I once read that there is a reason Queen Elizabeth II of England follows her own fashion dictates – pastel skirt suits, with matching overcoats and hats – rather than current trends or even classic fashion guidelines. It’s because she (or whoever decides such things on her behalf) believes that fashion is inherently mean – judgmental – and that the monarch must remain outside that.
In many ways, she’s right. The fashion industry thrives on us feeling off balance, insecure. With every new season they convince us that the things we own and wear are hopelessly out of style, and we can be saved by the next thing – but woe betide you if you carry curves, or if you’re aging.
I’m a Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde when it comes to clothing. Sometimes I get it really right; I feel confident, everything just works. Other times I feel hopelessly frumpy, especially as I get older; but until recently I haven’t been successful in figuring out why things work for me or don’t.
A colleague of mine told me she gets a lot of inspiration from the TV show What Not to Wear, but I found the makeover element of it – telling the featured victim guest everything they’re doing wrong – more than I could bear. All of us could be perfectly stylish with two experts and thousands of dollars at our disposal. How many guests maintain their new look after they go back home to their everyday challenges? I’m after feeling good about myself within the limits of the money and time I have to spend.
I know two things: first, that there are actual principles to fashion (even if I don’t know what they are) – not one size fits all rules, but reasons things look good or don’t, or why what you’re wearing might look great on you but not on me. And I also know that I’m teachable; I can learn and apply stuff. I just wanted to find a way to learn that wasn’t based on judgment, and that didn’t trigger the perfectionism and self-loathing monsters.
Enter Imogen Lamport. Imogen is an Australian image consultant who writes at www.insideoutstyleblog.com. It is the most extensive collection of information on every aspect of fashion that I have ever seen. More importantly, it comes from a place of kindness and support, not shame. The information is so comprehensive that I am having to take it slowly. Otherwise I fall into the perfectionist trap, using the gaps in my knowledge or the fact that I don’t yet know everything, as reasons to give myself a hard time.
I am only getting started, and I have a way to go before I look and feel the way I’d like to every day. But understanding just three things has added up to one big impact:
Body shape. Imogen uses letters to represent the general shapes women’s bodies tend to fall into. For example, H (similar measurements at bust and hip without a defined waist); V (larger on the top than on the bottom); A (larger on the bottom than the top), and many others. Your shape is not a problem to be solved; rather, it’s a guide, with specific principles that can help you dress your body in the way that is most comfortable and most flattering. I’m a combination of V and H: wide shoulders, narrow hips, without a defined waist. Learning about how to dress my shape is both freeing and fun. I’ve learned I can balance my V by doing things like wearing jeans with details on the pockets that draw the eye. And learning about my H shape gave me permission to just STOP trying to make wearing a belt work for me. Figure out your shape here.
Proportion. The way your clothes fit you, the pleasing (or not pleasing) way they fit together and draw the eye, whether they enhance or overwhelm you – is the foundation of dressing well and the thing I need the most help with. Our eye is most pleased by the ‘golden mean’ that occurs in nature (remember the Fibonacci Sequence in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code?). We don’t like to see things cut in half; instead we like proportions of 1:2, 2:3, etc. In rough terms, dressing this way in an outfit of two or more pieces means we’re putting one rectangle on top of the other – and one should be longer.
Volume. When we’re not feeling good about ourselves, we want to hide. If we don’t like how we look, we tend to hide in lots of fabric. Feeling heavy or old? Bigger clothes. We swamp ourselves in fabric thinking we’re hiding our perceived flaws, and only succeed in making ourselves look older, heavier, overwhelmed, and often accentuate the very ‘flaws’ we hoped to conceal. This was a huge one for me – I was actually wearing a lot of my clothes at least a size too big. It’s OK to wear voluminous items – but one at a time. Now if I want to wear a flowy shirt, I pair it with skinny jeans; trouser-cut pants mean a more form fitting top or jacket
A word to my short sisters. I’m a petite (under 5’4”, no matter your weight). When you’re short, you have less wiggle-room in which to create the right proportion, and the volume principle becomes even more important, as it’s easy to look like our clothes are wearing us, instead of the other way around. A butt or thigh-length shirt with pants cuts me exactly in half and makes me look even shorter; I have to end all my tops at the high hip. And the most important thing to have with me when I shop, is the camera on my phone. When I’m considering buying something, I take a full length picture while I’m trying it on (I know, but if I can do it, so can you). Many times something I thought worked when I looked in the mirror was revealed by the photo to be the wrong proportion, wrong size, or wrong color. Always believe the photo, not the mirror.
The more I learn, the less fashion feels like a frustrating search for something that will make me OK, and the more it becomes a way I care for myself.