“I hate you,” facetiously said the woman behind the counter.
“Why?” asked Debra as she laughed.
“Because even in jeans you look dressed up!”
Have you ever had an experience like that? Better yet – remember the last time you walked into a room and felt fantastic because you knew you looked fantastic and all eyes fell on you. Do you remember what that felt like? If you’ve never had a moment like that, well, that’s kind of sad, but we’re going to work on that right now (if you want.) For everyone else, I want you to jot down what you were wearing. It doesn’t matter if the situation was more formal or casual than usual, don’t over analyze on me here, just jot down what you had on – we’re going to come back to it later.
When I was growing up I had to look good – all the time. Luckily, I had parents who supported my attitude. My mother had only two rules for my clothing; no too-short shorts, and no jeans. And “too short” was by her definition, of course, not mine. By the time I got into college and started wearing jeans where my mother couldn’t catch me, I had already established a “dressed up” look for myself. In fact, almost everything I wore came from one certain catalog, was a combination of business and dressy, and, of course, a little expensive compared to what the local stores had to offer.
A couple of years ago my husband and I were out on one of our routine evening walks when I ran into a friend from high school. She shook her head as she looked me up and down and I simply had to ask, “What?”
“You’re the only person I know who gets dressed up to go walking!”
I thought I was dressed down, I mean, I was wearing tennis shoes.
Over the years, I’ve had many girlfriends and co-workers come to me wanting to know how I do it – always look perfectly dressed for the occasion. In my career development workshop, I get to share all my tips and techniques, which is more fun than I can even begin to describe. Today, I want to share my best time-proven theories with you.
First, I’d like to address the three most common objections I get when someone requests my help, and I start to give it.
“It takes a lot of money to look good.” Remember that rule my mother had about “no jeans?” I eventually figured out why – they’re expensive! While all my high school friends were spending $45 to $55 – in the 1980’s - to purchase designer jeans that they just had to have, I was spending $30 to $40 for nice dress pants that coordinated with a beautiful outfit or two. The lesson to learn here is this: Once you develop your unique style, you will likely spend less on your wardrobe than you do now. It takes a certain amount of money to buy clothes, period. Looking good does not cost any more than looking, well, you get the drift.
“I can’t look as good as you because I’m not as thin.” This isn’t about me. You want to look your best, in whatever body, shape and size included, you have now – right this minute – and you can. You can develop a style that, although it might be patterned after a certain character on television or just someone you admire, is your style. And you’re more than likely going to keep that style no matter how much you weigh, so you’re not wasting time. There are certain qualities about clothing that some people just can’t wear because of certain features, and we’re going to talk about that. I, for example, can’t wear certain styles of blouses because my shoulders are too broad. Something that looks great on you might look horrible on me even though I’m thin. Did you even think about it that way?
“Being fashionable means you have to wear all the latest runway looks and I just can’t get into all of that.” Neither can I. I love to watch the fashion shows – online. I might choose one or two outfits that I later see a version of in a department store and try on. If it looks good on me, I buy it, if it doesn’t, I don’t. Mostly, I use the latest styles to judge what colors I’m going to focus on for this season. But even then, when I wear something of a totally opposite color, I’ll get huge compliments, because it’s different from what everyone else is wearing. In their book, What Would Jackie Do?: An Inspired Guide to Distinctive Living, Shelly Branch and Sue Callaway have this to say about donning a particular look:
“If you look like everyone else everywhere you go – paying special attention at airports – it’s over.”
It’s not about creating a look, it’s about creating your look. Are you ready to create a look that’s as special and unique as you are? Let’s get started.
Whom do you admire? Whose look would you like to re-create? That’s always a good place to start. Take time to notice someone who is successful in the same career or endeavor in which you would like to succeed. How does he or she dress? It can be someone on television even. Finding someone to model is a good way to get your visualization juices flowing. You might want to emulate someone in a different career field, but on a similar professional level. People who are in the public eye a lot are good models to follow because they have expert advisors telling them constantly what does or does not look good on them. So find someone you like, and start taking notes. It helps if that person has the same body shape that you do, but it’s not necessary. And besides, that can sometimes be hard to determine because she is covering up her flaws just as you want to cover yours!
Next, it’s all about balance. That’s a powerful word these days isn’t it? But here I’m talking about balancing out your shape. Now, don’t get me wrong – this is not about making you look like a walking rectangle. In fact, even when the “boxy” look is in, I don’t like it. If you have a lot of rolls in your middle, wearing a boxy type shirt will help to hind those. Otherwise, it’s okay to show your curves. What you want to do is balance out your top and your bottom, showing (hopefully) a nip in your midsection. For example, if you have large hips, you can balance out your silhouette by making sure your shoulders appear wide enough to balance them, and wearing trousers with a wider leg.
Another aspect of balance is comfort. You will not perform at your best if your clothes are too tight, and you will not look professional if your clothes are too loose. I find it fascinating how many women veer to these two extremes. We wear clothes that are too small not realizing how bad they look because we believe we’ll get back into them comfortably once we loose a couple of pounds. In the meantime, we’re making a bad impression. Or we like to “be comfortable” at all costs, which makes us look sloppy and incapable. Your clothing should fit your body, be comfortable, and look nice on you.
I find that a lot of professionals get frustrated with themselves when they have a day off, but just can’t relax. Now, there are many possible reasons for this, but I often find that my friends are trying to “relax on the couch with a good book,” while wearing a very uncomfortable pair of jeans. For these women I have two words, “stretch,” and “knit.” Get your body comfortable and your brain will follow. (Which is why I don’t like to be comfortable on the job!)
A third aspect to consider before we move on to creating a specific look, is fabric. Does your job require that you travel frequently? If so, you’ll want to invest in good quality matte jersey that doesn’t wrinkle. Likewise, if you’re the type who doesn’t like to iron, you’ll want to build your wardrobe around fabrics that look great coming out of the dryer, or that can be dry-cleaned, assuming you can afford the extra expense. Of course, you always have the option of paying someone to iron for you as well, but I think you get what I’m trying to say – look at the fabric and care label before you buy. I, for instance, do not buy casual clothing that has to be dry-cleaned. All of my professional clothing is “dry-clean only,” so for weekend wear, I must be able to wash it. Create your own rules now regarding fabric.
Be open to the idea of having “ready-to-wear” altered. Every professional woman should have a tailor. There will be times when an item is “almost” perfect, and the only way to get it there, is to have it taken in. I used to have the attitude that if it didn’t fit off the rack it wasn’t worth the trouble. I have since changed my mind. My favorite pieces now are ones that I fell in love with, and had altered to fit me perfectly. If you purchase good quality, you can afford the tailoring expense because you know you’re going to wear the item for many years to come. I even do this with casual clothing when appropriate, and I’ve never had buyer’s remorse. The key is to purchase only what you love.
When it comes to body shape, well, that’s another blog post. Actually, that’s a book! I can’t get into a lot of detail about specific shapes, other than to give specific examples here and there, so I’m going to point you to my favorite book on the topic, The Pocket Stylist by Kendall Farr. Ms. Farr does an excellent job of detailing the specifics of the six basic body types, outlining what to look for when you’re shopping and what to avoid. You will love her book.
What were you wearing the last time you “owned the room?” I remember my first interview out of college. I had applied for an accounting position with a local government. Wanting to make a definite impression and make sure the mayor remembered me when it came time to choose, I wore a red coatdress. My hair and makeup were, of course, perfect. When the mayor came out to meet me, his eyes lit up and his first word was, “Wow.” I do not recall being asked any questions about my accounting skills, education, or background, but I did get the job, and negotiated a higher salary than what he was authorized to approve. Looking good gives you power. Remember that the next time you want to “be comfortable.”
The lesson here is to pick up on the qualities of that outfit. My look that day was typical of my style, even though coatdresses are a bit out of style right now. The dress had a v-neckline, and was long. The overall look was monochromatic, with a cinched waistline via a coordinating belt that came with the dress. I wore a simple gold chain necklace. The fabric had a slight shimmer to it that I call “elegance that sparkles.” Which interestingly, would be how I would describe my usual look, whether I’m wearing sweatpants, jeans, or a suit. Hmmmmmm. Interesting connection there, isn’t it?
So what were the qualities of your outfit the last time you felt fantastic? How many of the items currently in your closet have those same characteristics? It should be about all of them. You should love every item in your closet AND it should serve you in every way. Go to your closet and pull out your favorite outfits. Why don’t you own more outfits like these? Yes, you can have a closet full of basically the same outfit – that’s called your personal style. I have many variations of the same outfit, just in different colors and fabrics. Here it is – are you ready? My basic outfit is pants, jacket, and a shell. That’s it! I accessorize lightly, very rarely wear a scarf, and have two pairs each of my favorite shoes. People are always telling me, “You always look so well put-together.” Yes, because I’ve made it simple, otherwise known as “elegant.” You can, too.
When it comes to personal style, you can accessorize all, or as little, as you want. Some women can pull off wearing lots of accessories; I’m just not one of them. The point is, I know that about myself. When I wear something I’m unsure of, it comes across in my attitude and I rarely get compliments.
Another thing I know about my personal taste, is that I like basics, with a little something extra thrown in. For example, last summer I purchased what has become my favorite black suit. For more formal occasions, I like to wear a skirted suit, but this particular skirt has pleating just around the bottom two inches or so. It’s simple, elegant, and can be accessorized with a classic strand of pearls, or a more elaborate and colorful scarf. The best part is, I can wear the jacket, because it’s a summer fabric, with a nice pair of white dress pants and save space when traveling.
This feels like a good time to talk about color. Flip through any magazine or catalog and you will find models with nearly perfect figures head to toe in one color. Kendall Farr calls it the “almighty unbroken line.” A monochromatic or tone-on-tone look is good and what you will see on many “classic” women. I use this look frequently myself, but it can get a little boring. So the next best look, is jacket and bottom in the same color, with a coordinating blouse. For a little variation, and a little more casual, I’ll wear the same color bottom and shell, with a coordinating jacket. Last, and the most casual, is the coordinating jacket and bottom, with a black or white shell.
What’s my personal favorite? Monochromatic, with a thin pinstripe in my pants, and my favorite strand of pearls that were given to me by my mother-in-law. Some people say I wear too much black, but with my fair skin and strawberry-blond hair, it’s not overpowering. For that matter, I think a black woman with her dark skin and hair looks great in all black as well. The key for wearing all black, is in your smile, otherwise you might always look like you’re in mourning.
After black, my favorite colors are clear, medium hues, like red, aqua, green, purple, blue, and teal. I also like tan and gray for the basics. For prints, I like the classics: leopard, floral (but not too much), and pinstripe. I never wear floral in business settings. It doesn’t feel right to me. But I love floral prints when I’m shopping, relaxing at home or, of course, gardening.
Now, I’m not telling you this expecting you to start wearing these colors, the point, here again, is that I know these things about myself. By noticing the colors and prints that you’re attracted to, you start to build a wardrobe around items that support you. In other words, you start building your own personal style. Starting to get the picture? Buy only things you love, eliminate anything in your closet you don’t, take it one item, one outfit at a time, and your personal style will come together.
It’s okay to have a work look and a casual look, as long as when you go out in public, you present yourself well. Don’t make excuses here. The higher up the ladder you want to go, the more important looking good becomes. If you desire a position that would result in your representing the company, you must be prepared to represent that company at all times. In the meantime, you never know who you’re going to run into at the grocery store or in an airport who could propel your career forward, but you’ve got to “look” the part.
It is imperative that you go through your closet and eliminate any item that no longer serves your desired look. As a professional, you deserve to have clothes that support you in your career and make you feel good about yourself. Casually, you deserve to have clothes that support you in just feeling good. When you have a closet full of great clothes, you don’t have to wear anything less than perfect ever again. How many times have you worn something you didn’t like because you were saving that special outfit for a certain event next week? If you find yourself in that situation frequently, it’s time to buy some new clothes – but only after you’ve determined your look!
One last point. I know this is hard to do, but when an item no longer feels good, or fits well, it’s time to pass it on, or throw it away. This if hard for me because I only buy clothes I love, so when the item has performed its last show, I’m always sad. But I know that I have to let it go or I won’t love it much longer.
Go through your closet and toss out any items you no longer like. Then create a shopping list of items you need. Purchase these items, one at a time if necessary, making sure that each one makes you feel good. Have fun!
This post was written by Debra Moorhead, Motivation, Education, Inspiration on March 19, 2007