Friday, June 12, 2009

2 Shorts and a Tee: A Review of 3 Summer Staples

So this year, I elected to go all out and flaunt my not-particularly tanned legs. In previous years, I was afraid I would blind someone with my paleness. But following my late January trip to Florida, where at least the backs of my legs got slightly sunned, I figured, what the heck, let's just do it. Let's finally give all those cute J.Crew minis and shorts a whirl, since most of the adorable patterns were reserved (for some reason) for high hemlines. And while I've never felt comfortable in too-teeny minis and shorts (or shirtdresses that barely graze my backside), I have finally warmed up to certain varieties of short bottoms. Most of these fall into the category of hip-slung rather than waist-hugging, and the material has to be sturdy. It also helps (for once) to be a petite, as many of the "minis" actually fall almost to my knees.

So far, I have been satisfied with my decision. I've already displayed my deep adoration for the Limoncello Mini and its predecessor, the Deco Dots Mini. Moreover, I dared to bare my thighs in the Shocking Pink Crisp Cotton Shorts. But shorts were still a fearful area for me. Previous years of collecting had resulted in mostly 5-inch inseams and a couple of Bermuda shorts. No bold, bright patterns, unfortunately, made it into my collection. This was due largely to the fact that J.Crew is hell bent on churning out dozens of patterns in only one hemline: the dreaded 3-inch inseam. If only they could branch out a little, even into a 4-inch inseam. But no, it's 3 inches or nothing if you want a cute print.

Resigning myself to this unfortunate fact - and somewhat emboldened by my recent successes with the minis and the pink cotton 3-inch shorts - I decided, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. So I dove headfirst into the world of short shorts and minis, wondering how long short hemlines would stay in style this time around.

My first acquisition of June was the Stretch Chino Frankie Short in British Khaki. I had been looking for a pair of khaki shorts that didn't look too muddy, crunchy, or matronly. At first I thought these were absolutely out of the question. But after I tried them on in the store, they were surprisingly comfy, thanks in part to the stretch cotton. While they definitely felt short, the very sturdy material made them far less breezy than I had expected. Now, the aforementioned Crisp Cotton Shorts are a much breezier alternative. They don't have any stretch, but the cotton is so lightweight, you can definitely wear them on the hottest summer days. The Frankie shorts, on the other hand, feel much more substantial. Another thing that surprised me was the fit. While they are somewhat hip-sitting, they tend to stay in place pretty well rather than sliding up and down. The surprising aspect of the fit was that I actually fit into a size 0. I almost always get shorts in a size 2. I think the stretchy fabric made them adapt well to my shape.

They are the perfect workhorse in a casual summer wardrobe as they can run all around town with tennies and sandals, but they can also be dressed up slightly with a bold top. I initially thought I'd wear them only with tees, polos, and other sporty pieces. But when, in a pinch, I needed to match a bottom to my Cherry Blossom Frances Blouse and realized my go-to metallic beige shorts were dirty, I substituted the Frankies instead. I then added heels and some sparkle and went on my way. Instead of feeling underdressed that day, I actually felt very put-together. The British Khaki color also picked up the light brown shades in the Cherry Blossom print rather nicely. And, unlike the metallic cool-beige shorts or white bottoms I normally wear with the Frances, the British Khaki Frankies allowed me to wear gold-accented accessories instead of the usual silver-accented ones.

I also found the British Khaki Frankies to go swimmingly with my Bistro Orange Georgia Silk Linen Cardigan and a brown tank (no photo yet). The khaki shade isn't too far from that of the Icon trench and the Frenchie slicker. So if you like a warmer, deeper beige, these are for you. While I didn't try the other Frankie colors, I had considered the Natural color. Unfortunately, it looks like the online inventory is currently out. Maybe they'll return as popbacks soon? I believe there are still some Frankies in stores. For shorts that came out fairly recently, I am quite surprised that they sold out this quickly. But alas, it is a testament to their fit and comfort. It also makes me feel better about shelling out the full price of $49.50.

Here is my sample ensemble with the Cherry Blossom Frances Blouse, the recently acquired Cherry Blossom Necklace in Deep Rose, a Target flower-clasp bracelet, and an old pair of magenta Franco Sarto wedge heels:

My next shorts acquisition was completely unexpected. I was returning a bunch of online unwanteds in the store one day and stumbled upon the lovely printed Seville Paisley Shorts in Azalea. To be fair, I had initially noticed the Paisley button-down shirt online and in stores a few weeks back. But since I already owned a couple of items in last year's Cherry Blossom print, I didn't want to add unnecessary competition to my wardrobe. So I had held off. But when I saw the shorts sitting out on the display table, for some reason I felt compelled to try them. Even though I had just bought a pair of shocking pink shorts plus the Frankie shorts a week later.

It was love at first sight! The print is just gorgeous. It's a fuchsia shade with a broad floral and paisley-esqe design. Now, I know what you're thinking: Elle Woods in Legally Blonde 2 stated in no uncertain terms that paisley never looked good on anyone. But honestly, if the name didn't give it away, I would never have called this design "paisley." In fact, I renamed them "hothouse flower shorts" right away, which I thought was a more fitting description of the pattern. The nice thing about this print is the infusion of warm caramel, orange/yellow, and olive tones. Normally, I'm inclined to wear hot pink with cool, crisp shades like navy and white. But this particular fuchsia hue - especially embellished with mediterannean-colored accents - made me want to wear it with browns, warm beiges, and gold. At first, I couldn't really justify buying another pair of short pink shorts. But after I realized the profound differences in shades between these shorts and the Shocking Pink Crisp Cotton Shorts, I knew that they would go well with a lot of my wardrobe. So I ponied up the full price of $58 and rushed them home.
The material is very sturdy and slightly textured, similar to the Limoncello and Deco Dots skirts. The fit is more in line with most J.Crew shorts I've tried on. Since they sit on the hips and don't have much stretch, I opted for a size 2, which fit quite well. Like most printed shorts, they come with a size zipper. They look a little dressier than some of the other lighter-colored prints and far less sporty, so I thought I could pull off some summer evening outfits with them.

I've worn the shorts twice since getting them. The first time, I paired them with a Gap Silk-Blend Ruffle Cami (which incidentally I also fell head-over-heels for). I added golden-bronze wedge sandals and a bronzy metallic belt. I found rather unexpectedly that my fuchsia Jackie cardigan from last year matched perfectly. Normally, I try not to do tone-on-tone clothing in an outfit, but with the print having enough eye-catching interest on its own, and the addition of the ruffle cami with a slight sheen, I didn't think the fuchsia Jackie weighed down the set with too much fuchsia. (Incidentally, they also match almost perfectly with winter's Perfect Fit Ruffle Tank in the pink shade whose name I can't remember.) And I think they will even go with last spring's Cashmere Shrunken Shawl Collar Cardigan in Azalea. Anyway, the cardi is just a topper that can be tied around the shoulders if needed. Finally, I donned the ubiquitous Cherry Blossom Necklace in Deep Rose - fast becoming my most useful summer accessory - and my Target flower-clasp bracelet. Here's how it turned out:

This past weekend I tried a different variation with the Seville Paisley shorts. I opted for the Georgia Silk Linen Cardigan in Warm Shell and a matching v-neck tee underneath. This time, I chose a pale gold belt to compliment last year's platinum gold Amelia Espadrilles (which, by the way, are the most comfortable and versatile summer shoes ever). I finished with - you guessed it - the Cherry Blossom Necklace in Deep Rose and a simple pale gold bamboo bangle. I felt really comfortable and summery, but elegant at the same time. This was the result:

For evening, I swapped out the espadrilles for my brand new Kate Spade pale gold high-heeled sandals, a stellar catch at TJ Maxx for just $39 (marked down from $99 just 2 weeks prior). I think I was inspired by the fuchsia insole, which lent a sassy twist to the sandals and picked up the shorts. For some inexplicable reason, I felt compelled to put my hair up too. Here is the evening version:

I am thrilled with these shorts, and I definitely see them getting a lot of use in my summer wardrobe. I think they will pull out some pieces that aren't getting enough wear as I experiment further with them. Interestingly, I don't remember seeing them online - were they ever? I only saw the shirt in this print online. Either the shorts came out earlier and already disappeared, or they were an in-store only item. The good news is, there are plenty left at Pentagon City.

The final item I couldn't resist was a tee. Granted, I didn't need any more tees, but it seemed to call my name, so I answered. I had ventured out on Saturday to return two more online items that had hung for a few weeks but never worked out. I was immediately accosted with the new rollout, which I admit I had wanted to check out earlier in the week. However, after touring the store and investigating every corner, nothing really jumped out at me. Not because there weren't some cute pieces, but because I had already gone way overboard in April and May, and many of the new items were only slightly different versions of pieces I already had. Or more of the categories I already had more than enough of.

One item, however, justified yet another full-price purchase: the Baby Rib Stripe Boatneck Tee in white with navy stripes (not online yet). This is strikingly similar to the old Regatta Boatneck Tee in white with navy horizontal stripes, except the new tee has thin baby navy stripes (hence the name). Sometimes though, wider stripes look overwhelming on my small top half, so I tend to be weary of them. But the fine stripes in this incarnation seemed just right. I liked too that it was a long but slim fit, so it wouldn't hang or be blousy like so many tops this year. Also, I had missed too many boatneck tees in the past and had been unable to find my size, so I decided not to risk it gain. So, once again, I paid full-price and considered myself lucky that it was only $29.50.

The fit, like so many tees, is, well, fitted. The boatneck is particularly "huggy" and even clingy in places. If you have a curvier top and/or feel self conscious in too-tight knits, this is accentuated further by the horizontal stripes. For this reason, I almost always size up in J.Crew tees, and I recommend this to anyone who feels similarly. The sleeves are three-quarter, which I found perfect for stacking on some chunky bracelets. And while boatneck necklines can sometimes feel constricting at the neck, this cotton weave is so soft and stretchy that it didn't present a problem. The material is the perfect summer weight - not too heavy for wearing with shorts outside, but not too sheer that you can see right through it (especially important since the tee is white). The options in the store were either white with navy stripes or white with pewter stripes. I'm not sure if this is coming online soon and what color choices will be offered.

My first thought was to wear the tee with my pink Crisp Cotton Shorts, since I thought the long fitted tee would work with short shorts. I'm also obsessed with pairing navy/white with pink, so this was a natural inclination. This combo turned out fine, and I wore the set for a few hours.

But then I started experimenting with some different ways to wear the tee. At my personal shopper's suggestion, I thought I'd try the tee with a white bottom. If you have white jeans, they would go perfectly with this tee. I wanted to get this look but found it a bit too warm for pants, so I opted for a white a-line skirt instead. I also tested plain white medium-length straight shorts, which looked quite attractive.

In the end, the breezy white skirt won, so I donned it with the Baby Rib Stripe Boatneck Tee. Also on the advice of my personal shopper, I selected simple gold accessories for a clean, summery feel. I topped the tee with a gold boule long necklace from Target and simple gold ball earrings. I did go a little bolder on the wrist and wore a gold cuff with turquoise cabochon beads in a flower design (from TJ Maxx). I added more bling with my Amelia gold espadrilles and a small platinum gold-trimmed linen bag from Ann Taylor Loft. My husband said, "You look very French." He rarely says things like that, and he rarely means them in a nice way. But in this case, he actually liked the ensemble. Here it is up close:

I'm still experimenting with how to wear this tee, and I'm not opposed to wearing it with a colored bottom. But I'm also going to see how I can glam it up with my white shorts and hopefully keep the French Riviera vibe. I think the tee would pair well with short shorts and even (gasp) a white micro-mini (sized for regular heights so it comes out as a mini on me), so maybe I'll give that a shot as well.

All in all, some great summer staples that I think will get a lot of wear. And though I squirm at the thought of not having used any sort of discount, in all fairness, some of this stuff couldn't be ordered online (or was out in my size). Besides, I got so many steals online in April and May, I can hardly complain. At least these items weren't priced exorbitantly to begin with.

Happy summer shopping!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Visit from the 3-Penny Queen

If there was anyone who could ever one-up the 3-Penny Princess in the quest to find a good bargain, it could only be the queen mother (whom we'll call the 3-Penny Queen). From my earliest days growing up, I can remember vivid memories of standing in line on Black Friday to catch the best deals, or sifting through the clearance racks at TJ Maxx in search of a rare marked-down designer shoe that no one else had.

To be fair, our tastes didn't exactly converge for many years. She had a penchant for the artsy, liberated, and off-the-beaten-path -- "Contemporary European" she called it -- while I was firmly planted in wholesome, American, girl-next-door classics. This was the source of endless teenage angst followed by adult loathing on my part for her complete refusal to fit into the Donna Reed housewife mold. And she was always into her career -- which wasn't a traditional female career, either. Watching her now as she manages important projects and helps get our country onto a better energy track is exciting. But as a child, I just wanted a mom who would bake cookies, make dinner for my friends, and pack lunchboxes with peanut butter sandwiches on Wonderbread with chips and applesauce. Hence, I spent more time in my dad's care than my mom's as his profession offered more flexibility (which was fortunate, as his cooking skills were always more amenable to my palate).

"Can't you be like all the other moms who wear smart sweater sets with pearls and neat polo shorts with cuffed shorts to kids' outings?" I would beg incessantly as an only child growing up in the Carolinas who just wanted to fit in.

"Why should I be like everybody else?" she would demand. "I get tons of compliments from friends and coworkers on my innovative sense of style."

"But why do you have to make me wear these weird clothes?" I would plead. "I don't want to stand out. I want to be just like the other girls in school who wear fun, casual sporty clothes and Keds. I don't want to be different."

"My dear," she would console me, "One day, you're going to realize that you're unique, and that being unique is a good thing. People try their whole lives to be different, to find that singular personality that makes them special. You're lucky -- you've already got that uniqueness. It's just waiting to come out."

"Aaargh!" I would march off into my room, hating everything that was "unique" and "special" and wanting to just be "normal" and "boring".

Which led naturally to a late high school and college wardrobe monopolized by clean-cut American classics, preppy basics from J.Crew and Gap, lots of khaki, and of course the requisite pearls that any Southern girl carries over, no matter where she moves. This took me pretty far in the Jackie-O inspired ambiance of the nation's capital and the nostalgically traditional Georgetown University, where some dorms were still single-sex and where priests still taught many classes (albeit Jesuit ones, thank God).

In the years after college, my ideal work ensembles came straight off the racks of the elegant Ann Taylor, then the epitome of grace in my limited world view. I also liked the clean lines and modern professionalism of The Limited and some timeless career classics from Banana Republic and Gap (when Gap still produced a line of refined work wear). This was supplemented by a sassy, cool evening vibe from such stores as Urban Outfitters, Express, Bebe, and Benetton -- all of which were easily accessible in the District without a car. For countless summer weekends spent largely on the Delaware beaches, I scoured the J.Crew and Banana Republic outlets (on the way to the beach) and the sale rack at Abercrombie & Fitch (before their pre-teen transformation).

Then I met my husband, which, among other changes, led to a ban of those countless summer weekends in the group beach houses. I also left my post-college stints on Capitol Hill to try my luck in the corporate world. This paid off financially, but it also changed my workwear needs. While the Hill was known for being a bastion of beige suits with medium heels and Kate Spade bags, along with knee-length dresses and pearls (no matter which party you worked for), the business sector had a little more variety. My husband also liked it when I wore girly pleated skirts, shades of (gasp) pink, and short dresses with heels.

During this period, I developed an insatiable appetite for shoes. Now, I should point out that this was not something I was born with. In fact, I never really understood my mother's overflowing shoe collection containing a most unsettling assortment of crazy platforms, killer stilettos, and a fetish-worthy stockpile of knee-high boots -- none of which were in style during the greater part of my youth. When would she ever wear those, and why on earth does one need a pair of fuchsia heels anyway? My shoe anthology, on the other hand, had been primarily composed of various specimens of brown, black, and the occasional tan sandal. For work I had usually subsisted on low pumps, slingbacks, and loafer heels. For play I chose beachy wedge flip-flops or ballet flats.

Thus it was with a fair amount of shock that I discovered that I was starting to enjoy shoe and handbag shopping more than I wanted to admit. It was even more disconcerting that I was beginning to appreciate styles that were not particularly practical. Worse, I had developed an unexplained tendency to buy shoes and bags in colors other than the aforementioned black, brown, or tan. All of a sudden I liked red, white, and silver shoes. I bought orange and pink bags. I even started to dabble in metalllics. It was disturbing that I was buying green shoes when I barely owned any green clothing. For some reason though, this trend continued, and I ended up with not only interesting shoes but higher and higher heels. All of which made me feel more like a woman than ever.

As shoes became a priority in my closet, accessories hit it big all over the retail spectrum. Over the years, pearls had remained the mainstay of my jewelry. I could experiment with big pearls, little pearls, single strands, and multiple rows, but pearls were always present. Gold was vehemently off limits for me, as I had long preferred silver and platinum as my more subdued metals of choice. But there was no denying that fine, delicate jewelry was becoming a bit passe and big costume jewels were hitting the scene with a force unseen in decades. Gold too made a huge comeback, as did beads and stones of all colors and sizes. Seeing the J.Crew models wrapped in rows of bright baubles undoubtedly ignited a need to re-decorate my wardrobe.

While this didn't exactly happen without some resistance on my husband's part -- he strongly objected to the sudden disappearance of his beloved pearls -- I continued to experiment with new looks. Don't get me wrong, I still loved my pearls -- but I felt that I needed to break out of the mold that I had been trapped in for so long and try something different, something bolder and more dramatic. I now wanted to wear colorful statement jewelry and unexpected combinations of accessories. Turquoise, coral, and quartzes that my mother had given to me years back now saw the light for the first time in ages. The pearls that did stay out on my dresser got an overhaul, being suddenly paired in never-before-seen ways, as necklaces became bracelets and single strand chokers were melded with longer, differently shaped beads. I even discovered that pearls came in all different colors, which led to a revelation that beigey, gray, and pinkish shades looked smashing on me.

Looking back at what my mom used to wear, I realize that she was years ahead of her time (or was it years behind?). Flipping through the old photographs and seeing her in the belted suit jackets, shirtdresses, chunky necklaces, tall boots, platform shoes, bug-sized glasses and turtlenecks with wide-leg trousers that are all the rage now, I find myself wondering if maybe she wasn't onto something. Even crazier, I am astonished to discover that I actually wear many of those things now -- with alarmingly similar results. Will my kids look back on my photographs one day and wonder why mommy dressed so weird? Probably. What goes around always comes around.

Fast forward to the present. When my mother came to visit last weekend, I actually looked forward to showing off my newfound style. While rooted in classics and wrapped with a colorful, feminine flair, my look was undeniably different than before. I wanted to show her how I had infused the flavors of the exotic, hints of the artsy, and essences of Parisian chic into my American, J.Crew-dominated wardrobe.

My efforts did not go unappreciated, as mom not only took notice but even complimented my style and my new accessories. And for her part, the recent years of sunbathing (bad!) and enthusiastic enjoyment of the easygoing Florida lifestyle had imparted her with a decidedly more laid-back, tanned, and carefree vibe. This in turn took some of the edge off her take-charge persona and gave her wardrobe an airier, less accessorized, and more feminine aura -- which both my father and I found pleasing.

For the first time, I felt like we could walk down the street together in harmony instead of me dreading her attention-grabbing ways and her complaining about my dreadfully boring ways. She even let me accessorize her for a change, and I actually took note of some of her ideas for some upcoming outfits I wanted to try. And she is warming up to J.Crew better than I expected....

Here she is in a J.Crew navy Corinne sweater jacket, white jeans, yellow tank, and pewter Cole Haan wedge sandals (left).

I took the opportunity to debut my Crisp Cotton Shorts in Shocking Pink with a navy Jackie cardigan and older navy polka-dot top. I accessorized with the Cherry Blossom Necklace in Deep Rose, worn here as a bracelet, and pink multi-colored sandals from Target bought last year (below).

I foresee a beautiful future for us, one where we can finally shop together in the same stores and find common ground. And shopping there will be, because one thing hasn't changed: this women still loves to shop! After 3 days of touring the area and visiting just about everyone she knew, she dragged my tired feet all over the discount stores in search of those must-have bargains. Some of her scores included Cole Haan sandals, Vera Wang Lavender Label jackets, and a new Italian-made handbag.

I took home a gossamer-thin (yet surprisingly warm) Theory ivory cashmere henley for pennies and a fetching Tory Burch shift in a most bewitching pattern that was on clearance. They will go nicely with my J.Crew pieces and fun new accessories.

Today, on this chilly and rainy day, I decided to bring out my Theory cashmere henley to road-test it. I paired it with a tea rose tank, dark bootcut Calvin Klein jeans, and my Frenchie trench in khaki (not shown). I accessorized with the Cherry Blossom Necklace in Deep Rose, a pink-orange multicolored cuff bangle from the Talbot's outlet that I picked up for $8, and a pair of Delman peep-toe slingback heels in tea rose that I plucked from the clearance rack at Marshall's for a mere $15 while shopping with my mom in Florida this winter (left).

While we no doubt still have our disagreements about style (and which hair color looks best on me), it makes me happy that we are finally learning to appreciate various elements that make up our own unique styles. Especially now that I no longer shudder at the very thought of being "unique". I am also grateful to her for conveying to me at least part of the artistic whimsy that she embraces. I hope that she is finally able to see some of my more classic ensembles as timeless rather than boring.

I have always dreamed about having little girls one day so I can dress them up and go shopping with them. I hope that they will like to play in my closet and borrow my clothes and shoes in ways that I never really wanted to in my mother's. Although, if they're anything like me, they'll be just as obstinate as I was and hate everything that I like. Oh well, at least they can play in my mother's closet.