I have come to believe in what I call “Style Evolution” – that is, the change occurs very slowly, over time. A makeover might be great, but it won’t necessarily be YOU. I’d like to show you how to gradually push yourself, how to develop your unique personal style. But first I’m going to show you how I developed mine.
By now you should know my humble beginnings (The Tale of the Ugly Duckling). You may have heard me state that 10 years ago I looked nothing like I do now. You may have heard me claim that I used to dress in head-to-toe brown. I don’t think you believed me.
2001. That’s me. In black trousers and an ivory twinset.
I was always interested in theatrical costume and in fashion, but I didn’t see that those things had any place in my real life. On Halloween or at costume parties you’d see my bold, adventurous side, but in my day-to-day life I was pretty boring.
I even wore brown to special events.
And then I started having a series of revelations.
REVELATION 1: Monotone can be monotonous.
My all-brown wardrobe was practical, and it was very easy to pack for our frequent trips (we’d moved from Dallas to England in 1999). However, I looked at the photos from these trips and felt uninspired.
So I tried a bit of olive green…
…and a bit of pale green, a bag with stripes…
…and then I discovered orange.
I decided I REALLY liked orange.
But for parties and events I was still pretty boring.
One day at work, a very tall redheaded Kiwi walked up and introduced herself to me. She was going to change everything.
REVELATION 2: Always try new things.
Peggy loved fashion, and she knew how to dress. She knew that at 5’10″ she could carry off a floor-length denim skirt with a slight train. At work. She knew what she liked, and she knew how to shop. She only bought a few items a year, but they were all interesting, quality pieces purchased on sale. She introduced me to designer boutiques, unfinished edges, and asymmetry. It all seemed a bit crazy to me, but I knew that SHE looked great.
She also had the most amazing sense of color – I remember one day she wore a red floral dress with navy ankle boots and a purple scarf. And she looked fabulous. So I gradually started experimenting a bit with new fabrics and color combinations.
REVELATION 3: You really can do anything.
It was around this time that another amazing person came into my life. I walked into a local dressmaker’s shop with some wool plaid I’d picked up at one of the northern mills, and asked her to make me a simple a-line skirt. She looked right through me and said “That’s not who you are. Anybody can do that. I’m a designer. What do you REALLY want?” I hesitated. No one had ever asked me that before. “What have you always wanted, but have never seen?” To my great surprise, I said that I’d always wanted a modern version of a Victorian bustle skirt.
(I cannot find a single non-blurry photo of me in the skirt, but I promise to take one soon to stick in here)
To this day, it is still the most amazing skirt I’ve ever had. The first time I wore it, a stranger stepped out of a shop just to watch me walk down the street in it. Of course it’s BROWN. Sadly the designer moved to Indonesia, and it never occurred to me to offer to buy the pattern from her.
I learned something very important from this: ANY style can be interpreted to be modern and wearable. I wore that skirt to my office job, sitting in front of a computer all day. I wore it grocery shopping. I wore it to Thanksgiving dinner at my sister’s house.
Of course, I still made mistakes like this:
REVELATION 4: Color is great!
Pregnancy gave me license to go a bit nuts. I decided that if I was going to become the size of a house, I was going to have fun doing it.
There was no turning back.
REVELATION 5: Jersey is the most comfortable, practical fabric
I hated most of the maternity clothes available, but I discovered that jersey dresses worked just as well. No waistband to worry about, nice stretchy fabric. Before long, I was hooked.
REVELATION 6: Jewellery can make an outfit
My delicate chains and earrings were lost on this much bigger body, and I needed to fulfill my shopping urges on something other than shoes or clothing, so I started buying statement jewellery.
REVELATION 7: Curves are great
After the baby was born, I was shocked at how big I still was, but more than that, my body was completely unfamiliar to me. I was very curvy. I had breasts! Frankly, having been flat-chested my whole life, suddenly being a 32FF was fun.
REVELATION 8: Clothes can affect the way you feel
It was fun to dress up this new body when there was an occasion, but when it came to daily dressing for life with a baby, I didn’t have a clue. It made me sad, and I pretty much gave up and stopped trying.
Finally I decided to have a go at making jeans and a T-shirt work for me. I got some cool printed T-shirts and layered them over contrasting long-sleeved Ts. I’d wear them with long necklaces I made with vintage beads and chain.
It was cute, but it still wasn’t ME. Because my clothes didn’t excite me, I stopped getting dressed entirely. Finally I realized I’d have to find a way to meet my desire for drama and glamour in my every-day wardrobe.
REVELATION 9: We need a bit of drama and excitement
I started experimenting again. Fortunately this happened when the baby weight decided to suddenly fall off, so I needed some new clothes anyway.
Flashes of bright color, vintage jewellery, hats… these things made me happy, and made me look forward to getting dressed.
REVELATION 10: Tailoring makes a big difference
I couldn’t afford the fabulous designer frocks I desired, so I found a shop on eBay that makes very inexpensive designer-inspired pieces custom-fit to your measurements.
I had not realized until then what a difference it made having something fit at my actual waist (instead of having the waistline just below my ribs), and how having things long enough made me look thinner. Fit makes a huge difference.
REVELATION 11: Some things really are worth the price tag
AND THEN… my husband got a nice little bonus through his job, and we decided to treat ourselves. He got a new computer, and I decided to buy a designer coat I’d recently tried on and COULD NOT STOP THINKING ABOUT.
I think you can see why I was obsessed. It was a novel experience, seeing myself in a candid photograph and thinking “Oh, wow… I look amazing!!” So amazing it warrants another picture, in fact:
That coat moves beautifully with every slight movement. This is how I learned that SOME clothes are absolutely worth every penny of the ridiculous price. That coat brings me joy, makes me feel fabulous, makes me look amazing in photographs, never fails to get compliments from strangers, and I’ve already got people lined up to take it when I die… because I will NEVER get sick of it. They will have to pry it from my cold, dead hands. It is a versatile brown/black tweed, and it fits me over a range of 3 dress sizes.
Of course, pretty much the second that photograph was taken, I got pregnant again.
At least this time I already knew I was going to become the size of a house and have a very curvy body afterward.
No, seriously. THE SIZE OF A FREAKING HOUSE.
REVELATION 12: It’s good to have a clear vision of what you want to look like
Ralph Lauren stole it for his A/W 2012 collection. I have to say that, because I can’t find any photographic evidence. Even though I have happy memories of how I looked, I didn’t like looking at photos of myself at that time. I fell into the trap of staying out of the picture because the person I saw in them looked fat and not at all like “me” (there’s a great article on this here and one on feeling too fat to be photographed here).
However, for the first time in my life, I had a clear vision of my personal “look,” and it was a glorious discovery.
The look was very womanly, with lots of jersey dresses or fitted tweed skirts, boots and waist-defining belts. I bought wool over-the-knee socks, red crocodile boots, low-cut fitted sweaters with interesting necklines, velvet jackets with peplums and wide lapels, and tight tweed tulip skirts. I acessorised with art deco jade jewellery and leopard print.
REVELATION 13: Always try new things
And then, after 2 years of being the same size, the weight suddenly dropped off again. I wasn’t curvy anymore. Those tight sweaters looked sad. I needed a new look, stat. So I decided to try the stuff I’d never been brave enough to try before the kids. I found this weird thing on the hanger in the clearance at All Saints. It took me about 10 minutes to figure out how to get it on, but when I did, it looked like this:
I became open to the idea of an edgier, more urban me. After all, I didn’t live in Kansas anymore.
REVELATION 14: The power of a great haircut
I was also having an extended bad-hair season AND turning 39, so I did something drastic.
I liked the new haircut so much I started voluntarily taking photos of myself!
It quickly became apparent that my earth-tone tweeds and bohemian thing really didn’t work with the new cut. My wardrobe was all curves and softness and color. It did not suit my new hair at all. My new hair looked like… Blade Runner.
I discovered sharp tailoring, angles, geometry, and stripes. I looked good in black! Suddenly I was edgy and modern and hip, a little bit punk and a little bit gothic.
REVELATION 15: You can combine different looks into something unique to you
I learned to embrace bold geometric patterns.
I even learned to like black!
…and more black…
…and even more black…
…and yet MORE black…
REVELATION 16: Like Madonna, you can reinvent yourself as many times as you like
Finally I went a bit nuts and started to rebel against the darkness. One day, for an outing into London, I asked the kids to dress in really bright colors and promised that I would, too. I came up with this:
It seemed ridiculous (and it is), but I loved it. I felt great. Obviously it’s completely wrong – horizontal stripes across my widest part, cutting my body into thirds. I call this my “ode to Kim Kardashian.”
I started trying to branch out, finding bold modern prints in color, and continued experimenting with mixing pattern and texture.
I gave in to my inner rebellious teenager and got some clip-in hair extensions in hot pink. I also decided to try a less structured, asymmetrical haircut (the jury’s still out on that choice).
Now that Spring is here I realize that I’m going to overdose on stripes this season, but what the heck. I love them (for now), and life’s too short.
The moral of the story? Style is a lifelong journey. You can stick to the straight and narrow path, or you can try detours. The direction and the pace are yours to set, as long as you keep moving. None of us want to end up as that woman who’s frozen in a fashion bubble, still trying to live her glory days from 30 years before. My advice is to keep pushing yourself. Be just a shade braver with each season, and you’ll be fine. In 10 years’ time, you too will look back with amazement at how far you’ve come.