2011_06_09_stylewise_some_like_it_haute_devil_wears_prada.jpgA few months ago, I conjectured via Facebook status message:

“Why are girls considered maarte if they like to dress up? Isn't dressing just another skill you can excel at like cooking or singing or dancing?”

After around 20 girls (and a few guys) had pressed the cathartic “like” button under my status, my ever hawk-eyed editor commented, “There’s an article in that.”

And here we are.

Take a girl in vertiginous heels, a complexly tailored top, or this year’s ubiquitous maxi skirt, and you’re likely to hear her labelled “high maintenance.”

In Filipino, we use the same term to describe prima donnas and drama queens--maarte. It’s a faceted word, seasoned by 21 flavors of fussy, haughty, and conceited, with a sprinkle of pretentious. Point is, it’s almost always affixed to portrayals of fashionista types, as in: “She’s dressed up every day--maarte kasi,” or “She’s used to wearing heels--alam mo naman, maarte.”

The term isn’t always used negatively. My mother, who has very simple, sophisticated taste and sometimes thinks I’m dressed “weird,” playfully dubs me maarte when her gaggle of gal pals compliments my wardrobe. If you’ve read The Joy Luck Club, you’ll know it’s an Asian mom thing--how a lot of mothers show pride for their children with backhanded affection.

Most of the time, however, being called maarte doesn’t come with a warm, fuzzy feeling. It’s used so commonly in our local parlance that the word has lost part of its sting--which, to me, makes it even more worrisome. It’s like having someone insult you and not being sharp enough to comprehend the insult.

As a girl who’s always loved and immersed herself in fashion, I’ve never really understood the maarte stereotype. Sure, in every manicured cluster of stylish people you’re bound to come across some diva attitudes. Vogue editrix Anna Wintour is a shining example (especially if you’ve seen The September Issue), as is half the cast of The Devil Wears Prada. Having worked in fashion myself, I will be the first to admit that these personas aren’t exactly blatant exaggerations of the truth.

But then there’s rest of us high heel-wearing, mixed print-pairing folks who, contrary to popular belief, are pretty down-to-earth. Legend has it that we don’t eat, are incredibly catty, and take the art of pickiness to a whole new level--but you’d be surprised.

Take my friend Cara, who works at a well-known atelier and drapes herself in proportion-bending menswear-inspired numbers. Ask her what she does after a long, harrowing day of fittings and shows, and it won’t be a mani-pedi with a bellini in hand. Chances are, she’ll make a beeline for the nearest Pepper Lunch, order some hot, cheap chow, then head out for a beer.

Or my friend Lia, who has a quirky, artsy style sense ala Zooey Deschanel and a knack for picking strange pieces that work only on her. Lia is an avid surfer, who doesn’t mind living in a shack on some nameless beach and eating off a banana leaf with her hands, just as long as there are waves to ride in the morning.

These are only two of many examples, and here’s the kicker: they aren’t the exception to the rule, but the norm.

It might seem harmless to call a well-dressed woman maarte, especially if it is meant without malice. But personally, I find it condescending--especially in a world that has established fashion as a serious career. Fashion, like business or art or finance, is a skill-oriented field, where a good eye and impeccable instincts are priceless and arguably rare. When you don’t have the skills, you can end up with a hot mess--but when you know what you’re doing, you can work wonders.

Even if you don’t work in fashion, dressing is a skill anyone can excel at, as I posted on Facebook. Clothes, shoes, and accessories are ever-present things in a woman’s life--and even if you don’t dress fancy every day, special occasions make it virtually impossible to avoid.

That’s when the magic happens. We dress up, and it makes us feel beautiful, confident, and empowered. We pluck an idea from a magazine editorial or a scene in a movie, and we paint it into a moving portrait of fabric, texture, and color appropriate for a given occasion. To some, it may appear frivolous, but to us, it is honest self-expression--and just another way to have fun. That’s what fashion-lovers are all about--delighting in the ability to dress with purpose and honing it every single day.

I won’t say that high-maintenance mindsets and a flair for fashion don't often coincide--because they do! But just as often, they can be mutually exclusive. Maarte girls will be maarte girls--the world is awash with them--but how well they can put an outfit together really has very little to do with it.


(Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

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