Monday, May 2, 2016

How to build a happy personal style uniform (plus Me Made May kickoff)

I don't know about you, but when I drag myself out of bed in the morning, torn from sweet sleep by the phone alarm or a child screaming "Mama!", I am far too groggy to make complicated garment-and-accessory coordinating decisions.

Yet for a long time I resisted the idea of a personal style uniform, because it sounded far too boring and restrictive.

Style Reality vs. Style Fantasy

In my fantasy life, I'd improvise amazing/surprising/creative outfit and accessory combinations each morning. In reality, I had neither the time nor energy for this, and my remaining garments left after an intense KonMari purge brought me joy separately but didn't necessarily play well with others. My thrift shopping, sewing and knitting tended toward the random "hey I like this piece, WHEE!" without a larger wardrobe plan or goal in mind.

As a result I'd been really feeling that awful "frumpy mom" feeling, often heading off to my (very casual-dressing) office in random assortments of jeans, T-shirts, hoodies and a ratty ancient backpack big enough for toting breast-pump supplies... or skirts tops and shoes in an assortment of silhouettes and patterns that somehow just didn't really "go."

Wardrobe Architecting It

So for some months now I've been on a project to try to pare down my style to its core, curate a few select silhouettes and styles and color schemes, and develop a more cohesive and happy personal style. To move from frumpy random chaos to creativity within happy constraints.

I've also been slowly working on replacing worn-out cornerstone wardrobe pieces — my winter coat, hat/scarf, work bag — with second-hand or deep-sale items (mostly via ThredUp — here's a $10 coupon referral code if you haven't tried it) that can elevate the others and will last for years. For example, my 13-year-old wool winter jacket had more holes and patches and no original buttons left, so I replaced it with this clearance-rack Guess wool jacket that makes me happy every single day... the perfect backdrop for my bright hand knit accessories.

All while keeping my wardrobe lean and purging as needed. I have ONE winter jacket. ONE spring trench. ONE pair of knee-high boots. ONE pair of winter boots. ONE pair of sneakers. One work bag. One purse. Three pairs of flats. Three pairs of heels. Etc.

I got a lot of ideas and inspiration from the Colette Wardrobe Architect series, as well as the Into Mind wardrobe curation blog Sarai recommends in that series, as well as this Ted Talk on the "10 Item Wardrobe."

I still haven't identified all my key silhouettes and combinations (especially with skirts), but so far I've built out two main uniforms of style happiness.

My personal daily elements of style

So here are the constraints I gave myself for these first uniform drafts:

  1. Casual—but polished (as in a ponte knit blazer, not a ratty old hoodie)
  2. Stretchy—but not sloppy. (as in dark wash high-waisted skinny jeans)
  3. Fitted and feminine—but not constrictive or skimpy. (as in a colorful ITY jersey wrap dress, but not a tight mini skirt.)
  4. Bright and bold colors and patterns—but in reasonable doses. (Still working on this).
  5. Mostly flat shoes—but not orthopedic or overly chunky looking.
  6. Scoop or V-necklines up top.
  7. Classic pieces, but nothing too boring or conservative (if it has a neutral color, it has to have fun details or shapes).
  8. Comfortable and stretchy—but still structured. (Stretch is my friend, whether in knit ITY jersey wrap dresses or dark skinny jeans or a ponte blazer).
  9. A nod to vintage 40s/50s silhouettes and styles when possible.
  10. Soft fabrics that feel great against the skin (such as merino, modal, microfiber.)
  11. Makes me feel happy and confident.

Edited to add two criteria I thought of later:

  1. Nursing friendly (though I don't pump at work any more, so non-wrap dresses are OK if I can change when I get home).
  2. Doesn't show stains easily.

Which basically boils down to the formula:

Fitted + stretchy + bright & bold + casual yet polished = a wardrobe of awesome secret pajamas at all times.

And here are the first two variations I've come up with on that:

Uniform Formula 1: The Dress That Always Fits

(See collage image at top of this post). This is a more strict example than it sounds, but basically, this means a ITY jersey wrap/mock wrap dress in a fun print plus a fitted cardigan or ponte blazer + a fun necklace and flats. DONE. I wear variations on this maybe 2-3 times per week.

Here's an awful work bathroom selfie from one of my first attempts—I'll get better photos during Me Made May, but I wear this striped ponte blazer + polka-dot dress combo a fair amount:

And here's an example of Uniform 1 with a me-made dress and cardigan—obscured by a baby carrier, but you get the idea. (That's the fantastic "Sew What?" exhibit at the Children's Museum of the Arts in Manhattan, by the way).

The other uniform sounds so basic it hardly needs a mention... but it's taken me a bit of time to get just the right thrifted dark skinnies and soft fitted secondhand scoop-neck patterned tops in just the right length.

Uniform Formula 2: Colors + Stripes + Skinnies

What you see above is the winter version, but the warmer version is basically the same minus the wool socks and boots and with lighterweight cardigans and shorter sleeves. Sometimes the top is patterned and the cardigan is solid or color-blocked, and sometimes it's the other way around. The backpack pictured is my new Timbuk2 Sunset laptop-friendly work bag.

The Result: On the Road to Personal Style Happiness

My wardrobe/uniform building project is still very much a work in progress, but it's amazing the difference I've felt so far. I have so much less clothing stuffing my drawers and closets, but what I do have goes so much better together, fits better, and feels better. I feel happier about the way I look, more self-confident and less self-conscious and embarassed. Also: it is 1,000 times faster and easier to get dressed in the morning.

It's basically the equivalent of having a logo and style guide and short list of fonts for my personal brand... instead of using lots of different fonts, size and colors that all look weird and jumbled together, ransom-note style.

Oh yes, and I'm doing Me Made May again.

My first Me-Made-May photo is basically Uniform #2, but since I'm dressed for bike riding in the rain with the husband, the look is more casual than polished (and yes, don't worry, I was wearing a helmet it's just out of frame)...

My hope for this Me Made May month is to see what other basic formulas and uniforms I can develop to integrate my existing me-mades into my new world of constrained style happiness... to get photos that help me build what works and discard what doesn't... and to sew a thing or two or three.

I am also hoping to up my hair and makeup game (i.e. to actually do my hair or put on makeup sometimes). We'll see!

What are your favorite outfit formulas? Do you have a uniform?

P.S. Bonus adorable sibling photo, with my daughter in an Oliver + S Ice Cream dress I made two months ago but have yet to properly photograph or blog: