Fashionable wardrobe on a budget begins with the rule of "no": no trends, no fads, no obsessing with designer labels, no trying to squeeze into something that does not fit. Following this rule requires significant discipline for some, but the results are definitely worth it. Having made a solemn promise to follow the rule of "no", schedule a day to spend with your wardrobe. Yes, that's right - your wardrobe and not the nearest mall. Your next fashion find might be lurking in there somewhere, and you might not even know it. Unplug the phone, stock up on easy-to-make snacks and beverages, dust off your mirror and say "Open Sesame".
Step 1: Empty your wardrobe
Take everything out. It will create a mess, but everywhere else in the Universe order is always created out of chaos, so don't worry about it. Pick up each and every piece and determine when was the last time you have worn it. If it has been awhile, why? Is the color not what you expected? Is the fabric uncomfortable? Does it not fit right? If it's any of these reasons - get rid of it. Fold it up neatly and put it into a box to donate.
Also, get rid of the pieces you loved... ten years ago before you had three kids. Keeping them in your closet in hopes that you might someday fit into them again is essentially telling yourself that you are not good enough as you are today. If you really love that fabulous pair of pants that much, do some research and find the same pair in the size that fits you now. More on that later.
Get rid of the hand-me-downs from siblings and best friends, unless they are exquisitely cut items and fit you to perfection. You are not obligated to keep something just because it was free and came from your beloved cousin. You are not your cousin, so why should your cousin's clothes work for you?
Step 2: What is left?
It may be a depressingly small pile compared to what you started with, but worry not - we will make it work. What is left is going to become a backbone of your new fashionable wardrobe. Go through the remaining garments and determine whether you have the core items listed below. Caveat: each of these must fit your figure, be the right size and the right color for you. If the number on the size label is upsetting you, remember that sizes are highly subjective and change every year. If it is still upsetting you - well, cut the damn thing off! What are you waiting for?
- One well-cut business skirt in gray that can also dub as a dressy option with the right top is a lot more versatile and will not strip more subtle colors of their lovely highlights as black tends to do.
- One pair of business pants with the same criteria as the skirt described above.
- One business top - a blouse or a sharp fitted long- or three-quarter-sleeve tee. Again, it need not be in white. Just like black, white does not go with everything. The top should be a color that flatters your face best. To determine if it does, stand in front of the mirror in good natural light and hold it up to your face. If your eyes look sparklier, your complexion - more vibrant, and your hair - glossier, keep it. If you look tired, washed-out, too pale or too dark - it has to go. The fit is critical. Wearing a fitted top versus a shapeless one can make you visually lose ten pounds on the spot. It does not matter what size you are - anything baggy does you absolutely no favors and only makes you look bigger.
- One good business jacket. Again - stay away from black. The best jacket would be fitted, hit you just below the butt and could be worn both with business attire and with jeans.
- One well-cut dress that can be easily dressed up for a special occasion.
- One pair of casual pants. They need not be jeans. Corduroys and khakis are completely acceptable and are just as versatile.
- Two pairs of dressy shoes - one in a dark color, one in a pale color.
- One pair of casual shoes.
- One pair of boots.
- One good well-cut coat that can take you through most of the cold-weather season.
- One good small non-black shoulder bag that can dub as an evening purse in a pinch.
- One good larger non-black bag that can accommodate your laptop.
- One pair of business pants (NOT khakis). Flat front pants work better than the pleated front ones (this applies to ladies as well). There is a misguided notion that pleated front pants are supposed to hide flabby tummy. They don't. In fact, they exaggerate it! If possible, avoid black pants, and opt for gray or pinstripe.
- Two sharp business shirts. They need not be in white or pale blue. Rather, keep the ones that go best with your coloring. A brick-red or a rich royal blue shirt can be dressed up and look just as clasy as the classic white.
- Two conservative ties that go with the shirts you opted to keep.
- One sharp business jacket. The pants and the jacket need not have come from the same suit, but make sure they look well together. Jackets with a little texture in the fabric tend to be more versatile.
- Two pairs of casual pants - jeans and / or khakis.
- One pair of good business shoes.
- One pair of casual shoes. Casual shoes do not necessarily equal sneakers. In fact, a good casual loafer can be worn with lots more stuff than sneakers ever could.
- One good non-black alternative to your hideous nylon black backpack you are using to truck around your laptop.
Once you have identified, which of these items you already have, check them for missing buttons, loose threads, seams that are coming apart, falling hems, etc. Take them to your friendly local drycleaner to get all those things fixed and freshen the garments up while you are at it. Chances are you don't remember how long they have been sitting in the murky depths of your closet - they probably need some TLC.
Step 3: Combine
Lay out your core items and start combining them in ways that haven't occurred to you before. This blouse over here appears to have some brown in its paisley pattern, so why not try it with that brown pair of pants over there? This brooch has been pinned to this jacket for so long, it has created permanent pinholes in the lapel, so let us try it with that dress instead.
Once you have determined combinations that work, hang your clothes back in the closet by outfit instead of shirts with shirts, pants with pants and so on. That way you will never again have to spend a harried morning frantically pulling item after item from your wardrobe trying to figure out what to wear.
Put a shoe rack under the hanging clothes and arrange the shoes such that shoes that go with an outfit are under that outfit.
We now have an uncluttered well-organized closet filled only with items that fit and flatter you - and trends be damned! Anyone wearing a well-cut, well-fitting outfit in colors that flatter his or her complexion, eyes and hair looks loads sharper than someone who just spent half their mortgage payment on a designer something-or-other that only ever looked good on a stick figure walking the runway.
Step 4: Shop
Ah, yes, we finally go shopping! But before you do a mad dash to the nearest super-mega-mall, sit down and list core garments that you might be missing as well as items that would allow you to create more combinations with what you already have. For ladies, this might include fitted (always, always fitted!) tees that would work with a business skirt and jacket as well as with khakis or jeans, a few critical pieces of jewelry that can be worn both dressy and casual, and a shoulder bag.
For gentlemen, mock turtlenecks that can be worn with business jackets and pants instead of the traditional shirts, belts that go with the existing shoes, a couple of additional ties could be added to the list.
Set aside a definite budget and STICK TO IT. If it is $50 - then it should be $50. No more. Discipline yourself to not get carried away just because you now have all that free room in your closet.
The first places you should hit in search of these items should NOT be the mall. Go to places like Ross and T. J. Max, where good quality items can be found for a lot less. Sometimes - sometimes - buying designer is worth it because of better workmanship. In that case, discount stores allow you to snag that coveted Calvin Klein dress for $40 instead of $200. The way these places are organized is not always the best, so be prepared to spend some time there and try things on. Use the same rule of "no" you did when culling your wardrobe: if it doesn't fit, doesn't flatter your figure or coloring, or just doesn't fill right, if it doesn't make you smile when you look in the mirror, put it back on the hanger and back away slowly.
If you are confident about your measurements and your best color scheme, peruse clearance sections of web sites like Chadwick's of Boston, Newport News, Soft Surroundings and Travel Smith. As with a discount store, prepare to spend some time browsing, because not everything may be available in size and color you need.
A word on bags. A bag can make or break the outfit - and that pertains to men and women. It is always sad to see a guy in a sharp business suit, nice shirt and tie, perfectly shined shoes hauling around a big ugly black nylon backpack. That kills his sartorial efforts right there! A woman in a delicious curvy business dress, perfect accessories and stunning heels and the same ugly backback on her shoulder is in the same kind of peril. Besides, those things ruin your posture. If there is one thing worth borrowing from the runway models is the straight proud non-slouchy walk. Even the most gorgeous dress will look dowdy if the wearer is walking around shuffling her feet and with her shoulders drooping.
In addition to the discount stores, eBags.com has a huge selection of inexpensive laptop bags that barely look like laptop bags. Get one of those, then sit down and consider carefully, whether you really need to haul around all that junk that previously fit into your backpack. Some of it is probably trash. Some of it can be minimized (think tiny foldable umbrella instead of the full-size version, ladies - as embarrassing as this may be - just a couple of tampons or sanitary napkins instead of the whole "just in case" pack", gentlemen - ONE electronic gadget that does most of what you need instead of five of them that do everything.) Some of it shouldn't be carried around. Those business files probably can stay safely locked in your filing cabinet at the office - you have no business dragging work home anyway. Leave it behind - your family will love you for it. You will suddenly not be tempted to stick your nose into that memo during dinner. Imagine that!
And don't get yet another black bag. If you don't want to be too flamboyant - get one in rich brown, dark red or khaki (there are some very sharp bags for gentlemen in khaki with leather accents). Ladies, for your smaller bag, get rid of that perpetual black one you've had for ages. Again - black does not go with everything! It may have cost you a fortune when you first bought it, but it's time for it to go. Rather, peruse Ross and T. J. Max for several inexpensive alternatives in versatile colors: brown, red, tan. Switch bags every few days - it will motivate you to get rid of all the junk that has accumulated in there and re-organize.
Step 5: Take care
Take good care of your clothes. Wash them, press them, dry-clean them. Shine your shoes. Attach that missing button as soon as it falls off - or better yet, BEFORE it falls off: as soon as you see it coming loose. If you must splurge on anything, splurge on good hangers for your clothes - now that you have fewer garments it won't be that much of a splurge anyway. Make sure there is some room between your garments in the closet, otherwise it will all get cluttered and wrinkled all over again.
Read the care labels on colorful garments carefully. That gorgeous turquoise that is so fabulous with your eyes won't be fabulous for long if you wash it wrong and it fades to a murky blue.
Step 6: Read
When I say "read", I do not mean the trendy, of-the-moment fashion magazines. Not at all! Read books that promote being fashionable by defining the fashion of your own, instead of letting someone else's fashion define you. What Not to Wear book series are fabulous for women. They are irreverent, politically incorrect, hilariously funny and are written for real women living in the real world, trying to juggle careers, homes, husbands, children and pets, weight swings, mood swings, and so on and so forth.
Carson Kressley's Off the Cuff, the classic Dressing a Man and Esquire's The Handbook of Style: A Man's Guide to Looking Good are fantastic for men. The last one is especially good because it is very well-structured, broken up into small readable chapters and is in a small non-intimidating format.
We are not all born with innate fashion sense. That does not mean we cannot look fabulous! Why not borrow ideas and take advantage of advice from people who know what they are talking about. Besides, the $10 - 15 you spend on a book might save you tens if not hundreds of dollars you would have dropped on the latest trendy something, had you not read the book and thought better of it.
So, have fun and look great! You'll enjoy it - I promise.