Every five years or so, I decide it's time to polish my personal style. This usually happens when I start to look teacherly (ugh!). It happened again recently, and I decided in my usual fashion to do exhaustive research and compile a list of action items. You all are the beneficiaries of my madness.
Finding Your Style
I highly recommend watching "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style" and "What Not to Wear," with special attention to the "rules" and "opti-scan" segments. Those will help you learn what looks good on your body. Stacy & Clinton's book, Dress Your Best, does the best job of going body-type by body-type and showing you pictures of things that will minimize your "flaws" (see also The Lucky Shopping Manual). Nina Garcia, however makes a point that your "flaws" may be what distinguishes you (think Frida Kahlo's uni-brow or Barbara Streisand's nose), so if you have ample hips, you might just want to show them off sometimes. The goal is to understand Tim Gunn's mantra "fit, proportion, and silhouette" as it applies specifically to you. Where does a well-fitting jacket hit on the shoulder? How should your pants lay? (hint: no gathering under the toosh or across the crotch) Where should jackets hit your hip? Where should your skirts hit your knee? What shapes of skirt and trouser best balance your frame? What size print is in proportion with your height? What kind of neckline draws the most attention to your face? (hint: it is almost always v-neck) Get to where you feel comfortable answering those kinds of questions about your body. It was very helpful for me to find a movie star with my body type and then watch what the costumers put her in in movies. Before you tell me there are no movie stars with your shape, consider boy-shaped Cameron Diaz, full-figured America Ferrera, top-heavy Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Connelly, petite Kelly Ripa and Sarah Michelle Gellar, curvy Scarlett Johanssen, tall Julia Roberts, and pear-shaped Heidi Klum, J. Lo, and Beyonce. You can also make note of clothes that look awful on you, as often their opposites look best. Do your own research until you feel like you know what you're looking for.
After you have figured out what looks good on you, the next step is to clean out your closet. I like to go one section at a time, so it may be advisable to start by organizing your closet into work and casual pants, skirts, tops, jackets, coats, and dresses. Start with the stuff that's been in storage longest since it will be easy to give away and will give you momentum. Try on anything you haven't worn in the last year, and if it doesn't make you look fabulous, give it away. If you find it hard to part with, wear it for a day and see how you feel--I'm usually happy to get rid of too-tight, itchy, or doesn't-go-with-anything clothes after I've spent a day dealing with them. Also give away anything you find yourself tugging at all day. Keep in mind Tim Gunn's guidelines of fit, style, and proportion. If it doesn't fit, or is ill-proportioned for your body-type, or is out of style, let it go. Do not save pieces thinking the style will come back around. It will come around again updated and your pieces won't work. If you still need help purging, invite a fashionable friend over to watch you try on things you wear often, but have never gotten compliments on (you should definitely do this if you are as fashion-impaired as the women on the makeover shows, otherwise you will end up saving hideous items). Finally, if you are a packrat, I suggest imposing an artificial limit of three similar items. If you have five black work skirts, and you prioritize them, you probably don't actually ever wear skirts 4 and 5. If they really seem like good, timeless items, or you're not wearing them temporarily, on a very limited basis you can make a "shopping in your own closet" box. This box is for things you can use when you wear out the things you are using now (i.e. you found the perfect sweater and bought two, shoes were eighty percent off and you bought five different pairs of black work pumps, etc.). There should not be more than one such box. If you go into it later and decide not to take something out to use, you MUST give that item away. When you finish, you should love getting dressed in the morning because everything you have in your closet makes you look fabulous--that's your goal.
If you have things that might be able to be repaired, follow Tim Gunn's rule that you should take them in within five days, and if you don't, they don't matter enough to you to keep. You may also find that you have things you would love if they were just hemmed or had darts added, etc. Your dry-cleaner can probably do these things, but it is well worth finding a good tailor if you aren't the fit model for your size. In the meantime, Nordstrom has an alterations department for things you buy (or bought) there (no proof required, but they're not going to hem your target jeans). If you have a small budget and a friend who sews, this may be a great option for you (I got a little black dress and fitted jacket for $20 through this option). Get everything washed, mended and dry-cleaned so you can have a clear view of what you own for the next step.
Cataloging (The Most Fun!)
So now that you only have things you love, you are hopefully developing a better picture of what your personal style is, as well as probably some gaps in your wardrobe. Lucky for you, I compiled everyone's checklists into one list of essential items with specific suggestions. I suggest also at least leafing through Nina Garcia's The One Hundred to see why the classics are classics, and to find out which are the best versions. It may help you picture good versions of basic items, and it has lovely illustrations. So take the list, check off the things that are already in your closet, and consider what you're missing. Try to visualize something that would add variety to your wardrobe and that follows the guidelines for things that make you look fabulous. You may now go forth, and shop!
From now on, you are shopping with a shopping list, like going to the grocery store. You don't wander around the grocery store when you are hungry--you end up with terrible things that all make you look worse. The same thing happens at a sale when you don't have a list. I suggest thinking of your closet as a sort of "fashion pantry" (even though you will all laugh at me). It works best when stocked with the things you always use. The more classic the piece, the more things it will go with and the longer you will wear it. Buy these classic pieces when they are on sale so your wardrobe is always stocked. This way, you can take your time building it up, and it will be easier to afford. This season will have many of the best deals you will see for years. Retailers bought their winter inventory before consumer spending tanked and will have to mark it down fantastically. They know what's up for next season, so the deals will still be good, but not as good as right now. Find out when your favorite retailer's "Friends and Family Days" are and sign up to get the coupon, since it usually applies to everything and goes on top of clearance (I'm not suggesting you buy everything on clearance, it's just that if you know when sales are going to be and you are planful about your shopping, you can avoid meltdown moments in the dressing room of knowing you have to buy something and can to splurge when you find the perfect thing at full price. It puts you back in control). If you don't have tons of disposable cash lying around, build a wishlist--the holidays are coming and Amazon now has its "Universal Wishlist Button" that lets you add items from all over the internet. Good luck, and enjoy!
Download the checklist.
Garcia, Nina, and Ruben Toledo. The Little Black Book of Style. New York: Rayo, 2007.
Garcia, Nina. The One Hundred : An A-to-Z Guide to the 100 Items Every Stylish Woman Must Own. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
Gunn, Tim. Tim Gunn : A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style. New York: Abrams Image, 2007.
Kelly, Clinton, and Stacy London. Dress Your Best : The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That's Right for Your Body. New York: Three Rivers P, 2005.
These I have not read yet, but they are next on my list because they have pictures of exactly what Tim Gunn recommends doing:
France, Kim, and Andrea Linett. The Lucky Guide to Mastering Any Style : Creating Iconic Looks and Making Them Your Own. New York: Gotham, 2008.
France, Kim, and Andrea Linett. The Lucky Shopping Manual : Building and Improving Your Wardrobe Piece by Piece. New York: Gotham, 2003.