Breaking The Fashion Rules with Justine Larbalestier

Australian American author Justine Larbalestier, 54, follows no rules when it comes to her vintage style.
Breaking The Fashion Rules with Justine Larbalestier

I’ve always loved writing and clothes. In all my novels, I find a way to squeeze something in about fashion. Our clothes are us.

I’m researching a book about dress codes and fashion rules, because recently I realized that some – all? – of my fashion preferences weren’t merely my taste, but ideas I’d been indoctrinated with.

I’d always believed that not wearing yellow because I’m too pale was my idea. I was shocked to discover many other pale women thought likewise. Coincidence? Nope, it’s a fashion rule. We’re all brainwashed!

Where do these rules come from? Why do we believe them?

Now I wear tonnes of yellow, such as my beloved early 1970s Anne Klein yellow plaid jacket, worn over a 1930s top, over a 70s Neiman Marcus turtleneck (all from Edith Machinist) with 1940s jeans from Ellen Shop. (Contrary to what folks who don’t wear vintage believe, most of us used-clothes wearers mix eras.)

Fashion rules are supposedly about teaching good taste. But who gets to decide what good taste is?

People with power. Most rules of good taste help enforce class norms. If middle class and up women are taught to avoid yellow, then the pasty woman wearing yellow marks herself as déclassé. Foolish girl doesn’t know how to dress properly!

One of the main jobs of fashion rules is to enforce the imaginary gender binary. I love being able to dress as masculinely or as femininely as I want; I wish everyone had that privilege and joy. Sadly there are too many places, in the USA and elsewhere, where breaking these rules isn’t just a faux pas. Some of us risk violence if we lean too far into our femininity or masculinity.

Fashion rules that demarcate class go all the way back to sumptuary laws: laws enforced by monarchs and aristocrats to make sure the riff-raff couldn’t dress like them. No ermine and lace for you, peasant!

One of the great things about fashion history is this strategy never works. Wealthy merchants dressed like kings no matter how much they were fined for doing so. Then servants wore their castoffs. Oh, the confusion!

Class is behind the no-white-after-Labor-Day rule. Those with money can afford to have new outfits with the change of season. The poor wear white clothes and straw hats till they fall apart. They must be pointed at and mocked or beaten up (see the 1922 Straw Hat Riot).

Until recently pattern mixing was a sign of horrible taste. Pattern mixers marked themselves as tasteless wannabes; true classy types, think Audrey Hepburn, knew that less is more.

Lately, it’s become fashionable to mix patterns, thus we got hit with a slew of new rules on how to pattern mix. Don’t mix bold colour patterns with neutral ones! Make sure the patterns have at least one common colour! Mix and match one pattern type! Use all plaids, but in varying sizes and colours! Stick to safe combinations: leopard prints and polkas dots are pattern neutrals. To all of which, lol. (The use of the word “neutral” is never neutral.)

I’m wearing an upcycled beret with stylized geometrical floral pattern (made by East Village Hats: it was once a 1980s Swiss cashmere cardigan); a 1950s Gordon Peters jacket featuring Ken Scott’s A Fish Is A Fish Is A Fish pattern (from My Drawing Number One) and 1950s plaid skirt (Edith Machinist); several-seasons-old Issey Miyake striped men’s socks and many years old Dansko floral clogs. 5 different patterns in 5 different colourways.

My nana would be horrified; so too would the arbiters of those new pattern mixing rules.

This outfit also breaks fashion rules that are all about dressing in order to fool people into thinking we have the “perfect” figure. I don’t believe in figure flaws. Thus I’ll be damned if I dress to disguise my short legs and long torso. What, pray tell, is wrong with stumpy legs and elongated torsos? I’m also wearing horizontal stripes thus making my calves look wide. Except that rule, too, is rubbish.

In some of these outfits, I’m breaking a rule that, like no white after Labor Day, is almost gone now, but was common when I was little: dresses must be worn with dress shoes, preferably with high heels, not western boots or clogs or sneakers. But here I am in a 1960s handpainted Tina Leser Aviary dress from Farfalla Design with a pair of ten-year-old Littles boots. Ditto with my late 1940s (or early 1950s) grey Claire McCardell dress from Jessica Parker. What can I say? I prize comfort.

I’m all about debunking ideas of good and bad taste. Marie Kondo’s rule of thumb is much more useful: does it spark joy? When we feel good about ourselves, we can wear anything.

Most of the colours and patterns we’re convinced don’t work for us have bad associations. I wouldn’t wear maroon for years because it was my school colour. I hated that school so I hated maroon. A friend loathes houndstooth because it was the pattern of the dreadful department store she worked at. Some of us will get past those associations and some of us won’t. It’s all good.

The only fashion rules worth following are the ones you invent for yourself. You get to change them on a whim!

Some days I’ll wear loads of colours and patterns. Other days I need just one colour to soothe me. Like with this mostly orange outfit: 1980s Christian Lacroix jacket from Vintage With A Twist over a 2019 Ashaka Givens dress.

My main fashion rule is to only wear sustainable clothes, which is why so much of my wardrobe is vintage. Keeping clothes out of landfill is my number one goal.

When I started shopping vintage it wasn’t because I believed in a circular economy: teenage me was broke. I couldn’t afford the Commes des Garçons I pined for, or even a cheaper knock off. My first vintage purchase was a 1970s-does-1930s dress. I thought it was the real thing. (I didn’t become even vaguely competent at dating vintage until much later.) It gave me a thrill to dress like Katharine Hepburn.

Shopping vintage is an adventure. I never know what I’m going to find. Walking into stores where everything’s the same lowers my spirits. At flea markets and my favourite vintage stores, you see every colour pattern and style imaginable. Everything’s a one off.

It sparks all the joy.

Justine Larbalestier