Reader Request: Effective Inventories and Honed Style

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Beautiful reader Elisabeth wrote in with this fabulous request:

I’d love to see your interpretation of this kind of exercise for women (like me!) who keep buying the same black cardigan and long sleeve T over and over again. If I (or anyone) were to make an inventory of the clothes that we own, what kinds of questions should we be asking ourselves after the list has been made?

My personal issue is that I love clothes and get inspired by what I see on on other women and on fashion blogs, but I always end up buying things that do not make me feel stylish. My desired image does not match what is in my closet. And it’s not a matter of finance – I don’t have expensive taste in clothes or shop too little or too much. I just don’t know how to assess what I really want to add to or discard from my wardrobe. So, I was thinking, as a style-savante, you might have some tricks up your sleeve for training your readers to know their own personal style-sense a bit better, and suggesting how to decide how to buy new clothes or use the items we already have to create the look we want.

There are a few questions floating around in there, so I’ll tackle them one at a time!

Taking inventory

For the record, I have at least four black cardigans myself. Sure, they’re a staple, and all of mine are made from slightly different materials and cut to slightly different proportions, but still! That’s a LOT of black cardigans. I think most women are inclined to purchase similar or same items, over and over again. Trends may come and go, but the foundations of personal taste seldom shift … so when you know what you love, and what works for you, you gravitate toward it.

But that can get costly, redundant, frustrating. You don’t want a bunch of sameness, you want options! And taking inventory of your current wardrobe can help you avoid unintended multiples. But how do you effectively inventory your goodies? What are some good questions to ask yourself as you pore over your belongings?

  1. How often do I wear this? Frequency of use is, obviously, the first sign of a favorite. If it gets worn twice a week, you might consider doubling up so you’ll have a backup when the first wears out. Twice per month is still a great record, and means it’s a keeper. Twice per year and you need to figure out if it just has limited application, or if it doesn’t suit you.
  2. How does this make me feel about myself? If you pick up a skirt and it makes you feel ugly just looking at it, or if it reminds you of a difficult time, or if it no longer fits with your style or lifestyle, that’s very important information. If you pick up a skirt and it lifts your spirits, or if it makes you excited at the prospect of getting dressed, or if it boosts your confidence in your gorgeous figure just hanging there, also important. Clothing that makes you feel badly in ANY way is not worth keeping around.
  3. Is this comfortable? Everyone has a threshold for discomfort, and everyone hangs onto clothing that crosses that threshold. Some are worth the sacrifice, but most aren’t. Everyday togs should fit to your body without squeezing, and cause you minimal discomfort. Period.
  4. Is this current? Now we’re getting onto shakier ground, I realize. But I’m not saying that you should ditch anything that’s six years old, or abandon anything that doesn’t conform to current trends. I AM saying that there’s classic and there’s outdated, and you probably have a better sense of the difference than you realize. Evaluate and decide.
  5. Is this how I want to look? Again, a tall order. Especially if you’re not entirely sure how you want to look. But start by taking each piece and asking yourself, “Does this suit the current me, or the ideal me?” If it suits the ideal you, can it be merged into the current you? Can you build three to five outfits around it using your personal wardrobe staples? Look for items that have a little bit of aspiration in them, but can still play nicely with the look you’re sporting this very moment.

Before you make a wish list …

Anyone in transition is going to have a hard time discerning between object lust and pragmatism. And I’m loathe to give general advice about creating a targeted, effective wish list since every woman’s needs will be different. But here are a few exercises that might help someone who is dying to make a transformative wardrobe wish list, but has no idea where to start.

  • Define your ideal style. Somehow: Make a collage of images, write a paragraph or two, create a Pinterest board, pick a celeb icon or a person from your life whose style you admire. You may not be able to articulate your aspirational style exactly, but take a stab at it and don’t worry about being precise. You’ve gotta start somewhere. (For more on this see Style for the Lost, and the other recommended posts listed below.)
  • Define your current style : Make a list of adjectives that describe your wardrobe and style, jot down phrases that others have used to describe your appearance, stand in your closet and write whatever comes to you. Trust me, you have a better idea of what you dress like than you realize. You just need to focus on it to wring out that description.
  • Make outfits from what you own: Focus on creating looks that combine elements of your ideal and current styles. Pull out your favorite pieces and challenge yourself to build five outfits around each. Pull out items you love but seldom wear, and do the same. Grab your closet orphans and think creatively: How can these difficult pieces be styled with your other garments? Now think about how you’ve defined your style from the previous steps. Do the outfits fit with your newly-created parameters? If not, how can you make them conform?
  • Fill in the blanks: After you’ve cooked up some outfits with your current clothes, you’ll have a better idea of what you want to purchase to complete your desired look. Focus on versatile pieces and basics. Even if an 8-inch floral brooch would look amazing with that one dress-blazer combo, think about how ELSE it would get worn. Anything on this list will have been thoroughly vetted, if you’ve done all of the other steps above, so you’re unlikely to end up with a group of brand new items that twin what you already own!

Honing your personal style

Well, that’s a whole other ball of fish. I mean kettle of wax. Whatever, it deserves to be more than just a footnote, and I’ve actually cooked up a few posts on this topic in the past.

Image courtesy BrittneyBush.

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  • Barry Wright, III

    Here's a method that gives you great feedback, but takes a bit of time.

    First, you need to mark everything in your wardrobe somehow. A couple options; turn everything inside out, put a post-it note on everything, put everything on one side of the closet (if you have the space).

    Then, dress for three months, removing the "tag" each time you wear a piece (if you turned everything inside-out, hang it back up normally, if you use post-its, remove it when you wear it).

    After three months, you'll be able to very clearly see what clothes you wear on at least a regular basis.

    Obviously there are some hiccups to the strategy (we might not wear something because we don't want to take the time to un-inside-out it, and you have to consider seasonal clothing), but it can be eye-opening!

  • Almost 40

    I did the method Barry talked about (but I just turned the hangers the wrong way after I wore something). It WAS very helpful to see what I wore and didn't wear.

    I inventory my closet all the time. Generally it's when I bring something new in – something has to go. I do feel like I have too much but then, shopping is a bit of a sport to me so it's a tough addiction to squelch. (Sweet Sal, I am currently reviewing your shopping ban posts). And, I have worked to NOT buy it unless it's something a) that I LOVE or b) is interesting and different than what I already have. It's taken years to refine my wardrobe to reflect my personal style. So I hope your reader doesn't feel like she's got to figure this out tomorrow.

    But yes, I do have some tried and true staples that often end up being default items. And, I have an unhealthy addiction to cardigans but I wear all of them. Like anything, I think we find what works for us as individuals and then cultivate from there.

  • LK

    One thing that always cracks me up is when you are cleaning out a closet or drawer and go "I didn't know I had this!" Thats when you know its time to get rid of it.

    I find that simply going through my closet or drawers once a month helps me to find stuff I don't wear. Or doesn't fit.

    You also have to keep in mind though that you may have items you rarely wear but need to keep. For instance, I went from an office where I wore dress clothes half the time to one where I wear jeans and a T. Now Im not going to stay at the jeans and T office forever (not long at all now actually) so I still need to hang on to my couple dress shirts and slacks. Even though I may not have touched one or two of the shirts in a year. They may come in handy when I get a new job and suddenly need to dress business casual every day. I buy quality clothing, so donating it and then buying new isn't an option for one on such a tight budget. Much cheaper to store it in the back of the closet till I need it.

  • burntphotograph

    great question, great post! i have been thinking about this a lot (again) myself.

  • Diana

    I frequently evaluate and cull my wardrobe. I have a very small closet, so I have to really prioritize what I keep in there. Last year, I did an inventory where I took everything out of my closet, photographed and counted it. I then turned all the hangers backwards and put them back on forwards whenever I wore an item. This really helped me to get a clear look at what I already had, what I needed, and what I could get rid of. I think it's a lifelong process though – you can never truly have a "perfect" wardrobe.

  • tinyjunco

    two tips. first The Lucky Guide To Mastering Any Style has a lot of useful information on some of the most prominent styles out there, how to shop for them, how to put the items into outfits and accessorize them. it's well illustrated with pix of the clothes for each style type and real women who embody those styles. also, check out your local book store and library. there's a lot of great books on this topic out there and they can really help.

    i would do this next step before evaluating each item individually. it's just an alternate 'make outfits with your clothes' exercise that i find helpful when i'm feeling less creative or foundering style-wise.

    make three 'piles': tops, bottoms, and third layers (jackets, sweaters, etc.) start with whatever group you want, then take each item and make EVERY POSSIBLE COMBINATION with your available other two items. example: start with top 'A'. put it with the first bottom. now, put every third layer you have on that top and bottom combo. evaluate what works, what doesn't, combos that just could use that one item to spring to life.

    document this process, whether you try everything on (admirable!) or just lay combos out on the bed. take pix or notes. for me, this gets me thinking more creatively about possibilities, and you really know what you have in terms of actual outfits by the end of it. you will also get a good idea of styles you are attracted to by the end of this exercise.

    good luck and bear in mind, like Almost 40 said, it's an ongoing process. and don't forget to check out as many style bloggers as possible in your search for style inspiration! i find a lot more inspiration online than in any magazine. Have Fun!! steph

  • Barry Wright, III

    I love the process that tinyjunco mentioned, but be forwarned, you're in for a long haul.

    Consider the following (fairly modest) wardrobe:

    25 tops
    15 bottoms
    10 "third layers"

    Allowing for the option to not wear a third layer, thats

    25x20x11=5500 outfits!

    Just goes to show the potential depth of our wardrobes (and this doesn't even consider unusual/creative outfit applications).

  • tinyjunco

    hi Barry!! EXCELLENT point! i should have mentioned that it's entirely possible to try this method with 'parts' of your wardrobe at a time. i don't have a lot of clothes, so i forget how many items it's easy to accumulate.

    for example, let's say you feel like you would like to project a more professional image at work as your first priority. pull out 10-15 items that seem most in line with that goal and work the process with that sub-set. nothings says you can't pull in other items as you go along.

    you can then go on to casual, dates, whatever as you feel would be helpful. (i figured i better respond quickly to Barry's post, otherwise poor Elisabeth might pass out! ; ) steph

  • KC

    Great ideas! My cat is especially in favor of the laying-all-the-clothes-out-on-the-bed plan.

  • leslie

    I have been struggling with this myself all year. In addition to all of the great ideas already posted here are a couple of additional steps that have helped me.

    1. Inventory your life. In addition to inventorying your closet, inventory your life. What areas of your life are you dissatisfied with your wardrobe options. For example: I have beautiful work clothes. They are my favorite clothes to buy and they are the easiest with which to flatter my shape. Only problem is that I am a freelance graphic designer with very little work at the moment so my wardrobe languishes and I have nothing to wear for every day.
    2. Make an electronic look book. Once you have identified the wholes in your wardrobe start pulling pictures from your favorite fashion blogs of styles you would like to emulate. Concentrate on outfits that address your wardrobe gap: be it casual, dressy, workout….
    3. Try to reproduce the look. After you have a sampling of good outfits, pick a couple that are based on pieces similar to pieces you already own. (Like a black pencil skirt and a button down shirt) Reproduce the outfit as closely as you can. Look at what shoes the blogger chose, how she accessorized, color combination that you don’t naturally gravitate toward. Once you have matched it as closely as possible note what pieces you are currently missing, that you need to add to complete the look. Do this with as many outfits as you can. When you are done hopefully you will have a potential shopping list of the wardrobe items that will help fill the gaps in your closet.
    4. This is important. Don’t go out and buy the whole list. Look through it, there should be a number of items that would complete a bunch of the looks you chose. Either a chunky shoe, or a fitted blazer, or a pair of jeans in the most stylish wash, or couple of long necklaces. Now edit your shopping list to the pieces that will give you the most bang for the buck – complete several outfits.
    5. Pay special attention to staples like shoes or jean styles. Having a few pieces that are on trend can help make pre-existing pieces appear more up to date.
    6. Start small. It is hard for beginners to assemble a really great outfit. Rather than trying to build 10 – 20 great outfits, shoot for three. Believe me, it is a lot of work to get a complete head to toe look. Three is a manageable number and you will learn a lot from the process. Your outfits will get more stylish if you go slowly.
    7. Shop with the list a ignore anything that catches your eye for style or price but is not on the list. I no longer shop by buying the things that catch my fancy. Not now at least. I only get the specific items on the list. Otherwise I will continue to buy gorgeous work blouses and will still not have anything to wear for my actual life.
    8. Rework your outfits with the new pieces. To have an honest critique of an outfit’s success or failure, I have found it helpful to photograph myself wearing the clothes. My camera reveals a harsher truth than my mirror. After recovering from the initial shock, it took a while; I have found it a really useful tool.
    9. Stores have a return policy for a reason. If anything you picked fails to delight take it back. It is expensive to build a wardrobe and mistakes are inevitable. Don’t keep anything that doesn’t move you toward your goal.
    10. Have fun.

  • Vix

    I'll focus on the buying part a little more since you/comments have already hit on so much good stuff.

    I tend to be a "uniform" dresser — which starts with the buying! — and am fairly comfortable with that. However, I want/ed to break out of the same-old/same-old a BIT.

    For me, the visual inventory was and is key. I didn't really start to change things up a hair til I changed my seasonal evaluation to include dragging things out by a "type" and photographing it.

    So all color vs all sedate neutrals. All blues vs all purples vs etc. All patterns vs all solids. All pants vs all skirts. All jackets vs all knits.

    You get the idea, ha.

    Doing this really helped me change my buying patterns — seeing the lack of variation made it (slightly!) easier for me to resist something that WAS "me" and WOULD be versatile.

    Instead I forced myself to not buy the easy outs and keep an eye out for *different* things that also seemed "me" and versatile. Sure, passing up a new plum merino V-neck meant the older brown and grey ones I was a little bored with got more use, but I survived and had money to spend on other slightly-more-exciting stuff!

  • Emma at Daily Clothes Fix

    Great post, Sal. I don't have much to add, apart from the obvious of hanging like with like. When I did that, and then sorted by colour it became immediately obvious that I had too much black and not enough colour. I also had too many dark colours and not enough brights and pale colours. That helped me to see where the gaps were.

  • K.Line

    Great question, great post! I am on hols and just got a fab new black cardi! But it's one of those long fronted drapey ones (of which I already own two). Point is, it's different than both of those and will suit a diff niche, if not outrageously so. I also bought a pair of dressy, jersey harem pants in aubergine. Not a popular look but it really works for me. I wear what makes me feel confident.

  • lisa

    I've been culling my wardrobe like mad lately and realized that some of the pieces in my wardrobe skew towards the young side…I want to dress like I'm 25 and a successful, confident careerwoman, not like someone who's 12. Fun pieces are okay, but anything overly cutesy has got to go. :-/

  • Valerie-MN

    I totally agree with Tinyjunco regarding the The Lucky style guidebook. Also, check out the other 4 books I love: Isaac Mizrahi's How to Have Style, Rachel Zoe's Style A to Zoe, the Instyle The New Secrets of Style, and Lloyd Boston's Before You Put that On (his book has 365 hints of different things you can do each day to explore something new to create your style).

    My personal style was formed via my grandmother who had an affinity for dress suits. I love suits and expanded into my own style of breaking up the suit look: wearing different "bottoms" with the jacket, buying jackets of different textures, etc. I also buy multiple colors of a style I like: v-necks, drape-necks, ruched bodice styles but in varying intensity of colors. That way, a magenta striped jacket coordinates well with a violet textured blouse, a mauve v-neck, a wine ruched tunic, and a metallic fucshia top.

    I still probably have too many black jackets, but usually of varying cuts, lengths, and fabric. Also, jewelry helps to "awaken" a look as well. I often plan my outfit around colors in a pendant or a bracelet/watch.

  • Valerie-MN

    Oh, I also look to prints in fabrics or garments on tv characters for color inspiration that I may not have chosen to wear together. You can also look at art, wall-color pallette sheets, prints in a garment or on a sheet set. You are only looking at what colors blend, contrast, what captures your eye, etc.

    Also, a hint Joan Rivers gave once was to take a brooch or jewelry piece and hold it up to things in your closet. This gives you a way to dress up an item, spark a color combo you had not initially thought about, and inspire you to wear something you had not worn in a while. I do this a lot and recently wore teal pearls and an abalone pendant with an all-brown ensemble and got lots of compliments. You can do this same for kelly green/brown or turquoise/brown, too.

    I love Patricia Field's costume design on Sex & The City, Shopaholic, Devil Wears Prada, and Cashmere Mafia. Most times when I see a movie or show whose style I love color-wise and accessory-wise, it is usually Patricia's work. My eye responds to it immediately. In fact, I am going to try a combo of jade green with fuschia-tinged purple. (Watch SATC Season 5 Field commentary section and you will see her show a combo with this color pallette.)

    A trend Sal and Audi have sparked me to trying is using a belt to cinch or style an outfit. So, bloggers are good resources for adding to your style.

  • budget chic

    I never do any of this and really, really, really, really need too! Sometimes I'm focused and I remember what's already in my closet and what I need to add as far as staples pieces and solids are concerned but I'm easily distracted.

  • Shaye

    What a great, timely post! I'm about 2/3 finished with taking an inventory of my wardrobe right now. After months of being totally unable to stop shopping, I realized I didn't have so much a shopping problem as a closet problem, in that I was unaware of how I could use pieces I already owned to fit in with my "new" sense of style.

    And I do have a new sense of style. I came out of a hospitalization earlier this year with a profound desire to look better, and thus feel better about myself. (Especially important on days when I feel like crap and stupid prednisone has taken my neck acne to the Next Level.) It also helps that I started reading style blogs at about the same time – I guess I've always had the reputation among my friends for being stylish, but I'd gotten in a rut and never felt attractive or even well put-together. Not so now!

    One thing that has really helped me is to decide what I want to look like I'm doing. For example, I decided that I wanted to spend the summer looking like I was sipping mojitos at an outdoor cafe in Havana in the 50's. (What? you ask. Trust me. It works.) Alternately, lounging at a lakeside dock soaking up the sun. Even though I would probably just be at work, and until lately our PNW weather has been mostly dreary, evaluating clothing & outfits based on whether it fit in with my "summer theme" has made it much easier to decide whether to buy, keep, or style something in a certain way. Not because every outfit could actually be worn if, say, a certain dashing time traveler suddenly whisked me off for a Cuban cocktail in his blue police box, but because of the general way the outfit made me feel. (Leisurely, breezy, warm and relaxed, for the record.)

    Themes. Might be weird, but I find they work for me!

  • Jenava

    Iris Apfel also asks "Do people react to my style the way I want them to?"

    This is an interesting question to explore as well. I find that my style tends to convey a certain conservatism that is not part of my personality as much as it seems to be conveyed in my style/body language.

  • jennypower

    Great post. I do the turn around the hangers trick and re-evaluate every six months. I also try to dump the entire closet on the bed at every change of season to get an idea of what's really there.

    One thing I'd like to add – you may want to consider filming yourself in some of your go-to outfits. Not to sound too much like Cher in Clueless, but how outfits look standing in front of the mirror and how they look "in person" could be very different. I had a huge revelation when I saw video of myself in my favorite pencil skirt, who's magical slimming properties are eliminated if you don't wear it with heels.