Category Archives: fashion

How England has changed me, part 72

I had never been to a “black tie” event before I moved to England. I now go to about a half dozen a year. And this has required a significant change in my wardrobe. These are all additions, tucked back in the depths of my wardrobe/closet for most of the year, but I need to have clothes available for such occasions. When I first moved here, I focussed on more traditional attire–I now have several ankle-length ball gowns. But I’m a tomboy, an engineer/physicist who wears trousers (BrE)/pants (AmE) [blame @lynneguist for my language-based notation] all of the time. So I’ve been searching for a way to be both comfortable and appropriately dressed at said occasions.

When I was in China earlier this year, I had the chance to drool around the Shanghai (Xintiandi) store of Shanghai Tang, one of the premiere Chinese fashion brands. I was in love. Interesting clothes, beautifully made, and distinctive compared to what I normally see when I try to shop for things to wear to fancy occasions. I bought a top, which was the single most expensive piece of clothing I have ever had and I hope you agree with me that it was worth it:

Black, of course. Just as in the photo.

Tonight it made its debut, at the black tie dinner I had to attend for work. I wore it slightly open at the top, with a sequined silky tank underneath and plain black trousers. I jazzed it up with chunky gold and semi-precious stone jewelry. I am not a super fashionista, but I have to admit that I felt special in this ensemble, and far more comfortable than I’ve ever been wearing a ball gown at a dinner thing. Shanghai Tang, you have my loyalty and given what I see in your online catalog, I’ll be back for more.

You can take the girls out of America…

but you can’t take the American out of the girls. I had been i-chatting with Kat this week and we realized that we both had some shopping to do on the weekend–she for shoes for her girls, and me for fall/winter clothes for work. So we made up a plan for her to come gather me, from the outskirts of my market town, and to go into town and do our shopping. I thus got to catch up with Kat in between our shopping missions, which was great because it had been ages since I’d seen her. The funny thing about friends made via blogs and Twitter and the like is that even though I had not seen her in a while, we were not exactly out of date. So hanging out is just fun, not about catching up with details. She also brought her lovely daughters, who are my adopted nieces.

Navigating the English shopping mall’s multi-story car park in Kat’s vehicle is an adventure in and of itself. She has a very brightly colored SUV brought over from America, which means it has the driver on the left (as it bloody well should be!) But this is England so the ticket machines to get into and out of the parking deck are on the right-hand side of the car. This means that I have a little job to do when sitting in the passenger seat, one that prevents Kat from having to crawl across or even around the car to deal with the ticket machines. And that challenge surmounted, we go on to attempt to park an American SUV in a car park optimized for tiny little VW Polos and the like. Amusement all around.

Having finished our shopping, we decided to go to McDonald’s for an early dinner. I know, I know, I already said you can’t take the American out of the girls. And her daughters are particularly big fans. We had intended to go in to eat, but the parking lot was inexplicably full. We thus decided to go through the drive-through and go back to my flat, which is about two blocks from McD’s. (And although I’ve in this strategically located flat since July, I had not been there even once yet, I swear!) And here’s where I become amused: at the McD’s drive-through here in England they did not have one of those microphone things into which you yell your order. No siree. They had two boys, standing outside in the pouring rain in fluorescent jackets, taking your order by walking up to your car window, asking what you wished for and then punching it into one of those little hand-held computers with a stylus. I for one was relieved, because I thought at first that as the passenger person on the right, I would have to relate the entire order into the microphone thingy myself, thus potentially making myself responsible if there was a slight cheeseburger disaster with one of Kat’s girls. In the end, we got back to my place after collecting all the food and the jerks got the kids’ cheeseburgers right and shorted us adults one of our packets of fries. Oh well. All in a fun day out being super American and all of that.

Unexpected Celebrity Sighting

I was walking in an English town today, wearing jeans and a red hoodie and carrying a very large cup of Starbucks coffee (i.e. looking as much the hapless American as is humanly possible) when I saw something up ahead. A police motorcycle, blue lights flashing, was waiting in a zebra crossing. I looked up the road and saw more blue flashing lights. Several more police. They started moving towards me. Then a fancy black car. Funny, it had a flag on top. I peered in the large car window (not even frosted–perfectly clear) and saw an elderly couple sitting there in the back seat. She had on quite the outfit, a peach hat and matching jacket. No, it couldn’t be… yes, yes it was.

I had accidentally stumbled on the Queen’s motorcade.

A few more cars, a few police, and it was over. And I was shellshocked. I had a stupid grin on my face for at least the next five minutes. The locals I spoke to later in the day were impressed, none of them had seen her in person before. (Contrary to popular belief, not all Brits actually know the royal family.) And yet there I was, minding my own business, walking down a random street being all American, blissfully ignorant of what the royals were up to. (I now know that there’s a website where you can find out where they are and what they’re doing.)

Of course, when I emailed my sister with the “you won’t believe what I just saw” news, her retort was almost as incredible:

I ran afoul of Obama’s motorcade in Seoul today. Good day for us.

Clickers, anyone?

England is pushing me back to the 80s. When I was in junior high and high school, it was that transformative time in women’s hair styles where big, tall curled and hair-sprayed bangs and the required associated implements, curling irons, were all the rage. At some point, the “must have” item in my adolescent world became the “clicker” or cordless curling iron. Called a “clicker” because it had fuel cartridges and an ignition mechanism that made a loud clicking sound, it was the thing that defined a girl as cool. I had to have one. I did have one. C’mon ladies, surely you remember?

Fast forward somewhere between 15 and 20 years and I’ve bought one again–that’s right, I have a brand new “clicker” cordless curling iron for my newly shorn tresses. The reason I needed such a device, of course, is the lack of electrical outlets in the bathrooms in the UK–coincidentally the only place in my flat where I have a large mirror, but in which I can’t have electrical tools for styling my hair. Unless I use the webcam on my computer in my living room for styling, I’m sunk and regular use of the webcam is just too silly to admit.

After chopping off my hair yesterday, I realised that at the new length I could do my favorite 40s movie star looks if I had some curling implement. Went to my local Boots and sure enough, the “clicker” is everywhere–available in 3 different sizes and refill fuel cartridges also available aplenty. I now wonder where the thing developed–was it really a portable hair convenience tool in the US, or did it grow out of necessity in the UK due to this strange electrical code that forbids curling irons in the bathroom? I’m sure I’ll never know. But I was sporting fabulous 40s hair at the work dinner I attended this evening, and I’ll be happily using my cordless “clicker” in my UK bathroom in weeks to come.

Health and Safety and School Uniforms

In the category of “so ridiculous I had to laugh” is this piece from the BBC: “Schools switching to clip-on ties.” It’s one of those things that makes you notice you’re not in Kansas any more: small children, male and female, wearing men’s ties with their school uniforms. Now apparently there is a concern about ties, “catching fire in science lessons, getting trapped in technology equipment or ties getting caught when pupils were running.” The British answer? Switch to clip-on ties instead of traditional knotted ties. Right. As opposed to just saying that ties are not a sensible part of a school uniform (or any uniform, really) and getting rid of them altogether. Added bonus: loss of individuality in the way the ties are knotted, which could be another one of those class signals that we Americans so easily miss. Another example of “health and safety” being used as an excuse for something else? Probably. A really silly thing for a kid to have to wear to school? For sure.

Some days, better than others

Managed to bend the frames of my favorite glasses last night. Can only sort of get them to sit right on my face again, might need to seek professional advice. Wearing one of my other pairs of glasses now; fortunately over the years I’ve learned that being a klutz (and one who occasionally does really, really stupid things like fall asleep while reading or watching tv) means that it’s not a good idea to have fewer than 2 pairs of glasses for when catastrophe strikes. Actually at the moment I have three pairs, which is great, although only one of those three has never been bent out of shape! Fortunately with time, patience and a bit of hot water, they can normally be fixed. Still working on it with this pair, and it’s a real shame because they really are my “Tina Fey glasses” — she has the same pair. Sigh.

youtube and the UK

I was at the gym tonight and I caught the tail end of the crazy video for Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” and was mesmerized… seriously, I totally blame Madonna for the ridiculous trend of women doing suggestive dances while wearing leotards in videos. And it’s really caught on over here, sigh. (Although Cheryl Cole’s bottom sets a new gold standard, ha ha ha.) After I got home I decided to find the video and watch the whole thing to see if I had gotten an odd impression by just seeing the end (where Beyonce and co. mime like they’re riding something and smacking their own bottoms) only to get the dreaded “We’re sorry, this video is not available in your country” message. I had forgotten about the war over music videos and youtube in the UK. Because, well, I spend so little of my free time watching pop videos online. But I was sure the music video was out there somewhere. Back to my search results, and four items down is the link to MTV and the video, which played just fine. So exactly how is the youtube ban helping? You can still see the video, just not on youtube. And the point of this is … ? In the end, although the song is catchy, I’m just not into the video, either in fashion or in dance. Or I’m just getting old and very uncool.

What a Croc!

I am really, really enamoured of my new shoes. And slightly embarassed to admit the are Crocs. One of my very good friends lives near Boulder where they are made. She absolutely hates the things. I was mortified to confess to her when I got my first pair, but I had the excuse that they were a gift so I was not to be blamed. I did tell her how ridiculously comfortable they were, and what perfect beach shoes they were. But now I’ve done the indefensible thing of buying not one, but two new pairs of Crocs. But again, in my defense they are really cute and low profile, they don’t actually scream “plastic shoes!” and although I got these to wear around the house (note the matching pajama pants, and no Brits I simply cannot say pajama trousers, not only do you lose the alliteration but it sounds dumb–what on earth would you call them?) I’m now contemplating a black pair for work. Again, in my defense, I have arthritis in my feet after a childhood spent ballet dancing (badly! I was never the most graceful or coordinated kid!) so comfortable shoes are a necessity. So watch out England, I am entirely likely to soon be walking your streets in cheap plastic shoes! How very American of me!!!

Crochet project part 1

As noted not so long ago, with the coming winter and my getting slightly more settled and feeling more myself generally, even in the midst of a few nasty things on more than one occasion in the last few weeks, I have been crocheting. Just a few hours here and there, which included a bit quite late last night and this morning, which allowed me to finish my second mitten:


These now go with a quite cute hat:


The hat was the second part of the project, the mittens the latest and the newest addition to my library: I had never made mittens before but found the pattern that had the same bobble feature as the hat! And now, because of that, I hate the scarf and am going to have to make a new one. The thing that started it all-the scarf, which was the first thing I had crocheted in more than a year from yarn (I will describe my other recent efforts crocheting wire into jewelry some other time!) has turned out to be less than satisfactory compared with the hat and mittens. So more to do. Probably not for a few weeks though. The first mitten sat more than two weeks, making me nervous that I would forget how I had actually interpreted details of the pattern, but in the end they are moderately symmetric and quite warm and toasty. The only thing I think now is that I can’t possibly not put them on a single long crocheted string that would pass through the arms of my jacket, like I had when I was a very small kid–I don’t want to lose them after all that work! Do you think I can pull off crocheted mittens on a string if I defend them as home-made?

Yes I lectured at MIT in my pajamas, so?

I’ve returned from that upstart new Cambridge in Massachusetts where I spent the last few days of my trip floating around for meetings at such cool places as MIT and Harvard.  I was asked if I could give a seminar at MIT on short notice, so of course I agreed.  However, I woke up Wednesday morning and realized I was out of clothes appropriate for giving a seminar at MIT.

There is a bit of back-story here, of course.  In 2004, when I was about to leave for my first ever trip to Europe (England and Portugal, and yes it’s odd that I then moved here less than 2 years later in 2006…) I bought a new suitcase at Target (of course!) from the Eddie Bauer line (of course!).  It was a beauty, two separate compartments, plenty of room for 2 weeks worth of clothes.  This has been my only suitcase for all the years since; I have a rolling tote and a non-rolling tote, but until this latest trip I had no other suitcase.  However, I had started noticing that it was a bit big for certain applications.  It was slightly (less than 1 kg) over when we went on my music trip a few weeks ago, and I was lucky that Ryanair did not call me on it.  And that was really frustrating because it wasn’t even full!  When I went back to the US in June it was also not full (although of course the weight restrictions were more liberal) and so I had started thinking of acquiring a second, smaller, rolling suitcase.  Which I did, the day before I left for Boston.  It now became a point of pride that I had to pack everything I needed for this trip into the new case, which I figured would be no problem given that the conference was casual and summer clothes are just plain smaller.  Since I’d be going to three different cities on the east coast, and sharing the car to Maine with three others with luggage, this seemed like a great idea at the time…

It probably should have been okay.  The issue seems to be my ability to count how many days the trip was actually lasting.  I knew it was a full week at the conference, then 3 days in Cambridge, so ten days, right?  Uh, no, there were two extra days in there, it was actually 12 days.  Now I got lucky in one respect, as I always always pack extra underthings and socks, knowing full well that especially in summer showering more than once daily can be nice.  However, I appear to have not sufficiently over-packed to make a 10 day suitcase work for a 12 day trip WHEN so many of the days were “professional” and not planned too far in advance (like the MIT lecture, which came up with 48 hours notice such that there were already few clean things left that late in the trip).

So back to yesterday morning, picking up just as I’ve noticed that the majority of the t-shirts I had with me were in the “dirty” laundry bag.   I was sitting in my summer pajamas, plaid capri pants with a brown t-shirt, when I pulled out of the remaining “clean” clothes pile… my pajama top.  Also a brown t-shirt, but one that I would not wear out of the house.  For one thing, it’s a sleeveless muscle-shirt, not a real t-shirt.  In addition, it has some strange little mini-pockets that clearly do not hold anything but are whimsically placed.  In my jet-lagged haze at the beginning of the trip, I must have grabbed the wrong brown t-shirt (the one suitable for day-wear) and worn it to bed, not noticing that it was the wrong one.  Frantically I started digging through the rest of the clothes only to discover that this was it–the only item that I had left that was clean and could potentially be layered with something to form a suitable outfit for the MIT lecture was the silly pajama muscle shirt.   When life gives you lemons, dress in layers.  And play wild with the color combinations.  All week I had worn the light khaki pants with a light khaki cardigan when needed, and a white cardigan with white capris.  The white partially-buttoned  light cardigan over the top of the PJ shirt hid the sleeves and the pockets, but I really needed the khaki slacks and not the white capris.  So mix and match I did, the shoes were not ideal, but then again, what was ideal at this point.  After 12 days on the road and three cities, I was ready to come home!

Epilogue: The lecture was really fun, the questions were hard but good, and the one person to whom I confided about the pajama shirt claims he never would have guessed.  Of course, it was a “he” not a “she” and I’m not asking whether any “shes” saw me and thought I looked a bit odd for the circumstances.  I flew home over night last night and am now about to crash again, had a two hour nap this afternoon and then dragged myself into work to check for disasters.  A long day of meetings tomorrow and then it will be FRIDAY NIGHT and a FULL WEEKEND AT HOME hoorah.  I need it.  There is a hell of a lot of laundry to do! 🙂