said Biba. "Excessive interest in clothes makes women dress less well and all look the same."
Before I was diagnosed with Stage II A Breast Cancer in 2010, I didn't see myself apart from any other struggling fashion/feature writer, trying to support myself as a Special Education Instructional Assistant for a Southern California school district, until I had to adjust to my new work wardrobe. On the first day, at the elementary school I would be assigned to for five months, I wore a nice short-sleeved black top with cuffed wide-legged pants by Ann Taylor. To me, my outfit looked upscale and casual, but also stylish and unique enough to express my individuality. Surprisingly the teacher I'd be working with told me, "You look very nice, but after today, I'd dress down for this job, because it can get very messy and you don't want to ruin your clothes."
When I looked at my new co-workers, and saw them clad in jeans, khakis, and other cotton pants, t-shirts, pullover tops and sweatshirts, I felt uninspired and confused about how to adjust to this work setting.
To survive this transformation I created my own version of casual wear with vintage jeans and other pants bought and thrift and off-price stores, kitschy t's, classic button-down shirts, vintage cardigan sweaters, fitted hoodies, shrugs, slogan pins, black rubber bracelets, sneakers and men's lace-up shoes. A little bit street and a lot retro it allowed me to be myself without getting lost in a style that's become too sloppy for sartorial effectiveness.
Recently, when I read Betty Harleich's book Secrets Of A Fashion Therapist I ran across this unforgettable quote, "Do remember that even casual clothes can (and should) look neat." While I don't necessarily agree with her advice "to not wear leggings to work", I think you can wear them in a professional setting if you wear them with a lovely bohemian blouse, structured top or over-sized sweater that comes down to your mid-thigh area. You can also wear them with a colorful poncho, soft cardigan sweater or tailored blazer. Audrey Hepburn really gave leggings and skinny pants panache with simple boat neck tops, crisp button-down shirts and ballet flats. If you wanted to update her style for 2015 you could pair black leggings with a striped long-sleeved pullover, men's cardigan layered over a button-down, or a vintage sports coat and a plain white pullover. This is also an easy look to pull together if you have to see your doctor, go in for surgery or visit the chemo suite during your cancer journey because the leggings are easy to put on and remove, the pullover and button-down disguise unsightly scars, bandages and drains, and the cardigan sweater and blazer provide extra warmth in chilly hospital rooms.
As a Special Education Instructional Assistant, despite being in a more laid-back work environment, I never wore leggings for that job, but on the days when I was "on assignment" as a fashion/feature writer I've often worn them for comfort and ease. The day I went into Vintage On Venice to arrange an interview with the owner for a store profile I wrote for www.hubpages.com I wore leopard print leggings with a white button-down shirt and a vintage black and white pinstriped double-breasted jacket by Norma Kamali.
Wonderfully flexible and sturdy, I discovered this same versatility later when I layered a solid black pair of leggings underneath a long orange and white striped skirt, that I coordinated with an orange, black and white striped t-shirt and orange, black and white cardigan sweater. This outfit worked beautifully for the position I currently have as a Special Education Trainee Substitute, for another major Southern California school district, because while my daily schedule is as rigorous as it was at my previous job, I'm not required to "dress down". Since this is the first job I've had, after being diagnosed, this change from "overly casual" is refreshing. During my pre-cancer days wearing relaxed garments and looking like you'd just just rolled out of bed was a trend that wasn't the norm yet, but since then it's become an unsightly phenomenon I can't wear without feeling slovenly. Once I developed this mindset I realized I was doing myself a disservice by leaving the house looking like I didn't care anymore. I didn't see how I would continue to heal physically and emotionally if I didn't dress with care and respect.
The way cancer changed my mind about being a conformist without an apparel and life plan was to give me a goal to work towards everyday, even if it was something as basic as getting dressed. Driven by a desire to thrive and survive, five years after I was diagnosed, I consistently challenge myself to become a better person I hope in the future.
A Week's Worth of Style:
"It's harder to dress well now."
I don't spend a lot of money on my clothes, and even though I'm inspired by high-fashion magazines, books, classic films, T.V. shows like Downton Abbey and Empire and chic people I see on the street, I still coordinate my own outfits to reflect my mood. Below is an example of what I might wear during the work week. I hope it inspires you to experiment and find your own style.
Gray DKNY tie-front cardigan shrug over white ruffled front button-down shirt and gray pinstriped cropped pants, accessorized with multicolored Mondrian design ankle socks, black Born shoes and a black and gold charm necklace.
Burgundy plaid button-down over denim skirt, accessorized with a red, white and brown silk scarf, red and white ankle socks and beige Guess sneakers.
Navy-blue Thakoon for Target short-sleeved top with beige Marc Jacobs pants, accessorized with beige cat ankle socks, beige ankle boots, a silver necklace and bracelet set, a blue and silver bracelet.
Blue and white Hello Kitty souvenir t-shirt with a long black skirt, accessorized with black ankle, black shoes and Hello Kitty jewelry.
Brown Dries Van Noten button-down shirt with leopard pants, accessorized with black Converse, a brown Coach belt and gold jewelry.