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October 4-10, 2006

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Fabric of Lies

Threadbare and phat: the real skinny on thin clothes

By Hannah Strom-Martin


With fall creeping in and winter just around the corner, it's time for my favorite seasonal wardrobe: the comfy sweater, the long-sleeved knit-top and the button-up coat. Boots are back on the display tables and fashions for work are looking long and elegant.

But wait. There's a slight problem. For too long now there's been a disturbing trend round and about the mall. I call it "attack of the thin clothes." "Thin" here does not refer to the clothes worn when one has been subjected to the horrors of the South Beach diet; rather, it refers to the actual fabric used to construct the clothes themselves.

Remember the "wear 13 tank tops at once to prevent flashing your mother" look of this past summer? Or that double-T-shirt look that Express (571 Santa Rosa Plaza, Santa Rosa, 707.523.0483; the Village at Corte Madera, 1520 Redwood Hwy., Corte Madera, 415.924.1499) insisted was so hot? How about the white "J-Lo skirt that shows my panties" look?

Clothes it seems, especially those popular among young women, have come down with a severe attack of threadbare chic. The rise of such popular retailers as Citiwear and Forever 21 where every scrap of clothing seems to have been stitched together with the shapeless despair typical of an enslaved worker in a Third World country, have only cemented this unfortunate trend.

Times were, a shirt actually concealed a bra. Yet in stores from Macy's (1000 Northgate Mall, San Rafael, 415.499.5200; 800 Santa Rosa Plaza, Santa Rosa, 707.523.3333; 555 Coddingtown Mall, Santa Rosa, 707.579.3333; the Village at Corte Madera, 1400 Redwood Hwy., Corte Madera, 415.927.3333) to Abercrombie & Fitch (2024-A Santa Rosa Plaza, Santa Rosa; 707.575.5310), see-through fabrics continue to sell for ridiculous amounts of money.

This has not changed as winter approaches. Indeed, the last Abercrombie shirt I bought, naively thinking it might somehow protect me from wintry gusts, has, in the seven times I've worn it, come apart like a pair of stockings attacked by a cat. As I can clearly see every detail of my hand through this "superfine" fabric, I wonder at my surprise.

What is up with this? Just what exactly are we clothing ourselves in, anyway? A foray into the deeper mystery of thin clothing reveals its own language and culture. As Ned Flanders might say, "What in the hi-diddley heck is 'modal'?" (And since when has the term "nylon" meant "cloth to be worn as a charming-if-threadbare frock?") Mysteries abound.

As for actually wearing the clothes, well . . . Thin clothes can't be worn to work. Thin clothes reveal bra color, make, model and texture; you can usually read the washing directions clearly through the gauze. Belly rings, cleavage and whale tails float horribly under the scrim. In addition to the expected transparency, thin clothes purchased from Abercrombie & Fitch are guaranteed to be indecently low-cut. This makes thin clothes an ally when you're trying to score but turns you into a pariah when you're trying to 10-key your way to another paycheck.

Of course, enough consumers flock to the looks advertised on retail mannequins that clothing companies have no reason to repent their bad decisions. Long, shapeless swathes of gym-short material continue to haunt the racks at Express, masquerading as sundresses. Anthropologie's (the Village at Corte Madera, 1848 Redwood Hwy., Corte Madera; 415.924.4197) shirt dresses and shirt skirts--the later looking, indeed, as if you buttoned the neck of one of your mother's 30-year-old blouses around your waist and called it a day--smack strongly of dumpster chic. Looking like a homeless person or Sienna Miller is synonymous with those who shop thin. The comeback of stripes and '80s day-glow often hideously combined on the same smock has helped nothing.

So what are we paying for this stuff? Anthropologie boasts a "Hide and Seek" sweater for $158 whose total thread count weighs less than that pile of cash. On the website, it clearly displays the flesh of the mannequin through its gaping latticework weave--but, hey, 158 bucks is nothing in the pursuit of chic. Abercrombie & Fitch, of course, has a slew of "super soft" sweaters for $49.50 each, where the word "soft" should be taken to mean "wouldn't clothe a Barbie."

My favorite, however, is J. Crew (the Village at Corte Madera, 1524 Redwood Hwy., Corte Madera; 415.927.2005), home of a million "tissue tees" (two for $35!), "featherweight sweaters" ($68) and bra-baring Henleys ($29.50). As research for this article, I tried on a few of these shirts at my local J. Crew. The catalogue, I'll be the first to admit, is the epitome of casual elegance. The clothes look warm, soft and not at all see-through. They also look decently tailored.

Slipping a small tissue tee over my head, I was rewarded not only with a garish glimpse of my own anatomy, but a swath of fabric akin to a pup tent. Where was the casual relaxation and warmth promised by the ads? Hell, where was the shirt? I have a sneaking suspicion that if I were to weigh the mass of that tissue tee with the mass of a standard dish towel, the dish towel would come out swinging.

What, then, should the young and hip do to combat this mockery of what Abercrombie calls "casual luxury"? Well, some retailers are better than others. Express, while guilty of transparent summer tees, also has a collection of opaque camisoles and button-up business-casual shirts, and has just released a collection of T-shirts ($16.50 each) and light-weight cardigans whose darker colors--gray, black, brown and magenta (no one is perfect)--will not leave you dangling in the wind. Going for darker colors is always a safe bet, and being a tad maudlin-looking can be tolerated as temperatures drop.

The Limited (www.limitedbrands.com)--which I like to think of as being Express for non-nudists--is a decent purveyor of quality clothing with better business-casual than Express and is currently sporting a relief-inducing collection of sweater shirts and long-sleeved knit tops in the $25-$35 price range. Its white knit tops are still a bit iffy but can be combated by purchasing a flesh-tone bra which will not be visible beneath the shirt.

Anthropologie, unfortunately, is right out. I have owned two items from them in my time and given a significantly higher number as gifts. Every last one was see-through and hardly worthy of a three-figure price. For serious winter wear, you may be forced to shop at Macy's. Their INC section can get expensive, but it is full of durable cold combatants. Just be careful of the adjoining impulse department and the juniors section, where hundred-dollar prices for transparent shirt dresses and itty-bitty shrugs abound.

And if you must visit A&F in support of your local child molester, invest (somewhere else) in a camisole to be worn under the T-shirts and "super soft" cardigans. A camisole in winter, you say?

Yup. In the land of see-through designer duds, camisoles just might be our last hope for non-naked commerce.


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