Reader Request: Intermediate Style

Lovely reader Mar sent this question via e-mail:

I am working on developing my own clothing style and I’ve come long ways, and am not unhappy about the way I feel in my clothes, but seem to be a bit stuck in a rut.  It’s kind of like I stepped up from my previous simple (jeans and a top) dressing of a couple of years ago, had a lot of fun incorporating layers, dresses, accessories, belts, mixing patterns, acquiring some interesting and cute shoes, etc, but can’t seem to be able to step it up from here (sort of from ‘basic’ to ‘intermediate’), although I’ve started to grow bored with a lot of my outfits.

I’ve perused your posts (and those by others on this topic), and am keeping a folder of magazine clippings/copied blog images, but 1) I can’t quite often closely replicate the looks I really love as my wardrobe is rather limited (and I need to keep it limited due to financial and space constraints); 2) it comes out that sometimes a style (or clothing item – most recently frilly girly skirt) I like on others, does not feel good when I wear it myself.  I *have* gotten ideas though that way that I have successfully incorporated into my looks (oxfords!  super colorful print pants! men’s wear inspirations), so –  am I just being impatient?

Every woman’s style journey is unique, and every woman takes different steps toward honing and crafting her own style. My recommendations for Mar may sound ludicrous to some of you since we each explore clothing, adornment, and figure flattery in different ways, but I’m going to share my thoughts in the hope that they may help a few of you who feel like your stylistic evolution has plateaued.

Do some writing

Describe your current style. What do you like about it? What frustrates you? Which brands do you like, and which brands do you hate? Which clothing styles and garments absolutely work for you? Which clothing styles and garments do you wish you could wear? What are your  favorite colors and fabrics? Is there an era of fashion that you adore? Which aspects of your figure do you hope to show off? Downplay?  What motivated you to undertake a stylistic transformation in the first place? What are your goals for your wardrobe and style? I know it sounds awfully cerebral, but sometimes formalizing these thoughts by writing them down can help crystalize goals and next steps.

Understand your figure

If you’re drawn to items and styles in photos that don’t end up working when you actually wear them, you may need to do a bit more studying. When you get dressed in the morning, take three minutes to study yourself in the mirror and jot down some notes. What is working? What is not working? WHY? What do you wish your clothing was doing that it’s failing to do? If you make this a ritual for even a week or so, you’ll start to hone in on garments and garment types that really work with your body. Then you can apply that information when your dress and, perhaps more importantly, when you shop. Knowing more about your figure will prevent you from buying items that look good on others, but not on you.

Keep your ideal style in mind

The lure of pretty things is strong. STRONG, I tell you! And we’ve all succumbed to the occasional item that would look fabulous on our Imaginary Selves, but looks a mess on our actual selves. Whenever you consider a purchase, don’t just ask yourself if you like the item. Don’t just ask yourself if the item suits your body. Ask yourself if the item fits within your ideal style. We all splash out and try new things once in a while, and that’s how style evolves, so I’m not saying that you should never, ever buy anything that falls outside your defined personal style. Just keep those purchases to a minimum, and focus on garments and accessories that you know will play nicely with your existing wardrobe.

Play with accessories

I know, I know, that old chestnut. But seriously, the best way to take your style from “good” to “fabulous” is accessorization. If you’ve mastered layering and assembling basic ensembles, work on honing your accessorization skills. Play with scarf ties. Try belting on a different spot on your torso. Throw unexpected shoes or boots into the mix. Experiment with brooches. You don’t have to leave the house dripping in adornments, of course, but exploring accessories will definitely help boost you from beginner to intermediate.

Be patient

There is definitely an element of patience here. Style evolves slowly and we’re all constantly learning new things about what we want to wear and look like. Every single person has off days, including Anna Wintour and Stacy London (even if they’d never admit it), so don’t be too hard on yourself if you fumble every so often. I started my blog many years ago and felt like I had my style nailed back then. I look back at photos from years ago now and realize I have learned SO MUCH! I loved what I wore back then, but I feel like I wear it all with more flair and refinement now. As with so many things, it’s all about the journey.

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  • Great post! Ah yes, the Imaginary Self – she has lured me into some boners, for sure. : > I would add that some style books have been helpful over the years, too. Brenda Kinsel’s books, for example, are fun to read and full of good advice.

  • Excellent post, Sal! I’m passing this one around 😀

  • Roberta

    I think it’s useful and encouraging to look back at where you’ve been stylistically. Sally is so right; this is a good thing to write down. “Five years ago I . . .” You’ll see how much you’ve grown, what “risks” you’ve taken, what you’ve stopped worrying about, how much better you know your body and yourself.

  • Hmm — I might have hit a wall, but it’s a wall that’s constructed of how much money I have and how much fabulous is too much for my actual lifestyle. I don’t really want to be the person at work whose sky-high shoes draw constant attention, or to dress far above what my income level reasonably allows. The natural shifts that female professors seem to make as they get older are 1) get more eccentric and bohemian, 2) get more suit-y and join the administrative class, and 3) fossilize in some kind of drab chino-based style. As long as I can avoid 3 and pick appropriately between 1 and 2, I’m golden.

  • Bubu

    I found recently (yesterday) that picking a style or trend that’s been eluding you and really thinking about how to make it work can re-invigorate things. For me, it was long necklaces. I loved them on others, but they never seemed to work on me, I had bought a fun, cheap one to try it with and every day kind of looked at it, would throw it on, it didn’t work. But somewhere my subconscious was working on it and I had an AHA moment in the shower, and realized I needed to tone down other things in the outfit, and incorporate lots of long,vertical lines that echoed the lines of the necklace (esp on my short, curvy frame) and yesterday it all finally came together. I’m sure no one noticed except me, but it felt like an accomplishment. And now a new look and line opens up a new avenue for me and I want to explore it more.

    • – Tessa

      Congratulations – that is a great breakthrough. I happen to have most of my AHA moments in the shower too…

  • Thanks for this post! I can totally relate. My wardrobe has come a long way since meeting with you but sometimes I get bored and wonder, “What can I do different?!” I’m still working on it every day though sometimes I don’t have time to put in a lot of effort. Heck, I may just need to meet with you again sometime so that I can work on it even more! 😉

  • Paulina

    Thanks Sallie, I found this helpful. I personally benefit from braining things a bit before I hit the stores. So either writing about the questions you specified here, or just writing down little notes, little lists of what I need, which elements are missing to complete outfits, etc. help me. And yes, I agree with Mar about keeping an inspirations file to help me visualize what style I’m going for. I do feel like I’ve come a long way in my style, but yes, lately I’ve noticed stagnation, so time for a refresh. Have a great day Sal!

  • Alli

    Aaaah, the dachshund shirt! Sally, you have no idea how much I loved that shirt when I first saw it on your blog. I’ve been thinking of writing to you to request a reappearance of the shirt, if you still have it. 😉

    Great suggestions for working on intermediate style, too!

  • LisaZ

    A couple of months ago, I would’ve said I was in the same place as Mar. I didn’t know what to wear! But then, inspired by your very “real” fashion blog, and others, I threw caution to the wind and started regularly shopping my city’s thrift and consignment stores. I tried on EVERYTHING in my size range that caught my eye and found some pieces I love (sometimes I tried on a size or two up and found they fit me, which is psychologically hard to do but sizes vary so much). Mainly, I’ve just had FUN with this, found fits and styles that flatter me and refused to buy anything that was even the tiniest bit questionable. (I’m not going to mend it, hem it, upcycle it, or anything and I might as well admit it now!)

    I have found myself wearing way more skirts and dresses all summer and loving it, so now I’m going for more of the same for fall and winter, with boots and tights instead of sandals. Just this week, between GoodWill, ebay and the JCPenney clearance rack, I found three dresses all under $20 and all very flattering to my body. The key has been fun, and admitting finally who I really am–what my body type and size is, what types of maintenance I’m willing and not willing to do on clothes, etc. Also, I’m finally noticing that these places sell accessories and I’m trying out more necklaces, scarves, etc. Before I never got much beyond the basics. Plato’s Closet, for one, has great accessories for cheap.

  • Anonymous

    Still a beginner to intermediate, but having much more fun now. I think I used to dress defensively, as in, “not too tight,” ” looks professional enough,” and “hey, I’m covered and clean.” Lots of black clothes. It took me a long time to come to, but my process now is to study those moments when I feel comfortable or put-together. I never imagined I could feel that way before I started reading your blog and others. Those moments have been around things like, “hey! I feel good in soft layers! It lets me have texture! I like different textures together!” or, “yes, fitted, but not tight. It doesn’t have to be baggy for me to feel comfortable” and of course, “wow, those two items look happy together as they’re hanging in the closet.” These seem to come slowly, but each one lets me shop more carefully and have a little more fun.

  • Lilybet

    I’d suggest recognizing that you can be drawn to things that you nonetheless don’t want to wear – I notice that you write that a style “does not feel good” when you wear it yourself. I can dress-shop for hours with friends and I’ll be glad to offer any number of opinions on handbags, but my clothes are all basically butch and dandyish and I only really carry Very Serious men’s bags. I’ve learned over the years that I “do not feel good” in extremely femme-y clothes, no matter how cute I think they are. It’s not a question of learning to wear them, or picking the right shapes; I just don’t like to wear femme-y clothes and I feel like I’m in costume when I wear them. My actual core identity that I am quite happy with, thank you, is not femme-y.

    And there are lots of designers – from Karl Lagerfeld to Anna Sui – who design stuff that’s very, very different from what they wear. Betsy Johnson or Miuccia Prada wear their own clothes and design from their personal aesthetic; Karl Lagerfeld wears severe black (and virtually always has since the eighties) but designs light things in extremely textured fabrics (and has pretty much since he’s had his own design house). What they love to create is not what they love to wear.

    If you like something that you don’t want to wear, is it something that you’d like to incorporate into your personal style another way? I have a couple of simply fantastic vintage dresses hanging on my wall because they were incredibly beautiful (and very, very cheap – let’s be honest, a crystal-covered fifties dress is an attractive wall-hanging when you get it for $4.99 but maybe not when it’s $200.) If you like a ruffled skirt, would you wear a ruffled shirt or carry a bag with a ruffle? If you like safety orange, would you carry a safety-orange planner even if you wouldn’t wear an orange sweater? (I love safety orange, but I love it via scarves and the occasional hat). Would you make a couple of safety orange pillows? Towels? Etc, etc.

    • Sonja

      “If you like something that you don’t want to wear, is it something that you’d like to incorporate into your personal style another way?”

      Now that’s a very interesting thought!

  • I’m not sure about hitting a plateau, but I’ve definitely had the feeling of hitting a rut. When I find some shapes and styles that I knew always look good on me (A-line skirts, tops with cap sleeves), those become my tried-and-true items. At that point, outfits become kind of formulaic and I need some outside inspiration to jump-start my creativity again. Blogs help me a lot with that, especially sewing blogs.

  • Krista

    Thanks for this article.Really, really useful. I have felt like I’ve reached a dull area, and I am feeling the urge to supplement with something all the time (ooh I need more tops, shoes, skirts, etc). I try to read blogs for inspiration, but I still end up feeling like I am missing some “basic piece” that I should have in my wardrobe. I also have issue with professional versus casual outfits and usually wear the same outfit every weekend.

    Anyway, I always enjoy reading your blog. This made me feel a little better, as I am sure I am just transitioning. My whole life is transitioning right now, so that also doesn’t help.

    🙂

  • I feel similarly to how Mar does. Sometimes I think I’ve worn every item in my closet in every possible combination. And sometimes I think all of my outfits look exactly the same. Of course that isn’t true. I particularly like your suggestion to spend a few minutes analyzing what I like and dislike about each outfit to help refine what it is that I feel best in.

  • ily

    (Love the red/pink outfit on the right, btw!) Yep…I feel intermediate, too. I was just talking with some folks about how if I dressed how I really felt inside, I’d get a lot of stares and weird looks where I live. I feel like one thing that’s stopping me from taking my style to the next level is my discomfort with standing out visually. Also, I have a lack of opportunities for encountering people I want to impress. (As much as I want to “dress for myself”, it helps to be challenged by stylish people around you.) Even when I used to work in an office, I could put in a minimum of effort and still be the most dressed-up person there, which was just awkward. Now my job is…taking care of people’s pets, and they *really* don’t care what I wear! So while I do have a lot of interest in fashion, I guess I’m facing a lack of motivation right now.

    Lilybet has a great idea about incorporating your style *off* your person. Especially if your style is very eclectic.

  • Some great tips. I would like to add – Don’t Force It!

    I thought two years ago that I was going to stop wearing certain things and learn to dress like an adult. A year ago I realized what I wanted my style to be and tried pushing it there. Now my style has evolved in such a way I wouldn’t have expected it. I went with both what I love and what looks good on me – and it’s nothing like what I thought. That doesn’t mean I’m not being true to myself or my style. It just means that sometimes you don’t always know yourself and have to be open to possibilities.

  • – Tessa

    I am definitely in a style rut and the only thing that will break it is 75 degree or less weather – but that won’t come to Texas for at least 2 more months. There are only so many cute cotton dresses, etc. to be worn. I miss the rest of my wardrobe!

  • I find it really important to be open to new things. If a trend or style catches your eye, write it down, and the next time you have some spare time to kill go play around at your favourite thrift store or mall. Try stuff on, look at options, and decide if you actually like it and want to incorporate it in your ideal style. After all, we are constantly changing as people, so it’s important not to get too attached to one particular ideal.

  • I think I struggle because I don’t have an ideal style. All sorts of styles appeal to me – it just depends on what day of the week it is. I am currently working really hard to find a common theme in all of the different styles I wear and make that my style. No luck so far, but I’m going to keep trying!

  • Cate

    This post makes me wistful because I had a long “intermediate” phase when I had a corporate job where it was fun to dress up and experiment with my outfits everyday. After being downsized three years ago, I retreated into what I consider boring clothes — basic jeans and tee shirts. Now I’m trying to find my style again, experimenting with skirts, tunics, and layering. I just got a job where I’ll have to wear the organization’s tee shirt everyday and that feels like a huge challenge (and concession)! But I figure I can still play with skirts, pants, accessories, and boots. Sal, you’re my daily inspiration!

    • Sal

      My gosh, Cate, THANK YOU!

  • I felt that I was in a rut with my go-to jeans, t-shirt & little jacket look, so I have been trying to mix it up a bit. Last week, I tried a ‘retro-hippie’ look, with my dark-wash straight-leg jeans, a floaty mini-floral-print ‘peasanty’ blouse (inherited from my niece), a little black cotton vest (thrifted), a combination of long, layered necklaces and my distressed leather Frye ‘Campus’ boots. This week I did my version of the ‘hard-edge rocker-chick’ look, with my dark-wash, straight leg jeans, 2 layered tank-tops w/ faded jean-jacket, my Frye ‘Campus’ boots, an assortment of chain necklaces, (including a couple of delicate ones and one adorned with little old cabinet keys, which I made last week-end), and the distressed leather cuff-bracelet (which converts to hand-cuffs) that I got at a music festival in July. I try to think ‘What look do I want to project?’, and then try to achieve it by shopping in my closet & jewellery collection. I just got my already-short hair cut in an edgier style (inspired by you, Sal), so perhaps this was the catalyst I needed.

    • Sal

      Woo hoo! I’m honored, DIanne!

  • Mar

    Thank you, Sal, and all the others for great tips!!!

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