Writer or Scientist?
January 1, 2010 6:32 PM   Subscribe

How could a lady achieve a super classy "writer in the Victorian era, who may also be a scientist" look, usually reserved for men? I've tried, and I usually end up in business wear territory or something.

Specs: I am 20/F, 5'2 and about 130lb.—not exactly a fashion friendly demographic.
I really like sweaters, vests, blazers, and high-waisted pants/skirts. I pass the men's section all the time and find all these great things (cardigans and sweater vests and whatever else men wear when they are smoking a pipe with their pet cat and classical music on etc.)
However, whenever I try to find clothes I like, either I can only find really "young" fashions (what most 20 year olds wear, but I naturally dress like an old woman and I don't really feel like being "hip" again), or I look like I am going to the office, or I look like a schoolteacher...all those things have their place, but not really what I'm going for.

I am influenced by a few things, but how can I translate this into ladies' wear? I know a lot of those links just happen to be from Victoria's Secret, but I am not looking for anything sexy (no cleavage, I am so modest). I am not looking for anything too masculine either; I just would like to know how this vague fashion could possibly cross over sensibly. What should I look for? Where should I shop? I live in a pretty small southern city—we have our mall (Gap, Macy's, JC Penney, Sears, Charlotte Russe, Wet Seal, Hollister, etc.), we have little shops mostly reserved for 50 year old women (yellow capris are popular here). We have NO thrift stores; it's a travesty—we only have Goodwill, and I've checked, there is absolutely nothing to be found there but oversized clothes from the 90s (I don't know who's been donating lately!)

Anonymous because I am embarrassed of my bad fashion sense.
posted by anonymous to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (29 answers total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
You could try this for inspiration and this and this for clothes.
posted by fire&wings at 6:44 PM on January 1, 2010

The J. Peterman catalog is a good source for wonderful steampunky clothes, which sounds like what you're going for in essence--a kind of Julianne Moore-in-The Hours-meets-Meryl Streep-in-Out of Africa, yes?

Victorian Trading Company is also a resource.

The Territory Ahead's Isabella Bird line has some fun things, as does Soft Surroundings.

Find a good tailor, and it will make all the difference--wearing Victorian and Edwardian-influenced fashions absolutely requires that your clothes be tailored to fit. Otherwise you'll look boxy and frumpy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:46 PM on January 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

If you see some guy's stuff that you like - why not bring it to a tailor/alterator and have it customized for you?
posted by porpoise at 6:47 PM on January 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am female, similar height and proportions to you (except I have a "ghetto booty"). My personal "uniform" is a white woman's "fitted" button-up shirt from Brooks Brothers, black straight-leg women's pants from Brooks Brothers, a black vest, a black skinny tie with some purple in it, and a black bowler hat. The tie goes directly around my neck since the collar of the shirt is too wide and dips too low otherwise, plus it helps make it less of a valet-parker look and more casual. I also leave the shirt untucked just because it looks better with my figure, and it keeps it from looking too formal. That being said, it still has an aire of formality about it and is quite masculine. No cleavage is visible with the tie, unless you happen to have huge boobs or something; I'm a B cup.

Sometimes I'll skip the vest, wear a black shirt from Brooks Brothers instead, and a very colorful tie. I'm working on getting some more variations on this; one look I particularly like is a button-up shirt with a tie that's the same color and a black blazer. I'm picky about blazers though, because most are too bulky or too hot when they're on. For the particular look you want, a blazer might be essential. I'd say I have the "writer" aspect but not so much the "scientist." I had one person assume I was an Indie musician as well.

Suspenders are another nice accessory, should you forgo the vest or blazer. With or without tie; doesn't matter.

I like Brooks Brothers because they have "no iron" stuff and it really works, plus the shirts fit well and are well-constructed. If it's out of your price range, see if you have an outlet near you; I only shop at the outlet and I get a lot of stuff half-price or less.

I probably don't need to tell you this, but be prepared for people to assume you're a lesbian. This doesn't bother me in the least, and in fact it's why I do it -- I dislike male attention because they rarely care that I'm married when they hassle me, plus I'm bisexual so I don't find it odd or threatening for women to hit on me. As far as homophobia goes, I've yet to have anyone be a jerk to me about it really, although I live in LA. Mostly I get a lot of compliments from people, men and women, about how they like my clothes/style.
posted by Nattie at 6:57 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry that you don't have good thrift stores near you!

Etsy is perfect for finding unique vintage pieces. Try searching for Victorian or Edwardian or a particular item you want (woman's vest, monocle, etc.).

Also, from your question it sounds like you have a great fashion sense so please don't feel ashamed!
posted by mmmbacon at 6:59 PM on January 1, 2010

Another thing: if you tuck your shirts in, one way to counteract the formality is to have an outlandishly colored belt, like bright red or bright orange or something.
posted by Nattie at 6:59 PM on January 1, 2010

To put it another way, the way you stay out of "business wear" or formal territory is accessories -- hats, ties, belts, suspenders, at least some in vibrant colors -- and wearing the rest of it a bit rakishly.
posted by Nattie at 7:02 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Vague: nice, structured, menswear-inspired stuff as suggested above. But with a few extravagant Victorian or Edwardian accessories: cameos? chokers? fancy boots?

Ooh, scarves! And a monocle. Or at least a monocle-inspired pendant or something.
posted by Neofelis at 7:02 PM on January 1, 2010

Look for inspiration in old photos and paintings to get an eye for how to put things together and what proportions will work. Its going to take some experimentation on your behalf to find a combination of what you like, what fits and what's flattering to your body shape. There's plenty of people out there into the same look (like people who go on tweed rides) so I don't agree that its so difficult to put together but it will take time and effort. The way to turn those men's looks into "ladies' wear" is changing up the proportions and making it fit your body.

The fact that there's no thrift stores nearby is unfortunate, as there's plenty of men's wool pants, vest and jackets that you could work from. Maybe you need to take a road trip. Older, stodgy brands (think New England preppy) can have the stuff you're looking for but it gets pricey.

I buy men's clothes all the time. The key is to find them in smaller sizes and possibly get them tailored. I went as far as to go through almost an entire fashion design course to learn how to draft patterns to make the clothes that I couldn't find in the store—can you sew? I think that the look that you like is going to rely a lot on proportions and a really well-tailored fit so you might have to invest in a good tailor or learn how to make alterations to the things you find.

With that "business wear" photo you linked to... imagine changing the shirt out with something that's more geometric, something with color or stripes. Personally, I think the jacket is too long and looks a bit matronly or old for someone your age.

On preview—Nattie, I get the lesbian thing a lot too for some reason and people have accused me of cross dressing which I found kind of amusing.
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:07 PM on January 1, 2010

A few people have suggested that you have some menswear tailored to fit you, which is probably a good idea. You might go one step farther and have things tailor made. The kind of things you want to acquire aren't going to go out style, so you'll be able to wear them until they wear out, which means you'll get years of wear in return for your investment.

You can keep your look feminine by adding feminine accessories to your menswear-inspired clothes; brooches, beautiful scarves, gloves, hats, great shoes. I second the cameos, though that might be because I just love cameos myself.;-)

For some more fashion inspiration you might look to Oscar Wilde, who dressed in beautiful menswear, or Marlene Dietrich and k.d. lang, who are the two women I can think of who made/make menswear work for them.

And I don't think you sound like you have bad fashion sense. Your taste is maybe a little eccentric, but charmingly so.
posted by orange swan at 7:25 PM on January 1, 2010

Here is some stuff you might like. I have kind of goofy taste so if this stuff is leaning more steampunk than scientist I apologize. Keep in mind most Etsy sellers welcome custom orders.


long bustled skirt you can wear at the waist
hooded dress
tiny boob-flattering vest
goorin bros makes incredible hats
femme blouses for wearing under masculine jackets

Check out Fashion for Nerds. Audi works for a very geeky company where people generally wear t-shirts and jeans and tolerate her delightfully unusual wardrobe with bewilderment or amusement. Even if you don't think you want to look exactly like her, she gives good shopping advice and brands to look for.

You can buy clothing online, you know! Get to know your actual measurements, which will make shopping for clothing online a lot easier, especially for vintage.

It sounds like you'd really like John Fluevog shoes. They're expensive but very eye-catching and distinctive and could go a long way toward defining a look.

A nice fitted vest that flatters your natural waist is a must, too, I think. High waisted wool skirts (if the southern town you live in it not too hot). A black cape in a cut that's more little red riding hood than phantom of the opera. Hats are some of the best menswear accessories because they fit everyone, no matter their body shape; same with bowties and cufflinks.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:41 PM on January 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Check out Fashion for Nerds. Tons of awesome outfits, and general principles you can adapt to things you already own. Sometimes the actual things she's wearing are pricey, but if you read her more for ideas, you won't need a ton of cash to create similar looks.
posted by donnagirl at 7:47 PM on January 1, 2010

Wow, beaten by a banana.
posted by donnagirl at 7:48 PM on January 1, 2010

Yes, I was going to mention having things custom-made. I don't know if your budget would support it, but any small Southern town will have a really skilled seamstress or two kicking about. Not just someone who does alterations, but someone who sews from patterns and can draw up patterns from sketches.
posted by clerestory at 7:53 PM on January 1, 2010

Sidhedevil beat me to the J. Peterman recommendation. Seriously, look at these pants! (I have that pair, and they are just as awesome as advertised.) Maybe with this sweater. The clothes might seem a little expensive, but I can vouch for them being extremely well made, and made with good material. Their clothes last, and since the styles step outside the trendy, they are clothes you will want to wear for years instead of a single season. And, their customer service is quite good.
posted by Houstonian at 8:11 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Maybe some answers from this thread will help.

Ebay might be a source.
posted by jgirl at 8:16 PM on January 1, 2010

Gloves. Long gloves, preferably made of lace and/or animals
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:04 PM on January 1, 2010

What about leafing through Sydney Padua's Lovelace and Babbage comics? For example.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:23 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Equestrian wear, i.e., riding wear (not cowboy clothes) might work. I am very fond of the look of walking skirts. I know the style you are looking for, and I think it is wonderful, you do want to avoid looking silly though. I think kilt-style skirts are nice too.
posted by fifilaru at 9:32 PM on January 1, 2010

Google "Elegant Gothic Aristocrat" for lots of Japanese fashion goodness...you should be able to order most of this online, but in any event it's good for inspiration!
posted by aquafortis at 10:19 PM on January 1, 2010

You need this coat. Look at it from the back. That's all girl, and 35% scientist, 65% writer.
posted by Sallyfur at 12:09 AM on January 2, 2010

Keep an eye out in H&M for women's tailored suits. I have a vest from there- similar to this- that was only about $40 and it's immensely flattering. Pair it with a button-up shirt and some sort of neck thing.

As for neck things, I like a plain-coloured, richly textured men's necktie, either outside the collar as usual... or inside it, tied the usual way but against the skin, under the collar, and then tucked down into the shirt. I mean tied like this, but with the length of the tie hidden inside the shirt. Shirt can be buttoned to about the 2nd from the top. This will give the same kind of effect as a Darwin cravat, but with less bulk and a flattering vertical line.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:49 AM on January 2, 2010

My undergrad Ancient Greek teacher dressed like she fell into a wormhole sometime around 1890. It was pretty badass, and she did it with all generic modern clothing. Her daily uniform was:

-ankle- or floor-length skirt, patterned or plain. I think wool tartan ones are the most awesome, but ymmv.
-long-sleeved blouse, either menswear-style or a little lacy (tucked in, obviously)
-(most important) a brooch at the neck

Sometimes she'd talk about Patriots games and I'd be all, "Silly time traveling professor, how do you know about modern sports?"
posted by oinopaponton at 7:43 AM on January 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you like the style generally and want to put together some outfits that are really feminine but not slutty I offer up this blog for inspiration. She often lists where each piece is from but you'll find its a mix of thrift store, Etsy and US mainstream brands. She obviously puts a lot of time into putting her looks together.
posted by Bunglegirl at 9:47 AM on January 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

One more great fashion blogger is the extremely beautiful and very unique Keiko Lynn:
Cute spats-boots and floppy neck bow
Beautiful blouse Keiko re-made from a tuxedo shirt
Shortened vintage skirt + booties- imagine that skirt with a tailored, prim blouse tucked in!
Gorgeous ruffly coat
Yellow and blue
Band-edged coat and bowtie!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:25 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't have any real advice since I'm not a girl and not into fashion -- but one thing; don't be ashamed about your fashion sense, I for one, would love more girls to pick up the styles you're looking for instead of what Vogue says is fashion.
posted by wolfr at 1:58 PM on January 2, 2010

inspiration - You will find a lot of individual looks here that can fit your description. Agreed with wolfr above, you have such a strong foundation for the type of look you want, it's wonderful. This is the way most designers start a collection each season......a muse/ an era....... say for example Amelia Earhart or Katharine Hepburn. I'm also liking Edna St Vincent Millay, she was very petite & quite radical for her day. Looks like some great resources listed above. The key to your look will be to buy a few key well made pieces. One pair of great cinched at the waist flared pants, a great fit skirt and a fitted jacket. You most likely will have to get these tailored. As you are petite you will need to draw attention to your waist. No long jkts.......Long cardigans are every where right now with femme blouses, but you will need a tie or belt so as to look flattering for your frame. Good luck with your project, it sounds like a lot of fun. Just keep in mind that you should never look or feel like you are 'in costume' & all will work well. You also might like checking out the Satorialist, lots of individual looks, to me it kinda celebrates difference.
posted by sequin at 8:46 PM on January 2, 2010

you want to dress like John Cale and Mark E Smith? Don't apologize for that! :)

Have you tried looking on eBay (and Etsy vintage) for vintage menswear, brands like Pringle of Scotland, maybe some Brooks Brothers come to mind, or just searching terms like "argyle" in the vintage categories? And searching for Victorian style blouses, if you like that - the 70's had a lot of Victorian/Edwardian inspired looks, Gunne Sax ruffle blouses in particular. When buying, take the measurements of one of your own pieces of clothing that fits and compare, so you'll know if the item you want to buy will fit. And don't buy vintage that you suspect is a tad too small, it will always turn out be too small! (I'd caution against splashing out a lot of money on vintage suits and trousers though because you never know if it's good quality and fit can be real tricky.. but maybe try buying a blazer that's affordable and seeing if you can have it tailored a bit, if necessary.) I can't emphasize fit enough.

Another trick is to check for shirts, blazers, and sweaters in larger sizes in the boys' department of the normal stores in the mall, that way you get the menswear colors and styles, but they should fit you and are cheaper too. Also, does your town have an army surplus store.. or check them online.. for pea coats, sweaters.. the online stores seem to get military surplus from all over the world & have some old items too, just look around, you never know what kind of interesting stuff you'll find.. like this: Swiss Military surplus Bread Bag. (I have no idea how big it is but it looks wicked cool and is super cheap!)

check Hollister Hovey's blog for some style inspiration on the intrepid Victorian antiquarian explorer front, and some brands to look for..
posted by citron at 3:20 AM on January 3, 2010

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