February 14, 2012

On Style and Systems

I used to read (and never comment) on a blog by a woman in Boston who took a picture of her outfit everyday in her full-length mirror. I felt creepy about my silent spying, but I couldn’t stop. Her systems fascinated me. She always turned out one leg at the same 45-degree angle. She wore her pants in a flowy, work-trouser way with conservative twin sets. She knew a bunch of ways to tie a scarf. It was like In Style come to life. I didn’t really care for the way she dressed, but I admired her tirelessly methodical approach. Her goal was to create a capsule wardrobe of perfect basics, modeled on our ideal of what the so-chic French do. (She also shared what she ate everyday which also aimed to follow a French model: cream sauces, good pastries, strong coffee, small portions, no snacks. The occasional bag of Doritos worked there way in because, well, shit gets real.)

I am obsessed with systems in an almost I long to be a left-brained person way. Linear, pragmatic, solution-based, I’ve convinced myself that systems can be created to crack the code on looking chic everyday, cooking dinner, staying fit, saving money, and producing good creative work. According to this as yet untested theory of mine, the only difficult part should be finding your system.

I’m about halfway through creating my Style Statement. I am loving this book with its pages upon pages of questions for self-reflection: What’s your definition of sexy? Who embodies a sense of style that speaks to you? Where do you feel your best? The end goal of this book is to come up with a two word catch-all, not only for your wardrobe, but as guiding principles for all that you do in life. Your style statement should represent you at your most you.

How’s that for a system: if we can only pinpoint the words that break what we care most about into its most basic form, than we’ll have the road map to buy the right clothes and take the right job. If all of our actions, minute to life-changing, could come directly in line with our most true to us principles, everything would fall into place. We’d have fewer things, but each of them beloved. We’d pull ourselves away from the computer to make something simple and wholesome for dinner. We’d take right action to support what we care about.

I think this is why I keep scouring the web for those images of sweet, perfect inspiration: the photo that captures a desired mood, a couch that fits the imprint of your life, boots that magically work with skirts and pants and go from work to cocktails. I love words, but they can exhaust me. (Just watch me go…on and on and on…)Have you ever been sick of your own voice, or the things you say over and over, the boundaries of your vocabulary or hitting the same problems again and again? But images are appealing in the same way perfume is. They evoke, they tap into your imagination, hit some primordial part of the brain deeper and more buried than language.

And so it goes, perhaps, that I’ve been thinking a lot about clothes. It turns out that I don’t have all the items a lady with a big job needs; I’m long on full-skirted vintage dresses, short on blazers and flouncy lady blouses. So I invited a few of the most stylish (and organized) women I know to come over on Saturday and help me edit my closet.

They meant business, and were not distracted by champagne and chocolate croissants. As they sat on my bed and I faced the dark closet, I felt overwhelmed. Historically, this is when I would become distracted by a box of old photos on the top shelf. But they cheered me on! They told me to sew down pockets. They asked me to look at my face when I put an item on (scrunched, panic, and discomfort were never a good sign). They made lists of what to buy, what brands to consider. In a couple of hours, we had a huge discard pile of things that didn’t make me feel good, didn’t look good, and no longer fit.

I felt especially sad to giveaway a red and white striped top with puff sleeves. I had worn it in college on nights out with high-waisted pencil skirts. It had a cigarette burn in the torso from a girl who danced a little too wildly near me at a bar, and it now hit me on my ribcage instead of right at the waist. Maybe with a longer layer underneath or a higher skirt it could work. “It looks like it would fit a child,” they said. And they were right: it was the shirt of a free-wheeling girl who rode a bicycle in red high heels and showed up in morning English classes still smelling like cigarettes.

After they all left, I had a much-emptied closet filled with some gems. There were two garbage bags by the front door to take to the consignment store down the street. As I picked up the coffee cups and empty champagne glasses in the bedroom, I looked at the list they had been making. Somewhere between fun lady blouse and dark jeans for work was a red and white striped top with 3/4 length sleeves. I could buy another, perhaps with puff sleeves, and walk around my neighborhood wearing practical, yet stylish shoes and show up for work smelling like fresh-roasted coffee beans and just-cut gardenias. I didn’t feel quite as nostalgic anymore.

They say this in all the books about simplifying and decluttering but I got it then: when you let go of items that remind you of the past, you make room for things for your present. How sad to hold on to a shirt that doesn’t fit me anymore because it reminds me of a particular kind of fun I used to have. Why not find a new shirt, one that looks fantastic and promises fun, and wear it for all the new adventures I want to have?

So, questions: Am I alone in my dream of creating these magic-working systems? Do you dream of having fewer things, each of the beloved and perfect? Have you managed to assemble a work uniform that is professional yet personal? Do you have a Style Statement?

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  • Lisa (dinner party): Great post. It’s hard for us sentimental folks to let go of those old shirts. I have a whole bag of them!6 years ago

  • morgan: i do the same thing! i always watch the same few bloggers dress hahaa.6 years ago

  • wendy: I think it is great that you have found much needed peace with your clothes. or definition of. You are not the only one!
    I am sure we have all kept things just because……

    I have recently read the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and found the “go ahead, wear what you like” idea. I love jeans and t-shirts. Long sleeve, short sleeve. This is my basic wardrobe. I have some nice slacks and a couple of blouses I rotate for church and parties. I am good. I feel comfortable. I am right in my little world. and I still have friends that hang out with me despite my lack of fashion trends and high heels.6 years ago

  • Amanda: Sarah, this is a great post. I laughed out loud at the quote about your shirt fitting a child. I KNOW that shirt, and I only remember it looking absolutely adorable on you.

    This post really speaks to me because of the further limitations placed on my leisure time since having a child. I don’t get to sit around and ponder the outfit or the “look” I’m going to sport to work the next day. I need a “uniform,” as you said, that can be thrown together in two seconds. I need to know I look good/cute/sporty, whatever, without looking in the mirror (yeah, sometimes that happens). But it has to be a look that still makes me feel fun and not just a corporate lady.

    Having fewer things is definitely a goal of mine. My problem is: whenever I try to scale back, I end up thinking “I need more white tank tops to wear under sweaters” or something similarly crazy. And that leads to unnecessary purchases.

    If you figure this out, please let me know. In the meantime, I’m going to purge my drawers this weekend (if I can find the time).6 years ago

  • Margaret: What follow-through! What ruthless chic-itude! Well done for plunging into inviting others into that sometimes-emotional space that is a wardrobe, and reflecting genuinely about what the process meant for you. 🙂
    I confess I keep about 5 items (shirts, mostly) that I never wear, but like the feeling of keeping them in a bin under my bed- roots, baby! On the systems question, it’s a great observation. And I think it’s good that you frame it as a system for cooking, a system for style, etc, because that recognizes that there is no silver bullet. As much as we humans (and especially Americans, methinks) like to think there is one, there isn’t. Time to consider the best way for you for each of your interests and actions, that’s what is needed.
    Great post topic! 😀6 years ago

  • Melissa (hilltop hausfrau): (clapping wildly at your bravery…)

    Well done! Paring down a wardrobe (or anything else, for that matter) to reflect the “current you” is definitely not a job for the faint of heart.

    After having had two children, I’m struggling with redefining my style. Especially since my “office” is running the household! My go to pieces that make me feel me: dark denim, stripey t-shirts, scarves, shirts with a subversive print, and clogs.

    Weird to type that list out. Strangely cathartic!6 years ago

  • Sasha: Sarah, I just LOVE this post! No, you are not alone in your dream of creating magical working systems for everything! I love that you got your friends together for a crit of your wardrobe–I’ve been thinking of doing that for a while, but have never found the right time, but you’ve inspired me! Mars is Retrograde in Virgo now–the perfect time to clean out the old in order to let in the new. I’ve been cleaning house as well, and although I haven’t had time to streamline the wardrobe that’s next on my to-do list. I realize my life is very different from when I bought much of my clothing, and it should reflect those change. Very true how letting go of old ways brings in the opportunity for the new! Thanks for sharing!6 years ago

  • Poppy: For work, I have a winter formula: pick skirt for the day – I have only 7. Add top I probably only have about 10-15 combinations possible: either blouse + cardigan or pullover, add camisole. Pick tghts – black, brown, or gray depending on dominant colors of skirt; this also dictates shoes – I have three pair – 2 brown, one black, and a gray back up because the black ones pinch.

    All of my work clothes I love. When I was forcing myself to dress “more professionally,” I felt so uncomfortable. Now I have a discrete number of outfits that all feel like me, and a simple system for selecting them which helps in the pre-dawn winter mornings when my problem solving skills have yet to wake up. Also, I know immediately that if a piece is getting worn or gets a stain, it has to be replaced by a piece that can fill the same slot/carry the same load. It makes shopping very purposeful and specific.

    The rest of my wardrobe is a goofy crayola box of orphaned objects. But at the moment, expressing my love for bright colors on the weekends is more important than purging my amazing thrifted sweater collection for a fictional grown up version of me.6 years ago

  • Heather: I love this post and the ideas you carried out! Brava!

    This especially rang true for me: “Why not find a new shirt, one that looks fantastic and promises fun, and wear it for all the new adventures I want to have?”

    I would love to do that – and I think the problem is that I have such an abstract idea of what the “new shirt” is. I am definitely going to try your tactic of making lists of concrete items. Thanks, and keep us updated on your progress!6 years ago

  • Amy: Oh Sarah, we are such kindred spirits. Last night, I was telling Andrew about how I wish I had an easy system for everything: a closet full of clothes that all matched well and was easy to wear (uh, hopefully in a smaller size, if I’m keepin’ it real), a signature cocktail, a way of keeping up on the news, a cooking system that made things simpler, etc. A million ways to make life easier.

    And yes, I’m learning slowly that I have to let go of some things to make room for others.

    Finally, I love Style Statement. I am a “Cultivated Creative” which I love. I want to pull that book out again.

    Love this post.6 years ago

  • Andrea: Great post. I’ve been trying to create a more cohesive wardrobe for myself lately, after years of “this fits so I’ll get it” style shopping (plus size options are incredibly limiting). I’ve found the Working Closet Series on kendieveryday.com to be very helpful. I’m turning 30 in a few weeks, so I should at least “look” like I know what I’m doing with myself, right? 😉6 years ago

  • Hilary: Are we living in a parallel universe? I also just cleaned out my closet & dove into “Style Statement,” although the latter hasn’t resonated with me. I am loving the “out-with-the-old,” as closet purges have long been on my list of therapeutic acts.

    I am finding solace (who knew!?) in accepting (celebrating!) my 30s. The fact is, I have neither the body nor the life that I had 10 years ago, so why on earth do I expect the clothes from 10 years ago to fit/feel good? It’s liberating, this growing up.

    Whenever I’ve contemplated a new purchase lately, the words “Elegant,” “Feminine,” and “Classic” all have to apply. With very few exceptions (polka dots, stripes), I’m staying away from patterns & black garments, opting instead for charcoal, chocolate, navy, and red. I love the clothes you’ve posted here–happy shopping!6 years ago

  • SarahJ: I know I strive for these things. That’s why I keep coming back.6 years ago

  • Ali: No, you are not alone. I remember a Domino article from so long ago where the writer had people come and help her with her style statement and my mom and I had such fun pulling things out of her closet that did not fit her life at all. I love the first picture- that looks like what I wear pretty regularly but I’m excited to read that book. Also, I’m finally commenting because I read your blog all the time and comment basically never 🙂6 years ago

  • Traci: Sarah, sometimes it feels like you spend afternoons rooting around the recesses of my brain. I can relate to every single aspect of this post. My Style Statement is Constructive Nostalgic, and that 20% word wreaks havok when I’m trying to edit my wardrobe. I have things I will never ever wear again, but I allow them to eat up valuable space and hangers. I’m not sure it will ever go away.

    I loved Style Statement so much, I became part of the Style Statement team when they were still at carrieanddanielle.com (which no longer exists; Carrie is now at stylestatement.com and Danielle is at daniellelaport.com). A carrieanddanielle reader once posted something that blew my mind and has not yet failed to serve me true: When you go shopping for new clothes, wear something that you adore and makes you look and feel great. Let that outfit be your standard; don’t buy anything that makes you feel less good, and when shit goes bad after trying on your 12th pair of crap jeans, let the good outfit remind you that there’s nothing wrong with your body; it’s the clothes that are wrong.

    Good luck!6 years ago

  • EB: I did this myself a few months ago. Bags of donations by the door, newly freed up closet space and organized shoe boxes. I felt like I could breathe. I still have more clothes than I need, but with the job I’ve got right now, this is my main expression of creativity (and I’m ok with that).

    I do have to say though… I think not having a system is your system. Mine too. You can purge and organize and make plans, but trying to be more you by being the opposite of you… is just not going to work.6 years ago

  • Ashley: Loved this post — “when you let go of items that remind you of the past, you make room for things for your present”. That is the law of letting go. You must let go of who you were to become who you will be.

    I can’t tell you how many clothes I have hanging in my closet that I keep as memories of fun times or as reminders of special years of my life. It’s difficult to face the reality that those times are over, forever. Keeping or tossing a shirt doesn’t change that. For me, the only way to reconcile that the past is forever gone is by the realization you have elucidated — what about all the new adventures?! Let’s make room for those in our closets and in our hearts.

    Can’t wait to purge my closet tomorrow 🙂6 years ago

  • Monday's Nugget - Lana: Ugh, how I wish I had a style that wasn’t summed up by simple, solid color shirts and jeans that didn’t quite fit. It has been my dream to have a stylist shop for me. I have tried the girlfriend’s in my closet thing but always end up feeling, I dunno, not quite right. I feel that their personal style isn’t quite getting my personal style.
    Also, I manage to trick myself into believing that I am, in fact, bulit just like Jennifer Aniston. Then, when I get home and try something simple and beachy on, the flab on my upper arms gives me away. 🙂6 years ago

  • KBG in DC: I beg you, tell me the name or send a link to the blog you mention in this post (email it to me if you don’t feel right referencing it on your site). I love these home-grown fashion blogs, especially Americans attempting “French chic”.

    I am working through this same process right – must be the time of year for it – and I found a blogger who has got the system DOWN. Check out The Vivienne Files and get “crazy eights”. Her taste is fairly traditional so you may not love the clothing vignettes she puts together, but the system works no matter what your personal style. It’s genius really.

    Good luck with your closet revamp!6 years ago

  • Liza in Ann Arbor: For me, nothing feels so good as purging my closets, my cupboards, my drawers..yes to make way for new, but also, to lighten the load. Last time I moved I shoved things in boxes and left them in my trunk for years! Obviously, I did not need this stuff. Congrats on the closet clean-out. Bet you won’t miss any of it.6 years ago

  • Anne Roy: there was one ‘ouch’ for me here … I am 55 years old and still have a shirt I bought when I was 11 years old … it was 11 dollars (I was then living in Canada) … it is a long sleeved, small dark paisley pattern, quite sheer …

    it still fits me! do I wear it? no, last time being about 12 years ago with jeans under a plum coloured jumper / pullover …

    it was the first garment I bought with my own saved money (from babysitting for my elder married sister) …

    oh, I am not a dwarf … I was my present height 5’6 at age 11.6 years ago

  • Tracy: Sarah, I am so with you. I too have recently been obsessed with editing my wardrobe to a system of better quality basics, a la francaise, in an effort to simplify and hopefully improve my days. My system mainly involves sticking to the neutrals of white, ivory, gray, navy, plum and black. It involves a lot of linen v-necks, stripey tees, silky blouses, dark blue or black skinny jeans, cardigans and boots/ ballet flats/penny loafers. I used to wear mainly dresses, but I am finding greater ease and simplicity in pants these days.

    Also, I recently found a book that has become my bible for creating a better system for cooking and eating. An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Truly life-changing.6 years ago

  • Lisa J: Hi Sarah,

    I really liked your post and the way that you approached the binge in an affirmative, asset-based way. I’ve been on a hefty decluttering kick for several weeks, but I haven’t yet attempted the closet. But I think you’ve inspired me to take on the project!6 years ago

  • Stephanie: Such a timely post for me and spot on as to how I often feel. I always think there is some key or system that I have yet to figure out to make everything just work and seem so effortless – wardrobe, life/work balance, cooking, keeping up a home, etc…and I’m always looking for it! I’m in the process of moving so I feel so excited to clean out everything and start fresh or at least purge a lot of things from my life so that it feels less cluttered. I’ve been reassessing my wardrobe and want to make it truly reflect me, so I’m inspired by your closet assesment can’t wait to start mine!6 years ago

  • Lisa, Sentimentalists have the hardest time purging, for sure!

    Wendy, It sounds like you know exactly what you like and have a uniform for that. I so admire YOUR system! As for me, I’m working on the “peace” part.

    Amanda, A friend at the closet purge was talking to me about the importance of camisoles, so maybe you do really need those white tanks! I’m still trying to figure this out, of course, but with “uniforms” I think it’s helpful to identify what you already have that you like and look good in for a particular situation. So maybe that’s jersey dresses with those fabulous brown flat boots of yours and a jacket. (I kind of like thinking about the elements as paper doll outfits!) Then having enough of those that you can always throw together the elements and be done.

    Margaret, I love your point about systems, that they’re all different and have to speak to different interests and actions…oh, that silver bullet approach is appealing, but you’re right: there’s no one size fits all solution.

    Melissa, Yes! I want shirts with subversive prints, too, to wear under blazers and still feel cool. I love the sound of your wardrobe, and I don’t know about my follow-through just yet: those two bags are still sitting by the front door…

    (Off to work for now…)6 years ago

  • Karen: This post really strikes a chord with a lot of us out here I think! I’m going to be moving later this year, so I’ve slowly been picking out items here and there to donate. I don’t want to pack up all of this stuff and haul it across town if it’s not worth it! The trouble of course, is figuring out what to toss. I definitely have some sentimental pieces that I can’t bring myself to get rid of just yet…one day! This helps though 🙂6 years ago

  • Rebecca: Great post! I did a major closet purge 2 years ago before moving in with my boyfriend and, like you, one of my favourite shirts got the heave-ho. It was a ruffly, puffy-sleeved top that my sweetie affectionately (?) dubbed my “pirate shirt.” In hindsight the shirt was well past its prime, but it was a sad day.

    Style Statement sounds like a great read, and one I need. I read (and loved) The Happiness Project but I feel like a short mantra will work better for me than a set of rules or a spreadsheet of best-practices. I also dream about having few, meaningful & relevant things but have yet to achieve it, and these posts certainly resonate, as Karen says. 🙂6 years ago

  • Nanne: Hi Sarah, this is my first time commenting on your blog, which I found via Already Pretty. This is a great post! I’m trying to work out a system for my wardrobe, but I haven’t quite nailed it yet. While I don’t want a really minimalistic wardrobe, I still want it to be somewhat paired down (as far as number of items go) and manageable. I think I might try the book you’re recommending, maybe that’s just what I need! Thanks for the tip and have a lovely weekend:)6 years ago

  • Lesley: God, I’ve been thinking about this. What do you do when you used to have a professional job, and now you’re a (gulp) tour guide all day? What do tour guides wear? Can tour guides be chic, or must we be resigned to sneakers and comfortable jeans? My closet is full of things I needed as a nightlife reporter. I guess I should get rid of them… (she says, trailing off.) Do you know Edith Head? She wrote a “How to Dress” book in the 1950’s that was reprinted a few years ago and sells on Amazon. I think I’m going to buy it — you’ve just inspired me.6 years ago

  • Yes I know Edith Head! She did all the amazing costumes of so many great movies from that era. Super recommendation, Lesly–I’m going to go check that out!6 years ago

  • Von: Love this! Style Statement is fabulous but after getting half way through it, I’m more confused than before…so hard to pick just one style. Like you, I am fascinated with other people’s ‘uniforms’ and will admit to studying Gwyneth Paltrow’s uniforms on GOOP. I’m not going to start chopping the last few inches off all my skirts, but there’s a lot to be said for having a system like hers.6 years ago

  • Ginger: Oh, oh, Sarah!! This was one of the most pointed and practical and sweet and NEEDED posts ever (though clearly, my blog-reading system is breaking down, since I’m weeks behind to this party).

    I have become increasingly obsessed with systems in the past couple years. How great a goal, and how simple a result they create!

    Thank you thank you for reminding us, always, of the important little things that make our lives so full.6 years ago

  • Thrifty Writer: No, you are definitely NOT alone. I wish I had systems for everything that helped my life run more smoothly.6 years ago

  • Jen: Three years ago I moved abroad and could only take two suitcases with me. I left a closet and a dresser full of clothes back home and after three years I realized that I don’t wear anything I brought in those two suitcases and I can’t even remember what I left behind!

    I was prompted by a move across the Pacific to purge my closet, but it’s so freeing I think I’ll try to do it every few years, even when I’m settled more permanently! Style Statement and other books like it have intrigued me for a while but I’ve never picked on up. Let us know how it works out for you!

    Jen6 years ago

  • Keeping It Simple « Pink of Perfection: […] lived within my means, and low-stress. I have stream-lined systems that provide ready answers to what to wear and what to make for dinner. I have a regular routine, with time carved out for creativity and […]5 years ago

  • My organized evil twin is not me | Aesthetic Snafu: […] I am obsessed with systems in an almost I long to be a left-brained person way. Linear, pragmatic, solution-based, I’ve convinced myself that systems can be created to crack the code on looking chic everyday, cooking dinner, staying fit, saving money, and producing good creative work. According to this as yet untested theory of mine, the only difficult part should be finding your system.  – Sarah from Pink of Perfection […]4 years ago

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