Taste, Creativity, and Boden

A while back, I wrote a bit about how my style has evolved since I began blogging. I opened that post with these two photos from my bloggy beginnings in 2007:

As I mentioned in that older post, I am wearing head-to-toe Boden in both of these shots. Although I didn’t own a closet full of Boden at the time, outfits like these were my staples back in the day: Solid top, cute embellished skirt, the end. I credit Boden with sparking my style obsession; I saw a catalog at a friend’s house six or seven years ago and my head caved in. Something about the clean-but-quirky design aesthetic just slayed me, and began accumulating as many pieces as I could afford. (And maybe a few that I couldn’t quite afford.) They looked like clothes I’d design for myself, if I had that skill set, and suited my taste perfectly.

I then spent years relying on Boden’s cute pieces to create my style for me. Purchasing darling, personality-filled pieces meant that the garments could do the heavy lifting. The plain-top-and-matching-quirky-skirt formula was simple and effective, and I seldom dabbled in layering, accessorization, or color play. I didn’t force myself to think or be creative, I just relied on my taste to carry me.

I mentioned all of this in the previous post, then realized in retrospect that it may have broadcast some “Boden = bad” type messages, especially to those of you who currently employ and enjoy the plain-top-and-matching-quirky-skirt formula. So let me be clear now, as I should have then: I still adore Boden, drool over their catalogs, and buy the occasional piece. I also love my fun and distinctive garments for their ability to elevate an outfit from nice to noticeable, and wear them with pleasure and pride. I did not mean to imply that letting your taste shine through is lazy or wrong, or that learning to layer, accessorize, or work with color are hallmarks of superior style. Style is diverse, and there is no wrong way to be stylish.

But here’s where I’m coming from: In my experience, vendors like Boden, Anthropologie, and ModCloth offer a few basics and classic items, but focus mainly on darling pieces that are absolutely brimming with personality. At least in the context of my own style, I find these pieces to be delightful but less-than-versatile. Unless I’m going for a pretty over-the-top look, I don’t generally employ more than one such item at a time, and that can be limiting. I prefer to work with garments that feel more like building blocks than stand-alones. I feel more artistic and creative when I feel like I’m making outfit soup from my own, relatively plain ingredients.

But there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying, wearing, and loving personality-filled pieces. You are still expressing yourself and exercising your fabulous taste by doing so. It is not lesser-than or beginner, it is just another way. And I didn’t mean to disdain Boden, or the Boden way in my previous post. That style of dressing works for and looks fabulous on many women, and served me well for years. Making the switch to plainer garments worn in compelling combinations made me feel more like I’d hit my sartorial stride, but that doesn’t mean you must follow suit.

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  • It has taken me a long time to have a comfort level with more creative, embellished pieces as seen in Boden and Anthro. For me it’s the opposite, I really needed to hit my sartorial stride to know how to wear them and not have them wear me.

    I love the stores you mentioned, I just find it a bit of a cop-out when someone consistently dresses exactly like the catalog or mannequins for the store. I guess it’s a safe way to look nice, but you have no clue what the woman is like behind the clothing. What is HER personality, HER spirit. I’d prefer to see someone wear pieces that don’t quite work together but took some effort to combine, than completely replicate a store’s created look.

    • Barbra

      I don’t know your intention in what you said, but why go to such lengths to seemingly criticize someone who would choose to emulate what they see in store windows? How is that any different from checking out other fashion bloggers and biting their looks? Maybe the person feels like the spirit that store has marketed itself to convey is the same look he/she desires?

      • Oh wow, didn’t mean it that way at all! I just love it when a woman’s spirit shines through. I am so sorry to offend!

  • I just found your blog through an article on psych central!
    First of all, I don’t think you meant to say anything bad about those clothes–personal style is well, personal! And it evolves! Especially when we write about it every day. I used to be the kind of person who didn’t care about style–I wanted to blend in to the crowd and just look pretty. That’s really all I cared about. I didn’t care about looking fashionable as long as someone could look at me and call me pretty. There’s definitely something wrong with our culture. Haha.
    Now after discovering style blogs, I’ve learned that it is more about wearing the clothes you love and adore and bring creative. (This is getting hard to write because now I have a toddler on my lap who wants to watch wheels on the bus…) aha
    Anyway, this is a great post, and of course our styles evolve and we challenge ourselves!

    Courtney
    I Can Be Many Things

  • Blogging has helped me to better define my style and set guidelines so that I make fewer blunders. I try now to have only one creative star of each look so that I do not have many pieces battling for attention. I take one creative piece and style around it! Reading the book Parisian Chic this past summer really helped me with even more definition of what I want my style to communicate.

  • I am totally the person who buys personality. I have a fair bit of Boden — but I don’t generally wear head-to-toe Boden. I layer my Boden dresses with other non-Boden items, even though they could be standalones and sometimes it’s nice to have a dress that just doesn’t need anything else to be pretty. Especially in our climate where half the year you can’t really layer except indoors. Anthropologie has also been a go-to for me lately, too. They have surprisingly nice stuff, and their clothes at the top end of the size range actually seem to be made with a body shape like mine in mind. I tend to like fabulous dresses and blouses paired with more basic cardigans/jackets/pants. I am guilty of having way too much fabulous in my closet and not quite enough basic to make it all work, but I’m probably not going to change back to an all building blocks wardrobe anytime soon.

  • Amy

    This is a great piece, Sal. But here’s the funny part–I don’t know if it’s quite accurate to your style…

    One of the reasons I’ve always adored your blog is because of you how incorporate quirky, interesting, colorful, pattered, personality-filled pieces into your daily wardrobe. I think you’ve come so far from your early days of “quirky skirt and matching tee” that you can’t quite see how those elements are still defining your style–in a very good way. You make pieces by Desigual seem perfectly wearable, and you ROCK the McQueen scarf that most of us have no idea how to wear. Your Tsubu shoes look elegant and fun. In my opinion, you’re the queen of dressing with personality pieces! I think the reality is that you’ve become a mixture of the two styles. Even in these early photos you can see that you were happy in a similar silhouette, which is pretty classic.

    I think my style is pretty similar to yours, actually–lots of classic pieces in bright and neutral colors, along with interesting accessories and fun shoes. I think I use jewelry more than you in terms of expressing personality, but you’re teaching me to buy funkier shoes! I don’t really know–your post is making me rethink everything!

    I think my biggest takeaway from this post is in helping my friends–many of whom have recently asked me to help them tackle their closets–figure out their own use of personality-pieces. Thanks SO much for this interesting sartorial question on a Monday morning!

    • Sal

      Huh! Interesting point, Amy! I guess I view the pieces you’ve mentioned as “building blocks,” and tend to think of the Boden/Anthro stuff as more personality-laden … but I can see where both could fit into the latter category!

  • Sigi

    Ah, I just followed that link to look at Boden’s stuff. Bad, bad Sally for showing me the way! >:-(

    Soooooo many cute clothes … oh, the skirts … WANT!!!

  • Miss T

    It would be interesting to know who Anthropologie et al. say is their customer: i.e., what the demographics are. Sure, women from all demographics obviously shop these vendors, but like all successful businesses, these stores cater to the market share they know will consistently buy their clothing. We forget that the clothing buying habits of a 25-year-old are vastly different than those of someone over 40 who perhaps has a mortgage and other financial obligations. The definition of “value for the money” is also different. Also different are the definitions of personal style and disposable income. These stores know this and they know exactly who their best customers will be. I say that because their clothing is quite expensive but the appeal is more along the lines of “oh I HAVE to have that. NOW”. It’s eye candy, for the most part. They seem geared toward impulse buying, which is more common in a younger demographic that hasn’t figured out their style yet, or maybe doesn’t want to work at figuring it out. Another indication that my theory might be correct is that these clothes don’t come in larger size ranges, the cut is skimpy, the quality is average, and they don’t seem to want to court as a customer anyone who might need more fabric (ahem!). My point is that cute/interesting/fun can easily be achieved with experience, a few great pieces, and a plan. But for women who don’t have/want those things, there are plenty of vendors who will “sell” you a package that approximates those things.

    • Miss T

      Some of what I said above is also based on the fact that I sew, and every time I see a simple sheath dress in a solid color for $285, I get angry.

      • Jen

        Yes, absolutely! I make jewelry, and I definitely browse Anthropologie for fresh ideas. But then I think, huh, why do they stick different colored stones (not precious, not silver or gold) on a chain and sell it for $155? Even if I couldn’t or didn’t want to make it, I could go on etsy or to a craft fair or sometimes even to Target and get something similar for $25 at the most. Whatever. As my mama would say, “These are people that have more money than sense.”

    • Sal

      So true. Many of my style consult clients buy up adorable pieces from Anthro, Boden, and Modcloth because of that “Oh I HAVE to have that NOW” urge they trigger, then struggle to style them. Boden, however, seems to cater to a slightly older demographic … at least, I think so.

      • Miss T

        Yes, that seems to be true about Boden.

      • It’s interesting to hear these comments about Boden, because I grew up wearing their children’s clothes in the mid-to-late 90s, which my mum (a conservative and frugal dresser) would buy because of the good quality and classic styles! Maybe they are a bit more heavy on “statement pieces” these days, but I have never had the impression of Boden as low quality eye candy. (There’s an 11-year-old Mini Boden dress hanging in my wardrobe right now, still in good condition.)

      • Really? Down here what I see in Anthro is women in their 40s/50s, accompanied by teen daughters. If the South Park Anthro in Charlotte is any indication, the demographic they’re going for is wealthy women who shop with their daughters, and both can find something they like.

  • I definitely fall into the trap of sometimes buying pieces that have so much personality on their own that I am later incapable of mixing them successfully. However, I have also made a conscious decision not to shun such pieces entirely. Sure, I want a wardrobe full of pieces that are versatile and can play well together, but I have found such loud-personality pieces to be perfect for those days when I’m just unable to put together a unique look.
    Most days I want my outfit to scream “me,” but some days, I’m willing to let my outfit just plain scream while I simply snooze…

    I would love to see a post on how to better mix-n-match those pieces that ARE so laden with personality!

  • I agree with Pam about choosing one “star” or unusual piece, and going more classic with supporting players. If I find a great Anthro skirt, I am likely to wear it with a low-key top (like your photos). That’s my style for the moment, but guess what? Even at my age, I am edging toward more color, more pattern and even some pattern-mixing. And NOW, Ms. Sally, you’ve got me ogling all the Boden stuff! : >

  • I have the opposite instincts. Would be happy in some ways wearing nothing but navy. I like to try and bring in some creativity, some art if you will, by subtleties everywhere, rather than one or two punch you in the face pieces.

  • Tara

    This is off-topic, but inspired by your lovely collection of Fryes, I’ve recently purchased my first 2 pair from eBay – black 12 r and most exciting a lilac pair of Camus boots that are en route. I am so excited for the purple guys! Being vegan for about 15 years or so, I never used to purchase leather or wool, but the past year or so I’ve started buying used/recycled leather/wool since it seems more environmentally friendly than the alternative. At any rate, I’m very happy to about my new-to-me Fryes!

    • Sal

      Rock on, Tara! So glad you love them!

  • Colleen

    I will admit it: I have a thing against Anthropologie. And yet I oogle and desire their clothing anyhow. Here are my reasons:

    A friend of mine worked at Anthropologie. He was very tired of customers who would waltz in looking for something to make them look artsy,cultured, and individual as if it were some sort of costume they were purchasing. They’d buy a shawl that looked like they bought it handmade in a market in Thailand for 10 US dollars, except they don’t travel, it was mass produced, and costs $300. The faux “African tribal” stuff used to REALLY drive him mad especially since it was usually fortysomething wealthy white women buying it.

    The reason I only own one Anthro item (sweater on supersale for $30) is that the quality just does not justify the price. A mass produced cotton halter sun dress with a smocked back is NOT worth $120 no matter how much cute ric rack trim is used on it. Anthro heavily uses high end or quirky finishes (buttons, trims, ruffles, etc.) to make a garment made of cheap, thin fabric have more hanger appeal. And look like it’s unique enough to justify the markup. I find something about it crass…it exploits the fact that many consumers are used to fast fashion and don’t expect much out of textiles these days.

    I could continue but the point is that, I still go on their website, browse in the stores, and try stuff on from the sales rack. But it makes me feel dirty.

    • Colleen

      PS funny story – the day I was seduced by the overpriced cotton dress, I turned to my mother who was shopping with me and said “$120 for a cotton dress? I could buy a vintage silk dress for less than that!” Guess what I found at the store across the street…a grey late 1940s silk duponi dress for $80.

    • I, too, struggle with the Anthro thing. Many of their pieces appeal to my aesthetic, but the prices are crazy. This is especially true considering that many of those pieces are direct rip-offs of indie designer work that you can find on Etsy or at regional craft/art/design shows for less. Anthro has a documented record of copying designs by independent craftspeople, and then charging much, much more for those items.

  • Anne

    I discovered Boden maybe 7 years ago. (maybe they increased they’re U.S. marketing then?) I immediately fell in love with their interesting details and cheeky attitude. When I started purchasing their clothes, I found them to have very good customer service, good quality to price ratio, and their clothes actually fit a woman’s body. I went the reverse route of you Sally. I bought heavily into tops and sweaters and layered with my own tees and bottoms. Since then I’ve realized that it’s easy to get “Boden saturation.” Truly, I believe with CAbi, Anthro. Boden and the like a little bit goes a long way.

    I do completely understand the appeal of buying those statement pieces and letting them do the talking. In our time crunched world where we are all supposed to have thriving careers, talented children, spicy marriages, and the bodies of athletes, it is nice to know that by throwing on one particular item you look stylish today. I know that if I’m having a hectic, errand filled day, I can throw on my favorite Boden cardi and I will look and feel good all day. Likewise when the temps hit 100+ degrees and I can barely stomach the idea of putting clothes on and leaving my air conditioned home, I can throw on a cute Anthro. or Boden top and know that I don’t need to layer up with scarves or jewelry or more clothing to make myself look interesting.

    Personally, I hate looking like I’m sporting one store’s goods from top to bottom. I enjoy the hunting, collecting, and mixing pieces in my wardrobe and in my home, but some days I just don’t want to think about it.

  • Mia

    Some of the other comments here have really got me thinking–I’m on the younger end of the spectrum and still figuring out my style, and I’ll admit that garments with tons of personality (like ModCloth dresses) are very, very appealing. I don’t own any ModCloth, though, because what I hear time and time again is that the quality is not on par with the price point–that, and I’m just not a big fan of buying clothing that I can’t try on first anyhow.

    I have two Anthropologie pieces, both of which I bought on eBay, and both of which were “MUST HAVE NOW” moments. One is a dress that turned out to be too large, so I need to figure out how to tailor it or shell out the money, and the other is a skirt that I’m actually wearing right now. I think I’ll be able to get a good amount of wears out of the skirt–it’s gorgeous!–but I think I’ll be happy to ogle from now on instead of impulse-buying on eBay, for what is still a substantial amount of money to a 23-year-old like me ($30 for the skirt, $80 for the dress). Not being able to see the items in person really makes it harder to gauge if the purchase is worth it. (This kind of devolved into a ramble about buying clothing online in general, huh?)

    Anyhow, I guess since paying more than $20 for a garment is still pretty new to me, it’s hard to feel like investing $100-$200 in a simple but well-made garment; for that money, I end up feeling like I should get something splashier, I guess? A Statement Piece. But it IS harder to remix statement pieces, and those simple but well-made pieces might last me ten years if I stay the same size…it’s just hard to get into a more mature mindset about clothing, especially when shopping to dress nicely is still pretty new to me. We’ll see what kind of style and brand loyalties I have in ten or fifteen years!

    • KL

      I am also on the younger end still and I find myself admiring the style of “classic” bloggers, but not actually wanting to dress like them. Nor do I want to go the super-layered route… I don’t think my current style will ever accommodate a vest, for example, because it seems like such a useless piece of clothing to me (and I don’t really go for the menswear inspiration thing).

      Anthro is my favorite store right now and the only brand I’ve ever had “loyalty” to, but I definitely am not head-to-toe (not that I could afford it!) and they stock some pieces that I would never buy or wear. On the other hand, right now I’m wearing a (dry clean only) retro-style cotton shirtdress that I snagged for $20 and is probably the highest-quality day dress I’ve ever owned–both the fabric and the details in the craftsmanship are worlds away from stores like H&M or Forever 21 (where most of my friends shop) and even recent J.Crew.

      My style is either super-casual (think shorts and a t-shirt, plus my usual silver watch and silver bracelet–I’m still a college student, after all) or dressed-up feminine and quirky. I could invest in a great pencil skirt or a crew-neck sweater, but I would never wear it. The femininity of Anthro is really what I love–it makes me feel pretty, and as I accumulate more pieces, it also pushes me to extend my style by taking sartorial risks and wearing multiple pieces with “personality.” Other times I just want to showcase a pretty dress–to me, that is more interesting than showcasing my “talent” in creative layering or accessorizing.

      I guess that was a long-winded way of saying, I do prefer taste over creativity. In fact, that’s true of the blogger styles that I love the most–those like Kendi or Audi or you, Sal, I admire but have no desire to emulate, because being intentionally “creative” with my dress doesn’t fit my personal aesthetic.

  • Tara

    The couple of items I have from Boden are basic pieces, but I have many items from Anthro. I love Anthro and do feel that their quality is higher than that of many other stores, but I don’t tend to buy t-shirts or knits from them – I go for well constructed skirts, sweaters or jackets – and I NEVER pay full price. I rarely even look around the store and focus solely on the sale rack. Doing this, I feel like I get interesting, well made pieces for a reasonable price. My shopping is varied – consignment, vintage, thrift, Banana, Anthro, eBay – so it all kind of mixes together to create my own style.

  • Rachel W.

    I’ve been wanting to ask how you DO incorporate quirky items into outfits without falling into predictable combinations, like plain-tee-fun-skirt, or blindingly eccentric ones, like head-to-toe randomness. You do it so well!

  • This is totally off topic, but I’d just like to say that you are wearing a Terrific bra in those pictures. Seriously. I’d forgotten where boobs are Supposed to be until now.

    Don’t worry. I’ve moved on from staring There. Cute skirts!

  • I love my quirky pieces (coming from All Saints usually), and so far I usually stay conservative in my pairings. I’m getting more daring by the day as I learn about a piece, how it wears and what goes with it. I also love to thrift wild pieces and incorporate them. I try not to be scared of clothes anymore. What’s someone going to do? Say something? I think I’m passed that because people are going to comment if I’m a little crazy or a lot crazy. ;]

  • Great post. I agree with an earlier commenter that there’s lots of personality in the pieces you wear now, but I do see a difference in the older vs new pieces.

    Style does seem to be very diverse!

  • D

    I think I’m more of a simple pieces in combination type of girl, but I am trying to move more toward using some creative pieces. My collection of shoes is definitely pushing me in that direction. Thrifting is really helping with that, too!

  • T.

    I probably fall into the category of relying on interesting clothes to convey my personality. I have always loved little detailed embellishments on my clothing. I have something akin to an interview tomorrow, and after much anguish of what to wear, I’m going conservative: black skirt, white blouse, gray cardigan. However, my cardigan is from Boden, and I think it’s subtle-but-interesting Boden-y detail elevates this outfit from looking like a total snooze into being a teeny bit sophisticated.

  • J.B.

    What I wondered reading this print is what is the difference between a piece with personality and prints? Because I don’t wear much of the brands you mentioned, but I do wear an awful lot of prints (often a bit quirky prints at that), and I tend to build my outfits around one piece (a top or a skirt) that is a print, with the rest of my clothes being supporting characters. So is that the same issue?

    I look at those outfits above, and it isn’t so much the type of clothes that seems different to me about the way you dress now, Sal, because you still wear some quirky pieces (though less so lately in the last few months?), but that it seems in the above pictures, you are letting the skirt’s quirkiness be the end all be all. There isn’t much styling beyond that. I feel like I could see in that type of outfit today (though not those colors!), but that there would be belts, jewelry, scarves, and other stuff to mix it up.

    • Sal

      Hmm, I think prints can work more seamlessly into a mix of items than the personality pieces I’m thinking of. A print can be a backdrop or it can be center stage, and the pieces I’m imagining are embellished and cut in such a way that it is really challenging to style them without making them the focal point.

  • Jan

    So, did you get the striped blazer?? I hope so!

    • Sal

      Hahaha. Sure did, Jan!

  • T.

    I never really thought about this. I do own a few individual pieces, but usually I try to “create personality” (if that makes sense) by the way I mix things. Like casual with dressy, bright pink with black, etc.

  • You know I don’t own any Boden, but I have acquired quite a number of quirky pieces in my thrifting over the past year. I’ve found that just one quirky piece in a look really sparks my creativity and the best quirky pieces are those that inspired MULTIPLE looks. Now, I need to go investigate Boden…I don’t find them in the thrifts very often. Must be pieces that the owners hang on to.

  • I like to be craziest with my shoes!

  • Sarah

    Thought-provoking. At 30, I feel my approach to style is changing. I’d say up until now, layering intimidated me and I relied more heavily on statement pieces (if anything at all… sometimes I just wanted to blend into the wall or just wanted to feel comfy). But yeah, if I wanted to look “good” or “nice” I’d try to find one piece that would accomplish that for me and try to find other pieces that matched “enough” so that nothing distracted from the one piece. With this method, each piece sort of had one pair of shoes that went with it and one shirt etc, and I just had a series of isolated outfits.

    Now? I am loving how much more versatile my wardrobe can be with mixing, matching, layering and accessorizing. I can wear the same shirt so many ways and people may not even realize I wore the same piece just a few days ago! Plus, I do feel that sense of accomplishment for creating my own look. I think there’s something about human nature that finds creativity itself satisfying (even if it’s creativity outside the traditional “art” realm). I also find that if I approach the layering, etc from a standpoint of expressing myself (vs. drawing attention from others or being “in fashion”), I feel quite comfortable and happy in my ensembles even if they are a bit daring.

  • Sheila

    My overall wardrobe had gotten too casual with the business casual dress code. Slowly I am changing my work style back to more business and less casual but with fun. I mix my classic Talbots pieces with unique skirts and blouses I find thrifting and different shoe styles not just pumps. My weekend style has gone from sweats and sneakers to jeans and flats. I am a work in progress finding what I like, what looks good on me, lots of trial and error.

  • When I first started my blog, I was a person who as u put it, liked to create my own ‘soup’ 😉
    But, then I felt pressured to live up to being more dramatic for the blog’s sake.
    BIG mistake! I was fake and everyone felt it. Including me.
    It’s just as of late, that I am back!
    I’m ME again. I wouldn’t trade the experience but let’s just say my fishnets are gonna soon be hair-wraps,LOL!
    I do like a good flash in the pan, I am still willing to try new things, but I really seem to shine when I am making soup!
    (by the way, I too own tons of plain tops and funky skirts with flip-flops that match the top)
    xXx
    Reva

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  • Maggie May

    I look and look at the beautiful Boden catalogs and am tempted by the dresses since dresses for work are such a simple choice and the styles look flattering. But I can never decide on a print, they all seem…. a bit like I would feel like they are wearing me. ( I returned the Sailboat Skirt from Anthro because it seemed the same way and mind you I ADORE vintage and that had quite that vibe.) Wish there was a Boden store so that I could touch and try on those dresses.
    I do think it tells me something about my style and my comfort zones, and although Boden’s demographic probably skews towards me, in someways it feels quite young.

  • I’m new to your blog, but I have to say this was a great post, with an interesting dialogue in the comments. I have been a victim of the Antro trap–I recently took absolutely every item I ever bought at Antho and piled them all on my bed–it was a shocking amount. A few pieces are my staples, but most have too much personality to be worn often. OTOH, sometimes the offerings at J. Crew seem a little dull. There’s an expensive boutique in my city that sells some of the same items that Anthro carries, only for even higher prices.
    I have mixed feelings about Boden. Their clothes look gorgeous in the catalog, but seem juvenile or frumpy when you take them out of the package. I’ve probably returned 2/3 of everything I’ve bought from Boden, and I’ve pretty much stopped buying from them, although I still like to look through their catalog.