Interview with stylist ariel? ariel!

May 7, 2008  |  essays

Ariel has been my style consultant for a while now, and when she’s not too busy being a matchmaker, I’m often asking her basic style questions like “should my socks match my shoes or my trousers?” and “how do I wear summer clothes and still be cool in Mexico?” and “I’m going on a fancy date. Help!” Masculine high fashion is new to me, and I find it fascinating, but sometimes very daunting. That “not butch enough” feeling comes up in me all the more because I’m not familiar enough with the culture. I’m learning, though, and it’s so fun to have Ariel in my life to talk to about this!

I sent Ariel some interview questions recently, and here are her thoughts. Thanks A! 

I could spend the rest of my life talking about fashion. I love it. I love the act of creating visual codes for gender and how we want to be taken in the world. Fashion appeals to the formalist in me: take a structure, learn to speak it, and then figure out how to make it your own.

Fashion is hard because it is an aesthetic exercise about personal expression. There is a whole school of fashion that says you should just do whatever you want and fuck the rules. The hard part about that is that fashion is how other people code us and gender us, and for a lot of people who will identify with the world of butch fashion I imagine that controlling that gendering is incredibly important. I am of the “you can’t break the rules until you know what the rules are” school of thought; it is important to build your eye and build your ability to analyze what is going on in an outfit — proportion, line, color, pattern, cut — so that you can more artfully manipulate the code to suit your own purposes.

I also have to say this: I am not going to define butch for you. Honestly, my personal fashion has much more to do with how to match your gold lamé neckerchief to your lavender trousers than it does with how to pass or be unremarkably masculine; I also refuse to be in the school of thought that says only more feminine people can wear things like skirts or high heels. I think more knowledge is better knowledge! That said, I am focusing a little bit more on clothing that has been traditionally masculinized, at least in part because I imagine readers of Sugarbutch will find it useful. Images in this post are all menswear because that is what I am obsessed with right now, and also because I think menswear fashion is somewhat less out there than womenswear fashion and it is useful to learn to dissect the pieces of masculine fashion. Mostly, though, it is because I look at that Rykiel Homme jacket 50 times a day and think things like “I can spend twice my rent on one piece of clothing! Imagine how often I’d wear it!”

Seems to me that there are many different subtle styles – athletic, preppie, punk – but that there are not as many variations in men’s styles as there are in women’s. Do you have particular thoughts about how to find your own style?

I think what is exciting about fashion is the way it gives us a visual language to show the world something about ourselves. I am a believer in fashion and I feel like it is an aesthetic language everybody should learn to speak.

Men’s fashion is just as nuanced a language as women’s fashion; it just speaks in different words. The main difference between women’s and men’s fashion, at least as far as I am concerned, is that men don’t usually wear skirts or dresses. Colors, different pant cuts, different styles of shirt; I think the fun of it is mixing and matching. The whole point of fashion is figuring out how you show the world whatever it is you want to say.

suit_1_sartorialist.jpg    suit_2_sartorialist.jpg
Scott Schuman/The Sartorialist 
Two different suits, same fabric —
completely different feels!
Both shot on The Sartorialist.

It is also so important to remember that fashion has a set of rules that it is worth learning — and then worth breaking. I am a believer in anarchist fashion where you do what you want how you want but I think it is important to do it knowing what you are working with. I also want to say that there are many versions of “fashion” — race, class, gender, aesthetic, all of these things combine to make different kinds of looks.

I think the best thing to do is look at people. Look at fashion websites; look at flickr.com pictures; look at people on the street. I am always scouting for great looks on the street. The Sartorialist has great pictures of a certain classic kind of look; men.style.com has pictures from all the shows. And shop but take time shopping, and take pleasure in it — think about what you are drawn to, what you like, and how you want to come across. Do you love the cut of your shoulders? Do you love your collarbones? Your biceps? Your ass? Your lower legs? Your chest? You can highlight all of this based on what you’re wearing. Look at pictures and think about how you want to execute. When I shop I always have a vision of who I want to be and that is who I am trying to dress. Seeing what other people wear is the easiest way to build technique and build your eye so this can happen flawlessly.

What four really basic pieces should butches own & learn how to rock?

1. Button-down dress shirt

If you are going to put yourself on masculine-spectrum clothes, you need to get a button-down dress shirt with a nice collar. Blue, white, or black depending on your style, but this is pretty much masculine dressing 101. Men’s section, women’s section: the only real difference is that women’s section shirts tend to be cut for what are traditionally considered women’s bodies (breast allowances, hip allowances), are cut shorter (they’re not designed to be tucked in most of the time), and button the other way. (Why, you ask? There are tons of different answers floating around; the accepted cultural wisdom is that women used to have people to help dress them, so the buttons went the other way to make it easier for their dresser.)

(Women’s shirt sizing is a opaque mystery involving S-M-L-XL and numbers that at one time meant something but now are just symbolic — exactly what am I 16 or 18 of? I am not even going to try to explain it: start at this Wikipedia article, and then click from there. It is a mess of vanity sizing to make people feel smaller. In general, the more diffuse/downmarket the brand, the larger the sizes will be; a Target size 4 is bigger than a Dolce and Gabbana size 4. For men’s sizes other than S-M-L: the small number is your neck size (somewhere in the teens/twenties) and the large number is your sleeve length, taken from the middle of your neck down to where you want the sleeve to hit on your wrist (somewhere in the 30s.) You can measure this yourself with a friend — here is a guide — or nicer stores will have someone there to measure you. Remember, hips will not be accounted for! Play around with sleeve lengths (because that is really the shoulder girth) and see what fits best for you. Also, different men’s brands and lines have different fits/cuts/amounts of taper: a skinny shirt will drop in further than a relaxed shirt, et cetera, et cetera. Find the one that you love and can depend on; this will take some work probably.

2. Shoes!

You need to have at least one pair of shoes that make you feel amazing. Have a killer pair of sneakers. Have a pair of great boots. Have some baby-soft tassle loafers. Four-inch heels. Your shoes are the foundation you stand on and if you need to be economical you can get away with only having one pair at a time. But think about it: if all you wear are big cargo shorts, you better be very deliberate in choosing to wear them with dress oxfords. Things to pay attention to: what are you going to be wearing the shoes with? If it’s pants, how do the pants break at the shoe? If it’s a skirt or shorts, how will it finish your leg?

dries_van_noten.jpgimage credit: Marcio Madeira//men.style.com
Dries Van Noten Fall 2008 show
Look at these shoes!
This outfit would be fundamentally less interesting but the shoes add fun and punch and take this from sullen to powerful. The cuffed pants and the heathered socks make this feel fashiony and funky to me; it would be a different look with the pants down over the shoes.

3. A great jacket.

It can be hot pink (Marc Jacobs did it!), it can be tweed with elbow patches. Put it over a t-shirt, put it over an oxford, put it over anything, this is a staple and it lets you do so many things AND it will keep you warm. I wish I had more to say about this but I don’t. Women’s jackets are that same sizing mystery as everything else. Men’s jackets are a chest measurement across the widest part of the chest; another good trick is the jacket size should be six to eight inches larger than your pant size (men’s suits come with a six inch difference between the waist of the pants and the size of the jacket).rykiel_homme.jpg

image credit: Marcio Madeira//men.style.com
designer: Rykiel Homme Fall 2008
caption: This jacket kills me. Kills me! It is such classic tailoring but the color is so unexpected. The whole outfit is “almost classic” — the sweater/button down/tie, the cut of the trousers — but look at the density of patterns on the shirt/tie, and the blue and the purple are just right together.

4.  A great accessory

 Pick something: a watch, a scarf, a belt, a neckerchief, lipstick a pipe, a tie, a purse, a hat — have at least one awesome, fun accessory that turns your clothing into an outfit. I believe in signature styles or pieces to decorate and adorn fairly classic looks — pink hankerchiefs with cardigans and t-shirts, neon ties with classic oxfords and trousers. This is how you can buy classic pieces and still look interesting. Look no further than the fashion around men’s suits, which are exercises in subtlety and using details to tell a story, for help on this one.sartorialist_terron_schaefer.jpg

image credit: Scott Schuman/The Sartorialist
Look at that pocket square. Look at the detail! It is such a simple, plain, classic look — with such interesting details that really take it past just another boring suit.

What should butches avoid?

I am never one to tell anyone to avoid anything on a gender-prescriptive basis! I would say avoid things that make you look bad and avoid things you don’t feel confident in. Don’t wear a suit and tie if you feel weird in it! Don’t wear a dress unless you feel you can rock it! Fashion is about portraying yourself. It is all so fraught with gender conformity — even within the queer gender galaxy — and it is hard to have the audacity and fortitude to stick it out and find what makes you feel hottest and most yourself, especially if your body and gender are not the body and gender you are “supposed” to have. Be bold! Be brave! Pay attention to what you feel goes together, and why — think about what you are wearing and how you think it hangs together — but I want every single one of you out there to avoid not doing things just because you don’t think it’s butch enough.

Do you love it? Do you feel hot in it? There you go. That’s all you need.some_kinda_blue_sartorialist.jpeg

image credit: Scott Schuman/The Sartorialist 
Look at it! It’s perfect — suit, pants, turtleneck, hat, pocket square — the color is so bright, but it works and it is undeniably what it is.

(This guy has my heart.)

Ariel spends a lot of time playing the toy accordion and window shopping the expensive floors at bloomingdale’s. she encourages you to go to queer
yenta.com
to find whatever it is your queer heart desires, and ariel?ariel! if you really have some time to kill.

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2 Comments


  1. Sinclair! Thanks! It's always a pleasure!

    I think, reading this post through, it is clear that my current fashion obsession is with a certain kind of dandy, suit-wearing masculinity, a kind that is classed and raced in a certain way, and a kind that I know I am attracted to in part because it allows me a certain kind of passage; fashion-forward dandy faggots, even girl ones, are accepted in ways that dykes in suits aren't always. New York has also made me intense about fashion in a way I never was when I lived in Seattle.

    So I open this up to everyone else: what are *your* rules? Your looks? And do you know what draws you to them? Why?

  2. (better late than never?)

    accessories: i'm deeply attached to my belt. and already i find my pocket handkerchiefs indispensable.

    what an unexpected pleasure to start enjoying shopping, accessories, fashion, the very moment i stop wearing a mask of compulsory femininity.

    [ Good point! – I too hated shopping, until I finally started shopping for clothes and accessories that I actually liked how they looked on me. Same with photographs – I've always hated having my picture taken, but in the last few years I like it more and more, because I like what I see when I see the shot. – ss ]

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