Having just about got my eye in with the colours, it was time for the next stage of my quest to discover some sort of style and fashion know-how. I’d been so impressed with the colour consultation from House of Colour, that I’d booked in for their style class which promised to help me understand the language of clothes. Like with all foreign languages, I didn’t appear to be a natural with it. In fact, I’d say my understanding of the language of clothes was about on a par with my French: extremely basic but able to get by while being expressed with faint embarrassment. My clothing comprehension was the equivalent of being able to awkwardly order a ham and cheese baguette at a service station somewhere in France. I don’t particularly like ham and cheese baguettes but when hungry it would suffice. That’s basically how I felt about all the clothes in my wardrobe.
I had been keen to go shopping straight after getting my colours done but I had held off, knowing I needed to wait for the style class. Without this key part of my education, there was every chance I might end up buying things in the right colours but in an unflattering style.
Decluttering my wardrobes with the KonMari method had shown me I was a bit lost with knowing what suited me. Historically, I’d favoured a tomboy approach to fashion but I had also attempted to experiment with more feminine looks. However, whether tomboyish or not, everything I owned seemed a bit too youthful. I needed something to reflect my age, I needed to know what would be stylish and flattering as I approached my 40s.
Before the class, I tried to muster some thoughts about style and what suited me. I considered that showing off my slim waist was a good idea. However, slowly but surely I’d slipped past the age for crop tops (plus, it’s not the 90s anymore). I also couldn’t do things that required much cleavage as I am not asset-rich in that department. Possibly due to my lack of womanly curves, I have to be careful not to end up looking like an awkward teenager when wearing dresses. Although I sometimes try to wear skirts, in general, I’m just not a massive fan of them and much prefer trousers. This is mainly because I like to sit like a man. It’s comfortable and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that crossing your legs gives you varicose veins. I’d always thought that trousers that were fitted around the bottom and with a bootcut were flattering on me (again, though, it’s not the 90s, love.) Recently I’d gone for mum-style jeans, which are much roomier around the bottom and hips, as they’re in fashion. But as a work colleague said to me, “You’re almost 40, you’re much too old to be trying to follow fashion. Go for style instead, good style never goes out of fashion”. She speaks the truth.
Should I be going for girlier shoes, I have often pondered. My more feminine friends tend to disapprove of my sensible footwear. But I have a lot of dedication to flats and have never managed to cultivate that cliched love of shoes that so many women seem to be afflicted with. I love to both walk and dance so comfort is my number one priority.
And I actually have really no idea about what tops look good. For work, I tend to favour a vest top with a looser chiffon type blouse over the top. But for casual or going out tops I have no clue. I don’t really have anything I’m happy with or that I would consider stylish. Help was needed!
Before the session I was a tad worried about my fellow consultees. I knew there would be about three other people there and I was concerned they’d be a group of friends who would whisper behind their hands, scornful that I was there. Two decades of being dismissively told “You’re so lucky, you can wear anything because you’re a skinny bitch!” does make one a little wary of conversations surrounding clothes. It’s also really hard to know how to respond to that statement. I normally just favour a weak, nervous laugh.
On the day of the consultation, I arrived back at Fiona’s abode and was introduced to the other women. I needn’t have worried, rather than a close-knit group of friends they had also all come as individuals and were a range of shapes and sizes. They were all remarkably similar to me in that we were all professionals in our mid-to-late 30s and early 40s. And each said they felt quite lost and clueless about clothes, stuck in a rut and unsure how to dress for their shape and age. Phew, not just me then!
We all sat down and were handed our work booklets. The first pages required us to discuss our objectives for the day and describe how we want to be perceived. I explained how my journey through minimalism had brought me here and how my realisation that I needed some education about style dovetails with the minimalist ideas about owning fewer, better quality clothes that you love. As for how I want to be perceived, I decided upon cute, stylish and nothing that requires too much effort! I also need to adhere to the dress code at school and take heed of the fact that I teach a lot of teenage boys. Interestingly, everyone else also mentioned their need to dress in relation to men. They worried about trying to make sure tops weren’t too tight or revealing and that skirts were appropriate for work. And they spoke of trying to get the tone of professionalism right when they might be the only woman at meetings, of trying to walk that fine line between not being too casual and not being perceived as too stuffy and buttoned up. How interesting, I commented, from a feminist perspective that we should all reference our need to dress in relation to men’s perceptions, whether that’s the teenage boys in my classroom or all the men in the boardroom. Everyone looked faintly like they agreed but clearly no one else wanted to discuss feminism and the sisterhood and would all rather be talking about clothes. Which was fair enough really considering that’s what we were there for.
We perused the lifestyle pie chart which was next in our workbooks. The idea here is that you shade in sections of the pie chart according to where you spend your time – be that work, home, social activities, hobbies or holidays. The areas where you spend most of your time should have the most money channelled towards them. After all, there’s no point buying loads of party dresses if you actually very rarely go to parties. Luckily there is some clothing crossover for my pie chart – most of my time is spent at work (boo) but those clothes can be shared with my hobby of swing dancing. The fact that there was a segment of the pie chart dedicated to home reminded me that I needed to get something comfortable but not too slobby to wear around the house. My default home-wear is to languish in tracksuit bottoms and a hoody. However, Marie Kondo says this is to be avoided if you are trying to create your ideal lifestyle. She says that what you wear in the house impacts on your self-image and the fact there is no one there to see you makes it all the more important to reinforce a positive self-image by wearing clothes you love. The importance of not going to seed when home alone is echoed by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book on creativity “Big Magic”. In order to entice creativity and inspiration to come to you, you should seduce it by presenting your best self, she says. Take a shower, put on some nice clean clothes, do your hair, makeup and accessories and you will draw creativity to your side. Sprucing up my loungewear could help me feel good about myself and my appearance on a daily basis rather than just when I dress up for going out (I’m always quite surprised at how well I manage to scrub up once I actually put some effort in!) Plus, it would remove the embarrassment I feel when I’ve popped out to the shops looking scraggly and then bump into someone I know.
Skim reading over the page in the booklet about capsule wardrobes made me realise that I had a lot of shopping to do. A capsule wardrobe was one of the minimalist ideas I had wanted to embrace but looking at House of Colour’s list of recommended items I saw that I didn’t really have any of these basic staples. Nothing about my mishmash wardrobe, that at best could be described as eclectic and at worst schizophrenic, said chic mix and match style. There was even a handy grid in the booklet so you can create a visual checklist of what items match each other. It was all so formalised and logical – something I find very appealing!
Fiona then led a discussion about the importance of budgeting and buying investment pieces and gave us tips on the various ways we could tell if a garment is actually good quality. She encouraged us to move away from the habit of buying lots of cheap clothes and move towards a more intentional mindset of buying good quality clothes that will last and will work cohesively with the rest of our wardrobe. She also gave us tips on how to get the most out of the shopping experience, such as to go round the shops about once every six weeks, to wear appropriate clothes and makeup so you can properly assess if things match, and to buy items when you see them rather than panic buying in the run up to a job interview or party – something I’m definitely guilty of!
We also discussed wardrobe management which included the advice to file your clothes into categories, just as Kondo recommends. There was also the good suggestion of creating a pending section to hold clothes that need something doing to them. This would alleviate the severe vexation of hurriedly pulling out a blouse only to discover that you never did get round to sewing that button back on.
Apparently, 55% of the first impression you make comes from your appearance, with what you say actually counting for very little, so it’s easy to see why clothing matters and, especially in a professional context, why it’s important to strike the right note with your attire. Fiona explained how items like shoes help connote status, authority and attention to detail. Some of the advice had quite a psychological basis. For example, the idea of neck adornments such as necklaces and scarves conveying a sense of jugular protection and authority. Continuing the idea of symbolic protection, apparently, your bag represents your shield so you should make sure it’s up to the job. Using a variety of different bags, Fiona demonstrated how different ones can create different perceptions about you. And apparently what comes out of your handbag is your entrails! Previously my entrails had been a scrumpled mass of receipts, semi-used tissues and rewrapped used chewing gum. However, since reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, I’d tried to implement Kondo’s rule on emptying your handbag every night which means I have a chance to process the day’s detritus.
Then we looked at a checklist for creating an interesting appearance. You basically get points for how many interesting features you combine in your look. I scored a paltry three for wearing make-up, rings and a watch. It would appear that I counted as “underdressed”. Foul! I called when one of my fellow consultees got a point for her curly hair. I have curly hair too!, I objected. I have big curly hair, it’s a thing! I took it down and shook it out. I was then granted an extra point. This gave me pause for thought – considering I count my hair as a feature it would seem that I need to be making more of it. I conceded that having it pulled up in a scrunchy isn’t exactly showing it off. Unsurprisingly, I received no points for my battered Keds sneakers or denim rucksack. I watched as one of the other women harvested points for her nice bag and cute little ballet pumps. It made me see how the little things can make a difference to your overall look. The fewer points you have accumulated for your appearance, the less ready or authoritative you seem. Fiona demonstrated this by removing points from herself. She removed her lipstick and jewellery, swapped her stylish jacket for a drab cardigan, and changed from smart, cool shoes to older, dowdier ones. It made such a difference to her appearance. She went from put-together, professional and stylish to looking like someone’s ordinary mum. If she’d looked like that to conduct the class, there’s no way I would have put faith in what she said which goes to show the difference your appearance can make to your authority.
After much discussion and expounding of theories and principles, we were ready to start identifying our own personal styles. I was raring to get going – enough chit-chat, tell me more about me! We had been instructed to wear something that showed our body shapes so, one by one, wearing leggings and vest tops, we all took our places in front of the full-length mirror. In our booklets, there were diagrams of five different body shapes. These weren’t the usual pear, apple etc but had names such as “sharp straight” and “soft curved”. Fiona talked us through her assessment of each of us. Pointing out my angular shoulders, Fiona deemed me to be sharp straight. Within sharp straight, there were the subcategories of rectangle or triangle, with my small waist putting me within triangle. Then it got even more technical and specific. Fiona pulled out a tape measure and began measuring different segments of our bodies – from head to bust, bust to leg break, leg break to knee, and knee to toe. With all the information collated, Fiona described, with an impressive and reassuringly thorough level of detail, what we should embrace and what we should avoid in order to create balance for our proportions. The analysis covered everything from where detailing on clothes should go, where belts should be worn, what sort of necklines worked best (I should go for high & tight or angular necklines and avoid curves or drapes), flattering coat, skirt and dress lengths, right down to what length of boots should be worn. Just like with the colour consultation, it was this sort of precise in-depth analysis that I was after. We all had different body shapes which were useful for seeing and understanding why some things worked for some people and not for others.
Fiona also scrutinised our faces to determine their shape. Despite poring over countless articles in magazines over the years to ascertain my face shape and its corresponding flattering hairstyles, I’d never been entirely sure what I counted as. The choice of ten different face shapes in our booklets was much more nuanced than those I’d seen before and I was declared to have a diamond face with an angular jaw and average to long neck.
Included in our booklets was a quiz to determine if we were yin or yang personalities. Who doesn’t love a good personality quiz?! There were 20 sets of binary opposites and we had to say which side of the opposition we fell under. We discussed each one which was useful as some of the questions weren’t what I’d thought they’d be. One opposition asked if we were formal or informal. I had been all ready to put a tick in “informal” assuming my preference for informal casual clothes would yield this result but, in fact, it was nothing to do with that. Fiona posed the question “Would you like it if someone dropped round your house unexpectedly?” Nope, not at all – which thus put me in the “formal” category. One of the oppositions was “mature and sophisticated” vs “natural and youthful”. Fiona proposed that I would fall under the “natural and youthful” category and hesitated to see whether I would agree with this assessment. No one has ever accused me of being mature, I assured her. One I was thoroughly stuck on was “risk taker/rule maker” vs “plays safe/follows instructions”. Now I’m a big believer in following instructions. Instructions are there for a reason, people. They’re so informative, so helpful! Yet on the other hand, I have been known to take some astounding risks. Like the time I taught myself to ride a motorbike, a ridiculously huge Royal Enfield Bullet which I couldn’t even lift off the ground, and then drove it over the third highest motorable road in the world (the scar on my ankle is a testament to how that adventure ended). I recounted the motorbike story and everyone decided that my smug adherence to instructions was definitely trumped by the undertaking of such activities and I was placed squarely in the risk-taking category.
The “chucks out” vs “hoards” opposition was interesting. I used to be a hoarder (not in a getting suffocated to death by piles of newspapers way, more in a “I should probably keep this because one day it might be useful” way) but now, as a minimalist, I’m definitely more in the chucking out category. Should I choose what I was for three and a half decades or what I’ve been in just the last 12 months? Fiona suggested I should go for “chucks out” as, after all, something must have drawn me to the minimalist lifestyle. Then there was the opposition of “decisive” vs “indecisive”. Well, sometimes I can be decisive – if I weigh up all the options and there is a logical conclusion then I am very decisive, for logic and reason has spoken. But if there’s no obvious answer, well then yes, I can be terribly indecisive….as I continued to mull upon this out loud, one of the other women turned to me and pointed out that if one can’t decide whether they’re decisive or indecisive then that’s pretty damning evidence for being indecisive. Ok, yes, strong point, I’ll give you that. I glanced over her shoulder at her booklet – she’d already given herself a firm and resolute tick in “decisive”. We finished the quiz and added up all the points. I was a definite yang personality, the most so out of all those there.
With our personality scores added into the mix with our body shapes, it was time for the big reveal: what style category we would be. The different categories were: Dramatic, Classic, Natural, Gamine, Ingenue, and Romantic. There were mood boards for each of these styles depicting clothes that exemplify and flatter each one and also pictures of famous people who match them. My fellow consultees and I had already scrutinised these mood boards while Fiona had been upstairs making tea. Just like with the colour consultation, I had no idea which I would be. As we listened with bated breath, Fiona told us the category she’d placed us in and the reasons why.
I was “dramatic gamine”. This meant I was predominantly gamine but with some dramatic in me. We were handed information sheets about our styles. I was pleased with mine – the words to describe gamine included quirky, neat, impish, boyish, youthful, witty & fun – I could definitely work with this! Like everything in the consultation, it was unexpectedly and impressively thorough giving specific advice for ensuring a gamine look in everything from fabrics, patterns, shoes, accessories and more. But here was an anomaly! Hairstyle: “Short, neat and snappy”. My hair, long and curly, was definitely not this. Fiona reassured me that my hair could count as a dramatic element of my look. Other elements of dramatic that I could consider adding included sharp angles, contrasting colours and “zany” fabrics and details. Once again, I realised I was going to have to be braver. Never quite knowing what suited me meant I had tended to shy away from anything too outré for fear that I would draw attention to myself for the wrong reasons. A useful section on the sheet was what to avoid – for gamines that’s anything too loose or baggy, anything that would swamp our neat, fitted look. I was relieved to see that trousers are a particularly good look for gamines and that we’re advised to stay away from shoes with very high heels. Finally, a bona fide get out clause for my aversion to high heels! Although, it also stated gamines should avoid shoes that are too clumpy and I thought guiltily of my Dr Martens.
As part of the consultation we had been told to bring three items of clothing for review – one item that we thought looked good, one item we were unsure about and, if possible, something we didn’t think worked well for us. I had settled upon three different pairs of work trousers and had thrown a shirt in too. We changed into our different items and all discussed what worked, what didn’t and why. I started with the pair of trousers I didn’t particularly like. However, my reservations about them turned out to be unfounded – everyone agreed that the slim-fitting, tapering legs matched my gamine style, was flattering for my figure and the turn-up detail on the bottom counted as cute styling. I had clearly judged these trousers much too harshly! Then I swapped to the pair I thought looked ok – a pair of bootcut trousers. But oh no! Everyone said these were much less flattering. I had thought the bootcut looked good and provided more balance than the slim-legged ones but apparently I was mistaken! There was too much fabric at the bottom and it was too loose, they looked all flappy and had too much movement, they said. Oh dear! Clearly I had no idea what suited me! But hence the reason for doing this consultation. Then I put on the trousers that I was pretty certain looked good and added the shirt too. This combination of shirt and trousers had drawn many compliments at school. The trousers were khaki green and the pattern on the shirt also contained this colour. This was the colour I had been baffled about after the colour consultation for this green was not a winter season green yet people had said it looked good on me. The collective complimented the look – the styling was perfect for dramatic gamine. The neat tailoring of the trousers and the shirt buttoned right up provided the boyish gamine while the geometric pattern on the shirt added a touch of dramatic. This was a winning combo. But what about the colour, I enquired, don’t you think it matches my eyes? Fiona pulled out the fabric bibs used in the colour consultation and draped me in the allegedly wrong and allegedly right greens. The difference was clear. The right green, the winter season green, was met with oohs of appreciation whereas the the wrong green, the khaki green, elicited hmmms of disappointment. The right green complimented my pale skin, they said, made it look striking whereas the wrong one washed me out. So it might match my eyes but apparently, it did nothing for my skin! I slipped out of the clothes and back into the trousers I’d arrived in. These were also given a critique for good measure – too shapeless round the bottom was the conclusion, not tailored enough, and should be made of stiffer material. Jeez, I’d thought these ones were ok!
The last thing we looked at was jewellery. Fiona adorned us in a variety of different necklaces so we could see how the same necklace could look completely different on different people. What looked interesting and fun on one person looked cheap and trashy on someone else and something that looked delicate and pretty on one looked lost and insipid on another. I discovered I needed necklaces that would sit quite flat against me and would hang around the clavicle. Also, jewellery that was too sparkly and feminine didn’t work that well with my gamine aesthetic.
With the session drawing to a close, we were given extra handouts on jacket, trouser, skirt and dress styles and final instruction on detailing and accessories – the shape of lapels, types of patterns to go for or avoid, and what style of handbags and belts would compliment our looks. Fiona also noted down which specific shops we should aim for to provide clothes for our style categories. This was useful as I find the sheer amount of shops to choose from quite overwhelming.
Then it was time to go. I emerged back onto the street at the tail end of the day. There was a beautiful light and the crisp, clean air seemed to heighten my senses as my head reeled, filled to bursting with all the new information I’d acquired. I’d learned so much I almost couldn’t process it all. I would need time to revisit my notes and let it all sink in.
When I got home I threw open my wardrobe and surveyed my clothes. I could see the problem – hardly anything was in my gamine style. Most things were too baggy and not fitted, tailored or neat enough. Of the few clothes that were in my style, most were not in my colours. I could count the items that matched both my style and colours on one hand. But this was great! I could now actually see and understand the problem!
The whole consultation exceeded my expectations, even more so than the colour consultation. The level of detail and analysis was such that I now have guidance and certainty in my styling from head to toe. Now when I go shopping I know what to look for. I can skim around a shop thinking, nope, nope, nope, oh yes – that would work! The time I can save now I don’t have to dither! The confidence I’ve gained! It’s a revelation! Now when I look at my clothes I look at them with newly literate eyes. Instead of a vague dissatisfaction, a nameless, formless malaise and ennui, it’s a specific, targeted, semantic understanding. I can look at an individual item and see the exact reasons why it works or doesn’t work. Clothing no longer speaks to me in tongues. I can now read and articulate the language of clothes and, with this new lexis, I feel as liberated as someone who has finally mastered the local lingo and gets a thrill from communicating and being understood.