The Fashionista, in her favorite Marc by Marc Jacobs dress
Michelle has a go-for-it style.
>> "At lunch the fashion department shuns me. Seems dressing off-trend — even for an assignment — is crossing a line. The plain-Jane looks Julia has selected for me are my worst nightmare. Can I be this shallow? Does fashion really regulate my self-esteem?"
"I get bored easily and dress each day based on different characters. I'm just dreading Julia's colorless, boring clothes!" —Michelle Reneau, Fashion Editor
The Classic Girl, in her favorite Gap turtleneck
Julia loves her everyday look.
>> "When my boss gushes about how 'sassy' I look in Michelle's clothes, I realize this experiment includes shock treatment. Then I hear everyone hooting at her in my fave pencil skirt and turtleneck. Is my wardrobe so hilarious? Am I just too uptight?"
"I admire Michelle as a brilliant stylist. But in her clothes, will I look like I never made it home from last night's groove at some club?" —Julia Scirrotto, Copy Chief
Julia, Day 1
I was the first to mock Jessica Simpson in those infamous high-waist-jeans photos, so imagine my shock when high-waisters are exactly what Michelle packs for me on day one of our fashion swap. Gone are my cutesy-comfy ballet flats and chiaroscuro of office-appropriate separates. Instead I've got a couple of five-inch wood carvings strapped to my feet and a red silk balloon-sleeve blouse. Michelle is a brilliant stylist, but I stare dubiously at my reflection. Do I look retro-chic, or like I never made it home from last night's groove at Studio 54?
The outpouring of compliments at work catches me pleasantly off-guard. My boss rushes out of a meeting to ogle the outfit, and I think she's going to shed tears of joy at the sight of me in color. All of a sudden, I'm "Sassy!" and "Trendy!" according to multiple sources — a real office head-turner. Thing is, I've always felt plenty sassy in my own clothes. I start to fear people have been missing that side of me. As if on cue, word spreads that Michelle is skulking around the office in my pencil skirt/turtleneck combo and librarian specs. Everyone thinks it's hilarious, but I feel a pang. What's so hilarious about one of my go-to outfits?
I shake it off and decide to make the most of my temporary diva-dom with dinner at one of Michelle's favorite restaurants — a dark, moody wine bar downtown. My boyfriend, Reed, meets me there and is awed by the color — but not my sinking body language. "Try not to cringe," he says, adjusting my slumping shoulders. "If you look all slouchy and uncomfortable, that's how you're going to feel." I do feel uncomfortable (my feet are blistered and Michelle's chain-strap bag has become an albatross on my wrist), but the outfit only works if I play along. For the rest of the evening I concentrate on confident posture. A little too hard, apparently, because I take a nosedive down a flight of stairs when we're escorted to our table. All eyes on me again, but oh, well. I'm getting used to the attention.
Julia, Day 2
Today, I'm the walking cross-pollination of Jackie O and Goldie Hawn circa Laugh-In — and I think I like it. When I first saw Michelle's flannel polka-dot baby-doll dress the exact shade of Tropicana OJ, I described it as "clown pajamas," but I feel so mod, so vibrant, I can hardly stand myself. Every store window and every shiny black car I pass en route to work presents another opportunity to check myself out. And I'm not the only one copping a stare. "Orange is my favorite color," a loafer at an intersection shares. Against all odds, it's becoming mine, too.
Sadly, certain coworkers don't share my love of, well, me. People support the bright hue and my Sienna Miller-inspired black eyeliner, but the ruffles and polka dots get low marks. "I don't like your new look," one male coworker declares, his face scrunched up like he's smelling rotten garbage. "All this says is 'look at me.' Your old look is more sophisticated." Sophistication is a matter of opinion, but one top editor agrees there's something not quite right about me in these clothes: "I mean, this is adorable on you, but you look like you're in costume. On Michelle, it's just Michelle." The word "costume" stings a bit, but she's right. I can learn to play with color, flirt with a shorter hemline maybe, but I'll never be Michelle.
Fortunately for my inner attention whore, I get to pretend for a little while longer. Next up, eveningwear: hot pink-heeled Manolos, an iridescent off-the-shoulder cocktail dress, and a sequined hat (quite the departure from my usual Friday night uniform of, um, whatever I wore to work that day).
I'm a tad overdressed for the dive bar where Reed and I meet up with friends for chicken wings and drinks, but it certainly makes for lively conversation. Comparisons fly, everything from "You're a flapper!" to "That hat is like the condom of a Russian czar." Lucky for me, Reed has my back again. "Listen, no bullshit," he tells our crew. "If girls dressed this way all the time, it would be hot." No one disagrees.
Julia, Day 3
The fun of playing dress-up hits a major snag when, on Saturday morning, I can't get out the door in time to make my train to the suburbs, where I'm scheduled to attend a high-school graduation party. Whereas I'd usually throw a denim pencil skirt and a few matching tops into a shoulder bag, I've got piles of accessories, shoes, and clothes to pack — and that takes time. I miss my train by seconds and collapse onto a bench and burst into tears. To make matters worse, I've gotten escalator grease up and down the legs of Michelle's pink skinny jeans. How colorful.
I finally make it to my destination and change into my party outfit: a thick brocade shift with a silver, gold, and copper geometric print, plus a pair of six-inch patent-leather Mary Janes. It was one thing to wear such a look to work, where everyone was in on the joke. But how will my unsuspecting family react to this light-reflecting number?
I feel like an NBA star at a little person's convention as I walk across the manicured lawn toward the hub of graduation-party activity. Cousins, second cousins, aunts, and uncles greet me with warm but guarded hugs, and their unusually reserved smiles are all it takes to force a confession out of me. "This outfit isn't mine, by the way, it's a work thing. Can you believe these shoes? The girl I traded with actually wears them to work. You should see the other getups she's had me in! Four days, and she has all of my normal clothes...." I rattle off disclaimers with more intensity than I actually feel, just to drive home the fact that I'm still the same old me under all this glitz. Everyone visibly relaxes, and one host starts laughing: "I didn't want to say anything, but I was thinking you'd gone completely New Yorker on us!" Someone hands me a tan blazer and I slip into a pair of borrowed flip-flops. The rest of the party passes without incident, but I can't shake the feeling that I've hijacked attention from the graduate.
Later in the night, my two hometown cohorts Lisa and Kevin pick me up for an ice-cream run. I attempt the full outfit — shoes and all — one more time, but Lisa flat-out refuses to be seen with me unless I take it down a notch. "You have to lose the shoes and cover up the dress with my sweater. I'm not in the mood to be stared at." Her face betrays no hint of humor or hyperbole. I turn to Kevin for support, but he tells me I look like I'm about to go clubbing with Mischa Barton.
"So you're saying I look ridiculous?"
Hate to break it to you, John Lennon, but we all do not, in fact, shine on. When I zip on Lisa's hoodie, she nods with approval. "Good, now it just looks like you're wearing a crazy skirt."
Julia, Day 4
I wake up on Sunday with a fashion hangover. What had been such an exciting, illuminating exercise at first now just feels exhausting. I've got calf pain, shin pain, and foot pain (not to mention blisters) from the assortment of heels I've shoved my feet into, and although I get a much-needed break from the high stuff today with a pair of flat gladiator sandals, they look nothing short of atrocious on me. I stare at the mirror — this time in horror — and all I see are thick calves bulging over and through the criss-crossing leather straps. The silk-printed tent dress I've been assigned for today — so lovely and prismatic on the hanger with its swirling pattern of jewel tones — only highlights the dumpiness of my legs. I hate it.
True, I've hit a low point with the gladiators, and I'm looking forward to wearing my own clothes again. But I also don't want to fade comfortably back to black. If I've learned anything from Michelle, it's that fashion should be exuberant, life-affirming, and adventuresome. I'm not a postmodern canvas, but I'm also not a black-and-white movie still from the 1950s. I want to find the happy medium.
Before bed (gladiators and tent dress safely packed up to return to Michelle), I pull a red dress out of my closet that I've never been brave enough to wear before. I decide it's the perfect back-to-work-as-myself look — because I can be sassy on my own. I'll just be wearing it with ballet flats and a black cardigan.
Michelle, Day 1
I bolt awake in my usual "what to wear?" panic, then I remember Julia has preselected today's black turtleneck and charcoal pencil skirt. (I call her style "ab drab.") I glance wistfully at my Chloé heels, wondering if (with Julia's glasses) I could make this into a sexy-librarian look. Alas, using anything of your own is against the rules.
Feeling like an actress playing the role of the town spinster, I headed off to my first fashion appointment. At the Hugo Boss showroom, I nearly die with envy when I see a Cosmo editor in a great Jean Paul Gaultier nautical ensemble. Blast this silly experiment! I feel like a self-conscious middle schooler destined to eat alone at the cafeteria. I have an inner battle with myself: Do I pretend to not know her, or say hello and reveal my fashion-swap secret? I choose the latter and she admits she hadn't recognized me. Super! Maybe I can fly under the radar and avoid fashion humiliation for the rest of the week.
"Wow, you look ... different," the PR manager says diplomatically. I tell her about the swap and she says, "I was wondering where you were going with this look." Fashion translation: "Your outfit is inexplicably horrific."
Back at work, I check my BlackBerry. A former MC colleague has sent me an e-mail subject line: "I saw you on the street today." I open it: "What the hell were you wearing?" it says. At lunch, the fashion department shuns me. My nightmare has come true: I am the girl alone in the cafeteria!
I'm scheduled to meet up with a friend visiting from Japan. We head for drinks and dinner on Manhattan's Lower East Side. I meet a cute graffiti artist but am so self-conscious, I overcompensate with sarcasm. Feeling out of place, I text my friends: "Someone stole my superpowers from me." One replies, "It's like kryptonite and Superman! Nylon tote + flats + knee-length hemline = your power eliminator." Sadly, he's right. Can I really be this shallow? Does my clothing control my self-esteem?
Michelle, Day 2
I try to go forward with a fresh attitude — I mean, it's jacket, jeans, and a T-shirt today — but I still want to hide behind other people. My ex asks me out for drinks, and when I'm almost out the door, I cheat: I ditch the prescribed boring black blazer and attempt to salvage J's so-over boot-cut jeans by cuffing them. I am going for a geek-chic crossed with a James Dean look. But I added some red lipstick to ensure that no one would actually mistake me for James Dean. I am again headed out to the Lower East Side, where everyone tries very hard to look like they don't try hard ... so my look may actually fly.
Things I have learned thus far:
1. Over-the-top fashion requires simple hair for balance. The black clothes have inspired a "new hair" bug. Maybe bangs, or a cropped French bob? I immediately e-mail our deputy beauty director to recommend a good hairstylist for an edgy cut ASAP. I may or may not be delusional and desperate at this point.
2. Pencil skirts are restrictive! I verbally attack Julia throughout the day, telling her only crazy people glutting for punishment would wear them by choice! Or noncurvy people with flat stomachs and perfect posture.
3. I have a new appreciation for my industry. My fashion experiment has run concurrent with the new Resort collection previews and I am incredibly inspired and overwhelmingly excited about the clothes I have seen this week. It's quite refreshing — normally, I'm not easily impressed.
4. Form-fitting clothing provokes many catcalls (even if it is a plain gray T-shirt). All boys like tight clothes. My worst nightmare.
Michelle, Day 3
I run a few errands, but am claustrophobic in the wretched denim pencil skirt and tight black T-shirt. I am forced to retreat to my couch — the only place I am allowed to wear my own clothes. This evening I get dressed for the ballet. Is there no respite from sensible black — even on weekends? The on-the-town look Julia offers is a black strapless dress, black cardigan, and pink pearls (vomit!). Maybe this is a perfectly appropriate outfit for the occasion. However, I am not a fan of blending in with the crowd. At least at the ballet, I'll ID with the dancers — yes, ballet flats again. "An aberration" is how an elderly friend sweetly summarizes my getup. Meanwhile, she's resplendent in her signature Chanel vintage costume jewelry. I feel like I'm about to go insane.
Michelle, Day 4
I head to Cornelia Day Spa. It's all about relaxing here, right? Wrong. A fashion-insider hot spot, everyone is secretly judging shoes and bags peeking out of robes. My manicurist asks me if I am still in school. Perplexed, I tell her I am 27. She laughs and exclaims I look no older than 16! I am convinced the culprit is my simplistic outfit and uncomfortable slouching.
On my way to a movie date I consider hijacking every bag, shoe, and bangle I pass. I remember Julia mentioning that sometimes she "spices things up" with a fabric headband, but I cannot locate it in the bag she packed for me.
Later, on the train, I sit next to two adorable boys: one is in skinny jeans and what I think to be Yohji Yamamoto shoes. I want to compliment him, but suddenly I am overcome with the fear they will assume I am mocking them. This is what average people do when they are afraid of fashion. They brazenly point things out that they do not understand. For example, "NICE HAT, did you make it yourself?" I say nothing.
I see the movie Waitress. It's true that movies are an escape from reality: I fell hard for Keri Russell's fab '80s wardrobe. Made a vow to find her Laura Ashley dress and navy Keds, and plan to soon rock prairie dresses like Chloë Sevigny's in Big Love.
Tomorrow I plan to wear my off-the-shoulder teal jumpsuit, Grecian sandals, and as many gold necklaces as I can put on without choking myself. Even if my fashion-above-all philosophy is shallow and superficial, I'll die defending my right to it. And I can say with certainty that I'll never, ever again be shackled by pencil skirts. Unless, of course, Marc Jacobs puts them on the runway some season. Oh, fickle fashion.