Archive | July, 2011

Discovering the Upscale T-shirt

25 Jul

I’ve been shopping at Target, Gap, and Old Navy for t-shirts for as long as I can remember. Why not – they are conveniently located, cheap, and when I see a color in a style that I like, I don’t think too hard about buying it. I wear it to bed, to the gym, and around town. It’s a no-brainer wardrobe item in the morning – paired with jeans and a hoodie or cardigan, it makes getting dressed effortless.

gap favorite tshirt

Gap's Favorite T-shirt is an economical and reliable layering piece. Yawn.

So what’s the problem? Well, the plain t-shirt is a bit like eating popcorn for lunch. It’s not that it’s bad for you, but if consumed in excess, it doesn’t leave room for more satisfying options. That’s how I recently found myself in a t-shirt fashion rut.

Seeking inspiration, I recently wandered into a boutique in downtown Palo Alto, enigmatically named GV, which keeps irregular store hours but carries a wonderfully edited selection of fashionable clothes sourced mostly from Paris and LA. Golrukh, the store’s owner and sole staffer, prides herself on scouring the fashion trade shows to bring her clients the freshest looks every season.  The store has the intimate feel of a Parisian clothing atelier – dimly lit, with just a little bit of this and that, from casual to evening wear, complete with a tasteful display of high-end underwear. The salesperson is tactful and attentive. Although I enjoyed looking at myself in the mirror wearing $180 haute couture jeans, strategically ripped and distressed, I passed on them after remembering that just about every pair of jeans I own are already stained or otherwise compromised by the demands of motherhood. After a few suggestions from Golrukh, though, I did fall in love with an $80 long sleeve cotton tunic by Nation Ltd.

nation ltd white tunic

In search of a more stylish alternative to t-shirt dressing, I paid $80 for a comfy, well-cut cotton tunic.

The irony of paying $80 for a t-shirt, after I had come into the store looking for a t-shirt alternative, does not escape me. So what gives? Well, these shirts have several upgrades from the basic model:

Feel: the light, gauzy all-cotton fabric is welcoming from the moment I put it on – it feels like something I could live in around the clock (although I don’t, to preserve its life span).

Cut: this top sits snugly below the hip, allowing ease of movement without looking baggy. The neckline is generous enough to flatter the neck and collarbone without being too baggy. It can be worn loose or belted.

Texture: the “burnout” semi-sheer fabric feels airy and feminine, and has more visual depth than solid cotton.

Color: I sprung for the shirt in white, as well as a shade of regal turquoise that makes my skin glow.

Golrukh is a great sales person. When she saw my hesitation with the price tag, she pointed out that a lot of busy moms choose these tops because “it’s the shirt you’ll wear day after day”. So far, she has been right – I reach for it every chance I get, especially the one in turquoise. (I am still afraid to wear white for anything but occasions that exclude children, but at least I know I have at least one clean white shirt in the closet when such an occasion arises.)

Golrukh also left me with a valuable bit of advice, worth passing along: even though these shirts are more expensive than the stuff you normally wear, she says, “Don’t save them for a special occasion. Wear them. Don’t worry if they cost a little more. Just wear them.” I thought about that, and decided to agree with her – it does not make sense to buy clothes you love, only to put them away in the closet waiting for that special occasion that happens all too rarely. So I decided to treat myself to a little everyday luxury in the form of an $80 t-shirt.

And has the theory proven out, do my $80 t-shirt days feel a little more special? Was it worth blowing my month’s clothing budget in a single shot? In a small way, yes – on my fancy t-shirt days, I pause to think about what shoes or pants to pair with the top, rather than picking up yesterday’s pants off the floor like a college student. The opportunity to wear a belt opens up fun possibilities as well. I treat my $80 t-shirt with extra love – I don’t put it in the dryer, and I try to hang it instead of stuffing it on the shelf with my other low-brow t-shirts. It feels good to wear something that has been well taken care of.

Despite all this devotion, it’s showing signs of wear – perhaps because the material is less beefy than a standard t-shirt, and perhaps because designers, like the Maytag man, don’t want their wares to last forever, to bring you back to the store to buy some more. And because the glow is fading, this love affair has a finite life span, limited by the power of the shirt to continue looking fabulous in the face of a full toddler assault. I am glad I turned the flirtation in the dressing room to a full-fledged fling, but it’s not going to last. When the sleeve finally snags on a tree branch, or my lap lands a stain that just won’t budge, the magic will be gone, and I will return to my stack of tried and true Target t-shirts. I will fondly remember my days with the $80 t-shirt, but when it’s time to update my wardrobe again, I’ll check Target and Gap first – chances are, a few seasons from now, they’ll have a pretty darn good knock-off.

Momma, let’s go swimming!

11 Jul

Summer has been my favorite season as long as I can remember – whether it’s for long days with nothing to do, getting wet, or frequent ice cream breaks.  Unfortunately, anyone who puts on their bathing suit after giving birth to a baby will have a reminder of their pregnancy belly staring back at them in the mirror. It’s been six summers since the birth of my first baby, but even though I am happy with my overall weight and fitness level, my fanny still won’t fit into my old bikini bottom.  After five years of searching, though, I think I’ve finally arrived at a reasonable middle ground between showing too much skin and covering up with a sack.

For the first summer post-baby, I got away with wearing my $25 maternity bathing suit from Target- I was just a month or two postpartum and the thought of going bathing suit shopping while breastfeeding seemed very daunting indeed. (It was a great value – I’ll secretly admit that I still wear the bottoms sometimes.)

maternity swimwear by Target

Two summers after giving birth, I was still wearing maternity swimwear to the pool with my toddler.

The following summer, I found myself reaching for my maternity swimsuit, even though my little darling was now walking and talking. I realized it was time to explore some age-appropriate bathing suit styles (which, incidentally, I would not be caught dead in my younger days, when I was hip and hanging out on the beach with my friends).  I tossed my pride aside in an effort to conquer my largest figure challenges – more ample hips and a wider, less firm midsection. I tried a one-piece bathing suit at Lands End which looked cute on the model – it had some shirring and pattern to help define the waistline – however, the bathing suit fit so tightly that it has ended up abandoned on the bottom of the swimwear drawer.  I think my problem may be my long torso, but there’s nothing like trying to squeeze into a bathing suit to make me feel deflated even before stepping foot outdoors.

Lands End One piece

Lands End offers many figure-friendly styles for post-baby bodies. Sadly, I couldn't make the fit work for me.

I also started getting catalogs from Athleta, an activewear company with a broad selection of swimwear. Their models are toned and muscular and look like they’re putting their swimwear to the test- so I finally sprung for a two-piece and swim skirt, on sale. (It’s always easier for me to take a fashion risk when the cost of entry is lower.)

Altheta's Swim Skirt provides extra coverage for modesty and ease of movement

Much to my surprise, the swim skirt was cute and didn’t make me feel like I was headed to the geriatric water walking class at the YMCA. Not that I don’t love active grandmas – I’m just not ready to be counted among them.

Now that my hips were covered, I still had my top half to contend with. (I’m going to leave aside the topic of my sinking bust for now – I think that deserves its own post on another day when I’ve had a bit more to drink with dinner.)  So there I was, looking for some extra coverage for my belly. As someone who spent their childhood summers at the beach, wearing a bikini felt very natural. However, the woman looking back at me in the mirror didn’t correspond to my self-image, which was formed when I was buying junior size clothes. And that’s how I came to love the tankini.

Carve Designs tankini

The tankini was a great compromise for my desire to wear a two-piece with the reality of a post-baby figure.

The tankini is a two-piece bathing suit with a long tank top that skims or covers the midsection. Because the pieces are often sold separately, it’s easy to fit a post-baby body. (For example, my first tankini purchase consisted of a size Small top and a size Medium bottom.) The coverage is reassuring, but it’s still more youthful and fun than that one-piece with a tummy tamer which makes me feel like an old person.

My other genius swimwear discovery – swim shorts – happened quite by accident. It’s not a secret among women who surf, paddle or play beach volleyball – but I’m hardly living the life of those Altheta models! (Though it does look nice. Surf in the morning, bike downtown for an organic salad for lunch, a centering yoga session in the afternoon.)

Athleta Model

Even though I don't live the life on an Athleta model, it's nice to know they design clothes for an active lifestyle.

Before kids, my husband and I liked to go snorkeling in tropical places. After coming home with a sunburned rear end one too many times, I finally purchased a pair of swim shorts to protect myself from the sun.  I generally reserved them for long days in the tropics, but one day at home while I was headed out to the pool with my toddler, I realized that I had – um – not made myself presentable for bikini bottoms so I threw on the swim shorts over my bathing suit.  Instant freedom! I could move and bend easily while carrying a baby and our loads of towels and pool gear, and although it wasn’t a huge fashion statement, the board shorts style had its own casual surfer-inspired relaxed cool.

I didn’t rush out to buy more swim shorts – instead, I got back on a regular exercise routine, determined to maybe fit into my old bathing suits before too long. Then I got pregnant again, delivered a second child, and continued to work out twice a week until I got back to a pants size that I could live with.

One day, I ended up at a Patagonia store and discovered a swim short that is now my staple swim wardrobe item – the Meridian Board Short. It’s stretchy, flattering, easy to get on and off, and very functional. The length is perfect, providing enough coverage while keeping a feminine silhouette. It dries quickly and is wearing great, it still looks like new one busy swim season later.

Patagonia Meridian Board Shorts

You don't have to be a surfer to wear these shorts - and they look cute in or out of the water.

I liked my Patagonia swim short so much, I went back to Title Nine to see if they may have something similar. Their shorts don’t have the same fit, either too tight or too loose, but I did find a great swimsuit brand that seems to fit better than all the rest – Carve Designs. I bought a great tankini top in a fun pattern and comfortable cut on sale, which I have been living in all summer. I only wish Carve Designs were more widely available in retail stores so I could add to my collection. Meanwhile, I will have to continue to ogle their online offerings – which are a bit cumbersome to browse, but for well-fitting tops and bottoms, it may be worth the effort (and they offer a reasonable return policy).

Patagonia shortie boardie

Shorter and sweet - Patagonia's Shortie Boardie is another option for extra coverage in the water

Incidentally, after falling in love with the Patagonia swim shorts, I went by the store to see if I could pick up another color. They sent me two different pairs in the same size which fit as though they were a size smaller – a good reminder that even a high-quality clothing manufacturer like Patagonia has to contend with inconsistencies in production.  This year, I sprang for a shorter, patterned swim short which I was terrified would be too short, but ended up being surprisingly flattering as well: TheShortie Boardie.

I even sprang for a matching bikini (I recommend wearing bikini bottoms under swim shorts for comfort and modesty).

Patagonia's Kupala top

The Kupala top stays put thanks to adjustable ties that cross in the back.

Patagonia Sunamee Bottoms

Judging by the fact that more swim shorts are in the stores than ever before, it seems that I’m not the only woman (mother or not) who appreciates the benefits of swim shorts.

Now, when I’m putting on my swim clothes, I refuse to curse the figure flaws of my post-baby self.  Yes, I still tend to suck in my tummy when I look in the mirror, but only for  a second – then I get on with my day, and have fun in the pool with my kids. My bathing suit stands up to two active kids hanging on me in the pool, but years from now, we won’t remember what I was wearing – we’ll remember the carefree, bright and easy feeling of summer.

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