Mise en Place

I was asked recently if I thought dressing was an art like painting, or an art like flower arrangement. It’s a good question, and one that can be answered either way by different folks equally passionate about clothes, but I didn’t hesitate before responding. To me, the act of putting good clothes on well is roundly analogous with flower arranging, particularly in its minimalist ikebana incarnation: less an art of exalted creation than refined presentation. Both require a keen eye for found elements, reflect states of mind rather than points of view, and reward restraint. Neither, frankly, is rocket science.

If the ikebana analogy seems a bit precious, so too does ikebana itself, but then I’m no flower arranger. Like any self-respecting iGent, however, I can put a decent scald on some groceries, and perhaps therein lies an even richer metaphor in a similar vein. Fine dressing is to clothing as good cooking is to food: daily rituals that ennoble the mundane. Arts of necessity.

In its mildly anal taxonomy, my closet less resembles an artist’s studio than a well-organized chef’s kitchen, fully stocked with beefy tweeds, buttery worsteds, airy flannels, crispy linens, crunchy silks, chocolatey suedes, and a hundred other tasty staples, all within easy reach. Each ingredient rotates in season, sourced for quality from the finest importers and local suppliers. I don’t fetishize freshness; indeed, some of my best stuff has been dry-aged for decades, acquiring an acquired taste of smoke and cedar and an elegantly wilted character you just can’t buy off the rack. As I stand before it all each morning, it is more than a collection, more than possessions. It is my mise en place.

A French phrase meaning “everything in its place,” mise en place is a state of mind for culinary professionals -- an almost martial discipline of preparation and organization that fosters both efficiency and inspiration. These also happen to be fundamental virtues for any dresser who wants to look good and not be too long about it. In both cases, the art is in the mix.

A good dish, like a good ensemble, is greater than the sum of its parts -- an alchemy of taste, texture, color, and proportion that’s always balanced, whether bold or subtle. Just as some chefs follow recipes to freshen fond memories, while others excite expectations by subverting them, so too do dressers fall on a spectrum ranging from staid elegance to experimental peacockery. I suspect that most of us -- culinary and sartorial adepts alike -- fall somewhere in the middle, content to rotate our mise en place seasonally, rediscovering old favorites, refining new ones, and occasionally adding a dash of something untried from our overstocked spice or tie racks.

Some of us don’t even mind the washing up.  

[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]