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:


  1. Adorable is right!

    I find MMM is really good for helping me focus on making what I need for my real life instead of my fantasy life. It's interesting to read that you have a similar experience.

    I don't think I can ever pare down to your level, but sharing Manhattan-sized closets with a family of 4 must take real discipline.

    1. Yes, it does! I have five small bed/dresser drawers and half a small (34" wide) closet for my clothes and shoes, including off-season clothes. And my daughter's little bedroom doesn't even have a closet at all—it's barely bigger than a closet! But I find all the paring down fun... it's a challenge!

  2. Love this post. And your outfits.

    I totally agree about having a couple basic uniforms— makes everything so much easier. Mine is earth tones (all shades of brown work together!), boat-neck or scoop neck tops, two cuts of pants. The hardest item for me is jacket/cardigan— I always need one for work, where it is freezing, but feel too uptight in a blazer and too casual in a hoodie or track jacket. Plus it actually has to keep me *warm*.

    Thanks for the tip about the exhibit at the Children's Museum of Art— we will have to check that out before it closes!

    1. Have you tried more casual blazers, like a sweatshirt blazer or knit blazer (or wool knit blazer)? I have the same problem and was always just wearing cardigans but sometimes I want a LITTLE more structure.

    2. P.S. Thanks for the compliments! And do check out that exhibit, my kids LOVED it.

  3. Oh! Your uniform #2 and my "go to casual outfit" (ie: skinnies, riding boots, black tank top, cute jacket with fun colorful scarf) should have play dates together. ;-)

    I like this idea a lot. I've been thinking about the "work uniform" since so much of my work wardrobe was nearing the end of it's natural lifespan as I got pregnant. So, I purged much. Thank goodness I only work in the office 3 days a week!

    1. Yeah, my work wardrobe was really dying so post-pregnancy was the perfect time to revive it. Your comment makes me realize I need more fun colorful scarves in my life... I think I have one but I really haven't figured out the scarf thing yet.

    2. At my local Goodwill shops, most scarves are $1.50. I find incredible shawls, silks, wools, amazing cottons and rayons in scarves big enough to use as yardage sometimes. I can experiment with scarves bought there more cheaply than I can make them ... and I have turned some of the larger ones into summer dresses by cutting a slit for my head and sewing up the sides (leaving holes at the top for my arms).

  4. A well-fitting pair of pants in a classic style, either in a solid or a wack-a-doodle print. Over that, a classic shirtwaist blouse -- with solid pants, an interesting print; with wack-a-doodle pants, a solid blouse. Because I am now A Woman of a Certain Age, I typically wear my blouse outside my pants waistline. Natural fibers always. Plain black or brown leather clogs in winter,plain black or brown sandals in spring/summer/autumn. Plain cardigan sweater, or woolen coat, in winter. Plain denim coats/jackets in cool weather. It is rarely cool where I live.

    I reserve dresses and skirts for "special" wear, because that means I will have to shave my legs. I have shaved my legs for enough years that soon age-related alopecia will spare me from that pesky personal hygiene task. Then I can dance naked in the streets, and no one will be repulsed by my hairy legs. They may be repulsed by other bits and bobs, but not by my hairy legs.

    1. I am the next step down the road. I wear dresses/skirts/sandals most of the year because HotFlash turned into HotAllTheTime, and prints over prints because I Don't Have To Match.

      I have to curate what I own or make because I have a fairly small closet and I hate 'losing things' in the back because I'm untidy. The tidy thing won't get any better in my 60's I am sure, so I have to go with 'fewer'.

    2. LinB, I love your writeup, I laughed out loud at your "naked in the streets" uniform. I hate shaving. Also, I love that "wack-a-doodle prints" are part of your uniform—they are core parts of my wardrobe as well.

    3. SJ Kurtz, I think prints over prints can be fun whether you "have to match" or not. And yeah, "fewer" is a good way to let go of all that work of constant tidying.

  5. This seems like a great way to approach getting dressed. Right now I'm 4 months post-partum with baby #2, about to go back to work, and generally navigating the transition from "This fits! Close enough!" to actually looking like my outfit happened on purpose. And having a waistline. Mom frump is a real thing!

    Thinking about things in terms of uniforms or outfit types really helps me see the gaps (e.g. I need more longer tops, or I need another pair of jeans). My formulas are generally a) jeans + boots + long/drapey cardigan, b) leggings + dress + short cardi or jacket or c) boyfriend jeans + sweater. My dresses are all stretchy or button-down right now because of nursing.

    I agree that the me made may photos are useful for thinking about wardrobe stuff. Often a garment doesn't quite work but it takes a photo for me to pinpoint *why*. Seeing the pictures all together helps me pick out what really works and focus on making more of that happen.

    1. Ha, totally. "Close enough!" was definitely my main clothing criteria until maybe 6-8 months post partum. And yes to Me Made May helping to pin down the *WHY*.

  6. I love the uniform idea! I definitely have a work uniform - have for a long time - and it works for me. Skirt or pants (usually skinny black) with a top and a cardigan or a blazer for more formal days. Suits for really formal days. Jeans and cardi for the weekend. I love the idea of dresses but find I rarely wear them. Isn't it funny how everyone has their comfort zone? For me, it's separates.

    1. Yes, everyone definitely has their comfort zones! For me separates (even my skinny comfy jeans) can drive me crazy because I'm forever pulling at the waist band or pulling them up or pushing them down. I like how dresses just hang from the shoulder and hug at the waist, but don't hang from the waist.

  7. It's interesting to see a wardrobe planning approach that isn't the same 10 "basic" pieces in black, navy, or gray. I admire your confidence with bright colors and prints!

  8. You've written a very thought provoking and inspiring post!

    I wish I could say that my wardrobe was 'eclectic' but in all honesty it's just random things that I like. Not all of them go together and running around after two boys often puts in me in jeans, tank and hoodie territory. Sigh.

    I know what I'd like to look like and dress like, I just need to either put some effort into achieving those two things or do some reassessment. I think a mixture of both would be the best way forward...

  9. Yes! I can relate to so much of this-- the mom/40s (in my case) frump, individual pieces I love that somehow don't work in outfits, feeling self-conscious/uncomfortable in my clothes; using Wardrobe Architect and Into Mind to rethink and come up with some kind of workable plan; purging perhaps too much. I'm right there with you! I've found the silhouettes/outfit formulas the most challenging. I've made some progress over the past year or so but am still figuring it out for sure. Inspired to see your own process and progress. Onward!

  10. I love these formulas! I'm with you on the stretchy. With my shoulder problems, I really can't wear wovens comfortably unless they're really loose which makes me feel rather frumpy. Come fall I'm all about skinny jeans + boots + sweater or scoopneck tee + long cardigan. I also love a knit dress + leggings + a layering tee if it's cold enough and maybe a jacket if I'm not playing violin and a cardigan if I am. Summer is the style season that mystifies me. I love the idea of sundresses, but it seems only about 5% of them are nursing friendly. Maybe I'll embrace them when I'm on the other side of that equation.


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