Frumpy to Fabulous in Three Parts

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.

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8 things to do when your makeup doesn’t love you anymore

Once upon a time, I was under the impression that your skin remained the same throughout your life, right up until you got old and got wrinkles. And then I turned 40. And every single cosmetic I used stopped working. My skin didn’t look much different, but something was certainly changing.

Overnight, it seemed, my face became the place where makeup went to die. The mineral foundation I’d used for years? No trace of it by about 11 a.m. Eyeshadow? Mush. Mascara? Smudged. Eyeliner? EVERYWHERE. For nearly a year I ran through product after product – smudge-proof this, waterproof that, a fistful of different primers – before I realized that the problem was not just the products. My techniques also needed to change along with my skin, but hadn’t.

These are the products and techniques that really worked for me – and that I arrived at after trying a lot of things that didn’t. It would make me SO HAPPY if I could save you some of the money I wasted. My price point is ‘not spending any more than I have to,’ and I live in a rural area where there’s no Ulta or Sephora, so I like to be able to order my products from Amazon or buy them at the drugstore or the grocery. My year of experimentation taught me where I could go with drugstore products, and where I had to spend a little more.

  1. Use eye primer. My eye primer of choice is Laura Geller Eye Spackle. It brightens my eyes and keeps my eyeshadow in place, creaseless and defined, instead of a muddy, mushy mess. Other primers I tried brightened the lid but didn’t do anything for staying power, because my eyelids are hot and oily. If you have cool dry lids you might be able to spend far less. I have friends who swear by this inexpensive eye primer from Elf.
  2. Switch to matte eyeshadow. Unfortunately, one of the casualties of aging is sparkly eyeshadow. Now that the skin above my eyes is less smooth and elastic than it was, eyeshadow with any sparkle or shimmer just makes the skin look crepey, and matte shadows look much better. They’re not always easy to find. Physicians Formula matte shadows are my favorite, because they’re long-wearing and you can make the colors more intense if you apply them with a damp brush. I’ve also had good luck with these Cover girl neutrals, which can be found just about anywhere.
  3. Use REALLY good mascara. The only mascara I have found that doesn’t give me raccoon eyes is Estee Lauder’s Double Wear zero-smudge mascara. Even fixers or ‘raincoats’ over other mascaras don’t give me the results of the Estee Lauder. It’s a little more spendy, but worth it.
  4. Use brushes. If you haven’t started putting on your eye color with brushes instead of those rotten little sponge applicators that come with the products, definitely do that. Not only will you get better results and more control, there is something about dragging that tiny piece of foam over delicate skin that can make you hate life.
  5. Eyeliner: know when less is more. From the fabulous book Makeup Wakeup, I learned that for the bright, well-defined look I was looking for, that didn’t age me or look harsh, I should be “tight-lining” my eyes – putting eyeliner pencil only on the waterline and deep in my lashes, and for me, only on the top. (I have small eyes, and lining both top and bottom tends to make them look even smaller.) As a bonus, this also cut down on my eyeliner transfer.
  6. Eyeliner part 2: go smudge-proof. The hands-down best smudge-proof eyeliner I’ve found is Essence waterproof gel eye pencil. I understand a lot of theater performers use it for its ability to stay in place – and as a bonus, it’s SO affordable.
  7. Know your eye structure. Probably the most helpful insight was when I realized my eyes are ‘hooded.’ (This came after I had already burned through a bunch of money and products, naturally.) Hooded eyes are when not much of your eyelid and crease is visible. Many women are born with this structure, and many acquire it as they get older. Depending on your particular structure, your mascara or eyeliner may transfer onto your browbone. That was what was happening to me. While I’ve always had hooded eyes, something about my changing skin was now causing my eye makeup to transfer all over the place, where it hadn’t before. Enter this wonderful technique for applying makeup to the mature hooded eye.
  8. Use liquid or cream foundation. The mineral-powder foundation that gave me the fresh, minimally made-up look I loved ten years ago was now aging me, while at the same time not providing the coverage I needed. I was really hesitant to go back to liquid foundation. I associated it with a too-made-up look. But makeup has made a lot of progress in ten years. I tried a few, and settled on Revlon Colorstay for now. I like the way it looks, but I feel like it’s not great for my oily, easily-congested skin, so I’m still looking for my foundation soulmate.

Had similar experiences? Hit me up in the comments with your favorite products, techniques and lessons learned.