How Do You Feel About “Formality” In Your Style?

Often, it seems to me, the ideas of “style” and “formality” are smushed together. Conflated. Which can feel quite deflating, if you want panache without fuss. Or, if heels, hairspray, and tight waists feel out of place, for your body and your social context.

Can we deconstruct? Of course!

Picture The Role Of Propriety, Attraction, And Aesthetics In Style

I can even show you an infographic, having amused myself this weekend designing one.



What the heck did that mean? Let’s do it by the numbers. Some people think in pictures, others in lists. Such is humanity, our glorious wrack of a species.

What The Heck Did She Mean By That? The 8 Phases Of Style

  1. Start at zero. We stand naked in the bedroom, unable to dress.
  2. We make a move. We make a mistake. We put our underwear on our heads.
  3. I exaggerate. Most everyone starts with an outfit which allows us to stay warm enough, and more or less within social norms.
  4. This is where Style starts, in our relationship to three organizing principles. Let’s say the first is Propriety, historical force of Formality. What is propriety? The High WASP Grail of the Appropriate. Not, “How fancy are you?” but, “How well will you fit in where you’re going?” And this is what is changing in society. People aren’t just dressing down, the expectations in the venues of life are changing, everywhere.
  5. What about Attraction? It doesn’t overlap with formality, much, except at the limits. Dressing to flatter your figure is one thing,  dressing for sexual attraction can push the boundaries of propriety and aesthetics. Dressing for social attraction, on the other hand, for the women in your new book club, or the senior partners in your new law firm, serves propriety well.
  6. Aesthetics is the art part: color, proportion, pattern, texture, finishes, historical and cultural references. Lots of room to play, and all kinds of resources online to guide us. Paying increased attention to aesthetics will also increase your formal appearance, because you show you’re trying, not just hanging loose.
  7. Style is, in brief and in sum, the use of clothes for identity satisfaction and social signalling.
  8. You will express your style in a mix of all three organizing principles. Formality is woven throughout. It used to be driven by propriety, but those who miss it now must find other ways to make an effort. Formality is the design artifact of effort. Red dress optional.

Can Workout Gear Be Stylish, At The Supermarket?

As an example, imagine the woman in yoga pants at the supermarket. I use her, because she could be me. I often shop after working out. How’s my aesthetic? If the colors suit, the pieces proportioned, it’s fine. How’s my attraction? Depends on one’s feeling about middle-aged women in exercise garb, I suppose. But propriety – i.e. the suitability of the garb for the venue? Unless I wait in Pigeon Pose for my peanut butter to finish grinding, I’m off.

Most importantly, I have made no effort. This is the Style people miss. Do you?

The Longing For Formality Across The Blogosphere

If you are still wondering what I’m on about, (which I doubt, because you guys are smart) we can look at what other people have to say. Imogen’s Dress Up program targets exactly this longing for formality. When Janet posts a video of women’s fashions through the last 10 decades, it’s there again, a longing for the dress-up of years past in the comments.

What we see is that the nostalgia for certain types of clothing roots itself in a longing for old-style formality. Ripped boyfriend jeans are “stylish,” but they are in no way “formal.”

What Do You Think?

Where do you fall on the spectrum? Do you miss formality? Or do you feel society improves as we let go the rules and constraints? When does the desire for style tip into a longing for decorum?

Finally, if we must “try” for style, how much effort to make it count?

Little House Stuffs, Big Effect


That was the scene on my kitchen counter top, until just recently. Not terribly attractive, as Mom might say.

Since my kitchen is also my living and dining room, I knew I wanted quiet replacements. We would not welcome screaming. “I HAVE SALT AND PEPPER RIGHT HERE! NO, LOOK OVER HERE, DUMMY! ON THE COUNTER!”

Since my cabinets are white, and my counters black granite and butcher block, I thought at first all the implements should be white, but, this white didn’t complement my aged melamine white. Clashing shades of neutrals, not attractive in the slightest.

Hence, a blonde wood Peugot pepper grinder, which, my goodness, if grinding dried berries can be said to be a luxury experience this surely is.


And white porcelain salt & pepper shakers from Sur la Table. I love Sur la Table, have you ever been in one of their stores? So calming, you sense they are really cooks. The “P” holds the white pepper.

Porcelain Salt & Pepper Shakers

(The salt shaker wanted its own glamour shot, from the website.)

My countertop is much happier, knowing Mom would approve. I feel a surge of glee every time I pick up the salt by its handle and shake. A little bistro nonchalance. (Note: holes are small enough that kosher salt comes out slowly.) Of course, I still keep that box of kosher salt in the cupboard, in case I have to measure some out.

But Chef Rocco DiSpirito no longer urges me to make cinnamon lamb chops, salty ones we presume, from his perch on Mr. Morton’s box.

Small stuffs.

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The Profound Impact Of Civility, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:30am

I was at my father’s house last night, he and I were talking. He said, and I paraphrase, “The question of whether evil exists has been central to theology for over 1000 years.” I promise, this was a logical remark, given our conversation.

My immediate reaction. “Then since we can’t know about evil, we’ve got to try to be as civil and amiable as we can.” A series of images went through my head — a full day of Kind and Polite. Smiling at the checkout clerk and letting them know that yes, indeed, you did find everything you were looking for.

A very Sturdy reaction to the question of evil.

Somehow I felt my conversation with Dad dovetailed with ideas I’d been considering for today. Although I never start writing the Saturday post until Saturday morning, I do think about it during the week.

I’m guessing most of you read Janet’s blog, The Gardener’s Cottage? Recently she asked her readers, “How are you doing?” She may have broken Blogger trying to respond to the scores of comments. How kind and civil is that? Beyond the expectations of her technology platform, certainly.

I remember when Faux Fuchsia asked her readers where they were from and how old they were. So many answers, so many replies.

Then last week so many of you wished me and my husband a happy anniversary. Thank you. Observing rituals and civilities.

None of these events involved formality or protocol. I do not yearn for the days of stockings and white gloves. But, if we can’t know about evil, I think we can know about how not to be a jerk.

Stepping back, I see two things in these few blog moments. First, someone asks someone else about themselves. I am a blurter and have a hard time remembering to listen, to ask real questions of other people so they can be heard. It’s important. Second, the grace of small celebrations. It may a small thing to tell someone, ” Thank you,” or, “Get well soon,” or, “Happy anniversary!” But as you all remind me, the effect of the action is far more than the effort.

In that vein, I wanted to ask, if you have a chance today, please comment on a blog post you enjoy or admire. And I do not mean mine, 100% feel free to read and exit silently. But surely someone else out there is writing by themselves and wondering, “Does anyone care?” Or they are dealing with controversy, or mean remarks, or ennui.

Or they are quietly, and persistently, being not a jerk.

A comment will feel really wonderful. This I know. Thank you all again, ever so much.

Why We Keep Going Back To Napa Valley’s Carneros Inn

We spent our anniversary weekend at the Carneros Inn, in the Napa Valley. We’ve been there before. More than once.

Why do we return?

Is it the landscaping? I do love the mix of cottage garden and California natives, to say nothing of the multiple fruit trees. They’ve paved what used to be gravel paths, good for shoes, a little sad for my rustic longings.


Is it the food? Weekends we eat breakfast up at the Hilltop Cafe; lunch generally at the pool, or with a sandwich at the little Market; dinners at Farm (we ate there for our actual anniversary night dinner but all I got was this photo of a bottle of wine we were about to drink).

Oh, and I wore the Halsbrook MaxMara dress, post-alterations, with black Mystique sandals and Claudia Kussano earrings. This is not a fancy place.


Don’t worry. I still have two feet.

Is it dinner at the the Boon Fly Cafe?


While the Farm offers fancier food, shaved truffles optional, the Boon Fly is your place for fried chicken and the like. I love its barn-like architecture, and the staff aprons.

So maybe it’s the rooms?


Or the bathrooms? Painted in sage green, tiled in gray-green slate. A symphony of shower options.


Or the enclosed deck? Each cottage’s got one. With an outdoor shower. Love the feel of over-sized water drops falling through shafts of sunlight.


Don’t like to see plumbing? Shift yourself a bit on your lounge chair, look at the garden instead.


No, in the end, it’s always the pool.

Up a hill,


to breakfast, and The New York Times on paper.


Then down a few steps to a chaise, and a long hot afternoon of shared burgers, sauvignon blanc, and pool floats.


The vista, of what seems like nothing.


Or is nothing, but the fields beyond and some haze and light.


An open field of vision, one might say, a place for emptiness to give its gifts.


California’s wine country offers variety for the more adventurous. If you’d like to read on, you might visit A Rich Life on a Budget, where Adrienne posts a lot of wine country ideas in her travel section. She’ll also recommend wines, in her happy, generous, and knowledgeable way.

A Rain Jacket For Those Of Us In Deep Denial About Summer’s Passing

Sharing a post with Une Femme d’un Certain Age, as we have done before. This time, our topic is “Sneaking Up On Fall.” She is over here.  If Une Femme is new to you, you’ll enjoy her eye and her thinking, both.

The other day I saw aubergine leaves fall from my neighbor’s plum tree. They flashed by like schools of fish turning in the sea.

I’ll pretend it never happened. August rolls along in summer its whole course.

But hey, might it rain in summer? Maybe not here in California, where our bones grumble for rain, but somewhere? And if it does, might one need a rain jacket? And if one has worn one’s J.Crew number over and over until it loses its capacity to delight, might one want something new?

Yes, and nothing at all to do with fall.

I propose Stutterheim’s Stockholm Jacket. “Swedish Melancholy At Its Driest” is their tagline.

Stutterheim at Barneys

From Sweden. Available in the US from Barneys NY, which seems right.

Available all over the world in peculiarly apt versions. Pink for men, in Berlin. Sizing’s unisex, so women from Maine to Florida to Padre Island to San Diego, it can be yours too. Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and anywhere else for that matter. Who am I to dictate geographical preferences?

Stutterheim in Germany

Vivid stripes, from Milan. What one might generalize as Italian flair. At a guess, also a hit in San Francisco.

Stutterheim in Milan

In the UK, Stutterheim’s special collaboration for Whistles sold out.

You can always go to Stutterheims’s own site, for the full array of goods. The aesthetic is really something. I’d probably wind up in navy, because, navy. Although black calls me, like rain slanting sideways outside a morning window. Insane to go out, but also irresistible.

Let’s take a Sturdy Gal break from poetics. Stutterheim makes two versions, the Stockholm and the Arholma.  The Arholma is the original, and more expensive, at close to $600. It’s handsewn in a narrow cut, and numbered by the responsible seamstress. The Stockholm has welded seams, a full cut, and no lining. It’s lighter weight.

The company cuts everything in men’s patterns, sized from XXXS to XXL. Jackets are unisex. Because anyone might want to step into the place of a lone Swedish fisherman, outlasting the winter, year after year.

Stutterheim’s says, “Embrace Swedish Melancholy.” Must I?

I say resolutely, I do not covet this jacket because fall is coming. It’s a summer thing. Summer, so beautiful, let’s say it lasts forever. We’ll have no sorrows at the change of seasons.

And besides, aren’t these jackets cool? Cheer will out. Let’s embrace melancholy now and put it in the closet when we’re done.

Again, Une Femme, who sneaks up on fall in her own inimitable way, is over here.


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Two Years Ago Today, Or, Saturday Morning at 6:48am

Today’s our wedding anniversary. I wanted to share a few photos, some new, some already seen.

My bouquet. I wanted a “whiff of decay.” By Sarah at Saipua, in Red Hook Brooklyn.

My youngest sister loaned me a pair of earrings. Something borrowed. I can’t remember what was blue. I loved my hair, held up elaborately and a little goofily with various Swarovski crystal, quartz, and river stone hairpins. River stones, like pebbles.

The Stairs at SF City Hall. Emilia-Jane Schobieri.

On our way up to the pre-ceremony photos. San Francisco’s City Hall is quite something. We held our ceremony on the 4th floor.

View More:

My husband-then-to-be and I, alone before the ceremony.

My beautiful children and I, together before the ceremony.


The ceremony set up itself. Simple folding chairs, unsimple flowers.

View More:

Our wedding rings. Mine new, his old from my family. Gouverneur Morris Carnochan wed Matilda Grosvenor Goodrich on Oct. 30 * 1888.

Married. Walking out to catch an Uber.

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Reception flowers.

I designed and made the table cards myself. The other side had the menu. I was very proud of my handiwork.

It doesn’t take much.

17 Dishes

17 dishes.


More than 17 bottles of wine.

My children, on the sidewalk outside the restaurant for a red wine removal project, pouring sparkling water on my dress. It worked.

The evening winds down. My sister-in-law brought bubbles and wands.

I remain happier than I had known to be possible. Have a wonderful weekend.


All photos by Emilia Jane Photography

Is There A Good Way To Buy A Bathing Suit, Even If You’re Over-50 Looking For A Bikini, Maybe?

Last December, I tried to buy a new swimsuit. I failed. Even the shop at the Four Seasons Hualalai came up short. Now, as one of my suits has popped a veritable rage of threads,and I’m dreaming of The Carneros Inn, I’m going to try again.

Can Women Over 50, or Over 40 For That Matter, Wear A Bikini?

A slight detour. Have you noticed the Internetting of 50+ women in bikinis? Helen Mirren says she will never live this photo down. Allyson almost broke the internet when she posted a very decorous picture. But maybe we’ll get used to it. Jocelyn is a regular French person, from Tish’s description, and here she is in a bikini, no fuss no muss.

Grechen wore one, here, for the first time in her life. Comfortable, happy. So. yes, bikinis for anyone who wants them.

While (due to personal cultural discomfort) I do not plan to post a picture of yours truly in an itsy bitsy teeny weeny, I am likely to wear one. After years agonizing over the hint of imperfection in my thighs, I am now OK with belly dimples, rear wrinkles, and the flesh on them thar hills. What the heck. It’s the only body I’ve got and it likes the feeling of sun on skin.

Back to the practical.  The key thing is to know your requirements.

Before You Find A Bathing Suit You Have To Figure Out What You Want. For Me, That Means:

  • Modern, with an edge of fashion. Unfortunately, this rules out wonderful options like Land’s End and Athleta.
  • No tie fasteners. I don’t plan to untie my bathing suit unless it’s coming off, and I don’t want the suit itself to decide when that will happen.
  • Revealing decolletage, it’s all good.
  • No underwires. They hurt.
  • Hey! You bikinis! I’ve already decided to bare my aging belly. So, be a real bikini and let the sun touch as much of my skin as possible. No sleeves, no ruffles, no strap-happy structures.
  • However there’s no need for the world or the sun to see the actual cheeks of my rear end. Understood?
  • No neon (I’m too pale), no black (I’m too pale).
  • No crystals, no crab prints, no cheezburgers, no feathers. Yes, those appear to be real suits.
  • And I’m willing to spend money to find a suit I really, really like. Living in California, with a proclivity for vacations in Hawaii, it’s reasonable.

Bikini, or one-piece, either way, this time I tried Shopbop. They support login with Amazon Prime, free shipping and returns, etc. I ordered four options, two one-piece, two bikinis.

The Zimmermann Lucia Check, $185.


The Proenza Schouler One-Piece (similar) $325 reduced to $227,


The Zimmermann Gemma Triangle Bikini, $255.


And the Tory Burch Atelier, top $95 reduced to $66.50, bottom $95 reduced to $66.50.


Sigh. None of them worked. But I did uncover more requirements.

  • One pieces must have waist detail, or ruching somewhere. Loved the Zimmerman one-piece print, but it turned me into a blobby rectangle.
  • I like patterns with a named reference – plaid, toile, Keith Haring – as opposed to the abstract and wallpaperesque.
  • Triangle bikinis cups must sit in the exactly right spot, or you have to be able to move them. Not a whole lotta room for error.
  • Pale people do better in bright white than off-white.

And I ordered again, this time from Net-a-porter, the Lisa Marie Fernandez Jasmine Stretch Terry, $345.

Lisa Marie Fernandez Stretch Terry Bikini

You can’t tell from the front view, but it’s too “cheeky” by half. Nope.

 Why Is Bathing Suit Shopping So Hard For So Many?

Bathing suit shopping is so difficult because:

  • It’s tough to develop any expertise around infrequent activities.
  • Inventory in stores is seasonal (J. Crew doesn’t even have their suits in-store where I live) so if you miss the stocked window, you’ll be picking through mismatched and damaged returns.
  • Department store inventory is aimed at distinct demographic segments – you’re either a teenager or you appreciate serviceable vs. fashionable suits. I fully support your right to this sentiment.
  • Bad lighting and unyielding spandex, on top of decades of Photoshopped commercial images of our bodies, taint the try-on experience.
  • All of the above means we never get a chance to understand whether we’re doomed to settle or we just haven’t found the right brand/shape/print/color/suit yet.

You owe no particular swimming costume to society. But if you swim, and you like fashion, and you want your suit to, well, suit you, I highly recommend the bulk online ordering method. That, along with home mirrors, gives us the best chance at finding our Platonic ideal.

I was successful, in the end. Both Steven Alan and J. Crew offer bikinis from Araks. J.Crew sold out, Steven Alan had only one style, I went to the source. I’ll be wearing the Yanelis top, in the Fuchsia Engine Combo, $195.
and the Enil bottom, in Fuchsia. $105.
If you’re interested in the line, I wear a Large top, and a Small bottom. This Horace top offers more support, I’m thinking I’ll order that one in blue and black, if it’s available when I’m next in the market. They make one-pieces too. (BTW, I really like this inexpensive ruched one-piece from J.Crew. In navy.)

If you have similar tastes, here are a few more brands and retailers who offer modern, lightweight, and modest-enough swim suits.

  • Nu Swim
  • PilyQ
  • Varley
  • Charmosa (This last is a small local indie designer, from Brazil. Her suits have ties, sequins even, but one of her bikinis has lasted me, fitting all the while, for >10 years.)

See you poolside.  I probably will be eating a burger, probably won’t be wearing its commemorative print.



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Old MBAs Will Make Matrices Out Of Everything, Even The Process Of Learning Style

As you know, I’m in the process of learning about gardens and interiors what I knew about clothes. So I spend a lot of time studying, on the Internet.

Information abounds. However, with several decades of adulthood and opinions under my belt, I work at keeping my mind open to new ideas and methodologies. I always find a good taxonomy prevents bias. Don’t you?

I now envision style education across these two axes:

  • Inspiration: Everything beautiful, totally your taste, who cares if it’s impossible!
  • Education: Valuable skills, techniques, and principles, no matter whether you share the tastes of the imparter or not.

Business school ahoy!

I made a matrix, using Photoshop gradients, as the Internet taught me. Luckily I know I’m a dope about PS, so I pay the tutorials all due respect.


In old school business school tradition, the matrix generates four quadrants, and categories. Let’s review!

  • High Inspiration, Low Education: Eye Candy. Wow that 13th century French manor is gorgeous, no I’m not going to replace my ranch house with yellow sandstone any time soon.
  • High Education, Low Inspiration: Lessons. Detailed, well-thought-out instructions on how to paint a bookcase, from someone who wants to match the colors of their ruffled valance to a mound of teddy bears.
  • Low Inspiration, Low Education: Black Hole. Run away! The Internet abounds in this kind of stuff, ugly stupid directions on how to design ugly stupid spaces. Clickbait. The price of all that free good information.
  • High Inspiration, High Education: Flow. Almost impossible to find, in my case, and maybe in yours. Very little content focuses on how precisely to decorate a 1950’s ranch house in a slightly bohemian but Sturdy High WASP vein, or how to plant a disciplined garden of California natives. Sort of like looking for another Over-50 Polished Tomboy blog.

Good learning demands the capacity to absorb way more than you are ever going to use.

And here are some site examples in the quadrants, for my particular tastes. Yours, of course, will vary. You guys recommended many of these links, by the way, thank you.

  • Eye Candy: These sites train the eye, and help uncover universal principles. Beautiful, cool, hip even if you’re unlikely to wear that, paint your room that color, or build a parterre. And never say never.
    • Faux Fuchsia (so vivid, so amusing)
    • Frock Philosophy (ladylike, such understanding of color)
    • Grechen’s Closet (I tried to dress like her, can’t, love how she has developed a style that is so uniquely hers)
    • Accidental Icon (the hair! the sunglasses! the attitude!)
    • Door 16 (she does that wooden floor sparse furnishings thing so well)
    • Manhattan Nest (ripping up floors with the best of them. My gosh but that man has a good eye.)
    • ABCD Design (a gorgeous old stone house on the East Coast with a barn)
    • My Scandinavian Home (just what it says. White-washed room upon white-washed room. Learning the art of sparse.)
    • Mrs. Blandings (the Givenchy of personal interior blogs. She paints her own walls.)
    • Down to Earth (quite different, this one. An Australian women who lives off the land, the inspiration is all about a simple home existence, no focus on beauty at all)
    • And, of course, Pinterest – My two favorite interior pinners are Susan Daniel and cevd.
  • Lessons: Not your taste or geography – Some of the most useful sites I know are written by people whose taste differs widely from my own. These women wear brighter clothes, design more formal gardens, and use a lot of yellow. And, they know their stuff.
    • Imogen Lamport at Inside Out Style (the science of clothing that suits you)
    • Tara Dillard (gardens with gravel and lessons on design)
    • Maria Killam (houses with vivid pastels, a disciplined approach to choosing paint colors)
    • Emily Henderson (all kinds of on-trend interior styling and really useful design tips)
  • Flow:
    • Allyson at That’s Not My Age (an over-50 style blogger also fond of tomboy gear but the real deal)
    • Chronica Domus (writing about a very civilized lifestyle, her post on lemons has been good for my cutting boards)
    • Dirt Simple (The most beautiful garden blog I’ve found. Although she’s in Michigan, her container plantings can teach anyone anywhere how to do good pots.)
  • Black Hole: Would I subject you to a list of horrible sites? Nope.


Of course, all this theory and deconstruction reveals nothing in and of itself. I use it here, as in the rest of life, as a way to keep my own prejudices and preconceptions at bay, to remind myself to always test assumptions before coming to an answer.

The Hands Of Time, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:05am

I love mornings. So simple and happy.

Wake up, make tea, make toast, sit down, browse the Internet. I’m not easily simple, the drive to analyze is strong. But maybe complexity sleeps in.

Saturday mornings I do all the above, but also, write a blog post. Imagined, drafted, written, edited, in the time between whenever I start my second cup of tea and noon. Them’s the rules I made.

This morning, however, I sat down to write and realized that my hands hurt. Pain complicates. I imagine some of you out there are in pain and I want to tell you I am so, so sorry. I hope you get better soon.

High WASPs don’t believe in complaining. They barely believe in aspirin. I’m not a good fighter, but the High WASP training taught me to endure. Sometimes for no reason. Sometimes even when enduring made a solution impossible.

This morning, hands hurting, I went to read my Twitter feed. Avoiding pain, I suppose. Lo and behold, Flat Rock Creek Notebook, who occasionally comments here, had posted a link with pointers about hand health for needlepoint. Let’s say writing is my needlepoint. Fingers required.

I did a few of the exercises, and feel better already. Also like kind of a dope for all those years I gritted my teeth and carried on. How one learns the complicated stuff and not the easy I do not know.

Old dog, new tricks — especially simple ones.

Thank you, universe. Have a wonderful weekend, all.


Neiman Marcus 40% Sale On The Above And Beyond

Pamela Rowland Evening Gown


A Neiman Marcus sale may not be the right place for savvy bargains on classic basics.


But it sure as heck yields some over-the-top, special occasion splendors like this Pamela Rowland evening dress. All silk, even the lining. Reduced from $3990 to $1596. I swear I’d love to wear that to something. Someone might like Donna Karan’s hooded jersey tunic, and wear it to everything, as a signature. And anyone might want a good trench.

Yes, there’s a classic basic or two because, probably, someone Sturdy couldn’t help themselves.

What sold out is sometimes the most interesting part of the whole shebang.