The closet: Taking classics to current

I stand, nearing year-end, with a beady eye on my closet. Everything is, as my mother would say, "perfectly good", but is it current?

Sisters, I was served a wake up call, thanks to a stranger.  I was in a shop last week when a woman about my age walked in in a 1980s fur coat, matching fur hat, and patchwork cardigan. She looked very well dressed...for 1990. That was "classic", once, and now it's old-timey as a lorgnette. If she feels good in it still, that's her business, but I don't wish to follow suit.

To consider how to work with what I have, I looked for classic pieces like those I own, worn by women who have a decidedly modern vibe. No weird or unwieldy proportions, nothing short, tight and "cute": adult clothes, skirts at the knee, shoes to walk in.

Photos left, right: The Sartorialist
Left: Turquoise coat over black tank and an at-the-knee knit skirt with appliqué detail; white sneakers. A coat in an unusual colour is an outstanding update; Mom again: "Your coat is the first and last thing people see." White sneakers keep the whole thing casual, you can walk in them, and they're cool. I have the coat for next spring.

Centre: Judi! Ecru! I can't wear beiges but never mind, I wanted a reminder that neutral, tonal palettes always look smart, and admired Dame Judi's supple bag with no visible logo, charms or clunky hardware. (To get around the ever-climbing cost of quality leather goods, try consignments.)

But since I saw the locally-made Casgrain leather bag, which converts from tote to backpack, displayed at Lowell, I am coveting its clean chic:

Right: Classic black/white plaid reefer over black denim and a basic black turtleneck, and then... the red boots. Option: swap in any solid bright, and choose a lower heel, but that coat is much livelier than all-black, my city's default. That's Yasmin Sewell, whom I always find inspiring.
Shown: Vince Camuto Chelsea bootie:

When classic hits the wall

I've written about the generational marker of coordination, and which is still seen in certain sartorial circles. So sometimes I collect What Not to Wear images. All of these shots feature a classic trouser or skirted suit, and the rigorous coordination takes the lead in making them look passé:

Bright coordinates persist in department stores, sold by the same vendors that wonder why they have lost Millenials' business. The jewel tones are harsh, yet often chosen for the camera—they make it hard to look away. For women in public life, that might be the goal—but it's not modern.

Clinton is dressing differently in her post-election life. Now that every outfit is not chosen to telegraph some kind of message, she can wear more sober tones, as she did for an appearance in Montréal this fall:

She wil probably still coordinate her trousers and tops, because the unbroken column elongates her petite figure, but the grey jacquard is far more current than the mans' suit in electric hues.

That hypercoordination gets little play beyond those roles and some mother-of-the-bride outfits, and not by women under middle age. Drop by a pub or coffee shop where young adults gather, and you'll see black-and-white houndstooth with citron yellow; sky blue with taupe and a shot of coral; red with a green-and-pink floral.

You may notice combinations you never thought of, and be warned off any incipient matchiness except for all-black—they do wear that.

Accessories don't save everything... but close

On The Sartorialist, Scott Schuman shoots eccentric colour mixes and pattern, usually on lithe young persons, but also shares his deep knowledge of fabrics, tailoring and fit. Frequent reading has warned me off some mistakes, and fanned my longing for reincarnation as a Milanesa.

"Modern" means neither the shortest or tightest piece you can get away with, nor the trendiest. (Schuman has never photographed a cold-shoulder sweater.)

Below, classic pieces, but each sparked by current, high-quality accessories.

All photos: The Sartorialist

Left: Classic trench in gray plaid with metallic boots and shiny charcoal bag: playing with a tonal palette, but also texture: a master class in detail.

Centre: Menswear checks tweaked by a bold graphic muffler, good sunglasses—and the 'accessory' of a great hair cut. I'm eyeing this should it go on sale:

Right: You might be thinking, What accessories? Look closely and you'll see her big ring, and two bracelets (one, woven cord on her right, the other, a thin bangle). You could wear a mid-scale earring, or even a necklace, if you prefer nothing on your hand or wrist. of All-navy needs a little tarting up, makeup-wise—she has red lipstick—but poppy or a deep wine would work too.
Most women have more than enough clothes. As Janice of The Vivienne Files once said, "We tire of our clothes before they tire of us." We slip into a rut concerning how we wear them, so a single investment accessory can punch up any number of old favourites.

And, as I consider Fur Coat Lady, I realize that some "classics" have a dated cut that no accessory can modernize. Her sweeping fur could be renovated into a short jacket or vest.

The best, for last

Most of the women on my idea board are smiling, even Theresa May, suffering a grip-and-grin with Vladimir Putin. The open, natural smile is a free, magnificent accessory, so hang on to yours! It will lift and polish anything you choose to wear, and make you feel better, too.

"You don't need a thing", I tell myself, "except for a pair of metallic shoes—but it wouldn't hurt to smile more."



Rita said…
It seems women are constantly told to smile. I can't recall ever hearing that said to a man.
Susan said…
This is one of my favorite posts from your blog. I just finished a massive closet clean out and I am pleased with the results. Supposedly, everything left in my closet are things that are not only wearable, but I look forward to wearing them. You gave us some great ideas here. Thank you.

I have a couple of lovely leather jackets that are looking a bit dated to me. I've kept them for now, but don't know if I will be wearing them.
I'm surprised to see PM May in a bright orange outfit; usually she has much better dress sense. Wonder if the colours are a bit off (or my viewer) as the red in the Union Jack looks a bit orangey too.

And yes, that Brora scarf is magnificent.
I saw a woman in a vintage mink coat at Starbucks the other day and thought she looked incredibly chic...she had a scarf on her head like Grace Kelly wore in the early 1960's...big sunglasses and skinny jeans and I could not take my eyes off of I KNOW that I could NEVER pull this look off...some women have incredible "style" it must be in their DNA genes.

I agree with you about choosing some more contemporary accessories to add a modern vibe to update our look...
dressing in "matchy matchy" separates borders on frumpy IMO

That Brora scarf is sumptuous!
materfamilias said…
Oh, you could carry off the Brora scarf magnificently! I hope it goes on sale for you.
What a difference in those two photos of Clinton -- in the blue, all I see, at first, is the block of colour and only as an afterthought does my eye go to her face. With the second, I see her face first, enhanced by the rich neutral tone of her outfit.
So much of what goes into personal style is based on observation (or lack of it), it seems. You've obviously got an observant eye working all the time, and an ability to pluck out what works and take lessons from it to apply to your own wardrobe. This was such an inspiring post, truly. Thank you.
Duchesse said…
rita: I don't know if you worked in business, as I did, but in customer-facingroles such as sales and hospitality jobs, and in political campaigning when meeting the public, the men are often advised to smile, a nonverbal cue that telegraphs confidence and contributes to likeability.

Susan: Hurrah for closet cleanouts. Try the jackets and see how you feel...

lagatta: She wears some edgy-ish outfits, this is pretty garish.

hostes: I love this look you saw, it's the opposite of Fur Coat Lady.
Jane said…
Oh dear, everything looks so large to me! Large bags, long coats, huge mufflers. Guess it's because I am petite? I caught sight of myself in a mirror the other day and was aghast. I looked shapeless and frumpy. Too many layers on a cold day, small body. Sigh...
Here is a bit about Prime Minister May's fashion choices:

I'm very far from her politically; both Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (and Montréal mayor Valérie Plante) would be closer to my heart, as well as the crusty old radicals Sanders and Corbyn, though the latter are certainly not male fashion plates. But unless they are outright fascists, I try not to let my political orientation interfere there. In general I find May well-dressed among UK parliamentarians, and not terribly stodgy, on the contrary. Her height helps. So does her beautiful and well-cut lush grey hair.

Someone not very tall (for a northern European) and stocky, such as Angela Merkel, will always be judged harshly. All the more because she is a nerdy scientist (like both her husbands) who frankly doesn't give a damn, except in so far as she must for diplomatic purposes.

I'm short and and hadn't really overcome my menopausal weight gain until recently; I've lost quite a bit of weight but nobody would mistake me for a fashion model...

Duchesse and I live in an otherwise stimulating place with nasty cold winters, though shorter and less predictably cold than 40 years ago. I do avoid long coats, but they must at least "cover my arse" - that seems to make a great difference in terms of warmth. There are closer-fitting garments from a "sport" aesthetic that are closer-fitting - some in very nice materials such as merino.

I need a large bag as it is the boot of my non-existing car when it is too icy and snowy to ride my bicycle with practical panniers. (Rode it today, at scarcely over 0c). Must be lightweight.
Sandra Sallin said…
Love that Brora scarf also. I found that this year I bought some new clothes. Contemporary clothes as opposed to wearing my old stuff. I've gotten so many compliments just updating my look. I guess I had gotten into a safe rut. Now I'm opening the door to some younger looking clothes. Love it. Love that scarf also. I'll fight you for it if it goes on sale. I'm with you.
Jane in London said…
Matchy-matchy is a real trap that is easy to fall into. IMO, the only woman who can get away with it is The Queen (I suppose it also helps a bit if you have priceless jewellery to accessorise with). Scottish politician Nicola Sturgeon is a good example of getting it wrong, with her relentlessly coordinated dress-and-jacket combos in primary colours - aging and unflattering.

I saw Dame Judi at the theatre recently (she was in the audience, rather than on stage). She was with her handsome husband, and she looked elegantly informal with her trademark floaty scarf. What a woman!

Jane in London

Wendy said…
I think you hit the nail on the head with the grey outfit - a variety of textures makes a monochromatic outfit sing. Recently saw a multi-textured outfit in a shop window where each piece was a different shade of red/burgundy.It looked very current, but wearable at any age.
LauraH said…
Great post, I love the interesting examples from the real world which you analyze so well. Must admit I do like using a scarf to tie thing together as I often wear non-matching shoes, gloves, bag, etc. Since a great deal of my wardrobe is new since retirement 7 years ago, hope I haven't strayed into frumpiland! That Brora scarf is very nice, I can definitely see you in that.
royleen said…
Very helpful. You have a good eye! Living in a warm climate, my jackets don’t come out often. Just placed an old blazer in the charity bin, as it looked frumpy when I tried it on. Wrong shape, worn out fabric. Time to go through all those blazers! Thanks, Duchesse. Good reminder!
Janice Riggs said…
I'm keying my entire wardrobe (all 6 pieces!) for Paris next week around my red jacket - it's the holiday season and I'm not going to disappear into a sea of blackness!

Intelligent and well-written post, full of thought-provoking observations, as always. You have such a gift...

Duchesse said…
Jane: The key is proportion; look at Judi Dench for inspiration. More women lusted after her "First Marigold Hotel" wardrobe than I can count.

Jane in London: If Dame Judi were in sight I would have a hard time keeping my eyes on the performance! And I just adore the Queen's ensembles, a force of nature, a world unto herself, and- those pearls!

materfamilias and LauraH: You little enablers! And yes, I do want it.

royleen: The same assessment applies to skirts and trousers. I binned a number of long skirts a few years ago, one day they just looked frumpy.

lagatta: Oh yes, covering the butt is absolutely essential.

Sandra Sallin: Good for you; how I wish I could see what you chose.

Janice: And red nails! I love red nails for holidays.
Roberta said…
This is excellent food for thought, and I will read your blog post at least twice and then look at my closet. I think this particularly affects women about my age - 50s, when we don't want to spend so much money anymore, and feel like our clothes are still "perfectly good". And it's hard to break or remake style habits.
Duchesse said…
Wendy: Another plus about those tonal outfits is that you can build them piece by piece, gradually adding complementary hues as you find them. (But also, walking out with the whole magnificent ensemble must be quite the thrill.)

Roberta: I had a blast when an image consultant spent a day burrowing into my closet. (This was a barter arrangement with a professional association but in hindsight I would have paid for it!) She was a tiny martinet who insisted that "perfectly good" was not relevant if the thing had dated lines. We filled TWELVE trash bags and then she made me go with her to donate them, or she predicted I would sneak them back into my closet. You are so right; we do acquire habits. She addressed mine.

If you ever think about this service, it is best to get a consultant close to your age. She was by no means "safe and boring" but understood exactly what I liked and respected that.
une femme said…
I really enjoyed this post! Yasmin Sewell has been one of my style muses years. Her color mixes are unusual and inspiring. Yes to mixing textures in a monochromatic outfit, and yes to updating our "classics!"
Dr itGirl said…
I love this post. I'm going to add you to my blog roll over at my blog. I agree, smiling more is always nice for the person smiling and everyone else, but for some reason when I hear someone say "smile more", I automatically associate that with all the creepy guys who have harassed me by saying "why don't you put a smile on your face", and that is just infuriating.
Duchesse said…
Dr itGirl: Thanks. The smile is your choice, not at the order of some "creepy guy".
Pret a Porter P said…
I think classics evolve over time. Things like a trench coat, LBD, or black pumps are not the same ones that were being worn in 1980, 1990, to today. Avoiding exaggerated shapes help. A statement, heavy padded shoulder will go in/out of fashion. I regularly wear things that are close to, some even over a decade old that still look modern/current.

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