Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dear Mrs. Eccentric: Can I be your Case Study?

Susan Olding models a perfect casual look
  I've been active on the You Look Fab Forum for a while now, as many of you are - Gracey, it was a treat to see your thousand watt smile as a little avatar there yesterday! A while back forum member and professional writer Suz asked for my help in pinpointing/refining her style. This case was unusual for me and a first - Suz had no photo, just a verbal description of her memories of a couple of favorite outfits from years past:

"Outfit One: perfect fitting jeans (a true rarity, back then!), short houndstooth jacket (rather large houndstooth, not tiny), low heeled black ankle boots, black turtleneck, statement earrings. (Note: I had short hair.)
Outfit Two: A heavy silk two piece dress. Sleeveless (or maybe cap sleeve?) boat neck tunic on top, with a lightly gathered but slim midi skirt, in a soft blue grey.
Associations to Outfit One: clean, classic, mod (the boots, the turtleneck), androgynous, simple, (touch of) bold (jacket, earrings), textured (jacket), structure (jacket).
It’s a “dressy casual” formula look as per Angie; you would think it would be easy to duplicate it again and again. (Yet I have struggled over the years to do so).
Associations to Outfit Two: clean, elegant, simple, soft, understated, classic, drape.
WHY did I love outfit one? I felt free, as if I could move around easily and fit effortlessly into almost any environment. Despite being dressed very classically, it somehow felt as if it had a bit of an edge—perhaps because some of those pieces were quite current at the time.
WHY did I love outfit 2? Primarily drape of fabric, texture, simplicity, and colour.
Additional note: I believe my short hair added a tiny bit of "edge" to the dressy look of the silk outfit, despite its otherwise completely classic style."

Needless to say i was thrilled to be asked. It took me a while to come up with some insight as to what Suz seemed to be saying with these looks and how she could use them to go forward. But the penny did eventually drop - you can read my analysis below.

I've included a few pictures of Suz and some of her recent WIWs. Partly of course you're curious as to what she looks like - completely adorable! As all these looks pre-date my analysis, you can see she didn't really need to hear what i had to say. Student outstrips teacher as she explodes the 'recipe' to wear a jacket as a 'classic base' piece and wear a sweater, scarf, or skirt as her 'artistic statement' focus. Suz is starting from ground zero here, as well - she recently lost a great deal of weight, enough to require a complete wardrobe overhaul.  She's had no interest in style or fashion for the last decade or so, either. Suz shows how much you can do in a little time with smarts and determination!

My analysis follows. I hope you find it interesting!!!!

Susan Olding at Writer's Fest
It's not that exciting of a name, but 'artistic professional' is a great start as a style statement. Evaluating your two favorite looks it seems that the bulk or base of the look is made up of classic/professional type pieces of elements, with 'artistic' elements on top, as the 'frosting on the cake'. This is a great approach for you to take regarding your professional life, as the professional elements reassure your audience that you are reliable, stable, competent, etc., while the artistic flair reflects your role as a writer and the more fluid nature of your professional duties.

In these two looks i see the classic/professional elements as: emphasis on perfect fit and proportions, quality fabrications, attention to grooming (great, well-maintained hair), neutral & subdued colors, simplicity of color palette/texture/pattern/details.  The artistic elements would be the statement earrings, 'edgy' hairstyle, heeled ankle boots (the love of my life), and the bold jacket (larger graphic pattern).

Both outfits provide the 'pulled together' effect of a suit without actually being a suit. This, again, fits perfectly with your style statement - professional yet artistic. You acknowledge the usefulness and appropriateness of a suit, but prefer to 'create' your own rather than wear another's creation. But for quite a while i was a bit flummoxed as to how this provided any key to generating further outfits or new directions for your personal style. The obvious places to go would be two-piece dresses and wearing turtlenecks and jeans with jackets and ankle boots. But that's boring and overly formulaic.

Susan Olding models straight-up artistic style

Then I remembered a concept I ran across in Jennifer Robin's book Growing More Beautiful: An Artful Approach to Personal Style. She recommends adding a 'third layer' to outfits in order to create a more finished 'look'. So, to a tee and jeans, add a cardigan or jacket or a scarf or even statement necklace or earrings.  This third item can either tie the two pieces together (a print scarf which contains the two colors present in the tee and jeans) or provide the focal point for the look (your houndstooth jacket). Aha! The lightbulb turned on!

The underlying pattern or 'formula' you could work with goes like this. You are looking to create 'made up suits' (that's what i've called them for years, don't know why!) with this recipe: take two classic basics in quality fabric with perfect fit.  And add an artistic 'third layer'. Season to taste with wonderful, edgy, artistic shoes, jewelry, and scarves.

What does this look like?  Using your turtleneck and jeans from outfit one, you could add: a lighter colored faux fur vest, studded leather belt worn in the jean belt loops or over the vest, camel ankle boots and bold gold hoop earrings.  Or, using the same 'base', go with a cropped silver jacket like Angie's with black patent higher spike heel booties and a chunky, multi-strand pearl necklace.

To vary your base, you could swap out the jeans for a knee-length, denim straight skirt while keeping the black turtleneck.  Jumble a big silk scarf in autumn colors around your neck and pull on a pair of cognac tall boots. For a change to this look, simply swap the turtleneck for a white button down skirt for a brighter look.

If you wanted to pursue this type of dressing, here's some guidelines on pieces to look for.  First, 'base pieces': for tops, try tees, button down shirts, turtlenecks, simple blouses, shells, cardigans. For bottoms: jeans, trouser jeans, trousers, denim skirts, straight and a-line skirts should all work well. For your 'base' pieces the important points will be to really pay attention to fit, proportion, quality fabric and construction. Pieces that overwhelm your frame or come across as shoddy will undermine the 'professional' aspect of your style.

Then, you will want pieces that can 'carry a look'.  These articles will convey the 'artistic' part of your style message. Jackets, vests, scarves, this category you again need to pay attention to fit and proportion so that you are not overshadowed by your clothing. A helpful technique is to compare the scale of pattern and detail elements to part of your body. When looking at a paisley blouse, for example, any patterns where the 'paisley's are bigger than the palm of your hand will likely overwhelm. If you're considering a polka dot scarf, one where the dots are about as big as your eyes will bring them out - larger and the scale could look too big for your body. If you're interested in this concept, and it could be very useful to you as a person of smaller frame, it is covered in depth in The Triumph of Individual Style by Carla Mason Mathis and Helen Villa Connor. Again, quality fabric and construction are always worthwhile, though in this category i feel you can have a little fun as long as your base pieces are great. People expect artists to get a little creative, after all ; )

photo, stylist, model: Susan Olding
 In order to get some focus to this part of your wardrobe, creating an inspiration file of some kind will be very helpful. You want to hone in on the color palette you prefer and which flatters you, as well as the type of silhouettes, textures, patterns, and design details that you love. It's especially wonderful (and time-saving) when you can find designers or stores that provide pieces that work for you (basic and artistic), so keep an eye out for them.  And as fun as collecting inspiration can be, do not neglect getting out there and trying things on - a BUNCH of things!  It's very trixie to envision how clothing will look on us before we try it on, even more so when we're out of practice.

It is also important to keep in mind the 'background' which your base pieces will be providing when choosing your statement pieces. Angie's great silver jacket is the star when paired with a black turtle and jeans. But tossed over this concoction of complete sequin bombardment, it would quickly pale.  If you are providing a quiet background, quieter pieces will shine. This also allows you to create looks which rely on a great accessory to provide the focus. I welcome this approach on casual occasions or when it's very hot. A great fitting white tee and denim skirt can spark when paired with a silver alligator belt, big gunmetal pearl studs, and pewter metallic gladiator sandals. In a look like this, the accessories provide the 'third layer'. 

As a rule, when you allow accessories alone to provide the third layer the outfit will come across as very casual. On the other end of the casual/formal spectrum are structured jackets. Jackets also have professional, authoritarian connotations. So when you use them as the third layer the outfit becomes more professional and formal. A cardigan is less structured, and so less formal. By playing with the casual-formal balance created by your third layer, you can go show up at the great majority of your life without worrying about varying your 'base' all that much (unless you want to!) Having and using a 'recipe' like this for your dress also helps create your own unique personal style.

Others are much better at coming up with catchy, descriptive 'style statements'. But i hope this is clear and helps you with your style journey!


  1. This is great. I love your explanation of what makes/keeps the base pieces professional. It was very eye opening for me in that I often just associate suits and the like with a professional like.

  2. I was so honoured that Steph took me up on this request! Thank you, Steph!

    I found your analysis both astute and accurate. For years I had been mumbling to myself that I wanted a "suit that was not a suit." And I knew that I loved jackets and interesting accessories/footwear/hats, etc. (not that I often bought them for myself). Now I can see more easily how these vague feelings fit together, and why it actually makes SENSE to splurge on an interesting shoe (rather than settling always for the boring basic one) or on a special piece of jewelry.

    I'm also planning to take you up on your suggestion to make an inspiration file. This will be very helpful as I move forward on my style journey.

    I have yet to find the designers or shops that reliably stock or make the kinds of pieces that appeal to me (and fit) but I am already starting to feel much more myself in my outfits, but I still have a long way to go. I will keep checking in with you to let you know how I am progressing!

    Thank you, again, for this incredibly generous analysis! I am also very interested in reading the books you have suggested.

  3. Wonderful analysis and establishing the paradigm. I didn't expect any less! :D You are just brilliant at all the tricky parts. Set of accessories can function as a more casual third layer, huh? Wow.
    I often feel unprotected without that top layer but sometimes can come off too professional/ working a function instead of attending, which is all I am doing. Will have to try out bravely leaving off the jacket and going for accessories with impact.

    Lots of other great illustrations: an item receding or coming forward depending on what it is paired with. You really make everything so clear.

  4. "Suz shows how much you can do in a little time with smarts and determination!"

    Boy, does she ever. She's really nailed a wonderful look that says it all.

  5. Thank you Gracey! i'm glad you found this helpful....i wonder if this type of thing will be too 'thinky' or too specific for people to find it useful. it's nice to read your comment!

    Thank YOU Suz! i learned a lot and it was interesting in that your look and style is so unique, but at the same time illustrates some dilemmas/principles which apply widely.

    Vildy, youi are too kind :) i will be interested to hear how it works out if you decide to do the 'accessories as third layer' experiment. Feedback is golden, esp. with this type of investigation!!!!

    And you nailed it re: Suz. Quick learner for sure!!!

    Happy Saturday! Steph