Style is a Journey

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.

Aug 2001

Oh, wow. Black trousers and an ivory twinset. How original.

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.

At least the scarf has a hint of color.

At least the scarf has a hint of color.

I even wore brown to special events.

Oct 2001

I actually thought those shoes were the bomb… until I saw them in this picture. (2001)

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.

Jan 2002

Look! Brown, brown, and… uh… brown. (2002)

Brown.  With rocks. (2002)

Brown. With rocks. (2002)

So I tried a bit of olive green…

Feb 2002

Taking a dramatic turn with brownish green and TWO shades of brown. (2002)

…and a bit of pale green, a bag with stripes…

March 2002

What’s that? A hint of pistachio green and… STRIPES? … in brown, of course. (2002)

…and then I discovered orange.

Apr 2002

Whoa! Orange!! (2002)

I decided I REALLY liked orange.

Sept 2002

Turns out orange is like a gateway drug to other orange things… didn’t hurt that the jacket was 85% off. (2002)

But for parties and events I was still pretty boring.

Jan 2003

Here’s a change… all black! (2003)

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.

Feb 2003

Trying out something new… using orange and green, but always with brown. (2003)

May 2003

Green and… burgundy! Must’ve felt daring because I was on holiday. (2003)


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:

June 2004

Briefly experimenting with the bohemian look and baggy jeans. (2004)


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.

April 2005

Typical first-time mother: not even showing but already wearing maternity clothes. (2005)

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.

May 2005

Sooooo coomfortable! (2005)


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.

June 2005

Betsey Johnson long bias-cut dress purchased in 1991, Victoria’s Secret quilted bed jacket purchased in 1992, antique vintage jet and Peking glass necklaces from eBay. (2005)


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.

Feb 2006

At the time, this was just a costume for a Cuban-themed party. Now it’s the sort of thing I’d wear for a picnic. (2006)


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.

Aug 2006

I just cannot get excited about jeans and a T-shirt. (2006)

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.

Aug 2007

Layering T-shirts and wearing my custom jewellery made with vintage materials. (2007)

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.

Nov 2007

Discovering how to inject a bit of Hollywood glamor into a toddler-friendly wardrobe. (2007)

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.

Dec 2007

I can’t explain the haughty look, it’s probably impatience with the photographer. (2007)

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.

Beloved Anglomania coat and red boots, Feb 2008

Anglomania (Vivienne Westwood’s less-expensive line) coat. The coat of my dreams. Of course it’s brown. (2008)

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:

Krakow 2008

Something in the way it moves. (2008)

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.

4 months pregnant, June 2008

4 months pregnant and wearing 4-inch platforms. (2008)

At least this time I already knew I was going to become the size of a house and have a very curvy body afterward.

Aug 2008

That Betsey Johnson dress is worth its weight in gold, too. (2008)


Nov 2008

That’s no moon… (2008)


REVELATION 12: It’s good to have a clear vision of what you want to look like

After this baby I let go of all my fears and embraced my curvy shape.  I invented a look for myself which I called “Butterfield 8 meets To the Manor Born.”

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.

Oct 2009

Those boots will be worn until they’re more duct tape than shoe. (2009)


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:

April 2010

Me & my thneed. (2010)

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.

June 2010

New hair color, new hair cut, hello cheekbones! (2010)

I liked the new haircut so much I started voluntarily taking photos of myself!

Dec 2010

Smile! (2010)

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.

Zebra print! (2010)

Zebra print! (2010)

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 loved it, but I didn’t want to completely throw out the glamorous, Hollywood-inspired side of me.  So I decided to merge the two looks.  I called it “Blade Runner meets How to Marry a Millionaire.”

Girly night out - in chartreuse (2010)

Girly night out – in chartreuse (2010)

I learned to embrace bold geometric patterns.

Aug 2011

Jersey dress: check.
Bold graphic pattern: check.
Print with black AND bright color: check!

I even learned to like black!

Dec 2011

Shirt by Preen – god bless eBay, at 10% of the retail price! (2011)

…and more black…

Dec 2011 2

A black outfit is a great excuse to wear fuschia velvet heels. Plus, vintage fur = old-school Hollywood glamour. (2011)

…and even more black…

March 2012

Channeling my inner Pat Benatar. I wore this with a vintage cropped white leather jacket. (2011)

…and yet MORE black…

June 2012 - McQueen

Just think: if I’d married a millionaire, I could dress like this and look a size smaller ALL the time! Suit by Alexander McQueen, my birthday present (2012)


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:

Oct 2012

So wrong, yet so right. (2012)

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.

Jan 2013

The Zara shoes were a Christmas present from my husband! (2013)

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).


eBay… of course! (2013)

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.

April 2013

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.


on “Style is a Journey
4 Comments on “Style is a Journey
  1. Pingback: Dana Forlano | How to Wear Color Like a Pro

  2. What a fun chronicle! I paused the longest over the gray dress you said you had custom-made.

    Other faves: the unmatched stripes at the end — that top looks to have some interesting things going on, draping-wise — the chartreuse, and the pink coat. Would love to know the story behind the dress you’re wearing on the couch with the Zara shoes.

    I would comment on the outfit in the tabletop pic, but I’m distracted by the fact that the little pile of meat in the foreground looks like fingers.

    Funny, but I don’t remember you wearing much brown when we knew each other in high school. Didn’t you wear a lot of white then?

    You should interview Peggy the Kiwi for the blog!

  3. That grey dress is a knock-off McQueen I had made by a Hong Kong-based company I found on eBay – it cost about £35 ($50). Their prices have increased since (now it’s $87, including shipping), but check them out:

    The mismatched stripes are actually very inexpensive items, but I love the way they make my body look. The shirt is cut asymmetrically and is longer on one side. I discovered this cut when browsing through a sale rack. I have a rule that if something looks ridiculous on the hanger I must try it on. This looked SO strange, but was so flattering once I got it on. Maybe I should add that to the blog queue – “if if looks like this on the hanger, try it on because it might look like THIS on your body”?

    The chartreuse dress is Karen Millen. The “pink” coat is actually coral-colored, found at H&M for £25 the day they arrived – a friend went to buy one 2 days later and they were already gone.

    The dress I’m wearing on the couch is from a new company I’m liking (partly for the name) called “Damsel in a Dress.” I got it online (50% off) from House of Fraser. They use flattering cuts, put in linings, and are smart enough to realize not all women want to wear minidresses.

    I HATED brown in high school. Brown and orange (our school colors, for anyone reading) were the 2 worst colors imaginable in the 1980′s. Back then I wore white, or bright colors, or whatever my Mom and I could find at the fabric store.

    You are absolutely right, I should interview Peggy. Or ask her to do a guest spot. I don’t think she has any idea how she kick-started my life.

  4. Pingback: Dana Forlano | Dana’s Drag Scale: how drag queen are you?

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