Thursday, March 17, 2011

Shall we play Risk or Sorry?

It's official: man repelling has gone mainstream.

Like so many movements in fashion, it began almost imperceptibly, an organic call to arms bubbling up from the dregs of society (or in this case, the Upper East Side). Popularized by blogging wonder and upcoming industry darling Leandra Medine, the man repeller is defined by the following credo:

man·re·pell·er  [mahn-ree-peller]
outfitting oneself in a sartorially offensive way that will result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls (see: human repelling), shoulder pads, full length jumpsuits, jewelry that resembles violent weaponry and clogs.
–verb (used without object),-pell·ing, -pell·ed.
to commit the act of repelling men:
Girl 1: What are you wearing to the party?
Girl 2: My sweet lime green drop crotch utility pants!
Girl 1: Oh, so we're man repelling tonight?

While I was vaguely aware of the movement's existence, my first encounter with a true man repeller took place last summer on the Condé Nast elevator. I was playing my usual game of Guess Your Publication Based On Your Outfit (Lord help you if I condemn you to Brides) when an unmistakeable Vogue-ette ducked in through the gleaming steel doors. I took in her messy hair, her horn-rimmed spectacles, her shapeless blouse, her baggy trousers, her piles of ethnic-looking jewelry. I was in awe. She looked thoroughly unsexy. She was the single most stylish person I had ever seen in the flesh. Sure enough, she pressed the button for Floor 12.

Some call man repelling a feminist movement: women dressing for themselves rather than for men, content to have their outfits raise eyebrows instead of erections. Where the old adage advises, "When you got it, flaunt it," the man repelling school of thought would instead have us say, "I've got so much of it, I don't need to flaunt it." To man repel is to declare a womanhood that can't be stifled by layers of unflattering clothing. But is man repelling as accessible as Leandra Medine would have us believe? Or has she, cute as a button and boasting a wardrobe that comes, in her words, "entirely from Barneys and Topshop," been absorbed into the cultural zeitgeist despite otherwise insurmountable odds that render her message moot to the greater population?

I don't dress for men. Perhaps that's a victory. But I don't think I've quite evolved to the point of dressing entirely for myself, either. I'm still dressing for what I believe others believe to be my perception of myself (got that? All of it? Read it again. Yeah?). A blatant disregard for the traditional standards of beauty can mutate into its own set of neuroses. I'll explain with a parable of what I call "karaoke dread."

Awkward truth: I used to take voice lessons and think I wanted to be a musical theatre performer. Then I realized (spoiler!) I'm not really all that great at singing or acting. NBD. Over being a Broadway star and into being a writer. But what's funny is that rather than keep singing as a hobby (as opposed a career path), I now dread any situation where I might have to perform in front of an audience. Example: karaoke. Most people aren't "good at" karaoke. Karaoke isn't really about talent; it's about the tequila shots you take before your turn. But because I have a musical history, if you will, I'm petrified that people will think that I think I'm good at karaoke, like one of those delusional contestants on American Idol. (Or one of those delusional judges on American Idol.) The idea of someone doubting my ability to accurately gauge my lack of talent is more than I can handle. As Carrie Bradshaw says when asked to walk in a charity fashion show featuring "real people" as well as models, "I don't want people to think that I can't see the difference between a model and me."

Now apply the same principle to man repelling, which, for me, turned into a perverse mind game tied up in my body image. Having lost a significant amount of weight over the past two years, man repelling became a benchmark of having "made it" as an attractive person. The manufactured sexiness of my outfits took on an inverse relationship to what I believed to be my level of innate allure, and I began to feel an acute pride in my ability to wear things not specifically tailored to make me look skinnier. Hello, harem pants! I can wear you because I feel thinner than I did yesterday! or, on a rough morning, Oof, better opt for a sundress. Don't want to look like I think I'm attractive enough to wear something ridiculous today! My man-repelling clothes might have looked like a symbol of confidence, but really they were a symbol of the appearance of confidence; alarmingly fragile, shattered more readily by the judgement of myself than that of men, or even that of other women. There were so many dimensions at play it would put Never Say Never to shame.

Maybe I'm just outing myself as some kind of self-conscious buffoon, but my hope is that you can avoid falling the same rabbit hole I did when it comes to experimenting with fashion. For better or worse, taking crazy (and sometimes downright ugly) clothes and making them look cool has become part of my schtick. I don't always hit the mark, but when I do, there's nothing more satisfying. A few days ago, I wore an ankle-length high-waisted orange-and-white striped fruit-print skirt (for the record, there are more things wrong with that statement than there are hyphens in that statement) with a fur vest and turquoise jewelry. I raked in a ton of compliments on an outfit from which most sane people would have run the opposite way screaming. But more importantly, I felt truly and overwhelmingly myself. I wasn't wearing something insane because I felt the need to prove I could pull it off. I was wearing something insane because I loved it.

I still subconsciously view man-repelling outfits as more impressive than conventionally attractive ones. Part of that is just my taste: I've long been drawn to the interesting over the beautiful. Part is the degree of creativity involved, that age-old distinction between fashion and style. Anyone can buy a trendy dress, but it takes a truly stylish person to throw together a jaw-dropping outfit composed of sartorial underdogs. And part is that the society of man repellers still seems like a high-fashion club for some elite upper crust of attractive (or at least extraordinarily confident) people. You rarely wade in the man repelling pool. You dive in headfirst, and you sink or swim.

When it comes to fashion, I'll likely always be a risk enthusiast. But I think our reasons for taking risks are worth examining. Defying what's accepted can become just as imprisoning as embracing it if done to shock others rather than to make ourselves happy. This spring, when I don my bow ties and my mum-print capris, it'll be because I genuinely believe that a world without mum-print capris is no world for me. And if some tall, handsome gentleman can see beyond the nutty fashion façade...well, that's just icing on the cake.