Stuck in the wardrobe mud: My style crisis investigation continues

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Owning up to a style crisis in my last post wasn’t something I did lightly – I’m supposed to know about this stuff! Nevertheless I decided to tackle it head-on – but in doing so I had no idea that my quandary was one shared by so many others. Thank you to everyone who’s commented and emailed – not only with assurances that this is a problem shared – but also with ideas for tackling a style crisis based on your experiences. It’s all being digested I promise! Meanwhile, on with my style crisis investigation…

Saga Noren - Style crisis investigation
‘We’re looking for Alice’s style. Have you seen it?’

I’m told I tend towards the analytical. (Who knew?) That being the case, my natural inclination is to ask:

– Why does a style crisis happen?
– Why does it matter?

Apologies then, to anyone looking for an instant answer. I promise I won’t be cogitating for too long as I won’t be able to resist cracking on with some practical ideas while I get to grips with all of this. However instinct tells me that I need to understand what’s going on here, rather than trying to come up with solutions yet. ‘Tough on my style crisis; tough on the causes of my style crisis’, if you will. Stick with me – I’ll get there…

Why is my style in crisis?

Reasons why we grind to a halt in the wardrobe department are sometimes quite straight-forward. For starters, the weather’s something we can’t do much about. The fashion cycle may well be gearing up for a nice warm spring but what if the temperature refuses to co-operate? I’ve had freezing feet wearing ill-advised sling-backs in May; conversely I’ve been uncomfortably sticky in a suit in late October. It’s a recurring problem that seems only to have been exacerbated in recent years as we’ve had a slew of chilly springs and warm autumn seasons.

The problem can lie in plenty of other places too, as pointed out in the comments to my last post.

Weight change can bring shopping trips and sewing alike, to a complete halt. Weight loss or gain can render an entire wardrobe useless within a scarily-short space of time. Sometimes it’s simply difficult to know what size to fit to when your weight is fluctuating. Garment fitting is both necessary and time-consuming, as we who sew, know only too well. We might duplicate purchased garments such as jeans (if you’re an aficionado) or bras in different sizes to accommodate fluctuations in our weight. However it’s not practical to replicate a handmade wardrobe in that way. We might be on our way up or down for reasons beyond our control – and over a period of time. So much so, that it might be difficult to detect a point where we’ve ‘arrived’ at a stable weight.

In addition, our bodies continue to change over time. (If anyone’s seen my bottom knocking around somewhere then please let me know – I’d quite like it back…). And course it’s not just about the logistics of weight change – body-image can affect profoundly our sense of self. Just because we might have read Fat Is a Feminist Issue a while back (and I did, I promise), then those changing-room-mirror issues don’t just magically disappear. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that insecurity about body-image is a far more complex issue than there’s space for here – and it’s relevant for many.

Budget is another obstacle to our style aspirations. Who hasn’t coveted the perfect pair of shoes, length of tweed or desirable bag – only to know in our hearts that we can’t really justify the expense? This can sometimes be a postitive – there are occasions when I’ve been secretly relieved to have to rule out a purchase on the basis of cost. However although the lack of funds can help with decision-making, it’s more likely to be an unwelcome reality.

We’ve been privileged to have become quite well acquainted with many of our customers over the last few years. We’ve heard enough to know that most, if not all, of these predicaments will be only too familiar.d

Sometimes there are specific wardrobe dilemmas that can stop us in our tracks. Take the numerous calls and emails we’ve receive, starting with the words: ‘My son/daughter is getting married and I don’t want to look like a Mother of the Bride’. Enough to make us consider a whole fabric range branded as ‘Not The Mother Of The Bride’, that’s how many.

And then – most frequently, the myriad customers who have spent a lifetime playing with style and fashion – but who worry about what they can or can’t do ‘at my age’ without contravening perceived rules about what they might be able to wear. And lest you think that applies only to those over 50 or 60, I can assure you that’s not the case – it starts way way before that, as evidenced in the comments on my last post.

Where, I wonder, did the joy go?

Who stole my fun?

Where indeed is that joy? What happens to our inner Molly Ringwald, running up a prom dress at the last moment, daring to be different and rocking it?

As one of our commenters said – the point is to ‘Enjoy making and wearing things for yourself‘. But the reality is that life takes over and most of us no longer have the time to play around with make-up and hairstyles in front of the mirror as we might have done as teenagers. Expectations and life events change us and we find ourselves having to learn how to dress appropriately for different environments such as work and formal occasions.

Yes – we can rebel and make a style statement – but as we head out into the Big Wide World it takes a special kind of confidence and flair to stay true to our personal sense of style. I suspect that we can all recall instances where just a little more of our style confidence – our sense of ourselves – was chipped away. A dress code here, a whisper there – an overly-rushed project or a fitting/buttonhole/broken needle that defeated us. While we work so hard at getting on in life, not only does fashion change constantly; we’re getting older too. From our 20s onwards, it’s all too easy to land between a rock and a hard place on the style front. Or, you might say, getting stuck betweeen frumpishness and mutton.

Now before you roll your eyes – of *course* I have a problem with words like ‘frump’ and ‘mutton’. The very fact that such terms exist is illustrative of the issue under discussion. I respectfully refer you to The Vintage Year who addresses this very issue in her column, where she observes:

 “My own difficulties arise not with avoiding the major pitfalls, we all know how to do that, but with injecting some ‘edge’ into what’s left. I am bloody-minded when it comes to what I think is the right dress for me, but it’s a very fine line between skating along the edge and falling off the cliff.

Or in my case, hitting a wall. Again and again. There are times I feel like a robotic hoover, repeatedly boinking my style head against the same skirting board in a corner. Or just checking to see if I left my style under the bed…

Style crisis investigation robot hoover

…but wherever my style is, it’s apparently not hanging out with my slipper socks and the dust bunnies.

So I turn to the media – whether print or online – and oh yay – look what happens. I’m faced with an endless stream of Kardashianesque Klones, all contoured and smoothed to the hilt. Are there no choices any more? Where did the individualistic style choices of earlier decades go? Why does everyone on the Apprentice wear a figure-hugging dress and five-inch heels? So I off I panic to the internet (no Alice, NO!) But yes – and before I know it I’ve gone and done it. I’ve googled ‘style for women over <insert age>’. And honestly, I adore Judi Dench and Helen Mirren – but if I see them held up ONCE MORE as style icons for every woman over the age of 35 I will not be answerable for my response. And what do you know?

THIS ISN’T FUN ANY MORE!

But it’s only clothing…isn’t it?

Yes of course it’s only clothes. But appearances and perceptions do matter. Take this exchange in the final episode of Amazon’s ‘Good Girls Revolt’. A fictional drama, GGR is based on the real story of how women researchers working on Newsweek magazine fought to be recognised as – and paid as – journalists. The scene in question takes place just before the denouement where the women file a legal complaint. June and Denise are workers on the magazine; the character of Eleanor is their ACLU lawyer. (In reality, Eleanor Holmes Norton, now a member of the US House of Representatives).

June: Eleanor?
Eleanor: Yes, June?
June: What should we wear?
Eleanor: Clothes? Shoes? Bras are optional.
Denise: A suit, or a dress?
Eleanor: (Pauses, takes a breath) You wear whatever makes you feel beautiful and brave. And not necessarily in that order.

As Eleanor pauses before that last line, we’re invited to reassess the significance of a question that might initially sound trivial. We reflect not only on the magnitude of what they are about to do (risk their livelihoods by taking a publisher to court over their refusal to allow women to write) but also of who they are. Women – and moreover two black women – are asking this question of a third. As we’ve already learned in the season, if contravening norms of appearance and behaviour was a risky business for any woman at that time (and to an extent, even now) then it was even more so for women of colour.

Unfortunately it’s only available to Amazon Prime subscribers – this excerpt is one of only a couple that are freely available and isn’t of the final episode.

Well worth a watch if you get a chance, the soundtrack is pretty good too (although it prompted an unhealthy obsession with Creedence Clearwater Revival and local traffic queues have been subjected to my rendition of the closing speech).

So – clothes matter. We all know they do.  For lots of us, personal style is a Big Deal. As a child and in my teens and early twenties I was a sewing demon and would try anything once. Sometimes it worked, often it didn’t. But you learn from your failures. However once I had a Proper Job that changed. Sewing time became elusive. Slowly but surely, constraints and grown-up responsibilities descended. My joy of dressing and my sense of style were eroded. Judging by the comments on my last post, I’m not alone in suspecting my sense of self went with them.

In her article Women on the verge of a mid-life crisis, psychologist Linda Blair refers to the 1970s book, Passages by Gail Sheehy, observing:

“At different stages in our lives, we have different priorities and when those priorities need to change we experience a period of reforming.”

The book – and her article – explain that the patterns of behaviour we fall into, whilst being completely recognisable in the rear-view mirror, aren’t so easy to spot in advance – or even as they happen. Importantly, aging itself isn’t the life event that throws us into muddy fields of self-doubt. There are plenty of others – and it turns out they’re all pretty predictable, including:

– Leaving home
– Leaving full-time education
– Starting work
– Changing jobs
– Illness
– Beginning or ending a relationship
– Changes in family responsibilities

…and these are just for starters. My bet is that we can all add plenty more personal circumstances to that list.

The different roles we play in life also affect our sense of self-perception. Those roles increase in number over time – over the last 20 years mine have included:

– Parent
– Daughter
– Employer
– Manager
– Friend
– Wife
– Employee
– Presenter
– Writer
…and the list goes on. (Discounting all the regular stuff lots of us do with our ‘spare’ time like sports, decorating, gardening and the rest.)

So – no surprise that ‘essence of Alice’ has become somewhat elusive.

Of course all this change and role-playing are part of the very fabric of life. (Ba da boom.) But for those of us who care about such things (and plenty don’t – it’s not obligatory!) each change can leave us floundering in search of the style that will speak for the person we’ve turned into. We end up in the same uniform day after day, feeling vaguely dissatisfied and not a little confused about ourselves.

Here’s a recent advertisement for Amazon Fashion.

Style crisis investigation - Amazon fashion advertisement

‘Look like you’ it says. And I agree – I do want to look like me. But what if I’m not sure who ‘I’ am? To paraphrase an earlier a commenter: ‘What if I’ve lost my sense of self?’

So that’s my style crisis investigation. This is how I think I got here – and this is why it matters – at least to me.

It all seems to have got a bit existential so I’m off to read my Sartre over an apricot cocktail and have a think. In my next post I’m going to come up with some ideas on how to dig myself out of this hole – and since I’ve said I will, then I’ll have to. Thank you for scrolling down this far – and suggestions, as ever, are welcome.

 

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21 thoughts on “Stuck in the wardrobe mud: My style crisis investigation continues

  1. Cate says:

    Well that was a journey and a half! 🙂 The first thing that sprung to mind when you mentioned the Mirren/Dench fatigue was bloggers. There are so many wonderful over 40, over 50 and over 60 fashion bloggers out there who are such amazing inspiration. Check out That’s Not My Age, Not Dressed as a Lamb and even Bag and A Beret – that lady clearly knows where all the fun is!

    My own personal two icons for ladies of certain age are definitely Vivienne Westwood and Iris Apfel. They’re possibly not my kind of fashion style but when it comes to having your own personal style nailed, these two ladies truly have it. I really hope I can have as much fun with clothes as they do when I reach their ages.

    • ClothSpot says:

      Cate I know – I think the word is cathartic… 😉 I promise to get a bit punchier from now on *wags finger to self* You’re absolutely right – there are some brilliant bloggers – since embarking on this excursion I have discovered some and have yet to find others – thank you very much for your suggestions. I had found – and love – ‘That’s Not My Age’ – she’s fabulous – and I’ll look forward to visiting your other tip-offs. I intend that this will have been my negative nadir and that things will be looking up – I can’t wait to uncover lots more positive perspectives!

  2. Sarah Skinner says:

    I love Bag and a Beret too ! Brilliant. But on a more practical level I love ‘handmade by Carolyn’. Truly inspirationsal and she even makes her own shoes. But very classy clothes and look – on Instagram and own website. She has just completed a year of wearing totally handmade clothes and shoes.
    I don’t have much to add, other than I think the sentiments that Alice addresses are familiar to all. I would only add that I actually like clothes to hide behind – I want them to project an image ( e.g confident, classy) that I might not actually feel. I like to use clothes to lift me and make me feel better. I don’t necessarily want them to reflect the feel me. Is that a little bit disingenuous ? I don’t know. But I do like clothes and materials. I do also think that as you get older you do need to spend a bit more ( either ready to wear or home made ) on better quality materials and a good cut.
    So, thinking I didn’t have much to add, I have found that I do 🙂
    Enjoy the journey Alice.

    • ClothSpot says:

      Thank you for the blog suggestions, Sarah – I really appreciate knowing what people have found inspiring. I think inspiration has a lot to do with moving things on and that’s where I’ll be going next. I completely agree with you about the potential of clothes to lift you – that’s what I want mine to do – and while some do – others definitely don’t. I think there’s a lot to be said for ‘fake it till you make it’ on the confidence and self-projection front. I don’t want to wear my heart on my sleeve – literally or figuratively – but like you, I think that projecting an image is a great thing to be able to do. Thank you again for the suggestions!

  3. Dorothy says:

    Wow, there was a lot in that article but unfortunately for me not much that helped me to get my “style brain” working again.

    P.S. I heartily agree with everything that Sarah Skinner wrote in her reply.

    • ClothSpot says:

      Dorothy I suspect that in the urge to share I got a bit carried away with the inner workings of my head. Less is more, I know… Sarah hit the nail on the head, I agree. Now I’ve got that all off my chest I do intend to crack on with some practical steps towards getting my style back on track.

  4. Ann T says:

    I think the place you live affects your sense of style/confidence too. I’ve always lived in cities, but now in a small rural town where most people wear cagoules not coats, and only heels on Saturday night. I’m also retired, and no longer have the same opportunities for the smart jacket, the elegant shirt etc. The way I want to dress would look overdressed round here. But my plan for this year is to learn to make smart and well-fitting trousers in lovely fabrics.

    • ClothSpot says:

      That’s a really good point, Judith – having moved from a rural area to cities and back out again, the simple fact that there are fewer people around means that you have to look further for inspiration. Also as you say – practicality rules. I gave in and bought my first proper warm anorak as an adult just a couple of years ago. It’s warm and cosy and I have a love-hate relationship with it… Good luck with the trouser-fitting!

  5. Louise says:

    Thanks for another really thought provoking article Alice!

    I followed the Wardrobe Architect series that Colette ran a year or so ago and going back to things i pinned from that I found that the silhouettes that I picked out then are still right for me – I just need to adapt and update in places. It also reminded me of things that I keep forgetting – such as the fact that I never feel really comfortable in an all over print – no matter how much I think I like it in theory!

    So I gave myself a stern talking to, decided that I shouldn’t bother with some floral fabric I bought recently and stocked up on grey viscose jersey – its going to be a very neutral spring for me!

    Louise

    • ClothSpot says:

      I try, Louise – I try 😉 Its the first time that I’ve ever had a go at looking at my wardrobe methodically – and it’s encouraging to know that the choices you made during the WA series have stood the test of time. I always think your printed dresses work so well – but so much has to do with how you feel, doesn’t it. I sometimes have ‘frock’days – but then other days the idea makes me feel just wrong. Don’t be too stern with yourself – you might be able to sneak a floral top in somewhere without upsetting your mojo!

      • Louise says:

        Thankyou! I have a mixed relationship with prints – and the combinations I pinned during wardrobe architect remind me that I love a print as a separate but I very rarely feel comfortable in an all over print (and certainly wouldn’t wear something like that as regularly as I wear my more basic items!), its clearly a weird thing in my head rather than a real thing. There will definitely be patterns on tops along the way! I feel a bit more focussed on what i want to make over the next month or so which is really good.

        Louise

        • ClothSpot says:

          Wouldn’t it be interesting to track how many times we wear certain garments? (Not wanting to get all spreadsheety here – just pondering). I have some garments that I can’t bear to get rid of, that I try on, decide against then put back in the wardrobe. Then my brain plays a trick on me and I think I must have worn it at some point – when in fact I haven’t at all. I’ve just tried it on and rejected it about a dozen times. It can take me a year or two to catch on and hoick it out for good. Then there are the exceptions – I too get nervous about all-over prints. However I have a red and white fifties-style floral summer frock bought from New Look about 15 years ago (at least) and it comes out every year. Apparently I have no qualms about that at all.

  6. dorothy says:

    I should add that the remark “wear what makes you feel brave or beautiful” rang/ a loud bell for me. I have to appear in civil court in a major roll soon should I wear bright colours which make me feel brave or dark ones which are expected but which me look awful and sap my confidence. Do you think style or court expectancies should prevail. What do you think

    • ClothSpot says:

      Dorothy I know I had to use a lot of words to set the scene so I could get to that line – but I thought it was a real corker and I’m so glad it made sense for you. I think that providing you show respect for the court in your appearance and demeanour, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t wear what makes you feel brave. It will be nerve-wracking I imagine – and you will presumably have to think and speak clearly and confidently. Your ability to do that is what the court will value most, surely – and if there are clothes will help you do that, then choose accordingly. Unless you’ve been told otherwise, then I would recommend dressing for confidence, class and comfort. Perhaps there are other readers who have experience of this kind of thing? I hope it goes well!

  7. Jules Donnelly says:

    I began a reply to last weeks blog post during my lunch break at work but didn’t have time to finish and post it which is pretty indicative of where I feel I am in my life right now, on a perpetual treadmill and against the clock.

    I am guessing that all of us who have contributed to these blog posts are probably all of a similar age, that being middle age and, Alice, I think you hit the nail on the head when you referred to the many roles we women have played in our lives leading us to this point. As we transition from one role and persona to the next it is any wonder that we lose sight of our inner self as we constantly morph from one persona to another?

    On my treadmill of full time work and family commitments it’s all too easy for me to carry on making safe, quick and easy choices wardrobe wise based on what I usually wear and more importantly, what’s readily and easily available. A good percentage of what I buy is ordered online and I tend to stick to the same brands and styles based on tried and trusted fit, style and quality. When I do find time for actual physical shopping I too look at desirable items in shops and mutter inwardly about how easy and satisfying it would be to make it and for a fraction of the cost.

    So why then do I procrastinate about actually doing it? For quite a few years it was easy to blame it on a lack of a decent (if any) haberdashery/fabric shops. But we can’t use that as an excuse now as we have ClothSpot and everything else we need instantly available to us online.

    Therefore I am going to pin the blame fairly and squarely on middle age and being out of touch with my own body shape. On the one hand I recognise what styles I admire and aspire to and I’ve always instinctively known what suits me. However, middle age has added some extra bits and rearranged others. So, for me, I guess I’m scared of facing reality and owning up to the realisation that the slim, svelte styles I desire are now relegated to the past and I am in denial about who I see in the mirror now.

    There was a time when I made practically everything I wore. Nowadays, I have little confidence in trying out new sewing patterns and not wanting to face unfamiliar sizing and examination of my new silhouette when fitting so I’ve kept to simple and easy to make ‘safe’ tops that I know will flatter and please me.

    I believe clothes are important and helps to define our personality. However, I don’t think there’s such a division between age dressing nowadays and many styles are shared between young and old alike, for instance tight jeans, leggings and baggy tops. Two people wearing the same thing can look very different. Maybe we don’t need to change our style, maybe we’ve already nailed it but fail to see that. It depends on who is looking at us. When looking inwardly it could just be that we don’t recognise ourselves.

    • ClothSpot says:

      Jules I’m sure you’re absolutely right regarding pressure of time and juggling. An earlier commenter quite rightly stated the importance of claiming time to spend doing what we love – but it’s easier said than done carving that time out – however necessary it is (and it is!). The rearrangement of body parts is another familiar thing! I’ve been up and down and round about to get to roughly the same weight as I was a lot of years ago more by accident then by design – but the bits are all in different places and you’re right – it can be difficult to recognise oneself. I take heart from the fact that dressing ‘for your age’ is not the constraint it once was – the ‘rules’ have indeed changed. As a result I think your point that we might already have ‘nailed’ it but fail to see it – is a really interesting one. Hmmm. **Goes away to think some more…**

  8. Julia Droy says:

    I agree with Dorothy there’s a lot in the article, a few years ago I decided that I wasn’t going to be like so many of my friends and be part of the black trouser brigade, I looked into my wardrobe and thought “What do I love to wear” and it turned out that I love to wear clothes that make me feel happy, so they have to be comfortable, feminine and classy. Whether its jeans and a crisp white blouse/shirt or a lovely dress I have to feel good in it. If I don’t love it, I don’t wear it. I look at what’s current and adapt it to my style which is mildly conservative.

    I hope this is helpful

    • ClothSpot says:

      Julia I suspect I may well be a member of the ‘black trouser brigade’ on occasion – the number of times I’ve thought ‘why am I going out dressed like a waiter?’ (with all respect to waiters, but that’s a uniform not a style choice. Or is it…?) I completely agree though – if you don’t love it – don’t wear it. That’s getting scribbled down – thank you! It’s very tempting sometimes to think that since you’ve invested time and (hopefully) taste in making something, that you must therefore wear it – but I think a garment has to earn its place in your wardrobe and that making something that turns out to have taught you something in terms of technique or what doesn’t work for you – can be worthwhile. There’s no shame in sending it off to find another life in someone else’s wardrobe via the charity shop.

      • Julia Droy says:

        I’m not saying that I never wear black trousers and a top but I try to think of more interesting garments to wear rather than take the easy option. I am really enjoying my sewing at the moment and am always planning the next project. I’ve just seen the Chloe Coat on the Sew Over It website and think it would make an interesting project, I have never used a PDF pattern before 1 learning curve and haven’t made a coat since my girls were little which must be 20 odd years ago. I do hope you get your enthusiasm back soon.

        • ClothSpot says:

          Enjoy your Chloe coat, Julia – it looks like quite a classic I think – it’s amazing how different a simple design can look depending on the fabric you use. Oh – and PDF patterns – lifesaver when you live out in the sticks and require instant gratification!

  9. Jane says:

    Wow, this rings so true with me. I have plans to make my own capsule wardrobe this year and quite frankly I’m stuck before I’ve started! I’ll keep scouring the internet is search of ‘my’ style. I often find the clothes that I really like are either not suitable for the day to day school run (and I’m just not brave enough to put myself in the spot light and wear a 50’s tea dress) or my body shape just doesn’t look ‘right’ on me.

    When you find an answer, please share! 🙂

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