Posts Tagged: style

It’s Not About How You Look


Know what breaks my heart? When a friend I haven’t seen for months tells me she was super nervous picking out an outfit to wear for our lunch date. That is NOT how I want anyone to feel, about me or anyone else. Because although I talk a lot about how to make yourself look good, my end goal is to help you feel good. One can lead to the other, in many cases, but the feeling good trumps the looking good every single time. At least in my book.

I love the quote at the top of this post because I think it captures quite succinctly an important distinction between the fleeting, surface-skimming aspects of personal style and the lasting, life-enriching aspects of personal style. There may be a world of difference between what others observe about you and what you, yourself, see when you look in the mirror. But as long as you see a strong, confident, capable woman staring back at you, how you look to other people can become virtually irrelevant.

And this applies to straight-up body image, too. If you look at your body and see a mess of “flaws,” or a disappointment, or a burden, or a fixer-upper project, you may be viewing your appearance through the lens of skewed-but-ubiquitous socially enforced ideals of beauty. You’re focusing on how you look to other people, based on what you’ve been told people “should” look like. But what really matters isn’t how your body looks. It’s how you see that body and how you feel living in it. You shape your own reality, so if you look at yourself and choose to see goodness, power, and beauty, your force of will and intentional positivity can begin to eclipse those manufactured ideals. If you look at yourself and choose to see goodness, power, and beauty, you are, in fact, good, powerful, and beautiful.

How you look is the means, how you feel is the end. How you look is the surface, how you see yourself is the core. And I hope you’re able to see yourself as the unique, exquisite force of nature you truly are.

Image via (couldn’t find original source – please let me know if you know it!)

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Reader Request: Reflections on My Style Shift

Reader Cleoxymore posed this question in a comment:

Your “style transition” (from this side of the screen!) felt more like a revolution than a transition, very sudden and complete; but in the past couple of months, I’ve felt that some of your “old” style was creeping back into the new (not submerging it, mind you, but more like the transition happened AFTER the revolution).

Would you consider writing a post of reflection on your style shift? What was and is satisfying about it, successes and mistakes, and plans moving forward? I think the look back/lessons learned could make a great post for many readers, though I admit that I have perhaps a greater than average interest in the question (I’ve been reading you for several years now, and I used to come here purely for the voice and way of thinking, since your style was MILES away from mine… and now you’ve landed right where would love to but don’t quite dare go!)

Background on the change here and here.

And Cleoxymore is right, this was more of a flipped-switch than a slow-fade as transitions go. Here’s what I wore in August of 2014:


And here’s what I looked like by October of 2014:


Then there was winter – long, dark, cold, and full of sweaters and jackets and pants. And once spring grew near, I got a few curious questions about how the philosophy of “would a badass wear this?” might translate into warm weather outfits. I didn’t really know myself. But I ended up with this:


As Cleoxymore points out, fall and winter were drastic changes from my previous style, but summer was a bit more of a hybrid. For one thing, although I still wore plenty of black and gray, I made a concerted effort to mix in more white, light denim, and brown leather accents. And for another, I came back to skirts and dresses.

After years of absolutely HATING pants and living in nothing but skirts and dresses, I found myself almost unable to bear tights last fall and winter. I just couldn’t think of any dress-based outfit that I wanted to wear so badly I was willing to put up with the mild-but-constant irritation of a pair of tights, so it was pants, jeans, and leggings for months. But as soon as it was warm enough to go bare-legged, my interest was rekindled. My old full skirts in bright colors weren’t exactly what I was looking for, but I found a few vaguely badass skirts to put into rotation, experimented with a few of my old dresses and bought some new ones.

As the season wore on, I knew that jewelry was going to play a big role in my warm-weather looks. During winter I relied on layers to keep things interesting and rich, but summer outfits tend to be more pared-down. I made a few Etsy runs to augment my collection, and really enjoyed letting my necklaces and earrings take center stage for the season.

In terms of lessons I’ve learned? Nothing earth-shattering, honestly. I think the main thing I’ve learned is that you really can’t make a drastic style switch without doing some shopping. I had high hopes of paring down my wardrobe and repurposing my old clothes for my new look, and could do that with a handful of pieces. But I couldn’t go from a wardrobe that was mostly heels, colorful fit-and-flare dresses, and cardigans to a neutral-focused, edgy, mostly dress-free look just by getting rid of stuff. I mean, I got rid of BALES of stuff – gave to friends, donated, eBayed, consigned – but I had to buy some stuff, too.

This is pretty specific to me, I’d wager, but I’ve also learned that I suck at slow transitions. I did my absolute best to keep a few of my old items around to see if they’d work with the new look, but even when they did, I just resented the crap out of them. They were relics of a past me, and I didn’t want them around. Here’s an example:


Perfectly fine outfit using a dress I’ve had for several years. Lots of black and leather and hardware in the look to balance the sweetness of the silhouette, and I think it works visually. But I just wanted that dress GONE. And now it is.

Perhaps the moral there is if you get a yen to completely make yourself over, it’s likely got roots in something other than shifting sartorial preferences. I talked about how comfort, practicality, and ease were all suddenly quite important to me, and they all played a huge role in my change. But I also just wanted to change. I wanted to look and feel different. And that occasionally made it hard to repurpose old items for new looks. Which frustrated me because it felt somewhat rash, but was really, really hard to fight.

I’ve also learned that confining my wardrobe to a smaller space is a fantastic way to keep it smaller overall. I switched closets with my husband and have been slowly working toward paring down my wardrobe until I’ve got absolutely nothing in off-season storage. I’m almost there, and it feels fabulous. And even in the smaller space, my stuff is less packed-in and actually has room to move and breathe!

I’d say the most satisfying thing about this shift is how I feel. I feel better. I feel happier. I feel interested in building outfits again. I know that virtually all of my wardrobe goes with itself, so when I build those outfits it’s far less of a challenge. I honestly had no idea, but I feel like this change must’ve been incubating inside me for a looooong time because even now, nearly a year later, I feel relieved. Like I was forcing it before, but am behaving more naturally now.

My mistakes included donating several items I should’ve tried to sell, out of pure impatience and a desire to make the change feel more real and permanent. Also thinking that sandals would be important for summer: I should’ve known better. My feet are always freezing, so I wear sandals quite seldom, even in the beastly heart of summer.

Plans moving forward: I mentioned doing away with off-season storage. I still have a rack in my basement with four groups of items:

  1. Emotionally significant things that I will never ever get rid of even if I never ever wear them again,
  2. Fancy clothes for parties and such
  3. A kind of “office archive” of blazers and sweater shells that I’m reluctant to ditch in case I ever have to go to court or something
  4. A tiny group of items I’m pretty sure should go but can’t quite donate yet

I’ll probably always have a holding area/purgatory for things I am considering offloading, but I hope to revisit the office archive. Yes, I should have a couple of sheath dresses and button-fronts for emergencies. But there are a few full skirts and girly tops that I should really let go of. It’s fear, ya know? Fear of fully committing. There are plenty of items in my everyday wardrobe that would make me look professional and respectable in court. Plus am I gonna get arrested or something? Doubtful.

I’ll keep up my “one in, one out” policy … which is really more like a “one in, four out” policy, if I’m being honest. I want to downsize and can often use the proceeds from my consignment sales to fund new purchases, so when I buy I often sell. Or donate.

And I’ll continue to experiment with my hair. I’m having too much fun playing with it to let it be any one thing for too long.

Thanks Cleoxymore for a fun question! And I hope this was interesting and maybe a smidgen useful for everyone else.

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Versions of You

I’m still co-chairing the advisory board for Leaders of Today and Tomorrow, and let me tell you, friends, the program blows my mind on a regular basis. Our dedicated board members, talented mentors, and passionate fellows make every program year inspiring in its own unique way.

One of the things we always say about the program is that everyone learns. The fellows may be there to soak up knowledge, but our speakers and panelists and mentors and facilitators all learn about themselves each year, too. Here’s a great example: I give a presentation on dressing for interviews, networking, and office life every year. In years past, I’ve always gotten questions from the fellows about how to dress professionally while simultaneously expressing their personalities. So I touch on that topic each year now. But a young woman in last year’s cohort responded to my caveats and tips for being unique while also conforming with this tidbit of wisdom: There’s nothing natural about an interview. Interviews are a construct for everyone involved, so why get hung up on self-expression?

Take this a step further: In the vast majority of cases, the person conducting the interview will be on her/his/their best behavior and fall short of showing true colors fully. The interviewer may wear a typical office outfit if interviewing someone she/he/they will be supervising, but if it’s an HR rep screening managerial or executive candidates, or VPs group-interviewing potential CEOs, outfits are likely to be more formal than usual. So although the interviewer may be more at ease overall, the situation is far from natural. It makes some sense that interview candidates would want to dress in ways that aren’t completely contrary to their personalities and personal styles, but focusing on the importance of authenticity is somewhat counter-productive. Because most interviews are unusual, rigid, inauthentic experiences by definition.

Many will disagree with this declaration, and it’s certainly not without exception. If you have visible tattoos, specific shoe or garment needs, unusual hair color, or any non-negotiable element to your style or appearance, it may be essential that you allow your potential employer to see and react to you as you are. But the underlying idea here is that the person going into the interview needn’t be wholly representative of Everyday You. The person going into the interview will be Interview You, a version of yourself that might look different from Everyday You, but is just as valid and real.

Another step further: Authenticity is such a buzzword these days, but how it’s used can be confusing and contrary. Even though people get laughed at and scolded when they leave their homes in raggedy sweatpants or say things that make them seem out-of-touch, they’re also censured if they appear at all forced, fake, or like they’re screening out the grit from their lives. Instagram streams are brimming with perfectly lit images of perfectly staged living rooms and people love them. No one’s posting snaps of their stacked-up dirty dishes even though that’s likely a more common sight. So what is authenticity in a person anyway? Do you think, talk, and behave the exact same way at the gym and the bar and your grandma’s house? If you don’t, does that mean you’re not being true to yourself? Do you worry about being true to yourself when you’re talking with your grandma, or do you avoid all curse words and steer clear of topics like social media and sex? I feel like authenticity is sometimes conflated with inflexibility: The expectation is that you are the exact same, unfiltered person at all times and in all situations. Even though there naturally will be many versions of yourself making up the whole.

One more step: If you’re willing to go along with the idea that there are different but connected versions of you, consider that there may also be different versions of your style. It’s true that someone who wears a dirndl and combat boots on Monday and a skirt suit and slingbacks on Tuesday may seem – at first glance – to have a disjointed personal style. But what if that person took Monday off to be with friends and had to attend board meetings all day Tuesday? Would you feel comfortable wearing the exact same outfit to the gym and the bar and your grandma’s house? Or would you create visually distinct outfits for each destination from items that you selected based on your own tastes and preferences?

People who have developed visually consistent personal styles are often admired and lauded, and focusing on a single aesthetic works beautifully for some. But even those people are likely to wear variations for the gym and the bar and grandma’s house, because all styles have variations and versions. Even the finely honed ones.

Lying, never expressing your opinions, and dressing solely to please others are behaviors that fall into one camp. Tailoring conversation to audiences, picking your battles, and dressing differently depending on the environment fall into another. We all have versions of ourselves, and versions of our styles. Those variations are just part of being a messy, unique, varied, flexible human being.

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