After reading a post on Already Pretty about whether style is an art or science, I was intriguied by a comment of Kristophine’s, and asked her to write me a post from the perspective of an actual scientist – I hope you find it interesting a perspective as I do!
How To Shop Like a Scientist by Kristophine
I am a geek. A big, raging, Star Trek-loving, Asimov-reading, robot-hugging geek. This may have caused or resulted from or in some other way been related to my inability as a teenager to dress myself. I constantly wore clothing that was nowhere near my size. For me, the biggest problem was pants: I wore pants of whatever size I encountered, with no thought for fit. I didn’t know how they were supposed to fit. I assumed that if they didn’t fall off or give me wedgies, that was good enough. I bitterly resented fashionable girls who always looked put-together. It was, from my perspective, an unbridgeable divide.
The revelation came at Macy’s in San Francisco. I tried on a pair of pants in the summer after my senior year of high school. They were a radically different size than anything in my wardrobe, and they fit better than any pants I’d ever worn before.
The next few years involved a process of slowly refining and winnowing—figuring out what in my closet worked for me, and what didn’t. During the same period of time, I went from believing that I was hopeless at math and science to discovering that I could, and would, totally rock at both of them. Science wasn’t some scary monolithic institution run by stern men in white coats, squinting at test tubes and standing by machines that go beep. Science was, in fact, a vital part of many of the fields I studied, from the obvious (Chemistry and Biology) to the less so (Linguistics and Psychology). Science has applications in every aspect of our lives. And, as I started to become a better and better scientist, I also began to apply the things I learned in science classes to my clothing choices. Not in the sense of color wheels, etc.—the ladies at Academichic do a fine job of that—but in a more basic sense.
So what is science, if it’s not all about men running cute little white mice through mazes? Science is a process. You probably had to hear about it in seventh grade: theory, hypothesis, test, lather, rinse, repeat as needed. You start with a theory—a way that you think things are, based on your previous experience. You create a hypothesis, which must be falsifiable: you must be able to demonstrate, with your testing, if you are wrong. (Freud, as great as he was, didn’t like falsifiable hypotheses—which is a big part of why modern psychologists aren’t required to read him.) You conduct a test. Then, based on the results of that test, you’ve gathered evidence that is confirmatory, disconfirmatory, or inconclusive. (You have never, ever, ever proved something. “Proved” doesn’t happen in science. You can provide decades of confirmatory evidence, you can have a theory that you would literally bet your life on, but you do not prove things. Ever. It’s a one-word fallacy.)
It’s the process behind most of the medications, plastics, and electronics on the market today. It’s the process that made your television, your microwave, your cellphone, and your vaccination against polio and smallpox possible. It’s what keeps women from dying of childbed fever, and it’s how we made polyester.
And you can make this process work for you.
1. Set up your expectations for a piece of clothing.
In science, this is where you come up with “operational definitions.” As an example, let’s say I want to study mating behaviors in human beings. (Always a popular field!) The first thing I’d have to do is define what I mean by “mating behaviors.” Is giving somebody your phone number a mating behavior? Or do I only want to count smooches? You wouldn’t respect a scientist if their operational definitions were muddy; you would know, intuitively, that the muddier the definition, the more room there is for fudging the unvarnished truth. Don’t expect less from yourself. Clearly define what you want an article of clothing to do for you.
2. Define your budget.
If you think scientists don’t work on a budget, you’ve been watching too much Eureka. (Hah! Just kidding. There’s no such thing as too much Eureka.) We know, when we go to write a grant application, that we’d better have a very good argument as to why we should get that money, and not Sally in Genetics down the hall. You should be able to make the same kind of argument. How much money do you have, total? How big a share of that money is this purchase? If you want to buy a shirt, why that shirt and not some other shirt? Why not a skirt? Do you need that shirt? Why? Is it for your job? Do you have an upcoming event? How many times do you envision wearing it? Is it a durable fabric? Grant committees like proposals that give them the biggest bang for their buck—multi-use equipment, for example—and so should you.
So, from steps 1 and 2, you know you want a such-and-such, and you know about what you’re prepared to spend for it. Before you look at merchandise, you already have a long history with clothing. You’ve worn lots of it. You’ve probably liked at least some of it. You have, whether you know it or not, a theory about what looks good on you, and as you browse, you’ll look more closely at pieces that catch your eye. Often, it will be because these pieces resemble others that you know you like, whether in color or cut. You may find yourself gravitating toward something unusual for you. Don’t worry so much, at this stage, where the appeal is coming from. Your brain has a lot of things to process at any given time, and it may not feel like giving you a flashing neon explanation of what it is about that dress that it thinks is nice. Just trust yourself, try it on, and freak out as needed.
There’s only way to test whether a piece of clothing will look good on you: try it on. Apply your operational definitions here. And do it stringently. You want it to fill a gap. Does it do that? Be completely honest with yourself. If you went in looking for a navy pencil skirt and this is a gray wool jumper, you do not need it—definitely not right now. You want it to look good on you. You should already have defined “look good,” and you should have that definition somewhere in mind while you look at yourself. Does it fit over your breasts? It should be a smooth line: no gaps or bagging between buttons, no pulling or straining, no (dare I say it?) double-boobing. What about your waist? You probably have one. Does this garment make a realistic presentation of it? Again, there should be no straining, but there should also be no tent-like hanging. Your body is awesome. Don’t punish yourself for your perceived flaws by burying yourself in unflattering fabric.
Don’t talk yourself into buying something that doesn’t fit, no matter how great the fabric is or how close it is to what you kind of almost wanted. If you’re standing in front of the mirror fidgeting with seams and tugging at it for more than about thirty seconds, this is not the article of clothing you were hoping for. Dump it.
Scientists have to do this all the time—we have to relinquish a theory that was beautiful and concise, a theory that we loved, because the evidence just doesn’t support it. When I came to grips with that, I got a lot better at leaving behind clothing that I loved but that just didn’t fit me right. And beware the instinct to get something with the belief that you’ll mend it later. Unless you can tell me in three seconds where your needle and thread is, whether you have the right color of thread, and what your plan of attack is, that piece of clothing is going to languish in a guilty, unloved heap. Possibly for years.
5. Modify your theory, if necessary.
So maybe that shade of mustard-yellow that the magazines are hawking this season doesn’t work for you. Well, you learned something, and all it cost you was the time to try it on, and maybe a little bit of your dignity. Laugh and move on.
The beauty of science is that, in the end, because it is unsparing and uncompromising, it slowly uncovers more and more of the truth. You can harness that power in your clothing decisions if, and only if, you are willing to be uncompromising with yourself. You need to be able to say, and stick to, the mantra, “I already have clothing with which to cover myself. I want clothing that I love.”
Another beautiful thing is that you can apply these same concepts, this same demand for stringent restrictions, to the other areas of your wardrobe. You can use this to decide what to get rid of. Try things on. Look at them. Consider not only your unvarnished emotional reaction to them, but also the way that they interact with all the other pieces in your wardrobe. Periodically have a dress-up day where you try on new acquisitions with old favorites, and include some combinations that seem totally off-the-wall. They may not work, but you’ll be learning. It’s worth mentioning that every new clothing acquisition exponentially, not linearly, increases your outfit options. (I would blather about factorials and draw a “wardrobe web,” but I think you get the point.) I don’t say they’ll all be good options, but you won’t know until you try.
Anybody can be a scientist—all it takes is the process.
Check out Kristophine’s blog Science Fiction Style.