Stylist Lauren Kennedy Malpas and photographer Fiona Torre recently produced a fashion editorial filled with all sorts of unusual clothing combinations — ones that ultimately prompted us to consider what actually makes an outfit an outfit. Leandra and I hashed out our thoughts over chat, which you can read below, but we would love to hear what you think, too. Meet us in the comments for further unpacking. -Harling
Harling Ross, Fashion Editor: What do you think makes an outfit an outfit? I know that sounds like a question with a super obvious answer, but I was flipping through the editorial that Lauren Kennedy Malpas and Fiona Torre styled and shot for us and started thinking about how it flips the whole idea of an “outfit” on its head. Examples being: an outfit composed of a painting slung around one’s neck and nothing else besides knee-high socks (slide 11), translucent pants coupled with a long-sleeved shirt layered under a sheer tank top (slide 12) and — perhaps most importantly because they’re definitely an actual trend — knit high-waist sweater underwear (slide 2), which I noticed you wore just the other day. Did you feel like you were wearing an “outfit”? Would you have walked outside, run errands, gone to work, socialized, etc?
Leandra Medine, Founder: I love that question! What does make an outfit an outfit? I guess by definition: a top, a bottom, shoes? And I would totally wear that out — but mostly just to hang in this neighborhood — I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable getting on a subway, or going to the airport, or really removing myself from this comfort zone (Nolita) that can often feel like an extended living room/bubble.
Harling: Downtown New York is definitely a bubble when it comes to what you can wear without raising an eyebrow. In that sense it feels like an extension not only of your living room but also social media and/or the pages of a magazine. It’s fertile ground for fantasy.
Leandra: Ha — that’s a good way to put it. How would you define an outfit?
Harling: I think an outfit can have two definitions — one that is super utilitarian (anything that covers you enough so that it’s clear you’re out in the world and not inside your shower) and one that is a little more style-focused (a combination of pieces from your wardrobe that is cohesive in a tangible way). Most “ensembles” that people put on probably straddle the two of these categories, leaning further in one or the other direction depending on circumstance/career/personality etc.
Leandra: Fashion vs. style, right? According to fashion — as in, the practical way you cover yourself — an outfit, point blank, is what you wear to cover yourself. And then by the tenets of style, it’s actually the way you cover yourself.
Harling: Ah, yes. that’s an interesting distinction: what you are wearing vs. why you are wearing it. But I guess I’m curious, since we’re living in the era of peak personal style, is the limit of what constitutes an outfit defined by the person wearing it, or by culture as a whole? I would say there are definitely some socially-enforced ideas about what is appropriate to wear in public, but your story about #sleepleisure made the very valid point that the delineation between private and public are starting to blur, and thus style is blurring along with it.
Leandra: Well, there is the very real and practical element of necessity — to stay warm, to stay dry, etc. And I think with that framework in mind, you get to be really creative about how you decide to dress, right? If we lived in a climate-less environment, I wonder whether clothes would be as interesting generally. The best design, across the board (so not just in fashion) is also deeply functional. I’m not sure if this veers us off course a bit, but I’m thinking…an outfit to me is something you put together to wear OUT, as in, for public consumption. And even though public consumption now includes Instagram, isn’t a successful outfit one that makes the wearer feel something, which typically requires wearing it for a time period that is longer than just the time it takes to make a selfie?
Harling: Your point about function is really interesting to consider in the context of Lauren and Fiona’s editorial, because most of the outfits on display are very obviously impractical, but they’re still super fun to look at. You could even argue that their impracticality is the REASON why they’re so fun to look at. But are they outfits? I’m not sure. Maybe there is a missing link between the vocabulary that we use to talk about clothes and style and the way we actually interact with these things.
Leandra: Also worth asking: Do you care to look at impractical outfits? The way we define inspiration is changing so rapidly. Is it even still inspiring to see the truly aspirational, or do you just want to see yourself in something else? I don’t actually have the answer to this question, and have always erred on the side of real vs. airbrushed (globally, not literally), but I am sure we are going to reach peak-real, too. Maybe what needs to be redefined is fantasy.
Harling: I personally crave a little of both (which I touched on in my story about fantasy a couple months ago). I like being spoken to directly and authentically. I like seeing myself in things. But I also like fantasizing about a world that I’ve never even touched, or a combination of clothes I would never consider wearing but that still pluck at some kind of inspirational string inside me that makes me FEEL something (anything!), even if it’s unfamiliar or outside my usual purview. For example, would I wear chainmail pants with a long-sleeved T-shirt and a sheer tank top with a fancy hat? Def not. But is it a delight to consume in two-dimension for the sole purpose of looking at something that somehow “works,” even if I don’t understand why (or perhaps precisely because of that)? Absolutely.
Leandra: That’s the magic sauce, right? Seeing something that raises an eyebrow (in a good way) and helps to guide you to see yourself differently. One of my favorite things I’ve heard some people say about MR Buffet, and particularly the tiger bag, is that they never thought they would wear animal print, but something made them want to have the bag. That’s what I WANT an outfit to mean! A baseline recognition of all the things you know and like about yourself (navy skinny pants, striped turtlenecks), overwhelmed by curiosity (a yellow poncho?). I just tried that on mentally for size and never mind, no poncho 4 me.
Harling: Yeah! In that sense, do you think we’re honing in on the conclusion that the question of what makes an outfit is deliberately open-ended, but observing the way other people interpret it is a way of answering it for yourself?
Leandra: Say more about that.
Harling: In other words, when you were scrolling through this particular editorial, did it reframe the way you thought about any particular item of clothing in the context of outfit-making? Or did it simply reinforce what you already knew to be true about what you like to wear and why?
Leandra: More than reinforce what I already like to wear and why, it helped flesh it out. Those knit underwear with knit knee highs? I’d love to wear that out! But it’s cold, and I’m pretty sure tights would ruin the look, so what if instead I included cropped knit pants? If what I’m gravitating towards is a hug to envelop my body? I’ll definitely wear a turtlenecklace with a tank top at some point soon — that’s like the cherry on top of a medium outfit that makes it excellent. Isn’t there something so nice, also, about seeing clothes styled just for the sake of it? Like, without an action to take away?
Harling: Absolutely. The only action, in this case, was to enjoy.