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Frumpy is Not a Fashion Statement

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Jodi Bryson: Are you sure you know the difference between casual and frumpy?

woman in a shopping mall

Before there were marketing villains assigning clever names to every last item you believe you need from the superstore shelf, sweat pants were the gear of gym-going men. Pants.

To sweat in. Sweats? Sweats! Men are so accurate about attire.

Now those elastic-waist friends women wish we could wear everywhere (to court would be nice) are still called sweats despite the fact that I don't know one person who actually perspires in her DKNY casual "sweats". And unfortunately, it's a slippery slide from casual to frumpy for many an overwhelmed mom. Is the difference between casual and frumpy a concrete fashion doctrine? Or a personal choice?

Most of the time I'm very much into fashion, and I spend plenty of dough on dresses and shoes and hot jeans. But I happen to wear Juicy Couture sweats every week, although never to the gym or yoga studio. Those flattering, boot cut darlings are my favorite casual outfitting for coffee meetings, breakfasts on sidewalk cafes, running errands, or even some varsity-league shopping.

Of course, one woman's casual is another woman's frumpy. "Take those OFF," a stylish friend recently barked at me. "Those pants are not clothes," It was a Saturday afternoon, we were walking with the double stroller to have sammys at a cool bistro, and I had on my beloved Juicy sweats with brown Chuck Taylor sneakers, a white tank, and a dark denim jacket. Cute! Hot mommy over here had the twins in matching daytime onesies, and she was fabulous in white Hudson jeans, buckled mustard yellow flats, and a cropped jacket.

"This, dear, is casual," she said, waving her hand up and down her outfit like Bob Barker was watching stage left. "You...are in pajamas."

Did she just call me a frump? Now it was serious. I took my reserach in the anti-frump direction, straight to Hollywood and Gwyneth Paltrow's site GOOP.

On her WEAR channel Gwyneth talks about how being frumpy for too long can actually be demoralizing. After her second child, she intentionally redefined her casual style to be paparazzi-ready but very kid-friendly. Her leggings paired with long cardigans and boots "uniforms" are far pricier than what most of us can spend (I know my "it" bag is more like a "someday maybe" purse), but hello! It's Gwyneth. When I have an Oscar for best actress I might still shop at DSW Shoe Warehouse. But, then again, maybe I won't.

Gwyneth helped, but I still didn't feel like I had defined frumpy. It is ill-fitting house clothes that have been washed 73 times? Is it "fashion sweats" in lieu of $150 jeans? Is it shopping braless at Target? What?

Opposite the professional styling of celebrity, I went to a Starbucks in some busy stucco-ed suburbs to visit a friend who doesn't care about fashion at all. She's a work-at-home mom who sports LouLoulemon gear almost exclusively--and she never exercises. "These pants are like wearing a tight rubberband all over your butt and thighs," she said while slapping her super smooth behind encased in the thick poly blend. And she's right, because if she were to quickly pull off those pants, you might see something akin to olive-colored Jello being aggressively released from Saran Wrap. For her, avoiding frumpy but staying casual means always looking like she's on her way to Pilates, even though she's on her way to the bank.

I have one more casual-curious story for you, about the night I met Queen Latifah.
It was 1994, and I was backstage at the now-defunct TV show "In Living Colour." Queen Latifah was not a guest and, in fact, was barely the star she is today. My best friend was a grunt production assistant and pulled me behind the scenes where I first saw Queen Latifah wearing a pink tennis dress and white tennis sneakers with a white zippered wind-breaker that had matching pink graphics. I figured she was someone in a skit, or had just returned from practicing her serve.

In the Green Room, I was little bored (because tapings are never the glamfests you think they're going to be), and I had just watched then cast-member Jim Carrey walk through toward the stages and humbly shake hands with everyone in his path. Then I saw Queen Latifah leaning against the wall, and I heard her say this to a costumed, half-nude Fly Girl: "I don't play tennis, but I like to dress like I do."

I'll never remember if that Fly Girl was Jennifer Lopez, and sometimes I fib and throw her into that anecdote as part of my celebrity sighting bragging, but the point is this: Here was a woman who was a successful producer and up-and-coming star, and who was backstage at a hot TV to watch the live taping, and yet she was dressed like she just came from rallying on the court with Muffy. She wasn't frumpy, but she was deeply past casual.

And you? With the kids and errands and work and house, casual has to prevail. My hot mommy friend with the two babes would disagree, but my casual research suggests anti-frump is well-fitting separates in natural fibers, flattering-for-you colors, and shoes that you could confidently wear to...where? Applebees, maybe. If you look like you're in real pajamas, disheveled, or like you pulled on the sweats you wore in college when you were on your period during midterms, then you might be frumpy. Wear that stuff if you must, just please don't leave the house, mmkay?

And don't be sad about demoting your comfiest-but-ugliest clothes to home-only status. Things could be worse. As late as the '60s when men alone had the blessings of sweats, casual dress for women really only meant an absence of punishing undergarments. Today, you're totally welcome to go to the market wihout your girdle, honey. Toodle-loo!

How do you define frumpy? Is there such a thing when you're a busy mom? Does it matter?

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10 comments so far | Post a comment now
Shelly April 19, 2009, 11:48 AM

I think frumpy is when you do not brush your hair, wear no bra and huge sweatpants that make your but look saggy. But hey, it has happened to some of us.

Patricia April 19, 2009, 8:03 PM

Again, Frumpy is Not a Fashion Statement!

Leeza April 19, 2009, 9:01 PM

Honestly, I think that when people are fit and in shape, it’s almost impossible to look “frumpy”. For females especially. As long as the hair is clean and styled, along with a nice touch of makeup (lipgloss especially),she’s good to go! Midriff bulge-is the foundation of where “frumpy” begins. Loose clothes or even too tight clothes,look dreadful over midriff bulge and/or heavy thighs and arms.All I can say is that if you don’t want to look frumpy,get in shape!

Pamala April 20, 2009, 1:09 AM

LOL! Who cares whether you’re frumpy or not? Who am I supposed to be impressing anyhow?

Maeby April 20, 2009, 10:20 AM

i am completely frumpy.i wear the nastiest blue sweats in the world. I have 3 kids under 8. I dont have time or money to wear anything cute. my husband got fat though so i think we’re even.

Rita April 20, 2009, 7:21 PM

I like to look good whenever I go anywhere. It’s not for anyone else, it’s for me. I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of being a woman, and I’m proud of being a mommy. Though it was funny the other day, I’m usually the one thats always dressed nice, I almost always wear heels, but I just accepted a job at the church nursery. I thought, well I’ll be working with kids, I’ll wear jeans, a tshirt and my tennies, right? Well it was ok but once I was walking around the church grounds after church had let out and I was the one looking very casual in a church full of really nicely dresses people. LOL. Next time I’ll dress it up a little bit, or at least bring my heels with me next time.

Ladies, remember, you can always jazz up an outfit with the right pair of black heels.

Chrissy October 4, 2009, 5:50 AM

Ah frumpy. I call it cozy. Leeza hit it when she included body shape in correlation to frump. Heavy arms, thighs, gut and butt make anyone look frumpy, even in nice clothes. In shape folks, in sweats, look “cute” not frumpy.

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