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Tips for the sartorially-challenged

Some people have a knack for getting dressed. Others just don't. Sadly, this is the category I belong to. My sister could seemingly throw on any old clothes and look great. I could spend hours styling my outfit and still look like a dork. 

"Just have fun with it!" squeal the fashion-literate. But to the sartorially-challenged choosing an outfit doesn't feel like 'fun'. It feels like a scary exam that you haven't studied for. Or else it just feels like a boring chore. 

"Just don't care about what you wear", shrug others. Now, some people really, truly don't care about their appearance. However most of us are self-conscious enough to want to avoid standing out for the wrong reasons, or have enough vanity to want to look reasonable. 

No, what we sartorially-challenged souls need are strategies that help us to get ready with a minimum of stress; that see us step out of the door feeling confident; that allow us to forget about what we are wearing so we can focus on the things that really matter to us. So here, for my fellow sufferers, are some tricks that have worked for me. 

Aim for unobtrusive

Many years ago I read that the mark of a truly well-dressed woman was that you never actually noticed what she was wearing, but always had the impression that she looked exceptionally well. Another way of thinking about this is seeing clothes like the frame for a picture - you want a frame that brings out the best in the picture (that's you!) without becoming a distraction (See here for the painting that led to this epiphany for me). 

Simple, simple, simple! 

It is much harder to go wrong with a simple black shirt than with a fiddly floral confection that requires an engineering degree to get on. Lean towards classic cuts, solid colours or simple prints, preferably in a matte fabric. Avoid silly features like chunky zips, superfluous buttons or excessive frills. Don't even think about anything with sequins. This approach will make fashion mistakes less likely, and will make your wardrobe more adaptable; it is easy to dress up a simple shirt or dress with a scarf or necklace.

Start where you feel comfortable

If you live in baggy jeans and joggers, moving to bandage dresses and stilettos is probably going to be a leap too far. Start with what you currently wear and take it up a notch: trade those daggy jeans for a well-cut, dark-wash pair, the track pants for chinos, the baggy T-shirt for a well-fitted one, the polo shirt for a button-up cotton shirt, the hoodie for a wool sweater or casual jacket, the joggers for some Converse or Skechers. 

Be wary of trends

For the fashion-confident, trends provide an exciting new playground. For the sartorially-challenged they represent a terrifying minefield of potential embarrassment. Stick to the classics. Or if you really want to try a trend, try 'hinting' at it rather than fully embracing it (eg. a leopard print scarf rather than leopard print jeans) or keep other aspects of the outfit simple (the on-trend colour in a classic-cut shirt, or a jumpsuit in black).

Combine fitted and flowing 

A simple formula when choosing an outfit is to combine fitted and looser garments. If you wear a fitted top, choose a looser skirt or pants. If you wear fitted pants or skirt, balance it with a looser top. Loose/loose can make you look frumpy, while tight/tight can make you look like a Kardashian. 

Stick to a limited colour palette

Excessive choice just raises the anxiety levels for the fashion-inept. Start with a foundation of neutral colours. These generally fall into two families: black/grey and navy/browns/beige*.  By sticking to one family you will reduce the number of accessories (shoes, belts, handbags) you need. 

(* The fashion gurus never call it brown or beige - they will refer to nutmeg, coffee, caramel, fawn, oatmeal, tan, biscuit, camel and so on. Don't let them scare you. They are just different points on the spectrum of brown and beige.)

Some brave souls can mix-and-match across the different families but it can be tricky. Below is a guide to help play it safe. 'Be careful' means that it can work, but it will depend on the shades of the colours. An ivory cream may work with a dark grey, for example, but a biege cream may clash with a pale grey. Similarly mixing two items of the same colour, like grey, can work well or not depending on the tones. 

White  Cream BeigeTan Grey Black
 BlackYes Yes Yes Yes Yes Be careful
 Grey Yes Be careful NoNo Be careful Yes
Navy*  Yes Yes Yes Yes Be careful No
 Brown Yes Yes Yes Be careful No No
 Tan Yes Yes Be careful Be careful No Yes

* Of course dark denim jeans magically seem to go with everything.

To these neutrals you can then add a range of accent colours. As a general rule of thumb, brighter and stronger colours tend to work better with black, while muted, dusky or pastel colours will pair better with browns or beige. Grey can work with either. If you are considering a pattern or print, make sure it fits with your colour family.  

Finding your best colours doesn't require complex seasonal charts or a colour consultant. You just need a mirror, decent lighting and you own eyes. Hold a piece of clothing up to your face. If its colour makes you look tired, unwell or washed-out, ditch it. If it makes you look healthier and more vibrant, its in. Once you find the two or three colours that work best on you, stick to them. This will make it easier to find scarves and jewellery that go with a number of your clothes.  

Learn what suits your body

There are a range of classifications for body types, frequently (and bafflingly) involving fruit. Personally I have never found these very helpful. Call me nit-picking, but I just don't think that you can sort 3.5 billion women into four or five convenient subgroups. The one book I found genuinely useful was What Not To Wear by Trinny and Susannah, which gives tips on hiding or highlighting specific body parts. (In later books they too fall into the body-shape trap, although they list twelve, which just seems to complicate the matter rather than simplify it).

Once you know the styles and cuts that suit you, you will be able to shop more efficiently. Don't even think about going near those 3/4 length pants if you know they make you look dumpy!

When you do find an item of clothing that is perfect for you, buy multiples and/or one in every colour that flatters you. You won't regret it. 

Develop a uniform

Take what you've learned about your most flattering styles and colours, and considering the practical demands of your lifestyle, develop your very own uniform.This doesn't mean wearing exactly the same clothes each day (although if that works for you, I'm not judging). It just means concocting a formula for the way you dress. Examples of a personal uniform might include:

  • black pants and coloured blouses 
  • jeans and T-shirts, topped with a scarf
  • printed skirts with T-shirts or blouses
  • dresses* with jackets or cardigans

A uniform can still allow plenty of variety, while eliminating the 'what will I wear?' dilemma. Naturally, you may need a number of uniforms for your multiple life roles. 

(*Dresses are a great friend to the sartorially-challenged. No need to coordinate tops and bottoms - hurrah!)

Banish bad clothes from your wardrobe 

If you want to improve your diet, a smart strategy is to avoid keeping junk food in the house. Similarly, if you want to improve your look, don't keep the bad stuff in your wardrobe. I don't own anything remotely resembling a track suit. Instead I opt for super-comfy chinos and wool jumpers. Similarly, there are no chunky joggers; in their place are comfy ballet flats, sandals or Skechers. If you only have good-looking clothes in your wardrobe, you can't go wrong. 

One last handy hint: when you clean out your wardrobe, make sure you keep some old clothes for camping, painting, etc. 

Happy dressing! 

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