Fashion Sense: Some Have It, Some Don't

ALICE STEINBACH

March 11, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

The sixtysomething woman standing next to me at the gourmet carryout counter -- the one ordering Caesar salad for two -- was dressed in a twentysomething mode: sleek, black tights, an oversized, white shirt and a tomato-red, hand-knit sweater jacket.

She was as slim as a teen-ager and as elegant as Audrey Hepburn, and the outfit suited her perfectly. The woman had a flair, no doubt about it. I noticed the stares -- from envious to admiring -- as women, both young and not-so-young passed by.

And although I had never seen her before in my life, I recognized this striking woman instantly.

She was the grown-up version of the girl who haunted me all through school -- from kindergarten to 12th grade. The girl who instinctively knew when pastel-colored angora sweaters were out and brown ski sweaters with little reindeer patterns all over the front were in; when brown penny loafers needed to be chucked out in favor of black Capezio slippers; when long, straight hair needed to be cut into a cropped, sexy style.

Yes, that woman standing there at the gourmet carryout counter is none other than Bunny Stubbs.

You, no doubt, also remember Bunny Stubbs. She had a different name, of course, but remember when you were in sixth grade? It was Bunny who showed up at the Ten Oaks swim party wearing her father's large, white button-down shirt knotted over her black bathing suit.

And remember in eighth grade when you went to those Saturday matinees and sat two rows in front of those cute 10th-grade boys? Well, it was Bunny who dreamed up the idea of wearing jodhpurs and riding boots with a white cashmere sweater.

And wasn't Bunny the first girl in your class to wear navy blue with green?

Fashion, I'm convinced, is a Zen thing: It comes from within, is based on intuition and often is an anti-rational act. Knowing, for instance, that you really can wear navy blue with green has always struck me as an incredible insight.

What I'm saying is that it's no good trying to be fashionable. Either you have it or you don't. And if you don't -- but refuse to admit you don't -- then you run the considerable risk of becoming a "fashion victim."

I know a couple, for instance -- both of them bright and talented attorneys -- who refuse to confront the fact they are among the fashion-impaired. Instead of giving in and wearing what suits them best -- simple, straight skirts and silk blouses in her case; tailored suits and Brooks Brothers shirts in his -- they try every new trend that comes along.

The last time I had dinner with them, I was shocked to see their condition. The man was clearly in a state of advanced Ralph Lauren. His wife, whom I had a hard time distinguishing from the flowered chintz sofa, was obviously suffering from a severe Laura Ashley overdose.

I can say all this because I know what it's like to be someone who wants to be Bunny Stubbs, who has tried to be Bunny Stubbs, and who has failed miserably at being Bunny Stubbs.

I can say all this because -- just when I thought I was getting over my wish to be one of the first to really understand why it's OK and not unprofessional to wear a short, black tulle skirt and long jacket to work -- I find myself face-to-face with: "Bunny Stubbs -- The Sequel."

Yes, here where I work, there is a woman who is so cool, looks so great, is so strikingly original in the way she wears clothes, that I've actually found myself backsliding. For instance, I found myself asking her about what kind of shoes go best with leggings.

Of course, that came after I asked her what leggings were and why would anyone want to wear the bottom half of a snowsuit.

Well, I didn't get what she was telling me, so the next time she wore her leggings to work, my colleague kindly walked me through the proper accessories for such an outfit.

I am now the proud possessor of such an outfit but I haven't worn it. My wariness may be a result of the disastrous "Nancy Sinatra episode" in the '60s when I copied her white lips, white vinyl boots, doe eyes and miniskirt look and made the mistake of leaving the house looking like that.

By the way, do you have any idea of what a "cat suit" is? I visualize it as a tailored suit with pointed ears and a tail. Well, whatever it is, I'll bet that, right now, even as I write these words, Bunny Stubbs is wearing one.

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