Everybody knows about the little black dress, one nice pair of flats, one white button-down shirt, blah, blah, blah, thanks, Mom. But what about the fashion advice for us downtown/burlesque/drag-queen trollops?
Here’s what works, kittens (check out the links below, plus see nearly all of my picks laid out neatly in the DameCore Store –trust, I have saved y’all a lot of work finding these things!):
Become fixated on certain colors and revolve your wardrobe around them
With color, go with your gut–often you are instinctively attracted to colors that flatter you and repelled by ones that you look terrible in. My favorite colors are red and black, so 80% of my wardrobe is made up of red and black (I also like most blues, purples, pinks, metallics, whites, and grays). I am not into most browns, yellows, oranges, beiges, or greens (with the exception of leopard prints and greens that match my eyes), so none of my clothes are those colors. I am a clear winter, so earthy colors make me look like I have consumption.
Become obsessed with certain styles and refuse to deviate from them
I call my style “retro-futurist bombshell.” I often dress like a 1960s space stewardess. Or a post-apocalyptic zombie hunter. Or a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane kinderwhore. Or glitter-punk street kid. Or a Victorian lady-of-the-evening who runs off with the circus. Or a John Waters Cry-Baby trash-rockabilly drapette.
I only wear a handful of prints (animal prints, plaid, polka dots, stripes–all in moderation and usually paired with black or other neutrals). I do not wear harem pants, Bermuda shorts, open-toed boots, culottes, or stone/acid-washed jeans.
Being fanatical about what you do and don’t wear makes it easier to figure what to have in your closet. I am overjoyed when I walk into a clothing store and hate everything. It means I am spending less on clothes! Only buy items that are extremely useful to you (turtlenecks are classic, but if you hate them, don’t buy them), and items that you really love.
My style choices are specific to my body and personal taste. Make a Pinterest board of individuals/visuals that inspire you. The more outlandish, the better. Are you obsessed with B-movie monsters, drag races, and Tilda Swinton? There is a style for you!
Please, not black. The LBD is for understated glamour and funerals (utilize an appropriate neckline for each occasion). This dress is for when you are looking for some Hot Stuff (RIP Donna Summer) and Mr./Ms./Dr. Hot Stuff needs to spot you in the semi-darkness. Or you just want to blow everyone’s minds with how glam you look.
The dress can be short or long, tight or flowing, but it’s gotta be brightly-colored and/or shiny/sparkly enough to catch the light. It could be a beaded flapper dress, a film noir satin gown, or a sequin disco frock. When you find it, it will look good and feel good on your body. You are the Dancing Queen.
So the $15 cute dress you picked from the fast fashion store (or thrifted) now looks like weird wrinkly mess after you actually walk around in it. Solution? A firm bodysuit/slip. I am convinced foundation garments like Spanx have made a comeback due to the horrible quality of today’s mass-produced clothing.
Black satin foundation garments are the most useful and can double as outerwear. The best are in old-fashioned stores like Lady Grace or Sears (Sears uses the same manufacturer for bras as Victoria’s Secret–no joke). I save my pennies for UK company What Katie Did’s luxury shapewear.
Also, black booty shorts. I have owned a pair of black velvet hot pants for years–like many of the clothes I treasure, I have no idea how I acquired them, but I would cut a mofo who tried to steal ’em.
Fishnet stockings/tights: evocative of can-can girls, ballerinas, punk rock, and streetwalkers. Get the professional ballet tights (in black and flesh-colored)–they are worth it. The $5 fishnets will ladder the first time you wear them, so you might as well invest. Great for hiding leg hair stubble. I’ve even worn nude fishnets to my straight office job without comment.
Nylon stockings: I have mostly nude stockings (plus a pair or two of black) with seams. Fully fashioned is likely to get you the best quality (only a handful of factories still make them), but stretch nylons are better if your legs are hard to fit because fully fashioned does not stretch at all (read about the difference between fully fashioned and other stocking types here). Only get the stockings that require garters–the “thigh-highs” or “hold-ups” either cut off circulation in your legs, or fall down all the time. I do not own cheap nylon pantyhose because they are the Devil (I like my crotch to be able to breathe).
Black tights: jet-black tights for almost everything else, in the softest fabric you can find. If you have scratchy tights, throw them in the garbage now–they won’t feel any better later.
Matching go-go set in metallic silver and/or gold
We are talking bra, panties/booty shorts, and heels, at the very least. This is a godsend for go-go/burlesque dancers who have a great top/bottom that nothing matches with, but don’t want to wear black or white with it–black (in the words of the illustrious burlesque queen Jo Weldon) “eats your light,” and white is a pain to keep clean. Metallic colors are also great for robot/futuristic costumes.
Shoes to rule the world in
Heels: mules for that breezy trampy look (tip: Polly mules/Genie heels/Hollywood slides are super-comfortable–surprisingly so for a shoe made out of wood and metal), D’orsay or ankle-strap Joan Crawford heels for evening wear, Mary Jane heels for party outfits, 4-inch pumps for business-time.
All heels should be (at minimum) in black (shiny patent/genuine or faux leather /satin) and/or metallic. Metallic is a fantastic neutral. White/clear/flesh-tones are also excellent options (I myself never wear nude shoes because my skin is too pasty to match them). Get a pair in your favorite color so you can look down at your toes and smile.
Note: Re-mix Vintage Shoes are the best quality shoes that accurately replicate styles from the 1910s to the 1960s. Hands-down. I am a master at finding vintage-style shoes in weird places, but most manufacturers will only carry a retro-style for a season. Re-mix will always have gorgeous, period-appropriate footwear. Re-Mix is not paying me to say this, they are just that good.
Black ballet slippers: these babies are your friend. Stash them your purse for when your killer heels are killing you at the end of the night.
Real talk–I love fashion, but I am lazy. During the hottest days of the summer, I exclusively wear bright-colored retro fit-and-flare cotton dresses with ballet flats (and a cardigan/hoodie stashed in my bag if it gets chilly). I look cute and put-together for meeting catsitting clients (a friend who ran into me on my way to a Meet and Greet said I looked like Mary Poppins), but really I’m just getting away with wearing a big shirt with no pants in public.
Bathing suits: for the beach and for stage wear. Get at least one well-structured one-piece in your most beloved color. I have successfully worn my red retro swimsuit for a slew of performances, including a dance number with Amanda Palmer at the Boston POPS (video).
Beach cover up: I have a white hoodie and a maxi 1970s-style red jersey dress to cover nearly every inch of my super-pale skin. The jersey doesn’t wrinkle, dries fast, and is fabulous enough to wear for a fancy night out.
Sunhat: GET THE BIGGEST SUNHAT IN THE WORLD TO PROTECT YOUR PRITTY FACE. The bigger, the better.
Big Jackie O-type sunglasses: for the morning glare after your semi-successful Hot Stuff hookup. Hides smeared makeup/bags under your eyes from the paparazzi/your neighbors.
Look sharp in office wear
If you have to work in an office, you might as well look good doing it. For years, I wore boring office clothes that actually made me more miserable: polo shirts, shapeless black pants, “sensible” sweaters. Ugh. Wearing clothes you hate sours your mood.
Mad Men offers a slew of fashion ideas for the stylish worker. Are you a Joan in jewel-tone wiggle-dresses/wrap blouses and pencil skirts, or a Peggy in smart pussy-bowed A-line frocks? If you aren’t into high-femme for work, look to the Hepburns. Katharine Hepburn was commanding in button-downs and relaxed trousers, and Audrey Hepburn was smashing in white men’s shirts and cigarette pants. Don’t forget a cashmere pullover for that sweater-girl look (plus to fight against the A/C insanity of summer offices).
I have a couple of vintage-style suits (not actual vintage–it’s too difficult to find one’s size, and real vintage suits can look too much like a costume in a professional setting). My suits are all well-fitted jackets and a-little-below-the-knee skirts in black, gray, navy blue, and red. Thus far I have only worn them for interviews and corporate-type events, since I have only ever worked in business casual environments (shudder).
Finding a suit at the last minute for an interview/business opportunity is hell, so I suggest having one at the ready beforehand. If necessary, have it tailored by a professional. Having a great suit can make you feel more powerful. Don’t fuck with me, fellas! (video)
Evening cover-ups so you don’t catch your death
One your way a soiree in a saucy little number, but don’t want every idiot passersby gawking at your legs? You need two long coats–a light one for spring/fall, and a heavier one for winter. Classic trench coats are the perfect length to cover your scandalous fringe mini-dress, and excellent cover in rainy weather. A princess-line coat with decorative faux fur trim is ideal for that villainess look.
As I mentioned before, indoors is often frigid even during high summer (the air conditioning being skewed towards men-in-suits temps), so you’ll need something to keep your arms warm while wearing your slinky sheath at the next cocktail party. Try a fringed shawl, a well-fitted bolero, a faux fur stole, or an open cardigan made of luxurious material, with or without fancy details. I have an inexpensive long black knitted cardigan trimmed with ruffles and lace that looks good with nearly all of my going-out ensembles.
If you need to cover your nearly-bare legs going to a special event, get ballet warm-up leggings. They are the equivalent of a sweater for your legs, and you can easily slip them off when you are at your destination.
Because a lot of pretty outfits are on the thin side fabric-wise, you probably need some extra help in the keeping-warm department.
Berets: they keep your head warm, don’t mess up your hairdo, and (depending on the rest of your look) can be artsy/anarchist/French.
Gloves: gloves can be glamorous AND keep you toasty. Try wool, leather, satin, lamé, or net. Long gloves look nice with coats (short gloves + ¾ coat sleeves are awkward and chilly). Fingerless gloves can look metal (leather) or cheeky (lace) depending on your outfit (and you don’t have to whip them off to use your phone).
Jewelry–go big or go home
I rarely wear jewelry, but when I do, it’s gaudy enough to make Dolly Parton blush.
To jazz up a LBD, I go with a large rhinestone choker (usually diamond- or ruby-imitation) that a Hammer film vampire countess would wear to dinner with her latest victim. I also have matching long dangly earrings, bracelets, and tiaras that I will add if it’s a sparkly kind of event. But other than my matched sets, a few hoop earrings, and some faux pearls, my jewelry collection is pretty small. Every year or so, paw through what you have and gift the junk jewelry you don’t use to crafter burlesque friends so they can hot-glue them to their costumes.
I never wear real gems. They are expensive (yet don’t hold their value), are one the first things to be stolen by robbers, are often mined by exploited labor to fund war, and the chicest women in history (Coco Chanel, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Audrey Hepburn) regularly wore fake jewelry over the real thing, anyway. So why bother?
We forget about bags until we are scrambling around to find something that isn’t an old backpack or a free beauty product tote bag. Be prepared!
Evening purse: black beaded/satin or metallic small purse that fits your wallet, keys, phone, and lipstick/compact. Unlike vintage clothing, it’s not hard to find a vintage purse in decent shape and at a reasonable price.
Everyday lady purse: medium size, dark leather or similar material, big enough to hold your evening purse contents, plus your mini cosmetic bag and other crucial bibs and bobs.
Satchel: well-structured, big enough to hold your everyday purse contents, plus a laptop/important papers. Envision the kind of bag you would enjoy plopping on the table before a serious business meeting.
If you are wearing a cheapo nightclub outfit, make sure your hair/makeup is flawless
At many a goth/glam/fetish/[fill in the subculture] party, I would spy chicks in expensive latex catsuits or custom Edwardian-style gowns and they looked… incomplete somehow. I would also see ladies in 80s thrift-store prom dresses that looked amazing. I finally figured out why–hair and makeup. Why bother spending thousands on corsets and not a second on your face? Snatch up Making Faces by Kevyn Aucoin and imitate the fuck out of the gorgeous photographs to go with your ensemble. If you hate doing your hair, get a wig.
Invest in a signature “off-duty” look
We often spend a lot of money on “fancy” clothes, and then wear ill-fitting, ugly clothes for everyday. Why? Look at Brigitte Bardot–she looked fantastic in a striped Breton T-shirt, capris, and ballet flats. Even if it’s just jeans and a T-shirt–did James Dean look like a fucking slob? NO.
Lest you think I am dressed-to-to-the-nines all the time à la Dita Von Teese, let me assure you that I roll out of bed and need to grab whatever is clean(ish) myself most days. My fall-back casual look is either black-clad post-punk (motorcycle-style hoodie, riding pants, boots) or low-key rockabilly (T-shirt, jeans/capris, Chuck Taylors).
Check out specialized work clothes. I often wear equestrian pants, sailor trousers (with all the buttons), ballet sweaters, and pole-climber boots (all ordered online from specialty labels catering to those professions). My go-to outfit for wall painting/household projects/yard work are navy blue Dickies coveralls. Getting the “real deal” work uniforms often means better quality than similar clothing you would get at the mall.
Having a (ahem) sleepover, or just an indulgent night in with Netflix and chocolate-dipped strawberries? Why wear a ratty T-shirt when you can wear a silk nightie, or menswear-style piped pajamas? Check out Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel in this clip from Coco Before Chanel running out to the street to meet her lover while wearing his silk pjs.
Evaluate everything in your wardrobe with the eye of, “Would I want to be caught dead in this by my ex?”
Have exactly one hair-dying/scrubbing-the-bathtub outfit and destroy the rest of your used-up clothes, otherwise you will be wearing the stained sweatsuit the next time you encounter that evil gnome you banged a couple of times because you were lonely and barely knew anyone in town yet.
One book that definitely shaped my style has been A Guide to Elegance: For Every Woman Who Wants to Be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions by Geneviève Antoine Dariaux. Word of warning: it was originally published in the 1964, and it shows. It has terribly dated advice on romantic relationships, female friends (e.g. she warns never to bring a female friend on a shopping trip because all of your friends secretly want you to look ugly), and body image. What it does have is excellent pointers on color coordination, what to wear to a particular occasion, and pairing accessories to your outfit.
Think of the book as your grandmother who dresses impeccably and is always gifting you beautiful scarves and costume jewelry, but is also constantly asking you at holiday dinners when you’re going to get married and do you really need that second helping of cake, darling?
Other useful/fun style resources are:
I Love Your Style: How to Define and Refine Your Personal Style by Amanda Brooks has fantastic pictures of icons and unknowns in chic ensembles. Runs the gamut from high fashion to cheap chic to punk to preppy. One of my favorite bits is a page where you are encouraged to mash up two styles together (Stevie Nicks goth? Sporty Biba? Sure, why not!).
The Bombshell Manual of Style by Laren Stover is a lifestyle guide to sex symbols of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but also has on-point advice about jewelry, shoes, and special occasion outfits (for instance, have you ever considered what to wear to a boxing match? Well, have you?).
The One Hundred: A Guide to the Pieces Every Stylish Woman Must Own by Nina Garcia–I don’t own all of the items (safari jacket?), but it’s more fun than many of the current “capsule” wardrobe how-tos that are all rage (I have rarely seen a capsule guide recommend fishnets or old concert T-shirts as “must-haves”). A similar book is The Style Checklist: The Ultimate Wardrobe Essentials for You by Lloyd Boston.
Marilyn in Fashion: The Enduring Influence of Marilyn Monroe by Christopher Nickens and George Zeno really gets into the weeds of Marilyn’s style, including the elements of her everyday clothing. I have an hourglass figure, and seeing the styles that worked for Marilyn helped me immensely. (Key: find a stylish person whose figure yours resembles and copy the bejeezus out of their silhouettes.)
The Femme’s Guide to the Universe by Shar Rednour is a femme lesbian lifestyle book with on-point tips on how to be a glitterati queen (on a budget). Too poor to buy a silk gown? Check the lingerie section of secondhand stores and buy a long slip. What shoes to wear to host(ess) your wild soiree? Patent leather for easy wipe-downs. She also expertly covers lady business (all kinds), dyke drama, and creating your own sparkle-utopia.
This is Hard Femme (website) — a problem with a lot of print fashion/style guides is they don’t offer a diversity in body shapes/skin tones/ages. Enter: THE INTERNET. “This is Hard Femme” is a street fashion blog crammed with styling femmes of all types, from all eras.