Reader Request: Building Accessory Collections


Long, long ago, mamaspeak popped this request into the suggestion box:

I would love to see some posts about building shoe and jewelry collections. I’ve gone through the relevant tags that you have and got some great ideas, but I’m starting from very bare-bones and am nervous about buying more shoes/necklaces/etc. that look nice in the store, but don’t seem to match anything, are actually uncomfortable-in-disguise, get very little use, etc. It would be nice to see something about basic items that are good base pieces …

Back in July when Audi was visiting, she was virtually aghast at the size of my necklace collection. She confessed that she generally shied away from jewelry purchases herself because she was never sure, looking at a necklace, how it would fit into her overall wardrobe. And since jewelry and accessories are the refinements that get added to an outfit at the very end of assembly, they can be harder to envision in the context of potential ensembles.

But there are ways to determine if a certain accessory will work for you, and ways to build an accessory collection that suits and pleases you. Here’s what I’d advise if you’re starting from scratch:

Note your use patterns
I have finally figured out that my handbags need at least one external pocket that closes with a magnet. It’s absolutely ideal for how I access and use my phone. I also need to have an internal zip pocket and two internal pouches, a wide strap with a 15″ drop, and a closure that doesn’t scrape my hand with its zipper when I reach inside. How do I know this? Because I have been carrying the same bag for six years, and it is exactly what I need. EXACTLY! All other bags that do not have its same features just don’t work and end up languishing unused.

If you dedicate some energy and time to studying your own accessory use patterns, you’ll learn a ton about yourself and your style. If you never wear cuffs, there’s no reason to add one to your jewelry collection just because you don’t own one. Think about what you wear and why and how often. Here are some specific questions you can ponder:

  • JEWELRY: How often do you wear earrings? Necklaces? Rings? Bracelets? Do you ever switch out your rings? Do you wear cuffs, bangles, chain bracelets most often? What length of earring suits your hairstyle and face shape? What style of necklace works with your neck length and bust size? (More on those balancing questions here, if you’re unsure.)

  • SHOES: How far do you walk on a daily basis? How long are you seated? How active are you on weekends? Do you need different shoes for weekday and weekend wear? What heel height works for you? What climate do you live in, and how does it affect footwear choices?
  • OTHER: Do you wear scarves or belts or hats? When do you wear them? How often? Do you ever swap out your handbag? What bag do you carry most and why?

You’re going to want to branch out on occasion, so if you’ve never worn cuff bracelets but are eager to try out the style, by all means track one down! Just don’t convince yourself that you need one of each type of shoe or accessory. You don’t. And basing your purchases on existing use patterns will help you build a collection that truly suits your personal style.

Assess what you have
Beginning to collect can be a dangerous time. The excitement of searching for and accumulating goodies – especially ones as inexpensive as accessories can be – can eclipse reason. So take a deep breath, and look at what you’ve already got. Most women don’t need more than one strand of pearls or one pair of tall black boots. Take inventory of your accessories, and take inventory of your clothes. You need to know what you already own before you can start buying new.

Evaluate your style
If you’re looking for a list of tried-and-true, classic accessories to use as a jumping-off point, here it is. But many of those pieces may seem boring or stodgy or just plain wrong when taken in the context of your personal style. So think about your look, and think about accessories that fit that look. If you’re going for a rocker style, maybe you need more chunky chains and studded cuffs. If you’re a little more boho, some antiqued brass and leather necklaces. If your style is less defined, cook up a few adjectives that describe it. Are you arty? Girly? Classic? Tomboy? Do you prefer neutrals in minimalistic cuts, loud prints with lots of detailing, sleek suiting?

Now seek out images that align with your style. Magazines, catalogs, movie stills, blogs, anywhere at all that you find images of women in clothing. What accessories are THOSE gals wearing? Can you see yourself similarly accessorized?

Make a purchasing list and plan
Do NOT just start buying up stuff as it comes to hand. If you’re truly dedicated to building a collection, you need a list and a plan. Jot down everything you can imagine working for you, and keep the list in a safe place. Make sure that everything on your list will work with three to five outfits made from items in your current wardrobe.

Then consider your budget. One of the best ways to build quickly is to allow yourself one new purchase per month or pay period. Work through your list systematically and try not to stray. Over the course of several months, you’ll see your new collection growing steadily and responsibly.

Identify sources
The vast majority of my jewelry hails from Etsy. Belts and scarves are almost exclusively from thrift stores. Most of my shoes were purchased online. Make sure that your purchasing plan includes the “where” as well as the “what” and “how much.”

Accept that mistakes will be made
I wish I had a foolproof way to prevent mamaspeak, you, and myself from purchasing useless accessories, but I just don’t. No matter how meticulously you study your use patterns, think about your style, and accumulate list items you WILL buy stuff you don’t like, that doesn’t suit you, doesn’t get used, or doesn’t fit. That’s fine. Hold onto those items and use them to challenge yourself, or donate them and move on.

Here are a few related posts:

And from Fashion for Nerds:

When I moved to Minnesota, it was the first time I’d lived alone. I felt like a newborn grown-up, if that makes sense, and honing my personal style became synonymous with emerging into adulthood. I spent many, many years building my base wardrobe before I felt like I had all the essentials covered. And THEN I discovered accessories, and spent many, many years building my accessory collection before I felt like I had all the essentials covered. In a slightly less structured way, I followed these steps and, as I mentioned above, I’ve now got all the accessories and shoes I’ll ever need. And then some!

How’s your accessory stock? How did you build your collection? Was it a slow process? Are you aware of your use patterns?

Image courtesy Dana LeBlanc.

  • Erin

    When I was a teen, I wore the jewelry of a teen. But when I became a woman…it took me several years to figure out exactly what kind of jewelry I like to wear, and what looks good on me. So I suggest trying stuff out. Buy cheap stuff on sale. (I'm talking super cheap, under $5 a piece.) Wear it around, look in the mirror a lot, ask close friends who love you how it looks. But most importantly, if it feels like you, if it makes you feel pretty and cool and neat, THAT'S your style.

  • kellyroy68

    My rule of thumb is that the older I get the more expensive and precious my accessories collection will be .I imagine myself being 70 and spotting diamonds and gold and real pearls.
    In the main time I have collected several accessories on the cheap.I usually buy one or two items per week to reward myself for being a nice mother,wife,teacher e.t.c
    I hone my accessories and wear them daily.
    As for this post I found it really informative.

  • stacy

    I have a lot of jewelry. Not so much rings and bracelets, though, since I can't hardly stand anything on my arms and hands. My wedding ring would go by the wayside if my husband wouldn't get upset about it LOL!

    For me, I gradually accumulated my pieces over time. I have a distinctive style, which tends to be…errrmmm…medieval blingy?? I like gothic pieces, but I also have a fair amount of simple modern pieces, too. I can pretty much match my jewelry to any piece of clothing since I have so much.

    Nowadays I do buy more expensive pieces, like good silver. I just fill in with a few pieces now, since I don't need to buy in mass quantities. I also made jewelry for a time, too, and I would use precious stones and the like for them. That was a lot of fun, but I'm on to other creative endeavors now.

  • lyrebirdgully

    Nothing beats trying jewellery on, Mamaspeak. You don't have to buy, but you do have to build up an internal visual vocabulary of shapes that interact well with YOUR shape – which will naturally happen once you try things on regularly. No need to rush the spending. Hunt out jewellery places where you can try on items in front of a FULL-length mirror – even bracelets and rings – it will really help develop your eye. Later when you are confident about selecting flattering styles, you can progress to buying online. Erin's suggestion to start out buying cheap is a pretty painless way to discover whether the danglies on a charm bracelet will annoy the life out of you, whether certain clasps are impossible for you to operate, or whether long chains never stay put over your bust… personal style in jewellery is just as much about comfort as it is for shoes or clothes.

  • Rebecca

    I don't have a huge collection of accessories, but I am slowly building it up. I like to stretch my collection of jewelry by wearing things more than one way, like necklaces as bracelets and pins as hair accessories.

  • tinyjunco

    Accessories can be even harder than clothes, because they are so personal. Erin makes an excellent point – start out cheap! that isn't a bad thing, since what an item costs doesn't necessarily relate to how great it looks on you.

    also, i'd hold off on making 'the list' until you're on really solid ground with your own wardrobe and style – which could take a year or two at least…

    why i love daily outfit blogs: you can get a sense of the type of wardrobe you will need in order to generate the style the person is sportin'. This includes accessories. Analyze any blogger that appeals for their accessories – what do they have, how do they use the various pieces…also, note any 'accessory groups' that you like. there are certain pieces that go well together and can make a look all on their own.

    OOTD blogs also give you info on where to get similar pieces. be careful of copying wholesale – the blogger may be a different size or have different coloring than you, making an adjustment the best idea.

    don't forget books, classes, friends, & online tuts that can school you on pearl/bead stringing, wire work, scarf hemming, etc. it's fun, you get more for your $$$, and you'll be certain of no duplicates out there!!

  • Cecilia

    I love having a plan and a system for doing things (I'm uptight that way ;)) I agree with the other reader that as I get older, I have been building up my list of better quality jewelry. But I also like to have a few fun and inexpensive pieces to shake things up. The thing is, I seem to always wear the same pieces for sentimental reasons, like my wedding jewelry, my Claddagh and the stud diamonds. I'm more likely to wear different necklaces than any other jewelry, so that what I usually seek. As far as shoes, I will someday have a pair of simple black Loubotin heels (which I will have to save for a long time)…

  • veejane

    Necklaces, necklines, and bust provided me hard lessons in what I can't do, jewelry-wise. (Literally hard; a big stone on a too-long silken cord turned out to bounce off my bust. I tied it three inches shorter, and it was fine.)

  • theowlsarenotwhattheyseem

    this is really good advice- i ought to pay more attention to my use patterns when shopping, because, particularly with shoes, i tend to want things that aren't realistic for my lifestyle.

    for handbags, i think i'm good at buying things i will really love… mostly because i have to save up for them for so long, by the time i have the money, i have to be 100% sure!

    jewelry is tougher for me. i think i have too many similar things- goldtone chain, goldtone large pendant. so i'm trying to think twice before buying more these days. i'm going to keep your list here in mind! ~joelle

  • Anonymous

    love that necklate!

    XOXO,

    http://outfitid.com/

  • K.Line

    I wear very few necklaces because heavy weight around my neck gives me headaches. However, I do love jewelry and try to choose pieces that are light in weight for neck and ears, but big and eye catching for fingers. I have bought more jewelry in last few years than ever before and yet, on days when I'm not trying, I barely wear any of it. You have an excellent way with the accessories, Sal.

  • fleur_delicious

    With shoes and accessories, I built collections gradually, starting with cheaper and safer pieces (affordable basics) that I sourced by keeping a weather eye on clearance racks and at thrift stores, where I found things like $5 heeled loafers and $20 flat boots (before they were "in" again). As time passed and I got to know myself better, I added more unique and expensive items, since the investment wasn't as much of a risk. For example, I don't buy suede shoes because Seattle's rain will ruin them; no ballet flats because they fall off my thin feet. No peep toes or slingbacks because they cut into my narrow feet and hurt them. Shoes for day have to be under 3" because that's the height at which I can comfortably stand/walk in them all day, etc.

    I also make most of my own jewelry to save on money – mamaspeak, feel free to check the "crafts" tag on my blog for ideas if you like!

    There is still the occasional mistake, though! I will try to make the "mistake" stretch my style boundaries, but if it really won't work, remember that shoes are great leverage at a clothing swap!

  • Valerie-MN

    Having worked part-time for 2 retail positions, I have a lot of jewelry and handbags. My love for jewelry began with my mother, who was an earring girl. As a teen, I started incorporating necklaces with allowance money and then finer jewelry with my first jobs. So, it is a process.

    Watch or go online to QVC and HSN…especially look at the video presentations that accompany the graphics of each piece of jewelry. Most hosts and vendors will thoroughly explain how to use and what colors or garments will work with that specific piece. For QVC, browse through the Joan Rivers jewelry presentations because she always has color swatches that she places under her necklaces, watches, brooches, and earrings. Don't buy anything yet…just watch and take notes of what you like and why or how to incorporate that item into your wardrobe.

    JCPenney's and Macy's have great sales on both their fashion and real jewelry. Browse their offerings and try on different things (without buying) to see what you like. Go home and study your wardrobe to see if that item will work. If you do buy, don't remove the tags, but experiment within your closet. Return if it doesn't work.

    You may want to start small with earrings and build a small collection and then move to necklaces or rings.

    Some ladies start with collecting their gemstone and build a collection that way.

    Same color concepts that you use for wardrobe ideas, use that approach for bead necklaces or brooches or handbags (colors that appeal to you and what would coordinate with what you wear).

    Lastly, wear whatever you want to wear: mix metals, wear a fancy piece if you want, throw on a bold necklace with a sedate outfit, etc. It's your choice. It's your own style. Have fun.

  • Esti

    My jewelry collection started out when I was about ten with some pieces I 'inherited' from a friend of my grandmother's who'd died (and left my grandmother lots of her things), and has continued to grow through a combination of inheritance (or straight gifting). The pieces that I do buy (which tend to be either very cheap fast-fashion pieces or art fair/museum gift shop items) are inspired by the hand-me-downs, in most cases.

    I'm lucky–vintage jewelry (long necklaces, brooches, pearls in all forms and levels of fakeness) suits me, and suits my style. But whatever your taste, I think that building around a handful of pieces with special stories will make everything you acquire seem more interesting and worthwhile. Not to mention jewelry (with certain exceptions, like rings and pieces so old that people were tiny by our standards, but nearly everything is resizable) knows no size, and makes for wonderful heirlooms.

  • mamaspeak

    Long ago, indeed–I'd forgotten about this! What great advice—just what I hoped for, and what I needed. Thank you!!

    fleur_delicious, thanks for the link—I'll check your blog out :)

  • Barb

    You might find it useful to wear a specific shirt or dress that needs accessorizing to the store and try different pieces with it to find something that you can see works with it.

    Sal – Have you discovered Sherpani purses? We seem to have similar utilitarian requirements, that Sherpani does beautifully: http://sherpani.com/womens-shoulder-bags.aspx

  • lisa

    Such sensible and thorough advice as always, Sal. I love what lyrebirdgully said too: "build up an internal visual vocabulary." It's such a succinct expression but it perfectly summarizes how I've approached buying accessories. I'll see things in-store, try them on, and sometimes buy the accessories or put them back. After a while I have a mental inventory of the colours, types of pieces (stud earrings, statement necklaces, dangly earrings that aren't too dangly, scarves) that work for me and my wardrobe and body type. I also have a mental inventory of the sorts of pieces I already have. For example, if I have one black statement necklace with chiffon flowers, I'm unlikely to buy another black bib necklace with black leather blooms on it because I already have something similar.

  • Liz Remus

    I’d love to see how your organize your jewelry and shoes!

    I currently use an over the door clear pocket shoe organizer for my jewelry. Since the pockets were meant to be used for shoes, they are a little big but it’s handy to have it hang inside the closet door when I’m putting together my outfits. I wish I had an organization system for my shoes but they really just get put on the floor of my closet.