Question: My husband and I moved back to his hometown a couple years ago and - joy of joys - we can now attend his parents' annual holiday party, a gathering of bland people with bland style eating the bland hors d'oeuvres his mother insists on making herself. This year, my husband lays this bomb on me: apparently, his mother thinks I dress "too sexy" at her parties. He said that she was "embarrassed" last year by how my low neckline accentuated my, um, gifts. Not only am I pissed that she has the nerve to judge my taste, but I'm angry at him too for taking her side in this, suggesting that I tone it down. Am I in the clear to just ignore this unwanted - not to mention puritanical - fashion advice?
Answer: As if staking out one's independent identity from one's parents isn't enough of a challenge, the feat has to be accomplished again after you get married, and this time, the oppressors are nosy in-laws whom you're forced to negotiate with through your partner.
I feel for you. In-laws should respect that their children and their children's spouses are adults, and stay out of their personal business. However, in this case, taking a stand for your individuality is pushing you to ignore one of the primary rules of fashion: According to Wendy Natale, when considering what to wear, "the occasion and location always matter." Now this advice isn't from a woman with whom you obviously share a load of baggage. It's from a professional stylist who gets paid to counsel celebrities on what to wear to parties, and dresses them for the pages of Hello! Magazine.
"It's not like there is a dress code for holiday parties," says Ms. Natale, "but it's a matter of respect for the person and their home. Not that you have to take your sense of style away from you. I think that you should be able to dress appropriately in your own style and still tone it down a bit."
In other words, you are not going to a party in a vacuum. You are entering the House of Bland - to use your term - presided over by Queen Bland. Wearing a J.Lo-inspired swooping-necklined number to this occasion is like wearing a wedding dress to a funeral. You shouldn't do it, even if you're really fond of wedding dresses.
I'm going to take a leap and assume that part of your indignation stems from the fact that you feel your mother-in-law is de-sexualizing you. Maybe she is jealous of your "gifts," your relative youth, or the fact that you've taken away her boy. Maybe she's reacting to other female guests from last year's party pointing you out and asking "Who is that?" with a not-so-admiring tone. But unless she is asking you to come to the party in a nun's habit, you have to ask yourself whether it's worth waging war over the right to show a few inches of flesh.
According to Ms. Natale, you shouldn't have to show off your stuff to feel sexy. "Sexiness is confidence. Sexiness is from within," she says. "I could be in my pyjamas and be sexy. When someone tells you look sexy, you should have already known that, because you can feel it in your own skin."
As well, I would say when approaching guests at the House of Bland, maybe you should be looking under the surface of those drab clothes. I don't mean literally peeling them off guests in the spare bedroom, but rather assuming that they, too, beneath their corduroy, have an inner confidence and sexiness that, if tapped into, might make for engaging party conversation.
No doubt it will be hard to succumb to your mother-in-law's wishes. You may be worried that giving in to her now is a slippery slope that ends with her living in your house telling you your drapes don't match your couch. But I guess I'm saying you should be the bigger person and make the first step toward doing something for her that shows, as Ms. Natale says, that you respect her. Hopefully, she'll reciprocate and show you more respect as well. One bright shiny day in the future, you may even find her complimenting you on your style.
And then, when you get around to throwing your own holiday party, make sure to put her on the guest list. Ms. Natale assures me that in one's own house, only one's own fashion rules apply. "It's her party," she says. "Not that she needs to walk around in her underwear."
Well, not unless it's your annual holiday lingerie party. But let's not go there.
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