Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Breaking Out of a Fashion Rut, Part 3

Today I'm going to get to the real meat of breaking a fashion rut: color and pattern. I'll warn you right now that this is going to be a very long post, but this is where I feel a lot of people need the most help. I'll start by showing you another category of outfits from our new friend Martha:

I'm going to put these outfits into the 'Conflicted' category. On the one hand, the variations on a 'jeans & a shirt' theme is indicative of Martha's tendency to "schlump," as she puts it. Unless you're actually wearing sleepwear or gym clothes, it really doesn't get any more comfortable or less fussy than this. But on the other hand, these outfits have an advantage over the ones I showed yesterday because now we can at least see Martha's figure. And did I tell you, or what? She has an amazing figure.

So let's take these outfits one by one, left to right. The first one is what I'd consider to be the least amount of effort possible: pants and a shirt (presumably Martha also put on some shoes before she left the house). There's not too much to say about this one, because I think it's fairly obvious that this is exactly the kind of rut Martha's trying to break out of. Let's move on to the second outfit, where Martha has added a layering element with the black turtleneck. OK, this is a start; it shows us that she's not afraid to wear some color, and also that she understands how to layer a larger top under a smaller one. This is actually the outfit I chose to work up today. The last outfit has some real potential, since not only do we have some color, but there's pattern in there as well. Also, the fit of that long red cardigan is absolutely beautiful. After this week's posts I'd like to see Martha go back and rework that outfit herself, using the striped top and cardigan as the starting point.

First I'll talk about color and show you what I did to the purple top and jeans outfit. Purple is a color I love to work with because it can be paired in so many unexpected ways. Today I mixed it with teal and yellow, with some small accents of green. There is probably a complicated explanation from color theory as to why this works, but really you can just take a cue from good old Mother Nature. Whatever bizarre color combination you're thinking of trying, there's a good chance nature tried it first. This is a great way to find inspiration for adding color to your wardrobe; whether it's your garden, a local park, or the aviary at the zoo, all you have to do is look around to find color in an astounding variety of combinations and forms. So why limit yourself to wearing black and gray?

The first thing to do if you want to build a truly adventurous wardrobe is to take all the rules you know about what "goes" with what, and forget them. Honestly, there are so many different hues in each color family that you can't make any sweeping generalizations. Remember also that the success of a color pairing greatly depends upon the proportion of one color to another. For instance, I might hesitate to pair a solid purple top with a solid orange skirt, but let's say the skirt is orange flowers on a white background? Or what if I also have a scarf that's a mixture of purple and orange? This brings in the related topic of pattern.

If you have too many solid-color items in your wardrobe, you face the difficult challenge of having to mix different colors without having anything with which to relate them to one another. I think this is why I see an awful lot of women sporting a look which is truly lamentable: a solid-color top with black pants or skirt. There's a reason why Trinny and Susannah claim that black with anything other than white is a no-no, and while I don't agree with that rule in every single case, I wholeheartedly agree that a solid block of color is left floating in space if the other half of the outfit is solid black. Think of your outfit as having a beginning, middle, and end, like a movie or a piece of music (though don't take it too literally and assume the beginning is a hat and the end is shoes). A colorful top with black pants is like a romantic comedy that abruptly switches to an action flick halfway through; it doesn't make any sense. A truly foolproof outfit will have a 'beginning,' or major piece, that relates to the 'end,' or secondary piece, with minor interludes in between. Again, try not to take this too literally. The major piece need not be the largest one; it is simply the piece you choose to make the focal point. It should become obvious how to make one item the focal point as this discussion continues.

Don't think for a moment that I analyze all my outfits to this degree. I experiment a lot and eventually I hit on something I like. But when I'm trying to figure out if certain combinations work, particularly when I'm playing with an unusual color or pattern mix, I do make sure to ask myself how the pieces relate to one another. Let's focus on color again for a moment. The reason I added this scarf today was because it has a mix of all the colors in the outfit. When you're going through this exercise, it's important to keep an open mind and not expect the colors to match too precisely. Look at the detail of the scarf next to the purple top. There's no yellow in the pattern, right? But put it next to the yellow cardigan and you see that there's a shade of green in the scarf that has a lot of yellow in it. So for my purposes the scarf I chose is teal, purple, and yellow. If I'd worn a green cardigan it would've worked just as well. This is the power that patterns have to bring colors together.

So what if I didn't happen to have a conveniently-matched scarf lying around, but I still wanted to mix these 3 colors? All is not lost, because there are any number of ways to add additional layers or change up the bottom half to bring that other color in there. I could've added a long-sleeved teal t-shirt underneath everything, or perhaps a teal belt on top. Or if I had a skirt with teal and at least one of the other colors in it, that would've worked too. What wouldn't work, in my opinion, would be to have the mix of purple and yellow on the top, and then randomly wear teal shoes for no good reason. Even a small accessory like a brooch with some teal in it would be enough to tie everything together.

So where does black fit into the picture? I prefer to use black in one of two ways: either count it as a color and make it a major focus of the outfit, or use it only as an accent to make the other colors pop and to add contrast. If I'm going to use black as a color, then I tend to do a couple of things: one, I mix it up a lot in the outfit, and don't allow a half-and-half split between top and bottom; two, I often use it in classically 'against-the-rules' combinations like black and brown, or black and navy blue, because I think they're more interesting pairings. The only exception I'll mention here is a colorblock effect, where you might intentionally pair it with blocks of very bright color for a high contrast look. As with any of the other combinations though, you should always try to make it look deliberate, and don't fall back on black simply because you can't think of anything else that "goes" with your shirt. One final note: a colorblock look works best when all the pieces are crisp and tailored, so don't think you're going to throw on that baggy neon green sweater that you couldn't resist buying because it was $4.99 on sale, pair it with a black skirt, and call it colorblock. You might be able to fool your myopic grandmother, but you won't fool me.

Now I'm going to switch gears a little and give you some shopping strategies for bringing color and pattern into your wardrobe.

1. Stop buying black. Or white. Or gray. Just stop it right now; I mean it. The reasons should be pretty obvious by now, and anyway, if you're stuck in a rut, chances are you have plenty of neutrals already, and very little else. The ONE exception I'll make is that if you don't have a crisp, white button-down shirt, you should probably get yourself one.

2. Don't just buy colorful tops. This is not the way to add color to your wardrobe, which should also be pretty obvious by now. What are you going to wear all those colorful tops with? Surely not your black pants?? The best way to get started is to pick a few colors you like, and that you'll wear together. I'm going to use orange and blue as an example, since these are colors I wear a lot. Let me show you a few ways I've worn this combination:

Look at my top and bottom halves. You could pretty much slice these outfits through the middle and mix any of them together (I'm imagining one of those flip books where you can mix different heads with different bodies). Do you need to have every single item in every single permutation? No. But if you have a decent variety of color and pattern for each element of your wardrobe, then you'll truly have a wardrobe you can mix and match. To get started, pick a particular color combination and then try to buy at least a top and bottom in each of the colors, at least 2 related accessories, and a pair of shoes in one or the other color. Also make sure that at least 2 or 3 of the pieces are patterned (i.e., one of the tops, one skirt, and a scarf); if the pattern includes a third color even in very small proportions, so much the better. Make that new color one of the next pair you select. Once you get a big enough variety you can stop strategizing so much and just buy what you like, provided you're not just duplicating things you already have in your closet.

3. Start building your supply of accessories. I have a TON of scarves; solid colors and patterns, long and short, silky and woven. I tend not to spend very much on scarves and go for quantity, because I'm never quite sure what I'm going to need. If you're just building your collection, look for scarves that have interesting mixtures of color to build around. Don't worry if you have anything specific to go with them; remember that with an open mind you can pair things that are related, but not identical, in hue. The same principles can be applied to jewelry, although it's less critical to look for mixtures of color and just focus on having different pieces of jewlery in a wide variety of colors. Brooches are the one area where it's fairly easy to find a mixture of colors in one piece.

I'll wrap up this post by going back to today's outfit. Besides the colors and accessorizing, there is one other element here that kicks this outfit up a level from Martha's, and that is the dark wash, wide leg dressy jeans. It's great to have at least 2 pairs of dressy jeans in your wardrobe: a wide-legged one, and a slender pair that can be tucked into boots (the over-30 crowd can call these 'cigarette pants' and leave the less sophisticated 'skinny jeans' to the 20-somethings). Your wide-leg dressy pants of all types should be long enough to almost skim the floor when you're wearing heels; this elongates your legs for a more elegant look. It will also limit which pairs of shoes you can wear with the pants, so decide how high a heel you want in advance.

Look for dressy jeans that have little or no embellishment, unless you want to look like you're planning on going straight from work to the nightclub. Plain pockets, or preferably no pockets, have a sexier look, as do the darker washes, and definitely stay away from any sort of sparkly or embroidered detailing. Finally, wash your dressy jeans as little as possible (or even dry clean) to preserve the crispness and new-looking color. Save your well-worn, faded pairs for relaxed weekend looks.

Top: A cast-off from my sister
Cardigan: Solemio
Scarf: Express (early 90's)
Jeans: Level 99
Shoes: John Fluevog


Jaime said...

Just an admiring lurker, but I have to say that you are awesome. I love how you bring your scientist's analytic ability to your fantastic artistic sensibility. Anyway, I really appreciate your blog!

Jean said...

Oh wow, Audi have you been and checked my wardrobe out while I wasn't looking? Black trousers, check. Grey trousers, check. White trousers, check. Lots of colourful tops, erm....check. In my defence I do have lots of accessories, but tend to keep it fairly safe.

Yes, I'm going to send you some photos and questions if you don't mind...gulp.

Stephanie N. said...

This is brilliant. You are brilliant. You're taking concepts that are instinctive, yet almost elusive, and breaking them down into concrete, comprehendable morsels. Maybe you should write a book. Better yet, you need your own T.V. show. I'd watch.

Anonymous said...

Genius. Seriously, Audi. Thanks for pointing out that colorful skirts and pants are KEY to building a versatile wardrobe, and reminding me to stop buying black. ;)

Courtney said...

Audi, I'm un-lurking to say thank you, thank you, thank you for doing these posts! I feel like you're going through my closet, and I need all the help I can get! :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, this was some seriously useful advice. I've been trying to learn how to better use color in my wardrobe lately, but it's been hit or miss. I love how you broke it down so concretely. And you've enabled my buying even more scarves! Awesome.

Audi said...

notSupermum: You can make a guest appearance on my blog anytime! Photos are most welcome. xoxo

Jaime: Funny you should mention the analytical thing, because Stephanie N's comment made me think about that a little. I guess I do bring a little of that influence to the table. Hooray for science!

Courtney: Thanks for un-lurking, and welcome!

Jessica said...

Oy, my head is spinning. :)

You do a great job at breaking it down. Thank you!

Emily Kennedy said...

Tip #2 is the foundation for building a capsule wardrobe. Capsule wardrobes have gotten pretty popular in the blogosphere throughout 2009. Ah the Audi influence.

susan said so said...

What a great post! I sat in bed reading this last night, slightly gaping at the screen and thinking, "Oh my god, this is exactly what I've been doing wrong, and exactly how to fix it!"

I found you via Sal, and as I commented over there:

Between [the two of you], I feel like I've got two very stylish, caring, helpful sisters or girlfriends at my sides, encouraging me to step out of the black hole of safe-but-boring fashion and wear my feather cape (my personal metaphor for fun fashion - more about that here:

Thank you!!


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