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Penelope von der Leyen

1. When do you feel at your most attractive?

in jeans and a blouse with little makeup and clean hair or in a blousy silk low cut dress with a good waist and sleeves.

2. Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice or admire?

women with original, interesting or wild style.

3. What are some things you admire about how other women present themselves?

when they are put together in a way that signals intelligence rather than trend. Fearless women who have their own look and look beautiful not because the clothes are sexy, but because they are their very own. And also when their put together-ness doesn't look as if they're a slave to fashion and makeup and the blowdryer, but just that it is their private ritual of femininity.

4. Was there a moment in your life when something “clicked” for you about fashion or dressing or make-up or hair? What? Why did it happen then, do you think?

I always felt that it was a sign of stupidity and frivolity because I was raised in a hippie environment with a naturally beautiful mother who had no interest in fashion, only literature. I loved clothes and felt guilty every time I loved them too much. Only when I was older, in my twenties, did I realize that one could be a smart woman and love clothes and make up. I still struggle though with moments when something looks or feels too thought out.

6. What are some rules about dressing you follow, but you wouldn't necessarily recommend to others?

I wish I had rules, I don't have any…maybe as I get older, into my 40s, not to wear as many avant-garde shapeless shifts...

7. What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?

I always avoided them because it felt silly to parse style. I wanted it to just be, and not be discussed. It still feels somewhat gauche…but potentially interesting if I could get over my hangup about it.

8. Do you have a unified way of approaching your life, work, relationships, finances, chores, etc.? Please explain.

No. I am somewhat haphazard and when something works, it almost works best because of the haphazard nature. It also means that things like chores and finances don't work as well. Relationships work well because I'm good at loving and loyalty. work sometimes works well because following one's nose is helpful in creative enterprises.

9. Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple? Why do you think you keep buying this thing?

Jeans and silk blouses - I am curvy and tall and they are flattering and they suit my reticence to over-dress.

I almost always end up buying dresses for every occasion from Zero Maria Cornejo because I like smart designers and most don't cut to look good on large breast and a small waist.

10. Have you ever successfully given someone a present of jewelry or clothing that you continue to feel good about?

I always give my sister good things - I gave her an electric blue jumpsuit from a vendor at the Brooklyn Flea and she looks beautiful in it.

11. Is there any fashion trend you’ve refused to participate in and why? 

norm-core. It looks silly and overtly self conscious on a woman. Those kinds of trends are for girls up to age 23, not women.

too high heels - I am 5'10" and would look like a transvestite in them.

12. Can you say a bit about how your mother’s body and style has been passed down to you, or not?

My mother is much shorter than I am and very differently shaped, smaller chest, slightly bigger middle. She was a hippie and a literature professor. she wore no makeup and very rarely dressed up - I used to wish she would dress up more. Now I'm grateful that she gave us the freedom to look however we wanted to look and I have inherited from her the desire to wear less makeup and not be a victim to trend. My style is from my father, who loved clothes, style, everything. His mother and three sisters were all very tall and very stylish - always original.

13. Have you stolen, borrowed or adapted any dressing ideas or actual items from friends or family?

I have a very stylish friend who I've probably copied in my tendency to wear multiple prints or patterns at once. She is also curvy and when I see her I am reminded to wear things cinched at the waist, which I often forget when I find myself attracted to dresses that are better suited for flat chested friends.

14. Was there a point in your life when your style changed dramatically? What happened?

in 5th, 6th and 7th grade I made up elaborate costumes every day for school, all blue one day, fake flowers tied at my ankles the next. by the end of 7th grade I buckled under serious bullying by a classmate who kept at it until I left in 10th grade. before I left in 10th grade, I joined the herd of punk rock/mod kids to be different and still fit in better than I had before. After that I lost my appetite for the negative attention from girls and other women when you stand out too much.

15. Is there anything political about the way you dress?

sometimes…I had a bikini bottom from Malia Mills with a no Bush sign on the back when Bush was President. I had Obama Tshirts.

16. Please describe your body.

Tall, big boned, large breasted, but lean and long as well. When I gain weight, I am told I'm lucky, because I gain it in my breasts and it lands proportionally elsewhere. It looks ok to others, but I feel awful and I start to wear sack-like dresses.

17. Please describe your mind.

active, sometimes too active, intelligent, distractible except when reading.

18. Please describe your emotions.

high and low. very passionate and loving and also prone to suicidal depressions since youth.

19. What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment?

I am wearing a maria cornejo casual sack-like dress, no makeup and hair is tied up in an elastic on top of my head.

20. In what way is this stuff important, if at all?

It is not important in the "grand scheme", but privately it is the first visual statement of who one is to oneself and how one wants to be perceived. We send signals to each other by these choices. It's also how we as women, show care for ourselves, how we groom ourselves, or don't. It can serve as an armor when we need it and it can serve to draw us to our new best friend.

21. With whom do you talk about clothes?

If at all, my mother, sister, girlfriends, husband. would mostly be brief, like "does this work?"

22. How do institutions affect the way you dress?

they don't.

23. Do you think you have taste or style? Which one is more important? What do these words mean to you?

I have both. I was raised with taste and I have my own style. I am not always confident in it, especially at this moment, at 41, the first time I feel older than 23. I feel that I need to refine my style to suit who I am now. I am more pulled together than I was then. Style means that I can change these things. Taste is just present.

24. Do you remember the biggest waste of money you ever made on an item of clothing?

anything I thought would work on a bigger chest because it looked good on a model with an A cup!

25. Are there any dressing tricks you’ve invented or learned that make you feel like you’re getting away with something?

this one everyone knows but…mix hi and low…and every time I wear a silk vintage item, everyone thinks it's something fabulous from a contemporary designer..

26. Do you have style in any areas of your life aside from fashion?

home and music

27. Can you recall some times when you have dressed a particular way to calm yourself or gain a sense of control over a situation that scared you?

Yes, many times. Most recently I wore a Maria Cornejo jumpsuit and all was well.

28. Would you say you “know what you like” in the area of fashion and clothing? If so, do you also know what you like in other areas of life, that is, are you generally good at discernment? Can you say where your discernment comes from, if you have it? Or if you don’t have it, why or why not?

yes, most of the time. Sometimes I over think and dither and then it goes awry.
When I do have discernment, I think it is because of how I was raised, that there were no fashion magazines, no shelter magazines. Style just was, and it wasn't discussed. It was assumed. Even my mother's jeans and T-shirts and hair to her bottom was her style and because she was so pretty, it looked good, which is it's own weird conundrum. My father didn't buy strange fabrics in South America because a magazine told him to, but because he was drawn to them, and that in turn made our house look stylish to others. That's probably why I only like really stylish women or homes when there is eccentricity or originality to them.

29. Did your parents teach you things about clothing, care for your clothing, dressing or style? What lessons do you remember? Or did you just pick things up?

Some of it had to do with class, which I don't feel is as present now, and makes me laugh in retrospect. I wasn't allowed to have bangs when I was little because it hid the forehead and somehow that was ugly. Perms were forbidden.
they placed a lot of emphasis on originality and that was a bit stressful, but also fun. We were allowed to be punk rock, but not to be trendy.
I think I mostly picked things up from my aunts and grandmother when it came to style things like perfume, the best shoes for long feet, scarves, trying to be punk rock and elegant all at once.

30. What sorts of things do you do, clothing or make-up or hair- wise, to feel sexy or alluring?

I started wearing black eyeliner on my lids a few years ago and I like how it makes the rest of the outfit feel more rebellious. I parted my hair to the side and that felt sexy as well.
clothing…I'm trying to remember to cinch the waist…

31. Many people say they want to feel “comfortable,” or that they admire people who seem “confident.” What do these words really mean to you?

comfortable is hopefully possible in a stylish way, but I think I probably fail at that. comfortable means physically at ease, low shoes, jeans and a soft t-shirt. confident means when you see a woman who looks comfortable in her incredibly cool come des garçons getup...

32. If dressing were the only thing you did, and you were considered an expert and asked to explain your style philosophy, what would you say?

shit. sexy rock and roll elegance??

33. What is really beautiful, for you, in general?

original, clean, smart, deep, intelligence in the motion of the body and eyes, regardless of figure and facial structure.

34. What do you consider very ugly?

too done up, too much makeup, too blown out hair, hiding something, high heels and low cut jeans, overt brands, snobs, slave to fashion.

35. Are you generally a good judge of whether what you buy will end up being worn? Have you figured out how to know in advance?

getting better…while I'm attracted to more outlandish things on other people, I feel and look better in simpler things…annoyingly...

36. When you look at yourself before going out, and you are trying to see yourself from the outside, can you describe a bit about what this “other person” is like? What do they like, dislike, what sorts of judgments do they have? Is this “outer eye” based on someone you know or once knew?

I think it would be a woman like me, but I'm not sure I do see myself from the outside.

37. What is your process getting dressed in the morning? What are you considering?

Usually very quickly to get children to school. My hope is that the things in my closet are so brilliantly acquired that even if I'm dressing in a rush, it would all look good. I guess I want it to look cool, fit well…not be banal…?

38. What are you trying to achieve when you dress?

different times, different things:
in a rush in the morning, to look like myself and my taste and not have accidentally dressed like a middle aged suburban mom…which I think I've done by accident…

evening - to look like myself and to look pretty and cool all at once

for my husband - not wear a bag

39. What, for you, is the difference between dressing and dressing up?

dressing is for day and running around and picking up children and being away on the weekend if we are invited somewhere. it's jeans and flats and a tshirt or a sweater, or clothes to the gym, or a bag dress and sandals…

dressing up is a low heel, a jumpsuit, a fancier dress, a skirt and blouse, hair brushed, eyeliner and mascara

40. If you had to wear a “uniform” what would it look like?

excellent jeans and an old tshirt with a stella mccartney blazer and a very snazzy pair of low heeled ankle boots, black eyeliner and cleanish hair.

conversely, silk shirt dresses with tutrlenecks underneath and tall boots.

41. What would you say is “you” and what would you say is “not you”?

tomboyish day clothes, interesting dresses from interesting designers and ankle boots is me.

versace and dolce & gabbana - which would probably look better physically on me than what I choose - is not me.

42. What is your cultural background and how has that influenced how you dress?

I'm the daughter of a european aristocrat and a north american WASP who were both hippies when I was young, but loved their families so we grew up going to castles in europe as well as horse farms on the east coast, but were very different from our cousins and peers because our parents had made a lifestyle break from all of that for our day to day life.
I think it has influenced me wanting to dress my own way, but keeps me drawn to classic things that evoke some of my surroundings growing up. I am a mutt who also belongs to some of the most rarified worlds, which I only really realized in the last few years, which is naive, but true.

43. Do you remember a time in your life when you dressed quite differently from how you do now? Can you describe it and what it was all about for you?

when I was into the hardcore/mod scene there was a uniform of sorts, doc martens, fred perry shirts, vintage tennis skirts and ripped tights. I liked it because it was other in my private school world, I liked the people, the creativity, the music, and not being mainstream. It was about teenage identity, shopping for everything at Value Village, the fringe life.

44. What sorts of things do you do, clothing, make-up or hair-wise, to feel professional?

clean hair, very little eye makeup and a good skirt and blouse - sometimes vintage...

46. Do you have a dress code, a school uniform, or a uniform that you wear for an extracurricular activity?

Tennis whites.

47. Are there ways in which you conform to or rebel against these uniforms?

no, there's something wonderful about tennis whites.

48. Do you find it comforting or constraining to have a uniform?

comforting, at times...

49. What is an archetypal outfit for you; one that you could have happily worn at any point in your life? What do you like about it?

jumpsuit. it's deeply cool to me and good for my body. I wore them when I was little, through my teens and now.

and a dirndl. looks good on everyone.

50. Do you ever wish you were a man or could dress like a man or had a man’s body? Was there ever a time in the past?


51. If there was one country or culture or era that you had to live in, fashion-wise, what would it be?


52. Do you consider yourself photogenic?


53. When you see yourself in photographs, what do you think?

I'm often surprised, either pleasantly or unpleasantly.

54. Are there any figures from culture, past or present, whose style you admire or have drawn from?

elsa Schiaparelli
elsa von freytag-loringhoven

55. Have you ever had a dream that involved clothes?


56. What would be a difficult or uncomfortable look for you to try and achieve?

high necked Shift dress, low backed anything

57. If you were totally comfortable with your body, or your body was a bit closer to what you wish it was like, what would you wear?

more armless things, more shorts

58. Is there anyone that you are trying to attract or repel when you dress?

attract my husband

59. Are there any dressing rules you’d want to convey to other women?

don't dress just to be sexy, dress your age with whimsy, don't wear high heels and a short skirt,

60. What do you think of perfume? Do you wear it?

i love it, yes.

67. Looking back at all your purchases over the past five to fifteen years, can you generalize about what sorts of things were the most valuable to buy?

my maria cornejo stuff because it is so timeless and fits no matter where I am weight-wise...

68. Is there an item of clothing that you once owned, but no longer own, and still think about or wish you had back? What was it, what happened to it, and why do you want it back?

a Dries Van Noten dress from the 90s, got ruined by the dry cleaner. It was just plain beautiful. I loved it.

69. If you had to throw out all your clothes but keep one thing, what would you keep?

maria cornejo jumpsuit!

70. Building up your wardrobe from nothing, what would you do differently this time?

fewer impulse buys from Jcrew…more really elegant silk tailored dresses like the one I have from Nina Ricci from 5 years ago...

71. What’s the first “investment” item you bought? Do you still own or wear it?

Maria Cornejo silk dress, yes

72. Was there ever an important or paradigm-shifting purchase in your life?

Maria Cornejo coat…this is getting embarrassing...

73. What item of clothing are you still (or have you forever been) on the hunt for?

the perfect light brown corduroy suit

74. What are your closet and drawers like? Do you keep things neat, etc?

no, but my housekeeper does...

75. Were you ever given a present of clothing or jewelry that especially touched you?

a brass cuff from a detacher by my husband

76. Did you ever buy an article of clothing without giving it much thought, only to have it prove much more valuable as time went on? What was the item and what happened?

navy silk blouse from jcrew

77. How and when do you shop for clothes?

spontaneously and in a hurry when I need something

78. Do you like to smell a certain way?

yes, Jo Malone Vetiver everyday or Shalimar for winter nights out

79. How does how you dress play into your ambitions for yourself?

not really at all.

80. How does money fit into all this?

The designers I like most have gotten more expensive and we have a bit more money than we did a few years ago, so I buy a couple of nice things a year and supplement with basics. I feel self conscious about having more money now, so I probably downplay what I buy. It's probably more than I can admit to myself.

81. Is there an article of clothing, a piece of make-up, or an accessory that you carry with you or wear every day?

warby parker sunglasses & my jo malone perfume

82. Did anyone ever say anything to you that made you see yourself differently, on a physical and especially sartorial level?

a woman at my kids' school once commented that I always look so stylish and pulled together and that was a shock to me. I feel like I look kind of a mess most days and that my excellent taste and style is mostly played out in my head.

83. Do you remember the first time you were conscious of what you were wearing? Can you describe this moment and what it was about?

light brown corduroy bell bottoms - i just loved them and loved them until they fell apart. They looked like a pair my father had. I think I was 6.

What’s your birth date? 
Where were you born and where do you live now?

January 15, 1973
Brooklyn, NY

Say anything you like about your cultural/ethnic/economic background.

see above

What kind of work do you do?

writing, drawing, mothering, loving and supporting the endeavors of an entrepreneurial spouse who's been around for 21 yrs.

Are you single, married, do you have kids, etc.?

married, two kids

How do you feel after filling out this survey?

it was hard to do because I haven't articulated all of this before. I feel like a big Maria Cornejo weirdo…

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