Dressing the Maine Way by Julia Spencer-Fleming

This is NOT the Maine way to dress

(Note: This post is a rerun, but Julia is swamped, and we think it is one you’ll want to read a second time. Enjoy!)

When I moved to Maine as a blushing bride, I had a trousseau of sorts. I had been living and working in Washington, DC for the previous four years (and had done a stint in London before that.) I had an entire closet of black-tie dresses and separates, all with coordinating strappy heels. I had professional clothes: big-shouldered, asymmetric jackets with short, tight skirts for winter (this was the eighties) and billowy linen pieces for the summer. It was the perfect big-city, up-to-the-minute wardrobe.

Gone, all gone. And not just because of the shoulder pads. The fact is, in Maine, people dress differently. In fact, most of us bear a distinct resemblance to an LL Bean catalog – if LL Bean models were wearing thirty-year-old items mixed in with the new stuff. In most parts of the fashion industry, designers come up with a look and try to sell it to the consumers. LL Bean, on the other hand, isn’t pushing its style on Mainers – it’s packaging what we already wear and selling it to folks in New York and Chicago. If I had known this simple fact, it would have saved me a lot of sartorial grief. Here’s a brief guide to dressing like a Mainer:

We all have Bean boots, and we wear them everywhere. Not all of them are the actual Bean brand,

Legal power dressing - Portland, style

but they’re all warm, waterproof, and have good treads. Lawyers at Portland’s high-powered firms wear them coming into the office. Patrons of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra wear them to the theatre. Couples going out to high-priced gourmet restaurants wear them on date night. Yes, the first time you put on clunky boots beneath a sexy dress or your best suit you’ll feel like an idiot. The second, time, you’ll think, “Oh, well, at least it’s comfortable.” The third time, and for the rest of your life, you’ll look at folks slipping and sliding down the sidewalk in their dress shoes and wonder what’s wrong with them.

Kind of like this. Only without the lobsters.

Bring a sweater. You’ll need it. You know that whole sweater-over-the-shoulders thing you thought was just a preppy affectation? Pure practical necessity. My first full summer in Maine I thought I was going to freeze to death. You can go for a week in July here with the temperatures just hitting the seventies, and when the sun goes down, you need that extra layer even if the day itself was hot. If you’re on the coast or out on the water, bring two sweaters. And a windbreaker.

Swimsuits should reflect the Maine character: modest and sensible.Sure, now that the boomers

After you swim, just throw on a sweater and you're good to go. Sensible.

are all in their fifties and sixties, America has rediscovered the necessity of swim skirts and high-necked suits. Here, they never went away. You don’t want a tiny bikini when the breeze blowing off the beach is a cool 60 degrees. Plus, a significant portion of the beach-going population seems to be eighty-something women swimming laps out in the cove. How do they do it without dying of hypothermia like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic? It is a mystery. But they’re wearing skirts and boy-leg suits out there.

Buy classic and wear it forever.This is reflected in two distinct gender-related looks. On the distaff side, you can readily see three generations of women wearing basically the same outfit: flattering khakis, simple tees or sweaters, slip-on shoes that look good at eighteen and sixty-eight. On men, the wear it forever ethos is just that: corduroy pants rubbed so flat the seat and knees are shiny

What, this jacket? There's still lots of wear in this jacket!

and shirts with the elbows worn to a frayed tatter. No need to get a new button-down when you can cover the holes with your old jacket! So what if lapels haven’t been this wide since the Reagan administration?

Maine women have been known to sneak away their men’s clothing and then profess befuddlement when he can’t find it. “I don’t know, dear. Did you check the attic?”

Not hipsters.

We wear flannel shirts and flap-eared caps unironically. Everyone’s got them, and everyone wears them. Teenagers and toddlers. Lobstermen and ladies. I personally own a billed polarplus hat with ear flaps. It looks like a baseball cap grew fur and dewlaps. Do I wear it? You bet your booty I do. Mainers were into grunge before it was cool. Hmm. Maybe we are hipsters.

Mainers, what do think are our iconic looks?



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14 Responses to Dressing the Maine Way by Julia Spencer-Fleming

  1. This post was late getting up because we lost power on our country road. The logging crews were out trimming the trees before the winter and something fell the wrong way. My next blog entry? “Losing Power the Maine Way.”

  2. Barb Ross says:

    Julia–This is hysterical. My eighty-something mother-in-law who grew up in Boston’s North End swimming in Boston Harbor and has been a resident of Maine for over 20 years, and I never ever go in the ocean on the same day. I won’t go in when it’s under 65 degrees and she won’t go in when it’s over. “Ugh,” she’ll say, “it’s like bath water.” Either way when she’s out swimming laps, she’s completely covered!

  3. Yup, Julia. You nailed it. Almost. My work clothes are sweatpants and a sweatshirt (or a tee in high summer) and socks. When I “dress up” to make the daily trek to the post office, I trade the sweatpants for jeans and hunt up sneakers or boots. Even my “conference clothes” are of the classic Maine variety. Comfort rules!

  4. LeeAnne says:

    As a relocated Mainer, all I can say is hear hear! Just yesterday I was wearing my 17 year old LLBean cardigan (the tan one) and though it’s a little on the shapeless side, it’s still plenty warm. My maillot has a skirt too. 😛

  5. Scott Woodard says:

    Hmm, did my wife give you a peak at my closet?

  6. Lea Wait says:

    Absolutely! I’m sitting here in sweatpants and a flannel shirt, set for work. Tonight Bob & are are going out for dinner, so I’m dressing up. Jeans and a sweater — whee! Pretty elegant. A year or so I remember a blog fellow Maine writer Tess Gerritson wrote. The
    studio producing the TV version of her mysteries (“Rizzoli and Isles” — great show!) wanted her to do some promo appearances with star Angie Dickinson. She needed some elegant wardrobe items, so they arranged for her to spend some time with a personal shopper at Bergdorfs in NYC. The shopper asked her what designer she usually wore. All she could think of was, “Does LL Bean count?” (It didn’t.)

  7. MCWriTers says:

    As a paragon of Maine fashion, I used to go to school wearing my grandmother’s old coat. We were big on “making do.” I bought my Bean boots secondhand twenty-five years ago (they have someone else’s name written on the tongue) and they’re still going strong. My older son expresses his strong Maine roots by wearing his Bean boots in L.A. I’ve still got the dress I made from old upholstery fabric that I wore to a Camden High School prom and I’m looking for just the right outfit to make from my mom’s old bark cloth curtains. I confess that I now swim in Mackerel Cove in a new bathing suit, but only because the old one split at the seams. Both are modest.

    Mainers do appreciate the wonders of the modern bathing costume, though, which was amply demonstrated when every lobster boat in the cove detoured by our dock when my gorgeous niece Kate went swimming in a bikini.

  8. Deanna says:

    We in the rest of New England also do the “L.L. Bean” style. Anything bought at L.L. Bean now will last another 100 years! The boots can be sent back to be resoled if it ever becomes necessary. I love L.L. Bean, (and sweats and jeans and t’s).

  9. Gayle says:

    I live in VA but must have Maine in my bloodline. Who knew that’s where I belong?

  10. Brenda says:

    This was wonderfully funny! I’d love to be there in the summer & I seem to be gradually converting to the style. Just temporarily gave up wearing my heels…

  11. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Ah, the Maine look.

    When I was a newspaper reporter in Kennebunk in the early 80s, the entire (miserably paid) staff would trek en masse to the Biddeford Goodwill every Wednesday afternoon because we knew a truckload of donations from LLBean had arrived late morning. (This was before the advent of the Bean Outlet). Prices werre were, shall we say, in line with our incomes.

    Consequently, everyone I worked with wore LL Bean clothing pretty much all the time. Chamois shirts. Baxter parkas. And of course, the iconic hunting boots. It was like a uniform.

    I say this past tense, but just looked down at today’s outfit. LL Bean khakis, LL Bean turtleneck. My fleece vest is Woolrich, only because the LL Bean one is in the wash, along with the LL Bean pajamas I shed this morning on my way to the shower . . .

    Brenda Buchanan

  12. MCWriTers says:

    Brenda…about twenty-five years ago, I scored a pair of LL Bean boots at a second-hand store. They are still my walking around in the mud boots, and they’re still in good shape. Our older son, who lives in LA, wore his Bean boots for years. I think he retired them last year when they became fashionable.


  13. Brenda Buchanan says:


    Your son is so right.

    It’s only fashionable to wear Maine couture when the larger society considers it unfashionable. When through some unfortunate coincidence our daily duds become hip, it’s time to pack ’em away until they go back out of style.

    We all learned that at morther’s knee, no?


  14. Joan Emerson says:

    No one has mentioned LL Bean tote bags yet . . . my wonderful Boat and Tote is going strong and looks like it’s well on the way to lasting forever!

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