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Looking sharp and exuding confidence is an art. Constance Dunn tells us how to get started.

Constance Dunn. Photo by Bondo WyszpolskiWe have only one chance to make a good impression. Failing that, it can be a steep climb back, and by then the opportunity for a second try may have passed. That’s why some of us can learn a thing or two from Constance Dunn.

In her own words, Dunn is “a presentation specialist.” This has to do with our image, projected by us and perceived by others. It’s not just what we wear that contributes to that perception, but how we wear it; and how we comport or carry ourselves.

“I’m very focused on talking to people about optimizing their overall presentation,” Dunn says over coffee; “it’s not just related to grooming, it’s relating to dressing their body and determining their most authentic and attractive style. It also includes manner, non-verbal communication. I see the person as a package deal. Your presentation’s a package deal. That’s how I approach this.”

Identity check

Dressing well (the old dress-to-impress cliché), looking good, exuding confidence – all of this is an art, not an accident.

Dunn packs it into a nutshell: “The frontline determinates of how others form their impression of you are: Physical appearance is number one; two is behavior. These are things that are completely within your grasp. You can manage them 100 percent. Therefore, you can manage, to a large extent, how people are going to see you, and consequently how you’re going to be treated.”

At this time of the year many of us are going out more, to holiday parties and special cultural events, and meeting new people. Dunn’s advice may be just what we’ve been waiting for.

A Redondo Beach resident in her 30s, Dunn is most recently the author of Practical Glamour, which is geared towards women but often applicable to men. While I doubt that it’s the only book of its kind in existence, it’s smartly written – and the author is living proof that what it sizes up and promotes can bring positive results.

Where does one start? What about individuality?

In the South Bay, Dunn points out, the look is very laidback, since we tend to have a relaxed, beach-oriented lifestyle. But a lot of people – and we’re leaning towards men right now – have somewhat of a by-default look, meaning that they’ve often grabbed whatever’s handy. Perhaps they’re more concerned about wearing their tan and the results of their workout at the gym? They may not want to stand out too much or simply prefer to blend in. Either way, they could find subtle ways of expressing a better image of themselves.

“I talk about individuality,” Dunn says, “because there’s a personal satisfaction in communicating to others who we are. We articulate ourselves. It’s interesting as well if you think about people you have not yet met.

“The process by which you go about picking out those elements of yourself that you want to showcase – and then parlaying them to your everyday grooming and style choices – requires introspection. That’s very difficult for us to do as people. We simply don’t consciously observe ourselves as we observe others. We can look at someone else and sum them up very quickly; our minds are trained that way. They’re not trained for us to do the same to ourselves.”

Her book, Dunn says, has a chapter with a step-by-step self-analysis through means of various fun exercises, in which the reader takes stock of personal preferences, going back to childhood, even, “when you first had some say over what you put on your body. In short, you need a diagnosis before a prescription.”

What if the wallet is running on empty?

“One of the biggest misconceptions about optimizing your presentation is that it requires a lot of money,” Dunn replies. “Now, I won’t lie to you, money helps, but it is not a necessity. It has to do with understanding yourself.” She fingers her matador jacket and gives a credible thrift store scenario. “If you have limited means it’s very important to train your eye and to understand what cuts and colors suit your body in particular.” Knowing that, our world opens up.

I wonder aloud if there are certain colors each person should avoid.

“You can wear any color you want,” Dunn says; “it has everything to do with the shade of that color. I always say that it’s the three C’s. There’s the color of a garment, there’s the cut of a garment, and then there’s the character of a garment. For a man, there is a funny progression that goes on, and I see it a lot in the South Bay. As a man’s income rises he’ll just go into more pricey boutiques and wear more expensive-looking shirts, but sometimes they’re the wrong cut.”

There are men who wouldn’t know how to do this, I tell her.

“What they can do is look at their bodies,” Dunn answers. “One of the ways you can shortcut it is to latch on to a few different manufacturers that consistently produce clothes that are consistent with your body type.” This is where the self-analysis, mentioned above, comes in handy. Know thyself, Dunn says. “Look at men’s magazines, look at fashion; pick out someone who has a frame that is approximate to yours and look how they’re dressed. Look at better-dressed Hollywood males, and use that as a guideline.”

True, these male models may be nines or tens, and the average guy may be a five or a six, on the attractiveness scale, that is, but at least the latter has a place to start. As Dunn reiterates, looks can be enhanced if one dresses and grooms wisely. Who knows? If you’re a six you may be able to nudge it up to a six-point-seven.

“Many women who are considered very eye-catching, if you strip everything down they’re not natural beauties – it’s a matter of arranging and optimizing what you have. I see so many attractive people who aren’t really using what they have. It’s a sad thing to muzzle that, because everybody really has something. Our identity is so valuable.”

Out on the town; make it good

Okay, we’ve got a party or an art event lined up. What about some basic tips on dressing up?

“For men,” Dunn explains, “quality is more important than for women, because men have fewer options – it typically comes down to a tie, jacket, dress-pants scenario. So quality is very, very important. If that means you’re buying fewer items, so be it. One of the ways that a man, no matter where he is in terms of budget or age, can start to think about clothes that he’d wear when he’s going to a formal event or an art event, is to acquaint yourself with the different qualities of fabrics, and really understand the difference between a high-grade quality and [a lesser one].

“One of the ways you can do that is to go to a fine department store. If they have the equivalent of a couture section you go in there and almost look at it like a museum trip. And look at the way the seams are constructed, look at the finishes on the fabric, and really understand the difference. Once you have that down, if you’re going somewhere like Ross (where you can “dress for less”), you can then buy a higher quality item at much the same price. Fit is very important. So think of fit and fabric, those two things to start. Don’t buy anything that is subpar, because for a man the impression that is created by low-quality items is hard to reverse.” She pauses. “Fewer items, better items.”

Or let’s say I’m going to an opera. I’m standing in front of my closet…

“[Here’s] a great rule of thumb when you’re thinking about event dressing,” Dunn says. “Before you open the wardrobe, ask yourself, what do I want to communicate? And wait for the answer. Pay attention to the first thing that comes to your mind.”

Then apply what that little inner voice said to everything from the head to the shoes, both grooming and attire. “For women,” Dunn adds, “accessories and accoutrements; let it be consistent. That way you have the best chance of presenting something cohesive to the world.

“For each one of us, typically the answer will be something along the lines of you want a positive presentation, you want to look elegant, you want some sense of refinement. For women, it might be, I want to look really sexy. For a guy, I want to look very stately or I want to look really cool and young and hip. So it’s a little different.”

There are, of course, people who simply don’t care what others think, and would prefer a more defiant look. Dunn doesn’t write about tattoos in her book, although we didn’t evade the subject in our conversation. Tattoos definitely make a statement, but do you want to be making that same statement in 20 or 30 years? At least one can discard the slacks and the T-shirt one bought five years ago. But that tattoo on your tailbone that you thought was cute at the time? Good luck.

Some of this has to do with our evolution as individuals, about shedding our old skins from time to time.

“I formulated what I call a Personal Style Brand,” Dunn says, “and it’s something like a one-sentence mantra to really orient your dressing and shopping decision; it just helps you be more targeted. I like to do it every six months, but at least every year check in and evolve your style brand, because you’ve changed, something happened to you in the last year.” And at this time of the year, she adds, and as we step up to the plate that is 2011, don’t we want to communicate that?

The inner flame

Although we may ask ourselves, “Shall I wear my French beret or my Kentucky derby?” – there’s another level to our presentation, as when we enter the theater or the concert hall or the late April opening at the PS Zask Fine Arts Gallery.

“With artistic events,” Dunn says, “I think it’s a good rule of thumb – if you’re someone who goes to a lot of them – just think about if you were the artist that had put the time into either the performance or the painting, how you might want others [to behave]. If you were the harpsichordist [practicing] for the last 20 years to get that interlude correct, would you want someone in the middle of it shifting around and talking loudly?

“Galleries as well. I know that art openings are often very social, but even though it might be social for you, it’s important to think about the reason that we’re all there. So it’s nice to not just bound in, grab wine and start canoodling with everyone, but maybe put some time into looking at the artists’ work.” In brief, “If you’re not sure, don’t do it.”

Dunn often uses the noun ‘architect’ or ‘architecture’ as a verb, as in architecting our appearance. As in the case of any solid building, one needs a good, dependable foundation. And then from there?

“It’s an old truism about confidence being the best accessory. But when you have an understanding of how to architect yourself” then you become “confident that you’re wearing something that is the most flattering to your particular physique. Think of the times that you looked your best. You do walk around with a certain spring in your step – you actually do; it’s a people magnet. For women, a common one is when they go to the salon, and get your hair cut, and you have it styled as well. You’re walking around with this big, lustrous hair; you just have an extra spring in your step that way.” It gives one a personal boost, a nice lift. “It sounds corny, but it goes back to ‘when you look good, you feel good; when you feel good you perform better.”

That spring in your step can only be a good thing, and it radiates a positive message.

“The importance of bearing,” Dunn says. “If you look at some of the most standout men in terms of style or impact in the last hundred years, they’re not always the most drop-dead handsome men. They had, quote, something about them. What did they have about them? Usually they understood how to walk, they understood how to move their body, and they had a certain identifiable energy. For men, that had to do with confidence.”

The confident individual, Dunn adds, also knows how to sustain a balance, and not to become a self-preening peacock. One strives, she says, to “have that quiet sureness about yourself.”

Most people want to be around a perceived winner. To have that strong and yet subtle presence, where one unobtrusively stands out, is a quality that many desire. However, as Beethoven wrote, “One must be something if one wished to put on appearances,” and so the cultivation of the inner being, the inner flame, is a necessity. There is, after all, the importance of being informed, of being polite and patient, respectful and kind. It all adds up and, again, it’s a package deal, the wrapping and the contents. Constance Dunn and her insights into “practical glamour” provide us with a good place to start. ER

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