June 10, 2012 39

Questioning the classics

By in Musings


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~)

39 Responses to “Questioning the classics”

  1. Nyssa Jayne says:

    I’ve culled my wardrobe, but I by no means wear “The Classics” — due to my body shape and my tastes, skinny trousers and white shirts just make me look lumpy. :) but I know I love 50′s shapes, florals, colour, and other decidedly not-The-Classics numbers, and after 20-something years of getting dressed, I feel confident to purge my wardrobe and hold onto the items that I like and that flatter me.

    I do however follow a lot of blogs by people who do wear The Classics because there’s a lot more talk about sustainability and quality, whereas bloggers whose style is more closely aligned to mine are either selling off everything they buy or their wardrobe is entirely fast-fashion.

    • Jess says:

      It’s good that you’ve worked out what sort of style you like and what suits you!

      I think the relationship between liking classics and pursuing quality is really interesting. It makes sense, since presumably people who like classic items appreciate the fact that those items are more likely to not end up looking dated since they’ve already stood the test of time, and maybe classic items are, on average, better quality than more transient styles (a tenuous suggestion based on no data though, I admit, haha). But the other interesting thing is that presumably there are a lot of people out there who aren’t that into the classics, but who also want their garments to last and to be good quality and to not date quickly – in that case, what do those people look for? There’s possibly less guidance for them in terms of assembling a quality wardrobe than there is for people who are into the classics.

  2. Fleurette says:

    Interesting read as always. I am one of those who partially rely on classics. I think personality is a matter too as to if one likes loud or quiet clothes – and I would say classics are quiet. I don’t think wardrobe culling necessarily means that you’ll only add classics to your wardrobe down the road, I’ve seen many examples of bloggers finding their style through wardrobe culling and add what suit them both taste-wise and body-wise.

    • Jess says:

      I totally agree, I don’t think even the majority of people purge their wardrobe and then start from scratch with the classics, on the assumption that the classics are right for them. But given my observations of how a lot of people don’t seem to have a good sense of their own style and are keen for rules and lists, there must be at least some people out there who have followed some magazine advice and have gone down that path of investing in classics and have ended up unhappy with their wardrobe. To go through all that purging and spending only to end up dissatisfied – that would be pretty awful, not to mention wasteful. I guess I just want to encourage people who are unsure of their style to think it through a bit more. For those of us who are content and confident in our sense of style – carry on as is!

      That correlation between personality and style certainly applies to me – I’m rather quiet and introverted and I have a lot of classic pieces, or slightly classic pieces with some sort of interesting twist that’s still kind of subtle. I feel deeply, deeply uncomfortable in anything particularly attention-grabbing or outlandish. I think I’ve said to you before: I’m happy to have the subtle details of my outfits appreciated just by other people who appreciate subtle details.

  3. Kali says:

    This is a really fascinating subject and there’s so much to say about this that I don’t know where to start. I apologize in advance for the length of the comment.

    What I’d like to point out is that I think it is closely related to identity and self confidence. Someone who doesn’t know what he/she really likes, who doesn’t dare wearing something unless told it is “allowed” or buys something they might not like deep inside just because they are told to, isn’t it because they don’t trust their own judgement, or haven’t really defined and accepted their own identity? My own experience is an example of this as, when I started questioning my wardrobe, I soon realized I really was questioning my self confidence and identity in the process.

    I think there are 3 parts in the link between sartorial choices and identity:

    - the lack of self confidence in one’s own body (a lot of people don’t dare wear something because they think they will look fat/ugly…)
    - the lack of self confidence to wear something different than what most people wear
    - the need to create an identity, an image, to belong to a group of people we want to identify with, so we wear the same things they do.

    I think the discomfort comes when one realizes their satorial choices, maybe coming from one of these 3 reasons above, don’t really match their own real taste.
    For example I used to wear high heels all the time, because I was unsatisfied with my small height. And one day I started feeling uncomfortable with this because I realized I didn’t really like high heels and only wore them to “cure” a lack of self confidence.

    In that case, I really agree with your post: when you start questioning past choices, and your current wardrobe, whether it is before culling of after having culled and bought “classics” like everyone else, the best thing to do is try to figure out what your own style is, by looking for inspiration like you say.

    The other thing I did when I started questioning my style was to go to a store that has all kinds of cuts and colors and try everything on, even the things I thought wouldn’t suit my body or liking. Basically, the idea is to get to know one’s own body and taste. By trying on everything, you might like a cut or fabric that you thought you didn’t like or didn’t suit you. In order words, you get to know yourself, the same way as someone would listen to all kinds of music to define their own musaical taste.

    Maybe the people who feel lost when they cull their wardrobe and don’t know what to fill it with, is because they haven’t taken the time to figure out their own identity first. That’s why I think this process goes beyond sartorial taste, and deep into what we think of ourselves. I think once you figure out who you really are and want to be as well, meaning asking the question within yourself instead of comparing to others, the style choices are easier to figure out.

    And then the “classics” that are the core of your wardrobe become personal. They can be ballet flats, breton shirts and trench coats for some, but very different pieces for others. But even if the classics are yellow T-Shirts and 70′s styled flare pants, they still are “classics” in the core definition of the term, which is basics of your wardrobe that you articulate the rest of your uniform around. The point is to define these classics that work for you instead of copying the classics of other people.

    And one last thing, I don’t really agree about the fact that it is different for other parts of our taste like music, and that no one cares about the top 100. I think this is also related to identity and self confidence. When you are sure about yourself and your taste, you sure don’t care about the msic top 100 just like you don’t care about other people’s classics if they are not yours.

    But if you lack self confidence, you can create an identity around all kinds of tastes, including listenig to the same music as others, watching the same films or reading the same books. I have an example of this in my social vicinity: someone who, for reasons I don’t know, lacks of self confidence, and litterally forces herself to listen to the same things and watch a list of “cult movies” just to fit in, because “you have to, and it is a great “cultural faux-pas” if you don’t watch them”. As if she was trying to create an image that isn’t really herself. In the end, it is exactly the same thing as buying the same sartorial classics as everyone else just to fit in (which she does as well by the way).

    Anyway I don’t know if I’ve been very clear in this very long comment, and regarding the subject of your post, I think someone is disappointed by a wardrobe culling only if they have tried to do like someone else (like the bloggers who wear and love these classics) because they lack of self confidence in their own identity and taste. In my opinion, the way to sucessfully edit one’s wardrobe is to start with questioning one’s own identity and taste first, and then do the culling and re-assembling.

    Do I make any sense?

    • Jess says:

      Thanks so much for your very thoughtful comment, Kali. You definitely make sense, and I definitely agree with what you’ve said: this possibly isn’t a matter that is confined just to sartorial choices but, as you say, extends to perhaps a more general deficit in self-confidence in other areas, and a desire to gain approval from others. I stayed away from discussing that too much since I thought it would be a bit inappropriate of me to just tell people to hurry up and change their fundamental identity and core beliefs already so that they can embrace their individuality, haha, but I do agree that’s a very important point in understanding why some people seem to gravitate towards style rules and wardrobe lists.

      Still, while there’s probably a decent correlation between self-confidence/identity and personal style choices, I think there will be people out there who can at least be encouraged to be more independent and individual with their style regardless of any other insecurities they might have. I think I’m rather insecure about a lot of things (constant impostor syndrome at work, I have to say!) and I worry about people judging me for whatever reason (worrying that they think I’m horrible or that I’m an idiot or incompetent or whatever), but somehow that doesn’t extend to my personal style – that’s one area where I am confident and self-assured in my choices and I honestly don’t care what other people think. But yeah, I don’t know how many people are out there who lack confidence in just their personal style and would benefit from being told to just explore their sartorial likes and dislikes a bit more. It’s not going to be that simple for a lot of people, although hopefully it gets some such people (if there are such people at all reading my blog) to think it all through a bit more.

      And you’re right, there are a lot of people who like music or books or movies simply because they think they’re supposed to and that’s what they think they need to do to gain approval from whoever. But I feel like, when it comes to fashion, people think there are more clearly defined “rights” and “wrongs”, whereas I’m sure they will at least say that tastes in music/books/movies should be personal and individual. I just find it a bit odd that people assume fashion has rules, and even when I show demonstrate that it doesn’t (e.g. for the person who asked whether she could wear black with brown, I posted a heap of runway photos from Burberry Prorsum and Prada and so on showing that people considered to be at the forefront of fashion will happily combine black and brown extensively) they seem reluctant to accept it. I think people genuinely believe fashion can be done correctly or incorrectly, whereas at least they would acknowledge that music/books/movies are generally believed to be a personal thing, even if they don’t enact that belief themselves.

      As you say, questioning one’s own identity and taste first is probably a fundamental step to building a satisfying wardrobe (if you’re the type of person who cares about the contents of your wardrobe), but I think a lot of people don’t consider that because they’re misled by all these lists and rules that they think they have to follow, not to mention an unceasing stream of media telling them what bizarre, non-classic, non-basic items are also must-haves and what trends they simply must follow. I guess it’s quite unsurprising that people end up bewildered and cling to the reassurance of lists and rules instead of exploring their identities.

    • Ginta says:

      You totally do make sense! I agree with everything you say about confidence and style. It’s so true!
      I just wanted to add that sometimes the reason you start to question your sartorial choices are accidental. Literally or figuratively speaking. In my case it was the literal reason. I had my foot broken and because of that I made some changes in my wardrobe that have stayed permanent.

  4. Hippocampe says:

    You seem to imply that our taste in music, film…spring from our inner souls, while fashion is heavily influenced by marketing strategies, consumerism, pressure from peers. So let’s follow our instinct, let’follow our heart and choose fashion items as we would choose other cultural goods : in accordance with our personal identities.
    I think our taste – in music, fashion, whatever – is not so much a reflection of our idiosyncrasies than a costume in which we make our public appearance.
    That’s why we are so confused and seek advice on what we should wear. What we should wear to be shown respect, to be heard (to be loved ?) : in short, to be part of the society we live in.
    Classics are the new fashion of intellectual girls, who refuse to be tricked by fashion peddlers -hence their quest for quality- or conform to male ideas of feminity (I do sympathize). While the Sartorialist-type will play with colour, texture, proportions to be seen as an artist, the status-seeker will show his most prized possessions, etc…(I’m caricaturing to make my point, of course).
    This is a social game we’re playing when we build our wardrobe, wearing our set of values on our sleeves, trying to attract the people we aspire to be with and distance ourselves from the ones we deem somehow “vulgar” (a strong judgemental word, I know, can’t think of a better one right now).

    • Jess says:

      Oh no, I definitely don’t think that our taste in music or film or whatever is somehow more intrinsic or inherent than our taste in fashion (that would be an odd opinion for me to have when I write a blog that’s partly about just how easily influenced people are by external factors that they’re often not consciously or cognitively aware of!). I do agree that all of our tastes and preferences are influenced by external factors and we use them to communicate something about our identities, and we edit the information we choose to share about ourselves in order to make people think particular things about us.

      But I think that personal style is slightly different from personal tastes in music or film or literature because personal style is so easily broadcast to others. For any random person walking down the street, I don’t know what their favourite book is, or I don’t know what they would want me to think their favourite book is, but I can certainly tell what their personal style is in that particular moment. I very much agree that our tastes are a costume we assemble to declare (and to obscure) particular things about ourselves, but personal sartorial style is much more visible and open to judgement in public. I suppose that might mean that people think personal style choices involve higher stakes, since that choice is more visible than choices in books or movies or whatever.

      I think I opened up a can of worms with this topic, haha. It could be discussed in terms of subscribing to and enacting cultural norms to demonstrate your understanding and belonging to a particular cultural group, it could be discussed in terms of status and conspicuous consumption – what I thought was a relatively simple question of whether people should default to classic garments if they’re unsure of their own style could be the subject of a very lengthy thesis, really!

  5. Eudoxia says:

    Lots of interesting points here.

    I must say that the fashion/style/body-image bloggers I follow (primarily Sal from http://www.alreadypretty.com and Allie from http://www.wardrobeoxygen.com) do emphasise that there are no “wrong” choices, and that their advice is only to be listened to if you are interested and it seems to apply to you! I suspect that bloggers who are also interested in confidence/body image/etc might be a bit less likely to talk about absolute “right” and “wrong” choices (though I don’t have any proof of that).

    I think another key reason why ‘the classics’ are often recommended is that they are ‘safe’. E.g. you’re unlikely to jeopardise your future career by going to work in a grey skirt suit, or a smart blouse and black trousers (obviously it depends on what the job is, but in many cases this will apply). And if you’re currently figuring out your fashion/style persona, you might not want to do too much of that in public high-stakes arenas (e.g. at work, meeting the in-laws, attending your child’s teacher-parent meeting etc). But absolutely, the classics are not for everybody and are not the same as having a carefully edited wardrobe, which can be done in many different ways!

    I have a theory that most of my clothes/accessories go through the following sorts of phases: “my new bag! Just what I wanted. So pleased” “that bag I bought a while ago” “that bag I bought a while ago and am now a bit bored of (but it is awfully useful)” “that bag I’ve had for a few years – hey, I remember using it on holiday with so-and-so, that was great” “my favourite bag – had it for years, it’s lasted brilliantly, SO useful, come in handy on lots of different occasions, so glad I bought it”.

    I feel like most of the media input about shopping would encourage me to ditch the item when I started to get bored with it, donate it and buy something new … but if I do that, I will never get to the stage where I have something that I know is sturdy, reliable, full of memories and a ‘classic’ for me. And that’s a stage I really want to get to! Plus, it encourages me to think deeply about what I’m buying and from where, as I hope that this item will be a part of my life for a very long time and I’d much rather be reminded of e.g. creating jobs for vulnerable women every time I use it than having a nagging “so I hope this wasn’t made in a sweatshop …” at the back of my mind.

    • Jess says:

      That’s a good point about classics being “safe”. I guess that’s something I don’t really think about since I don’t have a dress code at work and someone could turn up wearing something absolutely outlandish and ridiculous and nobody would think too much of it, as long as they were still getting their research done! But a safe, even “conformist” wardrobe definitely has its value in particular contexts.

      I would love a wardrobe that consists solely of study, reliable pieces that are full of memories too. It’s a bit embarrassing but since my style has changed a lot over the past few years (i.e. as I got my first full-time job and had money to investigate a wide range of styles, then as I moved on to doing a PhD and wanted longer lasting, higher quality pieces), I don’t have many wardrobe pieces that are more than a couple of years old. But the pieces I do have (like a particular bag that I “invested in” with my tax return in 2008, haha) just give me this sense of fulfillment (well, as much fulfillment as an inanimate consumer item can give). It’s just enjoyable to be able to appreciate the quality and longevity of something like that, and you’re right, the media would probably encourage you to get rid of anything the moment you’re bored with it (or hoard it away and leave it to gather dust) so that you can spend even more money going through that cycle again.

  6. petrichore says:

    Very interesting points Hippocampe makes above!

    I’ve always followed three guidelines (oh crap, rules. Maybe I’m no different than all the rest of us who want rules).

    -Do you love it? [Do you want to wear it over and over again? Do you feel comfortable in it? Is it the first thing you reach for?]

    -Does it love you back? [Is it flattering for your body type?]

    -Does your closet love it? [Will it work in multiple combinations with everything else in your wardrobe, or will purchasing it necessitate additional spending just to make it work?]

    The third point is both a concession to finances, and an attempt at creating unity in one’s uniform/wardrobe.

    One thing that I’ve run into is needing different uniforms for different things. I have two jobs, with very different activity and formality levels, so frequently what works for one situation is not ideal for the other. [Although, come to think of it, there is currently more overlap than I would like, because I'm short of the cash, yo.] Also, when going out in the evenings, usually the very last thing I want to do is put on work clothes; ditto for going to work wearing high heels from the evening before. So my closet, at present, is not that uber-closet full of clothes interchangeably appropriate for every circumstance in life, as some bloggers or fashion people seem to be able to carry off. I’m not sure, in my life, that that’s even a possibility.

    • Jess says:

      I guess that’s yet another thing that’s worth of deeper discussion – people talk about the value of putting together a highly edited but highly versatile wardrobe where everything goes with everything else, but how realistic is that for people’s lives?

      For me, I don’t really have different levels of activity or formality in my life, so my wardrobe just has whatever I want in it (something that I probably take for granted!), but there must be so many people like yourself who need to deal with multiple sets of demands and expectations for their wardrobe, so waxing lyrical about a succinct wardrobe is like waxing lyrical about the suitability of classic wardrobe pieces – it’s just not right for a lot of people.

      But I totally subscribe to your three guidelines/rules!

  7. petrichore says:

    By the way, can I just say how much I love your blog! It’s refreshing to read something fashion-related with depth and analysis in it.

  8. lin says:

    You’ve covered the ground for why people are drawn towards wardrobe culling and building a classic wardrobe, and I agree that they’re all as likely as the next reason – it’s all deeply complicated by our personal image issues, values, and taste in varying degrees.

    I’m personally drawn towards what is defined as classic clothing because I don’t like people to notice my clothes, and as Fleurette puts it, classics are usually “quiet” clothing. Classic clothes also tend to be functional and that suits me as well, because I like practical clothing. On the romantic side of things, I love classic enduring design that look great on everyone at at any case – things with universal, timeless appeal, and I think classic clothes are part of that. I feel like it’s such an achievement to create something that endures over time and I find it to be a beautiful idea – something so well done it doesn’t need improvement. The t-shirt is one of those things, and perhaps the button-front shirt. So those are my very personal reasons for sticking to classics.

    There’s also something to be said for classic clothing being a sensible starting point if you don’t know where to begin spending money on clothing. A lot of classic clothing can be personalised or built upon to create a very individual look – like a white shirt, or black trousers – and so maybe it’s a sensible place to begin. Some people can skip this altogether though.

    As always, you’ve made me a bit more aware of the implications of what we post, so thanks for the food for thought!

    • Jess says:

      Ah, I totally agree with all that you (and Fleurette) say about the classics. I love them for being quiet and understated and elegant (I am quiet, probably understated, and I at least aspire to be elegant, haha), I love them for their practicality, I love them because of their aesthetic appeal as something that has stylistically stood the test of time, and I love their relative simplicity (and how easy it is to adapt or adorn them to personalise them).

      But I guess I’m just wondering how many people out there just wouldn’t benefit from any of those things (as odd as it might seem to me and you). It just seems that so many people feel like they need a lot of guidance when it comes to what to wear, and no matter how practical or versatile or fundamental a white T-shirt or black trousers might objectively be, there are going to be people who just don’t love those things or who would feel like there’s a juncture between their personality and what they’re wearing, so they end up wasting money on things that don’t work for them. I think, on average, classics are a very good bet, but I just wanted to consider the people who look for explicit guidance rather than exploring their own preferences, and then end up wasting money and clothes by putting together a wardrobe that leaves them somehow dissatisfied.

      Of course, maybe no such person exists! But I do want to encourage people to think more about their personal style, rather than just adhering to rules or recommendations.

  9. Terri says:

    Several years ago I made a mix tape for a friend and afterwards, listening to it, I realized that almost everything on it was the blues! In trying to do something significant for the friend, I learned something accidentally about myself.

    As for the classics, there are two I don’t own–the chambray shirt and the black cardigan and I truly don’t see the need for them. I don’t understand why someone would cull first…Find out what fits your body and your style and the situational demands and THEN, cull.

    • Jess says:

      I have to say, whenever I recommend music to a person, I always then go and listen to the music and “pretend” to be that person listening to my recommended music for the first time. Unsurprisingly, when I’m mentally pretending to be that other person, the opinion is always “Wow, this music is awesome!”. :P

      Unfortunately I have seen people get swept up into the culling frenzy (because people who do it talk about how cathartic it is, and people are motivated by the thought of getting rid of the crap and replacing it with quality pieces) and then after the cull they’re like, “So… what next?”. So they seem to enjoy purging their wardrobe and they express the desire to build a more simple, versatile collection of items, but… then they just put together the wardrobe they pretty much had before. Which they are absolutely free to do, and I’m not judging them for it, but I just note that their intention was to cull and then replace with fewer pieces of higher quality, which is precisely what they don’t do. So I guess people don’t really think through what they’re going to do after the cull, or whether what they plan to do is really appropriate or realistic for them.

  10. Clara says:

    Hello everyone,

    wow, seeing my name this morning on ths blog, how flattering haha ! Thank you ever so much for taking that comment seriously. It seems that people have a lot to say about this topic. Long comments, good communication everywhere at seems, just the purpose of a good blog ! Three cheers !

    There is a point I would still like to comment : in my particular case, I am actually very satisfied with my culled wardrobe, which I consider a good balance for me between sturdy classics and more personal elements (LIBERTY PRINTS I NEVER GET ENOUGH OF THEM HAHA). All of this advice you gave are perfectly correct, and the most important factor in building a good wardrobe is time. (And also learning not to settle for second best haha).

    What I meant about still feeling unsatisfied was less about the clothes themselves than about realizing…well, sounds cheesy, but realizing that clothes won’t make you a happier person, no matter how “well-adapted” or “perfectly suited to your personality and shape” they are. Wardrobe culling is often seen as a therapy -and, to some extend, a successful one, it’s true. But in other respects, it’s also another way of obsessing about clothes and thinking objects is where the satisfaction is going to come from… I guess striving for perfection, including in something as harmless as a wardrobe, is more often than not going to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

    If any other reader has a comment on this, I’d love to hear about their opinion !

    • Jess says:

      Ah, your wardrobe sounds quite like mine – a balance of classics and more personal elements (I love a good print too, particularly floral or geometric!).

      I agree about people needing to realise that the right wardrobe alone won’t necessarily make them happier – if they have a more intrinsic lack of self-confidence or whatever, then even the most perfect of clothes aren’t going to magically solve all their problems (or as you originally said, they’re not going to suddenly feel like they’re as chic as Clémence Poésy). However, I have to say that, for better or worse, I feel like how I dress is an important thing for me in terms of self-expression. So while clothes don’t make you a happier person overall, I personally do feel quite uncomfortable if I go out in an outfit I don’t feel conveys the type of personality/image I want to convey. It’s a bit odd, because I don’t care what people think about my outfit when I’m wearing something that I’m happy with – yet if I’m wearing something that isn’t quite right, I feel very uncomfortable. I guess that means that I only want people to see a particular image of me. It might not make a difference to my fundamental happiness, but it makes a difference to my day-to-day confidence and self-assurance and satisfaction. Clothes mean different things to different extents to different people, I suppose, but I agree that they’re not going to solve any particularly deep problems.

      I guess with all the makeover shows you see on TV, there’s a widespread notion that you can forge a new (and “better”) identity through a new wardrobe and maybe a new haircut. But there’s probably a reason why the shows don’t follow up the made-over people later on, to see how the makeover hasn’t actually drastically changed and revivified that person’s entire life and overthrown all their insecurities and problems. So people continue under the illusion that, if only they had the right wardrobe, they would have a much better life. The right clothes can be important, but they only get you so far.

      Thanks again for all the thoughtful comments you leave on this blog, Clara. :)

      • Eudoxia says:

        This is kind of off on a tangent, but … for me, the ‘therapeutic’ aspect of sorting out my wardrobe is inextricably linked to the production/origin of the clothes (from an ethics-humanitarian kind of point of view). Which introduces new tensions – I certainly have items that I’ve bought that aren’t the best fit for my aesthetic or what I feel most comfortable in, but were things I thought I could/would wear, and available fairly traded / ethically made when the things I liked better weren’t.

        It’s definitely worth having something that fits less well with my “personal style” if it e.g. also creates jobs for women in rural communities and helps their families (thinking here of People Tree’s hand-powered weaving looms), rather than potentially supporting hugely exploitative garment manufacturing. Makeovers on TV shows (though I often like watching them) seem a bit hollow because you really don’t know what suffering might lie behind the clothes, and then how can you be happy with them? I guess maybe lots of consumers are blissfully ignorant, but once you’ve found out even a little about this kind of thing (e.g. read a bit on places like http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/) I really don’t understand how people can shut their eyes to it.

        • Jess says:

          There’s a fair bit of research out there about just how blissfully (or willingly) ignorant people are of how their garments are produced and how much they care or don’t care about whether something was ethically and sustainably manufactured. I’ve written a bit about it before in this blog and some of the research is very depressing (at one point I was reading about a study that had involved some focus group interviews and there were these 20-something-year-old British people saying things like “People in places like Bangladesh should be happy to have these manufacturing jobs at all, even if the conditions are horrible, because without the jobs they’d be even poorer” or “If a company is smart enough to take advantage of cheap labour then pass the savings on to me, then I’m happy”). There were some encouraging points (people are willing to pay more for ethically/sustainably produced items, and they overestimate how much it would cost to produce items in such a way, and many people do want to consume in more ethical/sustainable ways but simply feel like they lack options) but there were some very confronting points too and it seems that awareness of the issues really desperately needs to be improved.

          Hopefully there’s a continuing shift towards genuine efforts to produce garments ethically and sustainably, because the more you make such garments available to people and the more options they have, the easier it will be for them to put together an ethical, sustainable wardrobe (unfortunately I do think it’s a matter of making it easy for people, as I don’t think the average consumer is willing to make a whole heap of effort in such matters – they’ll say that they want to, but they only will if it’s relatively easy).

          It would be amazing if more people found fulfillment in their wardrobe because of how the production of the garments has helped and empowered others, but unfortunately I think ethical/sustainable options don’t even enter consideration for a lot of people (of the subset of people who are in the economic position to invest the time and effort in considering and pursuing such options).

          • Eudoxia says:

            I am encouraged by the way it seems to be continuing to get easier to purchase ethically, and yeah, I really hope that this becomes the norm … perhaps soaring oil prices will help, if manufacturing in far-flung places becomes less cost-effective. (Not that proximity determines ethics, but I figure it’s easier to know what conditions are actually like if the factory is down the road, not a whole continent away).

            I am also not surprised by research showing that people are depressingly blase about this kind of thing … for me, a major reason why I try to hold so strongly to my views on this kind of thing is based on my faith. Though really, my conviction here is “People matter. All people. Even the ones you don’t see, even the ones you’ll never meet. Therefore live accordingly.” which I would hope would be seen to be self-evident regardless of religious belief system (any or none).

    • Hippocampe says:

      Hello Clara,

      Such interesting points (should we ask Jess to make another post out of them ? :)

      I think the problem is : fashion items are not inanimate objects. We imbue them with our emotions and ideas.

      Sometimes, I reason I should try to confront the social/relationships/… issues rationally and frontally, because wardrobe building is such an inadequate and indirect way to tackle them, obviously.
      But every time I try to do this, my mind goes blank.
      I have to admit I need the medium of fashion, all its images and connotations, to mull these issues over.
      So I don’t ever worry to face a perfect wardrobe one day, it will always be a work in progress. Anyhow, perfection should be a guideline, not a goal (or sour disappointment will ensue, as you said).

  11. Hippocampe says:

    You feel like you’ve opened a can of worms…Indeed, with this post, Jess of Empty Emptor, you have stepped into Fashion’s Heart of Darkness :)

    Re classics : I’m old enough to know these so-called classics are not timeless, they’re as much a trend as any style of clothing. All this talk about basics (trench coat, white shirt…we can all recite the list) popped up in the last 10 years. When I was a student, introvert book-worms like myself didn’t do fashion at all, fashion as a whole was seen as a frivolous pursuit. Now I wear classics. Tomorrow, if canary yellow jumpsuits become the norm for introvert book-worms, my wardrobe will fill with canary yellow jumpsuits.

    Re wardrobe culling : I’ve read this intriguing sentence on the “Notes to a mouse” blog : “There are two related pleasures for the whole endeavour. That of acquisition (small episodes of rapture) and de-acquisition (purification). I like both”.
    Anyway, if your wardrobe culling is made in a highly emotional state, if you hate yourself so much that you want to throw yourself in the bin bag with all your clothes and be reborn someone new, then you’re ripe for some demeaning makeover TV show. Under these circumstances, the wardrobe culling will be a total failure. I think a wardrobe culling must be very matter-of-fact to be successful (fit, condition, practicality of clothes). It must be a cold-blooded murder :)

    That’s not an easy task, to think your wardrobe over. Needless to say, I’m quite the analytical over-thinker kind,  still : I find it very difficult to rationalize fashion purchases. It conveys body image, relationships and social issues.

    Anyhow, I find the whole process entertaining and I enjoy reading your informative, thought-provoking posts and the clever comments of your readers.

    • Jess says:

      Wow, I don’t think I’ve even considered the notion before that some classics might not actually be classic. I’ve been my usual cynical self regarding why magazines started putting together lists of classics and must-haves and basics and whatever (to make even people who aren’t even interested in fashion trends buy more, presumably) but I hadn’t considered that some of these items either haven’t stood the test of time or perhaps won’t stand the test of time. Do you think that some items could be defined as classics, regardless of whether they’re on the magazines’ “classic” lists? I would have thought that something like a plain trench coat is something you could look back at photos and see being worn (to varying extents) in all the decades since whenever it was popularised post-WWI. Chambray shirts, on the other hand, for example, I would easily question the “classicness” of (they might be versatile or practical or flattering to a wide range of people or whatever, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them a classic).

      I dislike makeover shows partly because the presenters seem to coerce the person-to-be-madeover into having a mini emotional break-down at the start of the episode, making that person admit that they feel like they’re stuck in a rut or their friends think they’re dull or their husband doesn’t find them as attractive any more – and a new wardrobe supposedly fixes all of these problems? And that person is genuinely responsible for these problems? (I don’t think makeover show hosts ever confront a husband to tell him to be more supportive and appreciative of his wife, rather than just putting the wife in some sort of conventionally “sexy” dress.) A master-stroke of marketing, I guess, but it also reveals how pivotal the social factor is in personal style, since it seems to reinforce a myth that if only a person has the right wardrobe, they will be successful and attractive and loved, or at least they will be able to achieve those things more easily. I guess it’s no wonder that any sort of wardrobe overhaul has a risk of ending in significant disappointment, if people follow that line of thinking.

      Thanks for all your very insightful comments, Hippocampe. You need a blog of your own – I would very keenly follow your writings!

      • Eudoxia says:

        There have definitely been times when I’ve watched makeover shows and at the beginning in the “before” bit thought “You look like a lovely woman! I’d like to chat with you over coffee. You seem like a wonderful person.” and then thought when seeing the “after” bit “You do look lovely still – but I’m not convinced you look in any way “better” than before! Just different, and a little bit cookie-cutter-stylist but I’m sure that will wear off”.

        I like ones where they eventually go back a few months later and catch up with the person – often it then feels like they’re creating a new look that’s theirs, not one that’s been imposed on them (I think some episodes of Gok’s Fashion Fix did this).

      • Clara says:

        Hippocampe makes a very good point, also because the “classics” fashion might partly be a middle/upper class reaction to the relatively recent access of the masses to fashion in the classical sense. The usual social distinction system.

        Or it could also be linked to this massive tendency of the 2000s to look back towards the past, or rather towards a selective vision of the past. Bob Dylan in the 60s for example has become one of the greatest fashion icons of today (with the whole Wayfarer-blackboots-skinny jeans “retro” look). Yet I’m pretty convinced the average person in the 60s didn’t look that stylish, or maybe not even remotely like that ! The Breton shirts also, now considered a complete classic, have been particularly un-trendy for a loooooong time before that whole Sixties/Nouvelle Vague comeback !

  12. Wonderful post as always! I defer back to the classics (or classic with a twist) for one main reason…I’m exotically short. At 4’11″, it’s easy to be pegged as much younger than I am, which I counteract by dressing in a way I see as elegant and mature. To me, that means classic pieces in the best quality I can find/afford for my stature. Which brings me to another point…factoring in the cost of alterations. At my height, nearly everything needs at least some kind of tailoring tweak. Am I going to invest an arm and a leg’s worth of alterations in the season’s latest trend? Heck no. But I’ll consider it worth my while to invest in alterations on a classic piece that I know I’ll wear for years down the road. I think I’d make more daring fashion choices if I were of average height, but I guess I’ll never know for sure. ;)

    So, there ya go…I prefer classics for the way I want to portray myself to the world, and the perception that my body type is harder to dress than others, encouraging me to “invest” is what I think will stand the test of time. I wonder if more special size ladies feel the same?

    • Jess says:

      Yeah, I think people feel more confident in investing money in classics in general, whether it’s spending money on the alterations or whether it’s paying for an item that is well made of high quality materials (or both). There’s definitely a sense of comfort there that you’re not being frivolous and wasting money needlessly, although I guess only time will tell whether a particular item really does last and become a classic for you personally.

      I guess whether you would still buy classics if you didn’t feel the need to convey a sense of maturity with your image is pretty difficult to consider (very much a thought experiment!), especially since it could be confounded by the fact that you might appreciate the general style and practicality of the classics, regardless of what effect they might have on your perceived age. Or maybe you would want to convey a sense of maturity regardless of your height (I’m 5’11″ and I still feel like that sort of “mature” style is something that conveys the right image for me). Interesting but complicated to think about – judging by the comments in this post of mine, classics definitely do bring out a huge range of feelings and thoughts in different people!

  13. Eudoxia says:

    Sort of in response to this:

    “Re classics : I’m old enough to know these so-called classics are not timeless, they’re as much a trend as any style of clothing. All this talk about basics (trench coat, white shirt…we can all recite the list) popped up in the last 10 years. ”

    I think one of the reasons it’s tempting to subscribe to the idea of timeless classics is that they sound good written down. Black skirt … white button-front shirt … they must be timeless, right? But it’s not quite that easy – white shirts might still be in style but the collars might be different, or the sleeve length, or the placement of buttons … black skirts might be a slightly tweaked silhouette, or weight of fabric, than they were a few years ago … nothing really stays still. The only things I can think of that I think *might* be genuinely timeless are things like “a single-stranded cream pearl necklace” “diamond stud earrings” which are quite different from trench coats!

  14. Hippocampe says:

    Don’t get me started on makeover shows. I entirely agree with you. The one running in my country has a title that roughly translates as “a new look to start a new life”, that sums it up, doesn’t it ? At the end of the process, the participant cries in front of her mirror reflection and says : “I see a real woman at last”. Aaargh.
    Business doesn’t thrive only by flaming desires. Playing on our fears
    and insecurities is a common plot, too.

    Re classics : yes, I’m very suspicious of their “timelessness”.
    Never heard of them when I was young, never heard of them being discussed by my mother or grandmothers. Never came across Jackie
    O and Audrey Hepburn pictured wearing trench coats before the last ten years.
    And I find them redolent of the minimalist 90’s, when nude make-up,
    white shirts or T-shirts with pared-down pants or pencil skirts, flat
    shoes and, well, unadorned anything, were all the rage – which fits so neatly with the out-of-fashion-in-a-decade-back-in-fashion-20-years-later rule : coincidence ?

    It’s true, trench coats have been around since WWI, all pieces of
    clothing have been around for a while, they just come and go in and out of fashion, I suppose. Remember Burberry’s nearly went bankrupt in the 80’s ? now that the trench coat has been reborn as a classic, they’re buoyant again. All the “luxury” brands want to cash in on the trend (how do trends surface : another fascinating subject). They seem very keen these days to tell us the “legend” behind the good,
    how old the thing is, and dig up in the archive a black and white
    picture of Grace Kelly carrying it.
    Suddenly classics become “investment pieces” (meaning costly ones). The statement that “ballet flats are classic” turns into “Repetto flats are classics” or “Vara Ferragamo flats are classics”, how odd.

    Which doesn’t stop me from wearing “classics”, of course. Given what
    they stand for in our society right now (Lin wrote beautifully about
    this in her comment, I won’t recap), they’re the closer to how I feel. I won’t bet I’ll be buried wearing them, though.

  15. miss sophie says:

    brilliant, provocative post. i don’t have much to add to the conversation other than i feel like my own style journey has started with cookie cutter classic when i was a teen, and then slowly evolved over the years to the ‘me’ version of classics today. the fact is having a well edited wardrobe comprised of mostly classics (and some loud/one-of-a-kind unique pieces) just makes my daily life immensely easier, not to mention wonderfully fun and inspiring when i find something that’s exactly what i’m looking for.

    but at the end of the day, you need to wear what you want. as you said, there are no rules.

  16. Sweetsy says:

    I found your blog via a commenter over at Vivienne Files. I am fascinated by your blog and as someone mentioned earlier in the comments, I love how it delves deeper into the thoughts and rationale behind our clothing choices. Very interesting stuff.

    BTW, if you are not already aware of Vivienne Files blog, you would enjoy the capsule wardrobe idea and her (Janice) fascinating and eye-opening process to create a punched up classics wardrobe. The blog was inspired by a French woman named Vivienne and her minimal classic wardrobe. I read the whole thing start to finish over the course of a week as Janice covers some great material. I would be surprised if you hadn’t already been directed there by one of your readers but just in case–check it out! :)
    Can’t wait to soak up the rest of your blog!

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