The following is a guest post from Dottie, a regular reader of this blog, who is sharing some strategies for building a workable wardrobe. In this first part of a two-part series, she focuses on personal style, color palette, and other considerations that can help in the selection of clothing for a wardrobe that “works.” Dottie welcomes feedback from “Recovering Shopaholic” readers, especially those of you who have additional strategies that you’ve used for creating your own wardrobe.
For most people, building a wardrobe that really works may take years of trial and error. A lot of what we buy for our wardrobe is driven by what’s promoted as the latest fashion – and as this is constantly changing, it can be confusing when faced with so much choice. Just think of the options available for jeans: Slim leg or skinny? Dark wash or distressed denim? Bright colors or patterns? Coated or not? Mid-rise, low-rise, or natural waist?
One approach to building a wardrobe is to buy what fits and works within your budget. But you can end up with a lot of clothes that don’t work well across your wardrobe. When I was just starting to build a wardrobe for work years ago, I bought items in pairs – a top and a skirt or pants, for example. I made an attempt to purchase clothes in a particular color palette (the wrong one, it turns out). But, looking back, there was less cohesion – less of a wardrobe than a collection of odds and ends.
It took me quite a few years before I figured out what clothes worked for me and which ones didn’t. Part of this was a process of trial and error, but I was also helped in some strategic ways.
Here’s a short-cut guide, based on what I’ve learned over the past few decades, to developing a workable wardrobe. Focusing on these key areas worked for me – and may work for you.
1. Identify Your Personal Style
This seems like a no-brainer, but finding our personal style can be a challenge. Sometimes we are drawn to a friend’s personal style only to find that what looked so sensational on her just doesn’t work on us. I have a friend whose personal style is composed of dramatic, edgy clothes. Some combination of body type, facial structure, hairstyle, lifestyle, and personal vibe all contribute to making this style all her own. Meanwhile, I wear classically styled clothes with a feminine sensibility – soft blouses and cashmere sweaters with charcoal gray trousers, navy suits, and straight-leg dark wash denim. Again, some combination of facial structure, body type, lifestyle, and personality make this style all my own.
There are lots of resources to help you find your own personal style, and there are consultants who can help you with this process. A loving friend (or sister?) who is not afraid of providing an honest assessment is also helpful. I love “What Not to Wear” because it demonstrates the process of finding one’s personal style. As Stacy and Clinton (the hosts of that show) say, you have to try on a lot of clothes, including some you might not naturally be drawn to, in order to see what works and what doesn’t on your body.
The critical part of finding your own style is to focus on what works for you, not what “fashion” says you should be wearing. It takes confidence to develop and maintain your personal style. This doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt your style as fashion changes; having a personal style means knowing which fashion trends to embrace and which ones to adapt or ignore
2. Focus on “Your” Color Palette
The colors we wear near our face can either flatter our natural coloring (skin tone, eye color, and hair color) or drain the vitality from our faces. Color experts have divided the world into “cool” skin tones (blue undertones) and “warm” skin tones (yellow undertones). This works for women of all races and all skin tones. The “cool” and “warm” skin tones are further divided into additional categories which vary from consultant to consultant. But generally speaking, most women can wear a blouse of arctic white (cool) or winter white / cream (warm), but only one of these colors will flatter her skin, eyes, and hair coloring.
There was a lot of buzz some years ago about color analysis, and although there is still a lot of information available as well as consultants who provide this service, the concept of working with your most flattering colors seems to have faded to the background. This is too bad because everyone I know who dresses within her (or his) “best” colors always looks sensational.
Having a color analysis in my late 20’s is what made the biggest change in how I buy clothes. My new “cool” color palette included lots of colors I have always been drawn to (red, gray, and white). More interesting was the absence of a lot of “warm” colors that were then in my wardrobe (peach, camel, etc.). Within my limited budget, I replaced the clothes in the wrong colors, and vowed only to buy from “my” color palette. So I wore a “cool” navy blouse with my “warm” camel suit until I could afford to buy a navy suit.
The palette below (from tinysparklythings.blogspot.com – the other seasonal palettes are also shown there) has most of my colors in it. However, I further adjusted my palette so I could have a wardrobe of manageable size and because I didn’t like some of the colors, like all those pinks (I only wear icy pink). I limited the number of blues to my “best” colors and dropped all of the yellows and greens.
Buying clothes within a specific color palette is very freeing. My color palette is: black, charcoal gray, medium gray, light/silver gray, white, navy blue, medium (true) blue, icy blue, icy pink, blue-red, burgundy, icy violet, purple, and clear teal.
I organized the colors in my palette to “basic” or “core” colors: black, charcoal gray, medium gray blue-red, navy, and white. Most of my clothes are in these colors. I limit “accent colors” like icy blue (the palest blue), icy pink (the palest pink), light or silver gray, medium blue, etc., to blouses, tops, or sweaters. I have a few items in purple and clear teal, but I find mixing and matching with these colors more limiting than, say, medium blue.
Here’s another resource for do-it-yourself color analysis:
3. Know How to Enhance Your Body Type
I work in retail so I see a lot of women shopping for clothes. I am always surprised by the number of women who wear clothes that are all wrong for their body type. Some fashion trends work better for specific body types than others. A case in point is the current trend for skinny jeans. While body size and muscle tone can impact how one looks in skinny jeans, other factors include the length of your torso vs. legs, shoulder width, pant rise, etc. Ditto for boot cut jeans and so on.
There are ways to visually lengthen a short torso, diminish broad or sloping shoulders, or enhance a pear-shaped figure. There are websites that help you determine your shape and provide pointers on how to shop to maximize your assets
Here are some resources that might be helpful:
4. Additional Style Considerations
It took me years to realize that crew necks, boat necks, and shallow v-necks didn’t look good on me, so I limit my tops to deep v-necks, deep round (scoop) necklines, and deep square necklines – but not too deep that my cleavage is exposed. I also avoid turtlenecks (polo necks) but have a few mock turtlenecks for warmth.
Finding a flattering neckline is essential for showcasing your face. This is an interesting article on how to determine the best neckline for your face and neck:
This also has good information:
While I have a raglan sleeve coat (so easy to get on and off over a jacket), I avoid raglan sleeves in shirts, blouses and sweaters. I have rather broad shoulders, and I don’t need the diagonal line of a raglan sleeve emphasizing their width.
The links listed above for dressing for your shape have information about sleeves, bodice shape and length, and other details appropriate for each body type.
Skirt Length and Width
I opt for just below the knee in pencil and a-line skirts. I have a mid-calf skirt that looks fabulous with boots or tights and ankle boots. A-line skirts are almost universally flattering. Gathered and pleated skirts can be less flattering on some body types, especially if you have a tummy. Again, the proportion of your torso to your legs will help you determine the right skirt length. If you have great legs, well, then show them off!
Pants (Legs, Length, Rise, Pockets)
Lots of details related to pants can impact how we look in them. Pants with a low rise can make a short torso look longer – and make someone with a longer torso look out of proportion, depending, of course, on what kind of top is matched with the pants. Other details to consider are leg width, rinse, horizontal distressing, and front and back pockets (size, placement, flaps, detailing, etc.).
Front pockets that don’t lie flat can visually add inches at the hips. Where the back pockets are placed on jeans is also critical. Real Simple magazine had an interesting article on jeans with flattering pockets. Their guide to denim is a good style resource. Here is an additional resource:
Single or Double Breasted Coats and Jackets
I love double-breasted jackets, but not on me. I need a single-breasted jacket with three buttons to accommodate my curves. The extra set of buttons on a double-breasted jacket creates a horizontal look that I don’t need. I also don’t like the look of an unbuttoned double-breasted jacket – seems very “flappy” and ruins any definition at the waist. However, a double-breasted jacket can look sensational on a woman with an all-over slim figure.
I think a single, 3-button jacket is the most flattering for women, but they are hard to find outside of traditional suits. Too often 1-button jackets gape open across the chest or pull at the waist.
There has been a trend for longer jackets and longer cardigans or open-front sweaters. Proportion is critical when looking at jacket/sweater length. It’s very easy to wear a too-long or too-short jacket for one’s body type. For too-long jackets, adding a belt will sometimes work. Even though I have a curvy shape, I wear jackets that hit the top of my hipbones and look for dressmaker details at the waist – a belt, darts, and so forth, to accent my smaller waist. I have a friend who also wears belted jackets to add a waist to her tall, slender athletic build. Funny how that works!
Belts and Belted Clothes
The width, color, and fabrication should also be considered when adding this important accessory. I almost never use the belt that comes with dresses or pants (and I take into consideration the added cost of a new belt – if necessary – when deciding to make a purchase). Most belts that come with a dress or pants are too insubstantial for the job they have been given.
A belt can be flattering for someone with an ample midsection as well as help define a waist for someone with a straight figure. Paying attention to the scale of the belt is important. A curved belt like this one by Steven Collins can be very flattering.
5. Buy Good Undergarments
We probably have all heard the statistic that 60% of women in the US are wearing the wrong bra. This may be an understatement (no pun intended). Unfortunately, I can usually tell when someone is wearing the wrong bra. Having a fitting at a department store or lingerie specialty store is very important, especially if you gain or lose weight, have a baby, get older, etc. I wore a 36B in my teens and early 20s before getting fitted; I was actually a 34D – a pretty significant difference. The change to my silhouette was amazing.
Also get the right underwear to avoid VPL (visible panty line). Get at least one bra as close to your skin tone as possible. Buy a lingerie bag and wash your undergarments on a gentle cycle and air dry to avoid damage. Some people hand-wash really delicate underwear.
6. Maintain Your Clothes
An important part of your personal style is looking well-groomed. This means that clothes should be well-maintained and in good condition. Brushing suits, coats, and jackets after each wearing will add to their longevity and reduce the need for frequent dry cleaning (too frequent dry cleaning is not good for clothing). My clothing brush (see photo below) used to belong to my father and is at least 80 years old! Being well-groomed means sewing on loose buttons, making small repairs, laundering clothing according to instructions, and ironing blouses, tops, pants, skirts, etc.
Shoes and handbags should be polished and fixed as necessary. I prefer all-leather shoes and bags because they can be taken to the cobbler for new heels or re-stitching. I clean and polish my shoes with every wearing. If you have good quality, well-maintained shoes you can look like a million dollars even if your clothes came from a discount retailer. Worn-down, scuffed shoes can really kill an otherwise great wardrobe.
Knowing your own personal style, wearing the most flattering colors, dressing for your body type, getting adequate coverage and support from your undergarments, and maintaining your wardrobe are all key elements of building a workable wardrobe.
I wish you lots of fun and success as your build your own wardrobe.
Stay tuned for part two later this week, which focuses on building a wardrobe using a color palette, developing a 3-tier wardrobe, shopping for a workable wardrobe, and more!