Image: Margaret Howell S/S 2012 campaign by Koto Bolofo. Source.
Lovely commenter Clara made a point in one of my previous posts that has been bobbing back into my thoughts from time to time and I’ve been turning it over and extending it for a while now. Clara’s is a fantastic point, and I genuinely appreciate when someone looks a bit deeper rather than just taking something at face value. The fantastic point, paraphrased, being: what if you cull your wardrobe, then try to assemble a new one, but end up being disappointed in it? So many people talk about assembling their perfect wardrobe as being so fulfilling (with maybe a few minor set-backs and disappointments along the way, but overall it’s a positive process), but there must surely be plenty of people who have found the process frustrating and confusing and plagued with regret.
I started thinking about this in terms of what could go wrong once a person gets the fever and cathartically culls their wardrobe: what could happen next? Well, if you want a versatile, practical, stylish wardrobe, everywhere you look (possibly including this humble blog) you’re told that you should go for the classics. However – what the hell are you supposed to do if classics simply aren’t your thing? And what if you don’t know or don’t realise that they’re not your thing? What if you do a wardrobe cull, you stock your wardrobe full of classics that thousands of sources say are “essentials” – for women, the list seems to always include a trench-coat, a Breton top, ballet flats, a white T-shirt, black cigarette trousers, a pair of plain black heels, etc. – and at the end of it all you feel… underwhelmed? Unimpressed? Dissatisfied? Or you feel like you’re not being true to yourself? Or you feel like you’ve done a wardrobe-by-numbers, and where’s the joy in that?
Now, do not get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of the classic wardrobe pieces, and I lap up all the posts and articles I can find about them (and I prefer things written by bloggers rather than magazines, since bloggers usually aren’t trying to sell me something and are just sharing their love and appreciation of classic clothing items). And there’s a reason why these particular wardrobe items have stood the test of time and have, ergo, become classics, and I’m sure I don’t have to explain that to my readers. But I do wonder how many people have been swept up into investing time and money in a wardrobe of classics and have then been left feeling disheartened or as if their wardrobe is just a façade prescribed by others with different tastes and opinions.
Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) I think the scientific literature is going to fail me this time – I’m pretty sure there isn’t going to be any research into the emotional outcomes of people who have put together a classic wardrobe, and what factors determine whether they’re satisfied with the wardrobe or not. We scientists have, you know, diseases to cure and stuff.
Ultimately, however, rather than following a checklist of things that have been designated as “essentials” or “basics” by some nebulous fashion elite, what I think people should spend time doing is trying to figure out what fashion and what their own wardrobe means to them. Do they want outfits that are purely practical and comfortable? Do they want to project a particular image to others? Do they feel coerced into being “fashionable” by external pressure from the media and from their peers? Do they see fashion as a form of self-expression? Because the answers to these sorts of questions lead to radically different wardrobes – they don’t all lead to a pair of straight-leg dark indigo jeans and a beige trench-coat, for men or for women.
The thing is, from comments I’ve seen on the internet and comments I’ve heard in real life, a lot of people are kind of clueless when it comes to their own style, and are probably relieved when someone tells them how to dress to look “good” (as if “good” isn’t totally subjective). Personally, I find this quite baffling, because saying “What should I wear?” is, to me, kind of like saying “What art should I like?” or “What music should I listen to?”. You develop a taste in things like art and music by exposing yourself to them. Maybe you’ll listen to people’s recommendations, but you don’t like what they tell you to like. There are probably millions of lists like “100 albums you MUST own!” but I doubt anyone actually really pays much attention to such lists except, probably, to disagree with them.
Likewise, fashion and your own wardrobe are about your opinions and preferences, and I think a lot of people don’t realise or appreciate this. There are no rules, and there is no “right” or “wrong” – there’s just what makes you feel good in whatever way you choose (that’s if fashion is something you’re into – you’re also free to completely ignore it and wear Crocs constantly). People seem to be constantly terrified that they’re committing some sort of fashion faux pas, but I really don’t think that such a thing exists. I’ve actually seen people online angst over whether they’re allowed to wear brown with black, or black with navy, or blue with green. I’ve seen people worry about whether it’s absolutely wrong or absolutely mandatory to match one’s bag with one’s shoes. People have been concerned about whether wearing tights was inappropriate because it was a particular month of the year. Seriously. But you just need to take a look at some high fashion runway photos or some street style photos of magazine editors or other influential fashion people to see that rules like that just don’t exist. And even then, it doesn’t matter what those members of the fashion elite think – you’re still entitled to your personal opinion and you can do what you want and only ignoramuses will judge you negatively for following your own personal preferences.
Which is why I think it’s odd that, despite that freedom to develop one’s own style, when people don’t know what to do we tell them to assemble a collection of classics, as if classics are the mean to which everyone could regress and feel happy and stylish. I’m not entirely convinced that classics should be the style to which people default when they’re not sure what else to embrace, because I imagine a lot of people would find the classics supremely boring. I’m not sure people should be encouraged to invest in classics unless they know that they love classics in the first place. And I’m not sure magazines ever decided to make lists of classics and basics and essentials and foundations except as a way to make people feel like there was something missing from their wardrobes and consequently to feel the need to fill the gaps by spending up.
I know that all that waxing polemical doesn’t help people who are staring into the empty void of a purged wardrobe and who want guidance about what to put in it. I’m sure that people find comfort in being prescribed a list of must-have classics and essentials (just like they find comfort in enacting objectively ridiculous rules like “never wear brown with black” because it makes them feel competent and savvy, I suppose), and the idea of coming up with a personal list of what’s right for them is daunting. But as I said, you develop preferences and tastes by exploring things, so explore them. It doesn’t have to be by going out and trying things on or spending any money at all – for people who have the time and the inclination, it could be a case of just browsing around street style blogs or chictopia.com or lookbook.nu or style.com and then collating your favourite images, either in a folder on your computer, or on somewhere like Pinterest or Tumblr (if you aren’t driven mad by how sources and attributions of material get completely buried or lost in such places). I think that’s something a lot of people do already, since pretty much every Pinterest I’ve ever seen has a board called “My Style” or something to that effect. I think that as you accumulate those photos in one place, you develop a better sense of what you like and a more nuanced understanding of what really suits you and your preferences and your lifestyle – and then you can assemble a wardrobe that is a better representation of your needs and tastes. At that point, it may or may not consist of classic wardrobe pieces.
And now I sit back and wait to see if I get any search engine referrals for phrases like “but what if I don’t like classic wardrobe pieces?” or “I culled my wardrobe and filled it with so-called essentials but I feel unfulfilled, what do I do?”. I hope this post encourages people who are unsure to investigate their own sense of style a bit more rather than just defaulting to classics (although, oh god, please don’t anyone take this post as discouragement when it comes to writing about classics – if you love them, as I do, there is no reason to stop writing about them and about how a classic wardrobe has worked brilliantly for you).
And as an inelegant, hypothetical equivalent: while it might seem to make sense to tell someone who is clueless about music to assemble a collection of The Beatles and Brahms, if they were encouraged to explore their own tastes and preferences, they might discover they actually have a passionate love of dubstep. And if that’s what’s fulfilling to them, so be it.
(Full disclosure: I wrote this post whilst wearing a navy blue trench-coat, black ballet flats, cigarette trousers and a burgundy button-up shirt. ~OMG SO CLASSIC~)