Sunday, February 25, 2007

Banishing the "I Have Nothing to Wear!" Beast: A 12-Step Program

So you've made resolutions for the new year. You've resolved to be thinner. Healthier. Get more sleep. Earn more money. Read more. Be better informed about the world. Call your mother more often. Be more organized. Spend less money. All admirable resolutions, I concur.

Now, how about tackling a less visited area of your life? I'm talking about the back of your closet. Take advantage of all this positive energy and channel your resolutions into your wardrobe. Sure, all those good healthy habits will make you feel better. But I guarantee that even if you lose 15 pounds, develop abs of steel, and even take home a bigger paycheck, you're still going to have to face the same disappointing closet doors morning after morning. And that may not make you look or feel better.

If you're like much of the female population, your racks (the ones inside your closet) leave much to be desired. At some point, you probably made a fresh start. You decided that you needed some good quality staples, so you invested in pieces that promised to last for seasons to come. You kept things simple and practical -- one fabulously-fitting pair of black pants, one exquisite crepe skirt suit, two tailored pant suits, a crisp white button-down cuffed shirt, a sharp pair of heeled loafers, and a handful of perfectly proportioned dress tees. Later on you added a pair of versatile bootcut jeans, a smart twill jacket, and a few pairs of strappy sandals. The sun rose and the sun set. The seasons changed and the years went by. And somewhere down the road, you found yourself in a wardrobe rut. Some of your girlfriends always managed to look like they just stepped out of a Banana Republic ad. But you, on the other hand, started to dread too many engagements for fear that you had nothing to wear. At least one day a week, you stood in front of the full-length mirror after finding that the bed was already covered with that morning's outfit rejects -- too blah, too tight, too white, too black, too heavy, too casual, too dressy, etc. An invitation to a girl's weekend retreat in Las Vegas elicited despair rather than excitement. And that's when you realized it: you needed an intervention.

Believe me, I've been there. And I'm still there, albeit less and less since I staged my own intervention. If I had a nickel for every morning that I was late to work because I couldn't settle on an ensemble that made me feel professional, fashionable, and put together, I'd be in the poorhouse. Even my favorite social activities started to become a drag because I would always wear the same "safe" outfit -- the one that accentuated my figure in all the necessary places and was the right color for my perennially pale face. I too started out with the best of intentions, heeding the advice of the Emily Posts of fashion and investing in all the right "basics" that come in the most neutral tones. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It finally hit me: No wonder I was always disappointed after a visit to my closet. If a girl wears nothing but basics in neutral tones, isn't it a boring existence? It was at that strategic point that I decided to stop being a safe but boring Betty. I resolved to become the girls bursting forth from the pages of the J. Crew catalogue -- fun, colorful, unexpected yet put together, charming but not too matchy-matchy, and always up for anything.

This, my sassy gals, is the road to wardrobe nirvana:

1. First, clean out your closet. I recommend this highly. Pack rats, I know this is the most painful step, but it will feel so therapeutic to clean out your closet. Besides, you can donate all those unused items to charity. There, that should make you feel better already. I rummage through my closet, accessories, and shoe collection each season like a reaper and purge things that haven't been worn in 2 years. Chances are, if you haven't worn it for the last 2 winters, springs, summers, or falls, you won't wear it. Unless an item can be salvaged with reconstructinve tailoring or creative redesign, it won't look any different on you now than it did when you first stashed it in the back of your closet. If it doesn't hold huge sentimental value or can bring you decent material compensation, part with it.

2. Next, reorganize your closet. This is a crucial step. No walk-in closet? No problem. Invest in some extra garment bars to double your hanging space. Don't have a clue how to attach them to your closet walls? Do what I do: simply hang the Double Hanger Deluxe (available at Bed Bath and Beyond) and instantly double your hanging space. Spring for two and presto, you've added 5 feet of vertical surface and quadrupled your hanging space. Bring home some inexpensive wall hooks from Home Depot or the drugstore and mount them in strategic rows on bare wall or door space. Buy some stackable shelves for your shoes at Bed Bath and Beyond. I like the self-assembling metal racks because they're lightweight, see-through, and can be extended infinitely upwards, but they also have very practical over-the-door racks that hold up to 36 pairs of shoes. C'mon, don't look at me like "Wow, she has 36 pairs of shoes!" You know you have at least 36 pairs. Are you counting your running shoes, casual tennies, beach shoes, and such? Actually, I have more like 63 pairs (my husband swears it's closer to 93). A set for spring-summer and a set for fall-winter, plus an assortment of party sandals, comfy athletic slip-ons and several pseudo-flip flops. One further thing I advise is to be good to yourself and buy loads of new hangers. Spoil your clothes rotten with luxurious but inexpensive hangers that protect them and do double-duty. You won't break the bank with these Ikea wood sweater hangers with bars at only $2.49 for an 8-pack, or this set of 5 wood suit hangers with clips for $6.99 at Bed Bath and Beyond. Be kind to your sweaters with these satin-covered padded hangers, either in clean white or in assorted colors, 10 for $9.99. For the rest of your clothes, go crazy with these plain plastic heavyweight hangers at, you guessed it, Bed Bath and Beyond -- 12 for $5.99.

I believe this to be key: Hang everything you own. You've got to know exactly what you have to know what you don't have. I firmly believe that out of sight = out of mind. And out of mind means you won't know what you have, so how can your wear it (or know if you're not wearing it)? Keep everything you wear in public in plain sight, hung up, and preferably organized by category (pants, sweaters, skirts, tops, etc.). I like to hang absolutely everything that could potentially get me out of the house, including jeans, nice tees, polos, and even visible underlayers (you'll want to see what color cotton camisole to wear under your shrunken jacket or wrap sweater). Everything else can go in a drawer.

3. Color-code or texture-code your closet. This step is optional but has worked for me for years. I'm a temperamental, impulsive gal. I used to plan the next day's outfits the night before, then I'd always end up changing my mind in the morning. The fact is, I'm in a different mood the next day than I was the night before. So I'm going to want to wear different colors, textures, or shoe heights depending on how I feel. Besides, anyone who lives within a 50-mile radius of the nation's capital knows not to put any stock in the meteorologists' nightly predictions. You''ll do better licking your finger and sticking it out the door to figure out which way the wind is blowing and how cold/humid/pollinated the day will be. The thing is, different shades and textures make me feel differently. Some evenings, I go to bed with promise and hope for a bright, bold tomorrow. But after a sleepless night and an unexpectedly overcast sky the following morning, I just want to curl up in plush fabrics and muted tones that are merciful to red eyes and irritated skin. To make it easier, I like to organize my clothes within their category by weight or texture. When the weather is brisk in the morning but mellow during the day, I reach for a lightweight sweater. When the thermometer plunges to 30 degrees, I want to know exactly where my wool pants are, because if you've ever worn really thin pants on a blustering frigid day, you know that it's an experience that makes you want to run and change fast. So it helps me to know where my light cashmere cardigans are, where my paper-thin tees dwell, and where my super-chunky turtleneck wool sweaters await (in the unlikely event that it will actually snow hard this or any upcoming winter again.) If you'd like, you can also organize by color group -- reds, pinks, greens, blacks, whites, beiges, etc. You can put multi-colored items in whatever spot you wish. This is particularly useful for emotional, logically-disabled-in-the-morning girls who instinctively gravite towards certain color families without having to analyze or verbalize their aesthetic desires. If I'm feeling optmistic, I'll reach for a red or orange color group. If I'm feeling romantic, I'll reach for pink or baby blue. If I'm feeling lazy or conservative, I'll settle for navy or ivory. Color-coding makes it easy. Before you write me off as an anal and overly moody bitch, remember, I'm here to help you tame your wardrobe, not judge you.

4. Visit your inner desert island. You know how TV shows are always coming up with top 10 CDs to take to a desert island (at least they did before we had MP3 players), or top 5 things to pack if you have to leave in an unexpected emergency? I like to do this exercise: pick the top 5 articles of clothing and accessories of each type -- sweaters, tops, dresses, skirts, jeans, pants, jackets, dress shoes, casual shoes, coats, necklaces, scarves, and such -- and pretend that you were packing for a year-long vacation in your destination of choice. Toss in a little fantasy. Pretend the weather is always temperate and you get to hang out every day with fabulous attractive people and your love interest. What would you take? Sure makes you think, huh? I hope you wouldn't bring a suitcase full of practical but blah duds and comfortable but boring shoes. For heaven's sake, do you think those fabulous attractive people are going to find you fabulous and attractive for long if you dress like a bore? Not a chance! You'd get kicked off the island. The point of this exercise is to find out what your absolute favorite goods are and why you always want to wear them. I can't tell you how many times I've been out shopping and overheard women say, "I have so many clothes/shoes, but I always wear the same ones." Why do you think that is? You love them and they make you feel fabulous and attractive, that's why. An added bonus if they're also comfortable and practical. Just remember, you'll have your old age to wear orthapedic shoes and matronly dresses. So unless you work in a health-care facility, don't dress like it.

5. Boost your basics. As a public service, I would like to make a formal request that you don't wear sweats and fleece out unless you're exercising or performing outdoor chores (or running a very short errand with the least possible exposure outside of your car). Have you heard of lycra? They put it in everything now. Jeans, suits, dress shirts, even shoes. If you must bum around in public, at least wear velour track suits in pretty colors. They don't have to be Juicy Couture -- Victoria's Secret and even Target will do. You don't need a lot, just one or two. And it's perfectly okay to wear tennies with your track suit, jeans, or courduroy mini, just don't wear plain white aerobic sneakers with everything, for the love of God. You will be shot on sight with a yellow paint gun if you have the obnoxiousness to don white leather Reeboks or white fabric Keds with suits or nice pants. Heaven help you if you put them over white socks and black stockings. I hope you have a really high dry cleaning budget, because I've got plenty of paint.

Look, I feel your pain. I'm allergic to uncomfortable shoes, so I'm usually averse to buying them just because they look amazing. I used to walk 20 blocks a day at a minumum when I commuted by subway and worked downtown. No way could I pull off stilettos when walking on exposed brick and metal crates. Thankfully, there are so many comfortable yet stylish alternatives. For one, athletic shoes have evolved to look like ballet flats, mary janes, and colorful strap-ons, among other varieties, and they come in a rainbow of colors. Sprint around from place to place to your heart's delight and look like a glamour girl, not a grandma (no offense to stylish grandmas), with stylish sporty shoes. And speaking of ballet flats, they happen to be my absolute favorite multi-purpose shoe. I'm positively hooked on this style. They literally go with everything. Just find the right texture and details and you'll go from yoga to work to cocktails in the same fantastic flats. One pair is all you need in your favorite color, but honestly, you can get them so cheap, splurge on a couple. Can't stand the thought of wearing flats for your sky-high arches? I have them too, so I sympathize with your need for a little height. Either buy some arch supports, or wear a little more heel. So many ballet-flat types actually come with an adorable kitten heel, which is universally flattering and very pedestrian-friendly at the same time. Another solution? Buy at least one pair of dress shoes that have a rubber, preferably althletic sole. I swear by Cole Haan Nike Air and G Series shoes, which I incidentally never buy directly from Cole Haan, but rather on ebay or at numerous discount retailers like Marshalls and TJ Maxx. I practically stole a pair of Cole Haan Air Bronte flats recently at TJ Maxx for a clearance price of $25 (they retailed for $185!). They look like sassy dress flats but have a flexible rubber Nike Air cusion in a 1-inch heel. I can gallop around all day in them and they go as beautifully with suits as they do with jeans. Other designers make them too, if you aren't fortunate enough to find Cole Haan in your discount store.

6. And speaking of feet, buy better shoes. Now that you're a grown-up, there's no reason you can't invest in shoes that will go the distance stylewise. There is a book called "Change Your Shoes, Change Your Life." Whether this was partially subsidized by DSW no one can prove, but it makes a point. Expand your shoes into new colors too. For the longest time, I only bought black and brown shoes. I said once to a friend, "I don't understand why women are obsessed with shoes. Especially in different colors or shapes. Just buy a basic black and basic brown pair and they'll go with everything." Boy was I misguided. Two years and one hundred shoes later, I can definitely understand why women go nuts over shoes. With red, pink, green, ivory, camel, coral, and varieties of cheetah, python, and zebra, I am living proof that a great, unique pair of shoes can make or break your outfit (and possibly your day). Some mornings, I pick a pair of shoes first then work an entire outfit around them. Or, when I have to wear basic black or gray, a standout kelly green pair of slingbacks -- sometimes paired with my matching green purse -- really pack a punch. Head-to-toe white no longer looks antiseptic when punched up with sizzling hot pink pumps. Even muted tones like beige, burgundy, or navy can perk up a suit but still be boardroom appropriate. It's not just for the color impact. Even different textures and patterns of black and brown can take you from average to A-lister. Instead of tired brown heels, try crocodile-embossed T-straps or d'orsay pumps in a rich espresso or olive. Trade in the boring black penny loafers for luscious black calf-haired mules or kitten-heeled loafers with tassel or bow detailing. Shoes can truly make or break your outfit.

7. Upgrade your accessories. One showstopping ornament could take the place of 10 so-so baubles. It could be an exquisite diamond pendant. A showstopping choker. A hand-crafted pair of earrings in your favorite stone. A larger-than-life cocktail ring that demands attention. An interesting new watch. Whatever you fancy, treat yourself to one great heirloom this year. Go to a department or specialty store and find a pair of outrageously chic sunglasses. Can you imagine Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's without them? A commedian quipped that "Some movie stars wear their sunglasses even in church. They're afraid God might recognize them and ask for autographs." You don't have to go that far, but it doesn't hurt your intriguing persona to wear some signature shades. Belts. Gloves. Scarves. These can all be spiced up. Why settle for strictly functional when there are vast quantities of colors, textures, and metallic finishes available? Let's talk about hair accessories. Headbands aren't limited to fifties-era housewives. The silk scarf isn't just for the French. Barettes aren't only for schoolgirls. Why leave your hair and neck naked? Tie on a burst of color or clip on some bling. You can even accessorize your handbag. Smarten up a boring work tote with a Pucci-style printed handkerchief or a pretty charm. And since we're on the subject of bags, everyone who has known me for more than 20 minutes knows that I have developed a severe addiction to handbags. I actually set aside a certain budget each year to acquire exorbitantly priced knockout bags. Two years ago it was Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Last year it was Tod's and Gucci. This year, it was a Jimmy Choo purse and a to-die-for Burberry satchel. Hey, every girl has her splurges. I shop clearance sales for everything else so I don't have to pinch my pennies on the purse of my dreams. Of course, sometimes those dream bags can be bought for dreamier prices, but that's another column...

8. Buy a couture-worthy coat. It doesn't have to cost $1000 and up. It just has to channel elegant, sharp, and classic, all at the same time. Yes, I sprung for a stunning tailored trench in London for $960. But I've worn it over 30 times since I've owned it for a few months and I plan to wear it for many seasons to come. I also sported my uber-chic and fabulously functional ivory trench with tortoiseshell buttons all over Italy last fall. It complemented almost everything and was just the right thickness, plus is had pockets perfect for stashing all the important stuff. It resembled a Burberry but cost one-twentieth of the price at just $80 (4 years ago at Express). I scored an equally fetching olive wrap coat at the Macy's winter sale this year for $215 that had originally cost $350. I got tons of compliments on it and it looked like a Dolce & Gabbana, only I didn't pay $900+ for it. The point is, I would happily buy a beautiful MaxMara cashmere coat if I came across the perfect specimen -- preferably on sale -- because I know I would keep it for 10 years and it would never go out of style. A good quality, hand-finished, perfectly tailored coat can be a girl's best friend. Get one in black, navy, olive, camel, or even ivory and you will be able to wear it with everything. Better to have one incredible couture-worthy coat than 5 mediocre ones.

9. Branch out of basic black. Find other colors that make you look sexy, slim, and sophisticated. Wear a ravishing little red dress. Discover a shade of green that complements your tone. Become a pink lady or wear your sunny disposition on your sleeve with yellow. Substitute navy, olive, or camel as the staple neutrals in your wardrobe. I've found that ivory is the ideal color for my perenially sun-lacking skin so I wear it all year round. Ivory goes with almost every color in the world. It's okay to wear black sometimes. Just don't wear boring black. Punch it up with colorful pieces here and there. And don't wear black to black-tie events. Or cocktail parties. There are plenty of stunning shades to show off at formal events. Reserve all black for funerals and have fun with your wardrobe the rest of the time.

10. Never buy anything that doesn't fit, flatter, or feel good on. You'll never wear it. Trust me, it has taken me years to learn this. And I still do it from time to time. That is not to say you should overlook articles that fit your shape but are a little long, or don't hug all your curves in exactly the right proportions. That's what tailors are for. If the overall fit is right, it's not terribly difficult to hem or take in a garment. But ideally, shop for your body type. If you are a little short, shop in petite sections. The clothes are cut specifically for smaller heights, and you'll not only have more luck with pant and jacket lenths, but they will also drape in a more balanced way. If you're statuesque and curvy, try the plus-sized section. There are so many alluring women who are larger-than-life in size. They can dress just as fetchingly as supermodels if they learn to stop hiding their curves under large bubble shapes and accentuate them with sleek lines and body-skimming fabrics. If you're busty or have prominent hips, don't shop in the juniors section or in stores that are known to run tiny (H & M!). The clothes will be too tight and won't feel comfortable, let alone look graceful. Instead, try J Crew or Banana Republic, which are known to cut true-to-size. If you're pole-thin or have a boyish build, stop shopping in the teen section and buy some womanly curve-enhancing pieces. Victoria's Secret and Express can be a great source, as are European-style chains such as Bebe and Benetton.

11. On that note, upgrade your undergarments. When was the last time you were fitted for a bra? Did you know that your bossoms can change size and shape every few years? Get thee to a Vickie's back room and get measured. Furthermore, do you think that all celebrities and supermodels have the bodies of lingerie models? Of course not! They wear strategic undergarments to reshape their assets. A push-up bra here, seamless tummy-taming panties there, derriere-lifting stockings under there, and so on. There are body-enhancing solutions to almost every body part you'd like to improve.

12. Buy only fabulous, striking pieces that make you look like a million. Never buy anything so-so again. From now on, put every potential purchase through the desert-island test: if you could only take 5 items from each category with you to wear for one year, would you take this piece? If you can't answer yes, then don't buy it. There's no point in buying more so-so stuff that will take up precious closet space. That's how you got yourself into the perpetual "I have nothing to wear" rut in the first place! It doesn't matter if it's on final sale or practically free. You don't need more clothes. You need better clothes. Only fabulous pieces that earn their keep season after season need apply.

There. That should get you on your way to looking like a Hollywood starlet, without all those expensive stylists and Rodeo Drive receipts. Never have nothing to wear again. Now get out there and be seen, dahling!