Taking the shortcut to style

I just donated a stack of personal style guides I'd accumulated over the past six years. All of these advised the reader to begin with "Who am I?" and "What am I trying to say (in my visual presentation)?" in order to guide wardrobe choice, career success, eternal bliss.

One contained worksheets of questions that, if diligently answered, would take many days of analysis. I loaned that to Moira, who tried to skip to the end—she was impatient. "Isn't there a shortcut?" she asked with asperity.

Like her, women in the Passage do have a good idea of who they are, but are interested in an occasional tune-up, or want to handle a shift when retirement, career change or other transition happens.

When I saw those dusty guides, I thought about what I've been doing instead. Turns out three activities have replaced the books:

1. Read selectively

If you are what you eat, you also look like what you read. Even if idly grazing, the images go into the Shop Compartment of your brain.

After reading a stack of a daughter's British Vogues, Joanie bought a black faux-leather moto. It didn't breathe, resulting in sticky, sweaty misery—and, though Vogue editors endorsed "'tude past 50" , the jacket wasn't really her.

An image consultant told me to consult InStyle magazine to "keep my look contemporary". I have a deep aversion to the brand-screaming, celebrity-pandering, anodyne InStyle look.

I prefer to see what real women with highly-tuned aesthetics (rather than highly-paid stylists) wear, so shell out twice a year for a copy of "The Gentlewoman" to see a scientist or playwright in crisply beautiful clothes, even though I grumble that the pieces are so costly.

2.  Move beyond "body type" taxonomies

Most guides instruct you to identify you body shape. I have concluded I am either an hourglass, H, or pear.  On some days I feel like a trapezoid.

The Do/Don't Wear lists attached to the shapes are horribly prescriptive. I say, if you're voluptuous and want to wear a chartreuse satin blouse with a black and white polka-dotted pleated skirt, enjoy!

Despite their advice, I don't like to wear two items on top, such as a vest over a blouse. I'll bet you have a similar "Yes, but...", and I'd love to hear it.

At this point in life, you surely know, for example, that you're a different size on top than bottom. You're likely coming to terms with physical changes, though, and that takes honesty. Women would rather jump into a pool of starving piranhas than go up a size. So what? We need to pay more attention to fit and less to the size on the label.

Find what suits your life, fits well and makes you happy.

3. Find exemplars, not models

An exemplar is someone to whom you connect because you are like that too, not because she looks so fabulous. Helen Mirren in a bikini: estimable, but she is not going on my board because there is no way I could do that.

That's the difference between a model and an exemplar: the model is aspirational, and the exemplar is you on a good day. You have an identity, worked hard for it. You can't make a Grace out of a Frankie.

Your exemplar is the sage second opinion when you shop. I considered a J. Crew midi skirt with a ruffle. Right length for me, but I have nothing ruffled and... WWJD? (Jane Birkin; no sale.)

Those are the shortcuts, but just like cooking, some women enjoy spending more time and effort. My guides, placed on the bench in our building's lobby, vanished overnight!

There may be books you do want to keep; mine is  "A Guide to Elegance" by Geneviève Dariaux. I don't mind that it's dated (a "must" is a mink ascot!); Madame Dariaux writes from a unique, sometimes tart perspective. Besides, I paid $50 for a used hardcover first edition. I had first encountered the book in the library of a charming old summer home, in 1991, and had to have it. Now you can get that book for a penny.

So I am curious: What wisdom have you accumulated, with or without those guides?

I'll go first: Look in the mirror before you leave the house; don't forget the back view. Thanks, Mom.



Madame Là-bas said…
I like the idea of exemplars rather than following guides or looking to those whose lifestyles, income brackets and physical types bear no resemblance to our own. I used to buy magazines but now I find that I get many ideas from blogs. Funny, how I choose to read blogs by 60+ aged women with curly grey hair who usually are working to lose weight or to maintain a weight loss. What I have learned over the years is that it is all about the little touches:a scarf, jewelry, nail polish (if you like) and that you can never be comfortable with ill-fitting shoes.
Unknown said…
I agree with you even though I worked as an Image Consultant for many years and knew all the rules. At my stage in life I no longer care about rules. I was once described on a training course as a "long banana". I don't think so. I have found that with the passing of the years I am becoming more experimental with colour and shape. I find it fun.
Anonymous said…
I've just discovered your blog and I am enjoying it immensely! Thank you for this sage advice. By the way, I'm an inverted triangle; wide shoulders, narrow hips.

For me, I like Dame Judi Dench. She's short (as am I), was not endowed with a swan-like neck (same here), and has thickened about the middle (ah, yes...the bane of having children and being short and all of that). Although I am 21 years younger than she, I found her clothes in the "Marigold Hotel" series were most attractive and caused me to dig out some older clothing I had once bought, 10+ years ago, from Flax: linen, tight-ankle trousers and princess-seamed tunics that I once loved. They were fun to wear and very comfortable. This "look" looked great on Dame Judi and, I suspected, it looked great on me (regardless of what the Fashionistas may have decreed). I've been studying her style ever since. I may not have her clothing budget, but I find niche clothing manufacturers often have what I am looking for. ~ Laura.
Leslie M said…
From my mom: show a little bit of cleavage so your date won't notice your hips. (My husband loves that one.) Now, though, I stick with elongating silhouettes; sleek and comfortable.
Eleanorjane said…
I've come to swear by dresses. Currently it's maxi dresses (with short leggings underneath for comfort) for casual wear. For work, nothing is easier than a fitted, knee length dress in a heavy stretch fabric. I've got excellent ones in navy, burgundy and black which are all machine washable and don't need ironing. Basically any accessories work with a plain coloured dress and they can dress up or down.
I have admired Judi Dench in Marigold Hotel as well and the clothes she wore for the role. Be comfortable in your own skin and wear a pleasant expression.
Duchesse said…
Mme: Do introduce me to them! And I agree: ill fitting shoes make any woman look miserable. because she is in agony.

Josephine: "A long banana" wins the body shape prize. Possibly it was in your blonde era?

aoibhinngrainne: If you look at the current Flax line, you will see that is has not changed much, just different colours. It is a wonderful line for ease with interesting detail. I took Flax on a trip to India (before Best Marigold) and it was all I could stand to wear in the heat, and I was covered enough for cultural norms.

LeslieMilligan: Well, your Mom was a lot more liberal than mine! Now, tell us about those dates ;)

Eleanorjane: Smart move; I can't tell you how many dresses I have almost bought till I see a Dry Clean Only label. And soon, your time will be even more scarce.

Cynthia Washburn: Thank you so very much for the counsel about expression. I used to exercise in a studio in which many women- I suppose because of work pressures- scowled all the time. They had beautiful clothes but looked sullen. (I called them Pretty Miserable Girls.)

LauraH said…
What wisdom have I accumulated? Simple clothing dressed up with a bit of lipstick, jewellery, scarf, bag. Not very original but I wish I had landed on it years ago. Your blog has been a wonderful source of ideas and inspiration over the past few years. I feel better dressed and more myself than ever...and I'm now 63. And how did that happen? 😉

Love this post...I feel inspired to have a look at my own collection of style guides and see if any are worth keeping.
What I have learned about dressing...
Wear what feels like a genuine reflection of your personality and send the message you want to convey...
its pretty simple and minimalist now that I have retired.

Bloggers have replaced fashion magazines when I seek inspiration and often it may be a foreign or a French film.
Unknown said…
John Molloy wrote a dress guide for "working women" back in the '70's. It was my bible for most of that decade. Then in the '80's there were a gaggle of "colors and shape" guides that I would read. Then I moved to Southern CA from New York and really lost my footing for a while. Now it's exclusively fashion blogs which I have culled down to 5 or 6 that consistently offer good advice. As I now spend time in SoCal and Ireland, I need advice on two very disparate climates and cultures. I'm fortunate that I can keep closets in both locations! Truly enjoy your postings.
I've learned that it's quality over quantity - especially when it comes to shoes and purses (and I'm not talking about ridiculously priced "designer" bags) and secondly, make sure something fits properly and feels comfortable. If it's not working in the changing room it's not going to work in your day to day life.

I tend to stick to neutrals but a pop of colour always brightens things up.

And finally, smile - and get over yourself - no one else really cares all that much what you are wearing - and if they do they have a pretty sad life since there's so much more out there!

PS - agree with everyone about Judy Dench - I just LOVED those outfits she wore! I worked with a woman who dressed in that style and she always looked so stylish and feminine without anything being fussy - I especially envied her during our hot, sticky summers!
Duchesse said…
LauraH: What a wonderful place to be in, no matter how long it takes.

Patricia Wogan: I can't believe how seriously my friends and I took Molloy's "Dress for Success", at least till the sun set ;) And of course we all got our colours done. Now, I see women in dresses like the Wendy Rhoades character wears in "Billions" and I think Molloy would have had a heart attack.

Margie from Toronto: Many women are obsessed with Dench's wardrobe in that film; it is the work of costume designer Louise Stjernsward, but I will post on where to find similar.

I agree that people don't much care, in everyday life, what someone else wears, but for a handful of situations such as formal presentations, or job interviews the choice of clothing counts more. And, for me, when a man would show up for a date in a generally "Who cares?" look, it was a real turnoff. Well, most of the time ;)
Susan B said…
I've had it up to here with "body shape" advice...often conflicting and hard to decipher. A few shortcuts that I follow: balance the volume (I can't do oversized both on top and bottom less I get swallowed whole), one or two focal points per outfit (I will never be Iris Apfel) and avoid anything I have to talk myself into. Beyond that, I enjoy experimenting from time to time. I have yet to find my "exemplar." So few short, busty women whose style speaks to me.
A follow up - thank you for the information on the designer - I'd love a post on where to find similar outfits.

Perhaps I didn't express myself properly - when I said "no one cares" I meant in the sense that we don't need to obsess about following the latest trend, or spending money we don't have or being embarrassed to go outside because our bodies don't conform to those "perfect" bodies we are shown in magazines. I think we all need to be aware of how we dress for special occasions or for job interviews (we owe it to ourselves and to others to dress appropriately) and being a mess is never appropriate.

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