Dress Code: How To Shop Like A Grown-Up


In the immortal words of Mark Twain, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Which is both a blessing and a curse.

Figuring out what to wear can be exhausting and time-consuming, especially when you’re starting from scratch. Whether you lived in your sweatpants during college, have just moved to a new place, or are facing a series of unfamiliar occasions, you’re likely to have to do some serious wardrobe building or rebuilding at some point in your life. But it’s daunting, and if not properly approached can be unnecessarily pricey. But fear not: Herewith, the first installment of Dress Code, our series devoted to helping you realistically navigate the treacherous retail waters. First up: Basic mantras to get you through a day in the dressing rooms.

Know Thyself!
There are a lot of “what to wear” and “what not to wear” books out there, many of them good. Useful stuff for all those guidelines about body-shape and appropriateness and all that good, necessary dullness. But here’s one issue I have: they’re all about “problem areas,” and I tend to regard any limitation as an asset.

Allow me to explain. Let’s take me: I’m short, pale, have subdued coloring and am self-conscious about the size of my bust. As a result, I wear none of the following: high necklines and turtlenecks; bulky knits; large prints; long skirts; flats; anything floaty, bohemian, or hippie-inspired; anything shapeless, babydoll, straight or Mod; double-breasted coats and jackets; and the colors red, orange, yellow, black and white.

Now, if this list makes it seem like I can’t wear half of what’s out there, well — yeah. That’s kind of my point. And it’s great. I can breeze through an H&M or a fashion magazine and at a glance eliminate half the merch. There have been whole seasons where I’ve felt I couldn’t buy the styles, and as a result I saved plenty of money. Thank goodness my figure isn’t made for the heartbreakingly beautiful and expensive stylings of Lyell or Colenimo! I say, look on any of these “limitations” not as a negative, but as a whittling away to your style, Michaelangelo-fashion. Do I like a lot of the stuff I “don’t” wear? Sure. But it’s not for me. That’s why we look for our friends! Don’t like your legs? Awesome: you don’t even need to think about skirts and dresses. (I know plenty of people who never do.) Self-conscious about your hips? Great – let’s take half the overpriced pants and pencil-skirts in the stores off the radar. By default, this is half your mental work done. Frankly, I feel sorry for models (our own Jenna excepted, of course).

Expensive Stores Are Your Friend!
Bear with me here. If you’re starting from scratch, and figuring out what works for you, and trying on a ton of stuff as a result, you don’t want to find youself clutching an enormous pile of polyester, weeping, in the dressing room of a Forever21 like someone on the first shopping day of What Not to Wear. (The exception here is those fortunate enough to have a bossy and savvy friend who takes over and can shepherd you through.) Maybe you’re on a budget, but if you’re not sure what shapes and colors you like, a good department store or boutique is going to be less overwhelming and more helpful – shopping isn’t just about purchasing, but about trying things on and figuring out what works, and any good salesperson knows this. (And don’t be scared! I worked in one! Check Yelp for low-pressure staff!) You want a place where the people know their stuff and know the merchandise. And, at the end of the day, all those cliches about expensive pants being good is kind of true, so you may want to buy a pair and have a good dry-cleaner copy them.

Listen to the Crazy.
This is advice any psychiatrist would deplore, but I say, when it comes to shopping, it’s important (to a degree) to give into your neuroses. For instance, I don’t really like wearing pants. They make me feel squat and dowdy. Is this in my head? Probably. But it doesn’t change the fact that, whenever I’ve been persuaded by salespeople to get some, I haven’t worn them: however they look, I don’t feel my best — I feel squat and dowdy. “But you can wear them!” some might say. Yes. Physically, I can put trousers on my legs. My body will not reject them like in some un-Disneyfied Brothers Grimm story. But I won’t feel like me. Yes, we should all take chances and try things, but we’re talking fundamentals here: establish reliable comfort zones before challenging them.

Rules Are Made to be Broken.
Do I wear white sometimes? Of course. I just buffer it with a blue scarf. When it’s cold, naturally I’ll throw on a turtleneck. But then I’ll break up the line with a long scarf. Nothing’s hard and fast, but having the rules makes it all a lot easier and less overwhelming, especially if you’re just getting started.

Next in the series: How to build an awesome work wardrobe.

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