When you’re shopping for clothes… where do you start?
As regular readers of Fashion Friday know, I’m a fan of the fashion makeover show, “What Not to Wear.” I have some issues with it, but on the whole, I find it entertaining, informative, often oddly touching, and loaded with both specific tips and broad philosophical insights about fashion and style. (Not to mention insights into human psychology.)
It’s fascinating to watch the mental processes and emotional rollercoasters the show’s participants go through when their entire wardrobe is decimated, and they have to start from scratch. And one of the most common reactions the participants have to shopping for a new wardrobe is paralysis. They walk into a clothing store in New York with $5,000 of someone else’s money… and they have no idea where to start. They try on a couple of things that don’t look right… and they get frustrated, or they feel like failures, or in some cases they have a complete emotional meltdown.
I actually understand this, and have sympathy with it. I’ve only been seriously into fashion and style for a relatively short time, and when I was beginning to explore this hobby in a more conscious and thoughtful way, I often felt overwhelmed by all the options, and had no concept of what to even try on.
So I developed three rules for myself for trying things on — actually, they’re more guidelines than rules — and I thought other people might find them useful. Or at least entertaining.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve picked up a piece of clothing in a store; thought, “Nah, this probably won’t work”; thought, “Well, what the hell, I’m going in the dressing room anyway, I’ll give it a shot”; tried it on — and fell head over heels in love.
You can’t always tell what something’s going to look like on your body, just from what it looks like on the hanger. I’ve thought, “Nah, that dress is too shapeless” — and on my body it looked simple and elegant. I’ve thought, “Nah, that jacket is too professorial” — and on my body it made me go, “You know, I can kind of rock the professorial look.” I’ve thought, “Nah, that cut is too severe” — and on my body it made me look like a Fortune 500 CEO who moonlights as a $1,000 an hour dominatrix. (And yes, that’s a good thing.) I’ve thought, “Nah, that print is too garish” — and on my body it made me look like I was radiating pure, exuberant joy.
So if it catches my eye — I have to try it on.
There are some exceptions to this. Again, it’s more of a guideline than a rule. If I’m in a big hurry and am really in the store to just try one thing, I don’t pick up everything else that catches my eye. If a piece is way outside my price range, I’m not going to try it on. I don’t want to fall in astonished love with something I can’t afford. (I’ve done that before, and it did not end well.) And if a piece is too much like something I already own, I usually don’t bother.
But in general, if I’m looking at an item on the hanger, and I’m on the fence about whether to try it on — the default is Yes. If it catches my eye — no matter how far outside my comfort zone it seems, no matter how wacky or boring it looks on the hanger — I have to try it on.
Rule #1 leads directly to Rule #2:
Here’s the thing. Once I’m in the dressing room and am down to my skivvies, it takes thirty seconds to try on a piece. Maybe a minute, if it’s complicated to get on and off. I don’t make my final decision in thirty seconds — but I can do my first round of culling very quickly. “No. No. No. Maybe. No. Hmm… strong maybe. No. OH MY SWEET FICTIONAL JESUS, YES. No. No. Maybe. No.” Doing the final cull from my Maybe pile takes a bit longer… but I can figure out pretty darned fast if a piece has any chance at all of working.
There are lots of good reasons to try on lots of things. It gets me outside my comfort zone, and into a wider range of possibilities. (See Rule #1 above.) When I was anxious about shopping and about trying on clothes, it made the experience seem more normal and familiar. And of course, it just gets the law of averages on my side. The more stuff I try on, the more likely I am to find pieces that fit, and that rock.
Again, there are exceptions to this rule. If my time is tight, and I only came into the store because one piece in the window caught my eye — I don’t try on a zillion things. If I’m on a tighter budget than usual, and I’m really only looking for a very specific item — I don’t try on a zillion things. But on a regular free-form shopping trip, or even on a somewhat more focused “I’m keeping an eye out for long-sleeved blouses and dresses” trip, I generally go into the dressing room with an armful.
And Rule #2 leads directly to Rule #3:
When I was fat, I used to get very down on myself when clothes didn’t work on me. I’d try a bunch of things on, and only a couple would look good on me, and I’d feel like a loser. (When I wasn’t getting furious at size-ist designers, that is.)
But now I’m about a size 8 or 10 (in most pieces). And I still try a bunch of things on, and only a couple look good on me. And it’s finally dawning on me: Oh. It’s not me. It’s the clothes.
Not everything in the store is going to look good on me. There is no woman on earth who everything in the store is going to look good on. Things that look good on tall women often won’t look good on short women. Things that look good on angular women often won’t look good on busty women. Things that look good on 25-year-olds often won’t look good on 50-year-olds. Hell, Ingrid and I are almost exactly the same height and weight and general build… and things that look awesome on her often look weird and lumpy on me, and vice versa. (My theory is that it’s because she’s long-legged and short-waisted, and I’m long-waisted and short-legged.) There is literally no way to make a piece of clothing that will look good on everybody. Human bodies are just too different.
(It’s also true that there’s plenty of size-ism in clothing design: designers don’t make enough nearly options for fat women, and the ones they do make are often sad to the point of being insulting. But that’s a rant for another day.)
So if something doesn’t look right on me, I’m careful about my language. I don’t say, “I don’t look good in this.” I say, “This doesn’t look good on me.”
It is not a personal failing that yellow makes me look jaundiced. It is not a personal failing that the dress in that gorgeous pansy print sat on my torso like a nightgown. It is not a personal failing that the skirt I wanted to try on was out of stock in size 10. It is not a personal failing that ankle boots make my legs look stumpy unless they’re cut at an angle. (The boots, not my legs.)
It’s not me. It’s the clothes. Some clothes look good on me; some don’t. Some clothes make me look like my best real self; some don’t. It’s not about whether I fit into the clothes. It’s about whether the clothes fit me.
And with this rule, there are no exceptions.