Early on in my journey into minimalism I became aware of one particular facet of the movement – that of clothing and its surrounding ideologies.
And is it any wonder minimalists are concerned with the question of clothes? It’s an area where consumption has spiralled out of control. The fashion industry manufactures new trends at a dizzying rate, advertisers seduce us with images of the lifestyle that could be ours if only we bought the right things (and when we do buy the right things and we grasp at that lifestyle it becomes smoke between our fingers only to reform again just out of our reach, beckoning to us beguilingly from behind a different purchase), and the fast-fashion outlets of Primark, H&M, Forever 21 et al feed our orgy of consumption that goes forever unsatiated. And all this intersects with our lives lived permanently performed before the looking glass of social media. We see our image refracted, multiplied and shared in the camera flashes of numerous smart phones. When once a single dress could be recycled for a number of occasions, we now baulk at wearing it again. After all, everyone saw us wearing it at that wedding – not only the wedding guests, but all our friends on social media, and all the friends of those friends too. But why wear the same thing again when you can pick up something new so cheaply? Youtubers speak to the youth of their clothing hauls – surely the bulimic binges of a society struggling with disordered consumption. And what are we left with? Wardrobes full to bursting with cheap, badly made clothes we don’t really care for and a nagging sense of guilt when we accidentally let ourselves think too long about how those clothes were actually made.
It’s no surprise that Marie Kondo recommends beginning the process of decluttering one’s life by tackling clothing first. And upon confronting my wardrobes and drawers, I had realised I had a problem. I had so many clothes. But more to the point, I had so many clothes I didn’t even like. With clothes so readily and cheaply available, I’d slipped into the gravitational pull of the fast-fashion black hole.
To start with it had been quite fun to dabble in fast-fashion – there were so many things to choose from, so many things to try! It was all so cheap that I didn’t have to worry about buying something that wasn’t going to be a perennial staple. I could experiment with trends at no great financial loss. I knew it was unethical. I’d read the articles about what the pay and conditions were like for the people who actually make the clothes. But I’d told myself two things, firstly it doesn’t mean that conditions are any better in places where clothes cost more, it probably just means mark ups are higher. And secondly, there was so much coverage of poor working conditions that companies had to be more careful these days so conditions were probably better now.
However, the fun waned and fast-fashion fatigue set in. I could tell myself glib things but underneath, I knew I could be making better choices. I started reading things about the other end of the clothing lifecycle too and the burden being placed on the planet from the excess waste caused by all the discarded clothes. Also the fashion treadmill became tiring – fashions changed constantly meaning my fun new outfit was decidedly less on-trend in the blink of an eye. And the shopping experience itself was an ordeal. There’s nothing enjoyable about shopping in Primark – its daunting size, the rummaging through racks of clothes having to look at each individual label to find your size because invariably everything is on the wrong hanger, the changing rooms, the queues, the hordes of people everywhere all single-mindedly scurrying, delving, foraging for a bargain, leaving disarrangement and disarray in their wake. If the brightly-lit dystopia of a normal Saturday at Primark was filmed and put in a sci-fi movie we’d all be shaking our heads at the folly of the mindless masses.
But shopping experience and ethical considerations aside, as I followed the KonMari method and filtered and processed my clothes, I knew there was a fundamental problem underlying my haphazard procurement of cheap garments. When it came down to it, I just wasn’t sure what clothes suited me. I didn’t know which styles to go for and which to avoid. And I didn’t know what colours flattered me and which made me look peaky. No wonder I found shopping an overwhelming experience – when you’re not sure what suits you it leaves everything on offer as an option and that’s a lot to choose from. It’s not uncommon for me to spend an inordinately long time in a changing room swapping repeatedly between outfits thinking to myself “I just don’t know which one suits me more”. Thus, the fast-fashion ethos had been a less daunting way to shop. Don’t know which looks best? Buy both! It was all so cheap I didn’t have to worry about spending money on something that wasn’t quite right. Get a few wears out of it and it’s justified the meagre amount I spent on it. Fundamentally, I was fearful of spending a lot of money on something when I wasn’t sure what would be a wise buy and what would be a fashion faux pas. As I had stood surrounded by piles of clothes in my bedroom I had vowed to educate myself about fashion so I could make more informed choices.
As I continued my journey exploring the minimalist landscape, I signed up to various email feeds and soon discovered that the question of what a minimalist wears gets a lot of online air time. Only a few weeks after I stood despairing at the dismal state of my clothing this article arrived in my inbox and opened the door to a new approach to clothes. Clicking through the various links in the article was revelatory. I particularly liked the idea of a capsule wardrobe – how appealing to have a select few items of good-quality clothing that you really, genuinely liked and could mix and match with ease and confidence. It all seemed to be suggesting a more put together, stylish approach rather than the eclectic mishmash I had that left me feeling vaguely disgruntled. I resolved to look into these ideas when the time was right. And until then I put myself on a clothes buying embargo until I had things more figured out (an embargo that ended up lasting eight months!) And, I have to say, it felt really good to step off the treadmill of consumption. Previously, if it had been a while since I’d bought anything I’d start to get the nagging feeling that I should buy something new, just because…just because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re a woman – isn’t it about time you bought yourself some new clothes? Keep consuming and everything will be alright. It felt freeing to take a break, to have given myself a reason to not even bother trying to find something to buy. Obviously I’d need to buy new things at some point but I was going to wait until I’d looked into different approaches and ideas.
Initial direction and guidance came from a friend’s recommendation. She had had a colour analysis from House of Colour and was eagerly explaining the process and results to us over some drinks in the pub. She talked us through her colours, explaining which looked good on her and why, and showed us the little leather wallet of fabric swatches that matched her “season”. This was exactly what I needed! Someone to tell me what colours suited me! And the little wallet of swatches was just the sort of thing I love – cute, compact and containing wisdom. Knowing that this was definitely the first step I needed to take on the path to fashion enlightenment, I signed up for a class.
This was a divisive move. When I told friends I was planning on having a colour consultation the responses fell into three camps. Some thought it sounded a great idea and would consider doing it themselves, others thought it sounded good but recoiled from the consultation price of £130, and others thought it sounded a thoroughly ridiculous endeavour and told me I was a fool with more money than sense. Fool I may be but I was a fool with no idea what colours suited me. Somehow along the path to adulthood I seemed to have missed the life lesson where you discover what suits you. Maybe I was off sick that day. The amount of times I’ve stood in front of a mirror, with two tops in different colours, stuck in an endless feedback loop of repeatedly holding one then the other in front of me, just not knowing which looks best. I had a friend who would always ask me if what she was wearing matched or which colour shoes suited her outfit better. I don’t know why she insisted on always asking me because my response was always the same – I’d freeze, look slightly scared and confused at the same time, and admit, with a hint of embarrassment, that I had no idea which ones matched. She would then look aggrieved at my lack of helpful advice and also concerned about this peculiar form of colour blindness I seemed to suffer from. If only I’d spent less time skateboarding during my formative years and more time pouring over Just 17 then maybe I could have overcome this affliction.
Several friends who thought I was fully bonkers to spend £130 to have someone tell me what colours to wear offered to take me shopping themselves. They would happily point out what suited me free of charge, they said. These were kind offers but ones I was never going to take up. The fact is I very much enjoy proper instruction in an official learning environment. It’s geeky but I like it. That’s why I paid for ukulele lessons and pay an insane amount of money to go to a posh yoga studio despite the fact I could learn both of these from youtube videos. I like the ritual of going somewhere to learn something, the anticipation of receiving new knowledge, I like the space where the learning is done, I like the presence of the teacher and the way they impart their ideas, and I like the close proximity of other humans who also want to learn. (In case you’re wondering, the foray into ukulele playing was short-lived. But for those couple of months I really enjoyed being the sort of person who carries a musical instrument on the tube.) So rather than wafting round H&M with a friend pointing out stuff that might suit me, I wanted the full experience, I wanted the full weight of expertise and knowledge from someone whose job this was. If I was going to tackle my clothing quandary, I was going to do it properly. Then, with a full arsenal of information, it would be up to me whether I took the advice on board or not (I was always going to take it on board; I have a lot of respect for authority. Probably because I’m a first born child).
Before I had the consultation, I mused upon my current thoughts on colour so I could compare these ideas with what I would later learn. Here were my thoughts:
- Pale colours make me look washed out
- I’ve always stayed away from white
- Yellow is not my friend
- I’ve always liked green for it matches my eyes.
- Grey and pink have featured heavily. I don’t know if pink actually suits me but I like it.
- Purple eyeshadow is supposed to bring out green eyes.
- I like the Clinique True Khaki eyeliner
- I have no idea if red suits me.
- And that’s about it!
The day of my colour consultation dawned. I was excited to be going. I was looking forward to having a new experience and learning new things. Fresh-faced with no makeup on as instructed, I set out through the streets of north London and arrived at a house on an elegant street in Primrose Hill. Fiona, the House of Colour representative, ushered me to a room on the lower ground floor which had been turned into a consultation room. One other person was also there and she too was a teacher taking the opportunity to have the consultation during the half term break. Fiona began by talking through a bit of colour theory and showing us the colour wheel where the spectrum of colours were divided up into four parts, each labeled with a different season. This was it! This was the life lesson I’d missed somewhere along the way! Actual proper instruction underpinned by actual theory! The main premise came down to the fact there are warm colours and cool colours; the seasons autumn and spring were ascribed to the two categories of warm colours and winter and summer denoted the two sets of cool colours. The idea of the consultation was to ascertain whether you suited warm or cool colours, then narrow it down to which season worked best, and within that season work out the quantities of each colour that would specifically suit your skin tone. I had heard talk of the idea of warm and cool colours before but I had no idea what colours counted as which. Indeed it was interesting to see that most colours occupied space in all the four seasons, but whether a colour would suit you or not depended on the shade and tone. Fiona demonstrated the warm and cool colours on herself, saying it’s often easier to see the difference the colours could make on someone else rather than ourselves. She said one’s own judgment can be clouded by personal preferences for certain colours or influenced by previously held assumptions. She held an array of bib-like drapes of fabric around her neck for us to see the contrast. And yes, held against her I could see how the warmer tones were much more flattering. She pointed out how the wrong colours made the fabric seem cheap and garish whereas the right colours seemed more balanced and sophisticated.
Then it was our turn. Katerina, my fellow consultee, went first. Apparently, she would be more straight forward as her hair wasn’t coloured – my dyed hair would skew the results and thus need covering. Katerina already thought that her season was autumn but she was hoping for confirmation and to better understand the full range of colours that she could wear. And as Fiona began draping the different coloured fabrics around her neck it became obvious that she was indeed autumn. I could see how those colours had a better effect on her skin. Draped in the wrong colours, the cool colours, she looked more washed out and the shadows under her eyes were more pronounced. Once she had been confirmed as autumn, Fiona took each individual autumn colour and, with an expert’s eye, declared which colours she could wear in which quantities. I was charged with being the scribe at this point; in the little booklet pertaining to autumn colours there was a table detailing each colour and columns denoting 25%, 50%, 75% and 100%. Regarding Katerina’s reflection while she was draped in a certain colour, Fiona would make proclamations such as “50% – would be lovely as a camisole under a jacket” and I, using a key of ticks and stars, would record this on the table. The colours recorded in the 100% column are one’s “star colours”. These colours can be worn top to toe, such as a high-necked dress, and are said to have ability to create radiance and garner compliments. The 75% column is for the colours that look good but maybe not for an entire block colour outfit, 50% colours would be good for a top or bottom half, and 25% colours are best for accessories and accents. There was further categorisation such as colours that would be best for casual wear or colours that should only really be worn below the waist. This level of detail and analysis was what Katerina had been after. Despite knowing she was autumn she hadn’t realised quite how many colours were included in this category or how she could combine different colours in different quantities. Makeup analysis was also included – Fiona selected a shade of foundation and blusher and applied a couple of different lipstick shades too. All of them suited Katerina and gave her features a little more life and sparkle. She regarded herself in the mirror, unaccustomed to wearing any makeup at all, she was quite mesmerised by the bold-looking reflection staring back at her.
After a quick loo and biscuit break, it was my turn. All throughout Katerina’s consultation I’d been glancing at the colour wheel trying to decide what my season would be. I still didn’t know. Would the more yellow tones of autumn and spring make me appear a little jaundiced or would the bluer tones of winter and summer make me look pale and washed out? Katerina said she thought I would be winter. Why did I have no idea? I must be seriously colour blind to my own style. But this was, after all, the reason I was doing this – to understand some principles of colour theory, learn some basic guidelines and foundations which I could take away and build upon, and have some much-needed practice getting my eye in. I sat in the chair in front of the large full length mirror and a white headscarf was tied over my hair making me look a little like a maid from times of yore. Fiona began tying the fabric bibs around my neck, one on top of the other, alternating between warm and cool shades. I squinted hard at my reflection trying to ascertain which suited me more. Fiona and Katerina murmured their approval at the cooler tones. By the time I had been draped in a multitude of fabrics I was beginning to see that the warmer colours made me look more sallow. Fiona then removed each scarf from around my neck in quick succession to give a rapid flickering good/bad effect. Declaring I was definitely in the cool camp, Fiona then alternated between the colours for winter and summer. It was decided that the brighter, stronger colours of winter suited me more.
Fiona then went through each of the 36 colours of winter, draping me in the fabric bibs and deciding which quantities I could wear them in. Katerina, who continued to steal looks at her made up face in the mirror, duly noted down the results. The bold, strong colours of royal purple, royal blue, dark emerald, lobelia (which I’d never even heard of before), fuchsia, raspberry and carmine were my star colours. These were not the sorts of colours I would naturally gravitate towards. I realised I was going to have to be braver to override my natural inclination towards less bright, less attention-grabbing colours. Greys were confirmed to be a good choice which was a relief considering my life-long commitment to grey clothes. It was also a relief to hear that I could wear black (apparently winters are the only season that can) which is convenient as it’s a good staple. Although I did find this surprising as I’d always assumed black would wash me out. It was the same with white, another colour I’d assumed my pale skin would need to avoid, the soft whites of linen and lambs wool are apparently fine for me in smaller quantities. It was also interesting to see that I could wear very pale, ice colours. There’s no way I would have thought those suited me but, again, in smaller quantities, maybe as a top to wear under a jacket or as an accessory, these would provide a good contrast to the strong colours that I could wear in larger quantities. It was somewhat unfortunate to discover that I’ve been dying my hair the wrong colour for approximately the last 15 years. Warm red tones are out, cool brown shades are in. Ah well, you live and learn!
Then it was time for my makeup. We’d been told to come to the session bare-faced so an accurate assessment of our skin tone could be made. First primer and foundation were applied. The name of the foundation Fiona selected for me, China White, gives you some idea as to my lack of swarthiness. Fiona added some flattering blusher and suggested I was the sort of person who needed to wear blusher in order to lift my complexion out of the realms of the undead (she didn’t word it quite like that but that’s what I inferred). Then it was lipstick time. I’ve never been very good with lipsticks. Eye makeup has always been my forte; I have an extensive collection and am confident with its application. So I’d always sort of avoided lipsticks assuming that in combination with strong eye makeup it would be a bit much. But also when standing in front of row upon row of lipsticks in a department store display I’ve just never known what colour to go for. Safest to stick to some faintly tinted lip balm, I’ve always thought. But with Fiona matching the lipsticks to my complexion suddenly I had the gift of certainty and confidence. I bought two lipsticks, a lipliner and a blusher. House of Colour have their own makeup range and although it’s not the cheapest in town, I decided it was just easiest to buy these precisely matched shades that I knew flattered me rather than later dithering in Boots wondering if the cheap makeup I was clutching really did match the colours in my little booklet.
With the makeup purchased and my little wallet of winter season colour swatches and the booklet containing the colour ratings, I finally had the knowledge I needed to start making more informed choices about clothes. I now knew what colours suited me and what to avoid. I knew which colours I should wear in which quantities and how to combine different colours. I knew the full spectrum of colours that were available to me and it was so much more varied than I’d expected. And, most importantly, I understood the principles and theory behind it all. So impressed was I with the service and all that I had learnt, that I signed up for the style consultation class there and then. After all, I was as clueless about what styles of clothes suited me as I had been about what colours suited me. I didn’t want half measures, if there was more information and knowledge to be gleaned then I wanted it.
When I got home I compared various items of clothing to the swatches in my wallet. I was interested to see that actually more clothes than I might have expected did in fact match my season. Maybe I’d had more of an idea than I’d thought I did. Although there were a few notable exceptions – I’d always thought browns were pretty good on me but they’re a no no for winters and the green I’d always favoured, khaki green, was also not in my season. This was causing a serious malfunction in my logic circuits – on the one hand, for my sense of order and equilibrium, I needed to be able to trust Fiona’s authority on this matter but on the other hand lots of people had always told me that that particular green looks good on me. I resolved to ask her about it when I went back for the style consultation.
My homework from the colour consultation was to wear the lipsticks every day for three weeks. They looked disconcertingly bright in the familiar environment of my bedroom but, being a goody two shoes, I would dutifully fulfil this homework assignment. I guess after wearing them for three weeks you get used to looking more vibrant and become more comfortable with the more colourful you.
Overall, the colour consultation was great fun and so informative. I felt like I came away from it with a new found sense of clarity and understanding. I now had some guiding principles to go forward with. There’d be no more standing in a changing room confusedly flitting between different coloured tops with simply no idea which to buy. Instead I’d just compare them to the colours in my little wallet and viola! Decision made! Rather than the haphazard array of mismatched clothes I currently owned I could slowly, as finances allowed, work towards building a wardrobe with a sense of cohesion and harmony where clothes complimented each other rather than bristled acrimoniously and refused to get along. Finally the clothing cold war, the unspoken hostilities between me and my garments, was coming to an end; we were entering a new and hopeful period of rapprochement.