Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday Top 5: Style Lessons Learned in Colleen's Closet

My friend and coworker Colleen is awesome. She always has a smile on her face (even at 6 in the morning, when the most I can manage is an awkward grimace), she calls me Winnie, and she knows the lyrics to seemingly every song ever written.

Colleen is also severely fashion-phobic. When she found out about my book, she asked if I'd be interested in coming over to help her sort through her closet. "Sure!" I said. When she mentioned she would be inviting some friends over and making a cheese platter for the event, I said, "Can we do it right now?" (We settled for Thursday.)

When I got to Colleen's house I found out that after a recent life upheaval, her friends and acquaintances had given her bags and bags of clothes to help her build a new wardrobe, to help her build a new life. While this was a very generous gesture, she now had a closet full of beautiful pieces that didn't fit her, weren't her style, or that she simply felt no connection to.

We spent a few hours going through every item of clothing and deciding whether it would stay, be donated to a women's shelter, or sold at a consignment shop. I took mental notes throughout the night so I could blog about the experience (with Colleen's permission, of course), and here are a few lessons I learned:

1. It is better to have 10 things you love than 100 things you don't care about.

This is always a hard lesson for me to take to heart, as I am the kind of person who watches an episode of "Hoarders" and feels nothing but empathy and confusion--"Wait, what's so wrong with having 14 broken vacuum cleaners piled in your living room, on top of another pile of old magazines and medical waste? My living room looks a lot like that. I don't understand the issue here."

But seeing Colleen's clothing collection slowly shrink from massive to manageable, and watching her get more confident and less overwhelmed, was downright inspiring. You know that phrase "a full closet and nothing to wear?" A lot of times we have nothing to wear because we have an overflowing closet. Paring down your wardrobe--whether that means getting rid of a couple things that don't fit anymore or leasing a dumptruck to haul away two tons of old clothes--is always a good thing.

2. You get to define what you love.

Makeover TV show hosts are harsh and unrelenting in their quest to dispose of clothing that breaks fashion rules. In fact, they seem to most enjoy their jobs when their makeover subject is sobbing and pleading to keep a gnarly old college sweatshirt, and the host gets to ignore the earnest pleas, pry the beloved sweatshirt out of the subject's grip, throw it into a garbage can, and set it on fire.

There were a few times during Colleen's wardrobe makeover when she sheepishly pulled something out of the closet and began murmuring excuses, like, "I know this one probably breaks all the rules, but I really love it and it's so comfy."

In these instances I would say, "Colleen, do you really love it?" Sometimes she would think about it and say no, but whenever the answer to that question was yes, I'd say, "Then keep it! Duh."

So much of fashion is a visceral, emotional reaction. If you simply adore a piece of clothing, if wearing it makes you happy, then you shouldn't have to justify that with style rules and figure flattery equations.

3. You also get to define what you hate.

Colleen has a great figure, so a lot of clothes look good on her. There were multiple times during the evening when she would slip on a blazer or a dress and we would all gasp with amazement at how fabulous she looked. But if she looked in the mirror and obviously didn't feel the same way--her shoulders slouched or she tugged at the hem or she simply shrugged and said, "I don't think I would wear this--then it didn't matter what we thought.

Every woman of every shape and size can find a thousand things that look good on her--treasure the pieces that make you feel good, too. If you know that something isn't right for you, lose it. Throw it in a garbage can and set it on fire, if you want. Stepping out of your comfort zone is good. Feeling uncomfortable in your clothes is not.

4. Shoes are the anchor of your wardrobe.

By the end of the night we had come up with some rad outfit combinations. The problem remaining? The lack of a great, versatile shoe to pull everything together. I left Colleen with some fashion homework: find a pair of comfy, flat black shoes to wear with the jeans, trousers, and casual skirts in her wardrobe that are currently without a footwear partner.

5. While solo style introspection is important, don't underestimate the power of a brutally honest friend.

In this case that friend was Jill, who sat cross-legged toward the back of the room yelling "Death! Death!" whenever Colleen donned an unflattering shade of yellow.

When Colleen put on a particularly ruffly confection of a blouse, I mentioned that she sort of resembled a cake. Jill quickly took to bellowing, "Deaaaattthh caaaaake!" or chanting, "Yellow death cake! Yellow death cake!" Her criticisms might not have totally made sense, but somehow I always agreed with her.

p.s. Speaking of cake, one of my favorite blogs, The Big Piece of Cake, is giving away a signed copy of Closet Confidential! Please check it out!


Rachael said...

Great advice! The only question now is cake or death?

Me said...

i think i have enough clothes for all of south america...and i think its times those clothes went home, and i just got back to the basics.

Betsy said...

Thanks for the advice. Now I feel like diving into my closet and getting rid of the things I just don't feel anymore!

Anonymous said...

You rule, Winona. If someone already fears fashion, throwing a bunch of rules at them will just make them MORE fearful! Way to be supportive and give stylish guidance all at once.

Eyeliah said...

Aww, sounds like you all really helped her out. :) Yes, get rid of the pieces that don't work.

Smaggle said...

Loved it. Linked it.


Eliza said...

Great post! I realized last year that I hated almost everything I owned because I had bought whatever beautifully made, flattering clothing I could find from the local thrift store. It followed all the rules, but getting dressed made me depressed. Now I'm slowly collecting things I really like. Oddly enough, I also get more complients now that I break the rules!

What Would a Nerd Wear said...

what an awesome post! and i hear ya on the bit about the makeover shows. what's wrong with having something YOU love--damn what other people think--in your closet?

WendyB said...

Is it good that she calls you Winnie? I used to work with a guy who called me Wendela. I hated that guy!

None said...

This is a really great post, and makes me want to read your book! Thank you

Ivan McK said...

This was so awesome....mmm, Death Cake!!!


p.s. You just reminded me that I need to empty my closet and start all over. ::sigh::

Erin said...

My friends staged an intervention to clean out a friends closet before she went to college, because she wanted to bring it all with her (it took up three rooms of the house).
I have to say I proudly took up Jill's role in this intervention. We're an underappreciated part of the process. :)

Renée T. Habashy said...

This is all great advice- Thanks for sharing!


Diana said...

This is some fantastic advice. It's so true that it's better to have ten items you really love than 100 that you feel no connection to.

Catherine said...

New favorite phrase: "Deeeeeeaaaath Caaaaaake!"

Lorena said...

Super post
I am in to WIN
that book!


Stacey said...

I think I need a good friend willing to chant "Deeeeath" while I try on items in my wardrobe. Every six months or so I clean my wardrobe out, and it ends up just as overflowing as it was before. *sigh*

Academichic said...

What a great post, I have to remember this and link back to it whenever anyone asks about paring down a wardrobe. These are great guidelines and it sounds like this was such a lovely event (mmm....cheese platters AND clothes!)

I really agree with #2, which is what I always hate about makeover shows. I always think of all those items I have that carry sentimental value and that I wouldn't wear out of the house, but I wouldn't want to have to set on fire only because they don't agree with some so-called fashion rule. S.

Emily Kennedy said...

Great Post! Thanks for your wisdom!

Raquelita said...

This is a fantastic post! I have a few things in my closet that would definitely bring on a fashion police raid, but I love them and will not part with them.

A said...

If only I had friends with style sense...and tact. I'd love to do this to my closet, but one half of my friends tend to be "underly" critical and love everything I do, and the other half tend to be downright hurtful with their criticism--unintentionally, but still.

All the same, "yellow death cake" is so my new expression for an extremely bad outfit.

E and O said...

What a wonderful session! I really wish I'd had friends (or stylish co-workers ;) ) to do this with me, like, ever.

I've always had to stumble along finding my own way with fashion. I can count the number of times I've had a friend come shopping with me on 1 hand. My mom had the fashion sense of a jar of peanut butter, and none of my friends have ever really been interested in doing this kind of thing. I've had friends here and there that were stylish, but they weren't really interested in talking about style. I sorely wish that someone had stepped in to offer some guidance during my teens and 20s.

So big bravo to you and Jill for taking the time to help Colleen feel more comfortable with fashion and more confident with her choices. :)

Your advice is a nice mix of practical suggestions and "trust your instinct" encouragement. It's also a much needed counter to all those "ZOMG YOU ARE TEH SUCK!!!11!" tv fashion shows.

Mabel and Zora said...

This is so funny, we were just talking about this today and decided if we got rid of clothes that we just don't wear then that means we get to get more new clothes we will wear and not feel guilty about it! Way to purge your life of things you don't need or want! It is like losing 5 pounds of stress weight!

Emily said...

love it! and your new books is MAYJA fab, great job.

Elizabeth said...

My clothes hang on a rack, and whenever that rack starts to overflow, I get rid of some clothes.
Although, I still have more than I need!

Heidi Rose said...

These tips are really excellent. Especially the one about keeping things you really love, even if they're horribly "unfashionable".

Sarah said...

oh my god. i just read your comment on Hoarders to my parents, and they frantically began defending themselves--we only had THREE broken vacuum cleaners and we already gave two of them away!!

i wish i were kidding.

Erin said...

oh winona, you're so wise.

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