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The Clothes Make the Woman

"Gatsby" just won an Oscar for best costumes thanks in part to fashion historian Deirdre Clemente. She was a consultant on the movie's costumes. Here's her thoughts on the traditional rules of fashion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and dressing your age in Las Vegas.
Arts & Culture  |  Oct 30, 2012  |  By Afsha Bawany
Editor's Note: 

Fashion historian Deirdre Clemente was a consultant on the movie The Great Gatsby which won the 2014 Academy Award for best costume design. Read her take on the movie's costumes in her essay, "Of Money and Sex: Fitzgerald, Luhrmann, and Clothing in The Great Gatsby."

Deirdre Clemente's byline once graced articles about trendiest lipstick colors and newest slimming pants on the market. A former fashion writer for The Baltimore Sun and trade publications, Clemente switched careers when she became more curious of how trends began and their ties to cultural habits. She now teaches students to understand history and modern society through the context of people's choices in belts, shirts, and shoes.

Here she shares her thoughts about the old rules of fashion, Vegas style, and dressing your age.

I don't wear white after Labor Day. I still observe the fundamental rules of the seasons. I think I am unable to detach myself from the cultural contexts of fashion and just observe. Maybe that is why I am a cultural historian, and not a cultural anthropologist.

What we see in fashion magazines is very expensive and extreme. People don't change at the pace that fashion magazines would have you to believe.

Fashion is transient. Style percolates for a long time.

Women wore pants in the 1920s but weren't buying pants until 1940s. And pants were only seen among younger groups and progressive women. But in the 1960s, society was still concerned about women wearing pants. Cultural change doesn't happen with the hippies and social elite; it's when the middle class wears particular trends that fashion has changed.

I live in a world of outdated Vogue magazines and historical documents. I write extensively on F. Scott Fitzgerald and 1920s fashion and consulted on the upcoming The Great Gatsby movie.

Fitzgerald wrote, "Life hasn't much to offer except youth, and I suppose for older people, the love of youth in others." This hangs on my heart heavily. I'm afraid of getting older and losing exuberance. Watching students fall in love with the things we are teaching helps me keep that.

Now that I am a mother and a professional, I've toned down what I wear. I look a little more professional than in grad school, when I wore leather shorts, high heels, and some kind of sweatshirt that I'd cut up the night before.

I feel very strongly about dressing your age. People struggle with that in Vegas.

There isn't as much dignity with age in the West as there is in the East, and this really translates to dress.

The culture of Vegas allows women of all ages to dress in clothes that in other regions would be considered youthful -- rhinestone-studded tank tops, jeans with heels, and skull-print hoodies.

I'm not saying that grandmothers shouldn't wear rhinestones, but should do so in a way that celebrates their station in life, rather than try to look like a 20-something.

Las Vegas fashion is underestimated in American culture.

Vegas, throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s, lived in the shadow of Los Angeles. People shopped there and wore it here. In the last 15 years, Vegas became a place where people come to shop, where American celebrity culture thrives. Youth and newness is coveted here.

Las Vegas fashion is bold and showy -- two characteristics that are frowned upon by more staid cities, such as New York. Here, people take fashion risks; they push the boundaries of "appropriate" in a way that makes Americans at large uncomfortable. Even I -- in my "Hey, everyone gets to use fashion to express who they are and who they want to be" way of thinking -- struggle not to judge.

I still care about what my mother would say. I very often mentally consult my mother when getting dressed. She is an avid Vogue reader. She wore leather pants to a PTA meeting. My dad is an old-school professor. He wore a lot of tweeds and full-fledged suits to teach.

When I met my husband, he owned one pair of pants. I think I've done a lot to help his style. He's an easy mannequin to dress.

I can't live without my silver cuff bracelet. I have a strong emotional attachment to it because my best friend gave it to me when I had my first child. I never lend it to anyone and I keep it in a velvet bag.

My style is quirky and ethnic and colorful.

Fashion is about individual choice made on an individual day. Those choices speak to our social and cultural identities.

I sit outside the Student Union to see what students are saying about themselves without saying anything.