(All pictures taken at Castle In The Air, a shop we visited on the Fancy Pants Tour)
Yesterday was another of ilegirl's fabulous Fancy Pants Tours. It was great fun, and i loved spending a day with wonderful women. To top it all off, after around three weeks of grey, foggy, rain we were graced with clear blue skies, gentle breezes, luminous sunlight on the cherry and plum blossoms everywhere. I just wanted to lay down and soak it all up!
Towards the end of the tour, ilegirl was telling me about how overwhelming it is for her to shop the thrift shops. It turns out that she inspects every article thoroughly - which explains the many outrageous finds she has in her closet! But on the down side, it is taxing physically, intellectually, and emotionally. And it carries a rotten sense of neverendingness which i abhor. I asked ilegirl if she had a plan....she struggled a bit, then laughed good-naturedly, "Well, obviously not a good one since i find shopping so overwhelming!"
Boy, can i relate. I spent many years taking the same approach to clothes shopping, driven by the sense that since i had little money i had to go full-bore in terms of time and attention to compensate. Decades later, i've found that to dress well you do have to put in plenty of time and attention. But scrutinizing every garment in every shop is not the wisest place to put that energy. Through trial and error, and experimenting with advice from various authors, i've developed a scheme which works pretty well for me. My scheme follows - i hope you find it helpful! As the saying goes, take what looks fun or useful and leave the rest.
I like to develop a plan at the change of the seasons, generally 2-4 times a year. First, i take a look at the calendar. What's coming up? What kind of weather can i expect, what type of activities, any special events? Right now we're heading into warmer weather, which means more hiking and barbeque type gatherings, possibly camping here at chez eccentrique. My grandmother's one hundredth birthday is coming up in September - just at the end of summer here, but given my difficulty in finding clothing i'll want to start looking/planning now in order to have time to sew something if i decide to. Will you be traveling for business or pleasure, and where? If so, do some research about the weather conditions, and also about the accepted norms of dress if you're unsure (especially for a business gathering or important social event like meeting your intended's parents). Note if you have any seasonal leisure activities, like backpacking or boating, which require special gear.
Using your notes, you can make a list of the type of outfits you'll be needing, based on your list of special activities plus weekly work/casual/loungewear needs. My list for summer looks something like:
10-14 casual/smart casual outfits
6-10 out to dinner outfits
2-4 walking in the heat outfits
2-4 first doctor visit outfits
2-3 50th birthday outfits
2-4 lounging/sleeping in the heat outfits
1 outfit for Grandma's one hundredth birthday
3-5 road trip outfits
Be precise where you can (the hundredth birthday, walking in the heat), and just give it your best guess for areas where plans aren't firmed up or weather is unpredictable. The Mr. and i generally take a few day trips and/or a couple of overnite trips during the summer months. But i have no real idea where we may end up. Cold, foggy, windswept Mendocino or sunny Santa Cruz? Who knows. I do know that i want some pieces that are comfortable to wear in the car, layer well, are easy to hike in, and look great. Do your best - it's a plan, not a legal contract.
To the closet! You are going to shop your closet to create the outfits on your list. Be sure to include accessories, foundation garments, socks, pocketbook, etc. Taking pictures of completed or partial outfits is helpful for creating your list as well as for times you're lacking in inspiration. Model them yourself or do 'polyvore on the floor'. You can also capture your outfits in writing.
As you go through this process of outfit creation, pay attention to any 'missing elements'. You may notice that you lack layering tees, or a strapless bra, or a denim pencil skirt, scarves, whatever. You may find that one particular item shows up in almost every outfit - this is a clue that another item which can play the same role will give you many new outfit options. Look out for 'partial outfits' - pieces that look great together but need the right tee, jacket, shoes, etc. to create a completed outfit. You may feel that you want more colorful outfits, or more neutral looks. You might think things are looking a wee bit dated and find you're open to more modern pieces. This is also a good time to inspect pieces for signs of wear that indicate the item is nearing the end of it's useful life or needs repairs. Make notes of all of the 'missing pieces' and 'elderly items' on a piece of paper (or in excel if that's your style).
I use my blog WIW pictures for this purpose, and keep a running tab of 'missing items'. Every week or so i straighten my closet, which involves handling all my different clothing items and keeps what i do have uppermost in my mind. If you have a handle on your style and colors, aren't facing any major clothing-related changes such as a new job, and your closet is organized enough that you know what you have you can get away without actually spending a couple of hours making outfits from your closet. But doing this task in real life is so worthwhile, and it's indispensable if you don't really have a handle on what's in your closet and your own personal style.
You will now use these notes to compile your list. To begin, it helps to group all of your missing items by type: tops, bottoms, outerlayers, accessories, and so on. Then, in order to help to focus your shopping, you want to get behind the individual piece descriptions ('blue navy tee', 'khaki button front knee high skirt') to the role you need your new items to play in your wardrobe.
This part is a little slippery to describe and tricky to do. You want to be precise, so that you don't have to scour every inch of every store in the land. But you don't want to be so precise that you won't be able to find anything suitable. The author of The Vivienne Files addresses this issue beautifully in her "Customizing The Classics" posts. In her post on the classic black turtleneck, Vivienne address the issue this way:
"On every list of clothing that you must own, you'll find a black cashmere turtleneck....But for a lot of people, black is bad, and for a lot of people a turtleneck is bad! But you DO need a sweater that's:
"The bottom line is that there are no hard and fast wardrobe rules. Try to determine the intent of the advice, and make choices which suit your specific and very unique needs and preferences."
I cannot say it any better! Vivienne has created a number of these posts, click here to see her archives of these posts. The more you use her concept in creating your list and in shopping, the more likely you will find pieces which suit you and are useful. You will also really decrease the time you spend shopping.
Here's one way it could work. Instead of listing "a white Brooks Brothers no-iron, tailored fit blouse with french cuffs in ivory", you would write something like, "structured, tailored blouse in light color and easy to care for fiber which i can wear comfortably in the heat". Now, if you have been wearing BB shirts for years and pat yourself on the back for your brilliance every time you take one out of your closet - by all means, go for the exact thing you love! But if you don't have a repeatable item like that, the second definition will serve you better. It will keep you focused on the important characteristics that will make sure the piece will do what it needs to do in your closet, while at the same time not putting undo limitations on your search. You need a new blouse and you want to find one you love, even if nothing in the store duplicates your preconceived notions.
I like to prioritize items on the list as well. Anything that will allow me to create multiple new outfits or replaces an aging wardrobe workhorse will go near the top of my list. Items that can't be fudged, like a warm coat or hiking shoes, also go to the top. But your list is your own list and your own priorities may be different.
At this point i'd like to discuss knowing your own personal style and what colors you want to work with in your wardrobe. Obviously, the more of a handle you have on your style and your colors, the more you can streamline your list and your shopping. That's one of the many benefits of doing the work involved in defining your style. But what if you're at the beginning of a style revamp, or in a new situation re: work, climate, etc.? People who are unsure about what comprises their style can't just go around naked!
I have a couple of suggestions. First, take a look at classic pieces and pieces in neutral colors. Classics and neutrals are the 'a la mode' of the closet. You can wear classic items easily with pieces from any style persona, and neutrals similarly mix well with a wide range of colors. No matter where you end up in your style journey, classics and neutrals can play an important role in outfit creation without defining your style.
The same can't be said for pieces channeling other style personas, like exotic dramatic or bombshell. At the same time, trying out items from style types you are curious about is one of the best ways to find out about your own style. So you may want to purchase a few pieces in styles or colors you want to try out. But to lessen possible negative impact, do this with less costly pieces and with pieces you won't have to wear every day (like a warm winter coat).
Next Up: In The Store