The Blah Factor: Pitfalls of a Practical Wardrobe

Whenever I’m watching “What Not to Wear,” I can’t help noticing that all of those fabulous, stylish, to-die-for “after” outfits have one thing in common.  There is always something that “pops.”  It’s often an unexpected splash of color.  There might be a vivid blouse — in a bold orange, mustard, or green — blended with classic neutral trousers and jacket.  Or, it might be the accessories.  A funky, creative handbag will be paired with clothes that my untrained eye would never in a million years have put together.  Or, there will be a necklace that sparkles just so, accenting the clothes perfectly without detracting from them.

I want to learn how to do this.  Right now.  I mean, intellectually, I understand that the “What Not to Wear” team includes a fleet of professionally trained stylists with years of experience and an unlimited budget.  (The limit is technically $5,000, but in my world view, that might as well be unlimited).  Yet, I still feel like I should be able to achieve the “pop factor” in my own humble little wardrobe.

It’s going to take a lot of work, though.  Because as much as I hate to admit it, the Pop Factor is, in some ways, the polar opposite of what I try to do in my very practical day-to-day wardrobe.  My wardrobe is all about blending.  Mixing.  Matching.  In a color palate that allows everything to work together, effortlessly, so that I can get myself put together at 6 am when it’s dark, I’m and exhausted and bleary-eyed, and I have only a 20-minute window between the moment when the caffeine finally kicks in and the time when I need to leave for work.

Sadly, another of the guiding principles of my practical wardrobe is that no individual item should be too memorable.  Because if it’s not memorable, I can wear it again and again and again, even in the same week, without looking as though I wear the same clothes over and over.

This seems to be a necessity.  I am not one of those women — and I actually know women like this — who never wears the same outfit more than once.  Even if I had the time and the patience to shop constantly, I sure as hell don’t have the money.  My favorite items are worn for years. If you were to dig around in my closet, I’m pretty sure you’d find at least one item that was purchased when most Americans had only heard of one George Bush.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, I rely on a fairly modest color palette.  To even use the phrase, color palate, is probably a leap because much of my palate is made up of neutrals.  Brown?  Very big in my wardrobe.  My entire wardrobe is built on brown.  The vast majority of my outfits are anchored by brown, combined with either a member of the rust/red/orange family or a member of the teal/turquoise/green family.

It works pretty well, most of the time.  It’s how I get away with being frugal, and too busy to shop, without looking like I slept in my clothes and wore them back to work for a second day.

But I’m getting bored.  I want to “pop,” dammit!  I’m 44 years old and not getting any younger.  Is “not too memorable” really the best I can do?  I want something more exciting to happen in this wardrobe of mine.

However, Stacey and Clinton are not going to turn up at my door with $5,000 any time soon.  (Well, unless I look a lot worse than I think I do).  So I need to figure out how to make this happen without a team of professional stylists.  I see two main challenges that I have to overcome:

Challenge #1:  I don’t really understand how colors work, or how to mix different colors and patterns.  Maybe I need to go to art school.  But I think I am just starting to figure out an essential design principle:  a visually striking picture depends upon a skillful combination of both blending and contrast.  I’m always trying to assemble outfits from colors that will blend together, and then I’m sometimes surprised when the overall result is blah.   Matching too much is just, well, dull.  Everything blends into an inoffensive, nondescript mush.  Nothing stands out.

I had another lesson in this principle recently, when I bought this necklace:

On the day I bought it, I was wearing a top with a brown and beige print, and I couldn’t figure out why this necklace seemed to get “lost” when I viewed it in the mirror.  Once I tried it with a solid brown shirt, though, it looked great.  This is probably why my favorite turquoise and silver necklace looks better with brown or black than it looks with blue.  There needs to be something that contrasts.  That’s the “pop” factor!

But there is a thin line between “pop” and “clash.”  I expect that there’s a lot of trial and error involved.   And during the “error” phase, I’ll have to overcome my reluctance to return items to the store!  It’s a big commitment to buy a significant item of clothing — like an expensive blouse, or a jacket — in a risky accent color.   Accessories might be safer, but this brings us to:

Challenge #2: Accessorizing is tough for frugal folks like me.  I just can’t forget that I’m spending the same amount of money that could buy an actual item of clothing.  I need to get over this.

So, in a courageous effort to face down these two challenges, I need fortification.  It’s time to seek guidance and inspiration from  my favorite fashion gurus.

Fashion Guru #1 is Nancy Nix-Rice, the author of “Looking Good: A comprehensive guide to wardrobe planning, color & personal style development. ”  This book is well over 10 years old now, but it has a special place in my heart because it was my first ever fashion book.  (Perhaps not surprisingly, they are a bit of an addiction now).

This book introduced me to the idea of “capsule dressing” — building your wardrobe gradually by creating groups of clothes that all work together,  in colors and patterns that can be mixed and matched.  While this concept saved my life when I was trying to upgrade my professional wardrobe from square one, it may have led to the practical wardrobe rut in which I now find myself.

Fortunately, this book also offers terrific advice to avoid this rut.  First, the author recommends having multiple capsules, in multiple color palates.  I’ve gotten kind of lazy, trying to depend on just one basic palate.

Secondly, the book includes a color wheel like this one:

Accompanying the wheel are guidelines for combining colors.  These include combining analogous colors (bordering each other — my trusty tactic!).  However, Nix-Rice also recommends combining:

a) complementary colors (opposites on the wheel),

b) split complementary colors (one color combined with the 2 colors on either side of its complement),  like this:

and triadic colors (those that can be linked by an equilateral triangle in the center of the wheel), like this:

This is awesome!  And I had completely forgotten about it until I sat down to do this blog post!  I think it is very likely that the genius stylists on “What Not to Wear” are using these principles when they create those striking color combinations.  These color wheels give me a new and exciting experiment to try!  I’m gonna print those babies out and take them with me the next time I shop.

But let’s keep going — one source of inspiration may be too easily forgotten.

Fashion Guru #2 is Brenda Kinsel, author of “In the Dressing Room with Brenda” and “Brenda Kinsel’s Fashion Makeover.”   I almost hesitate to include her in this post, because she offers so much amazing advice, I’m sure I’ll sell her short.  But in the “Fashion Makeover” book, she guides the reader through an intensive process of self-discovery.  Included in this are techniques designed to help us to discover various combinations, not only of color, but also of shapes and designs that speak to us.  The book’s exercises include clipping inspiration from magazines, compiling our favorite “found objects,” and even photographing favorite items from our closets, and looking at how they combine with one another.

I do have to confess that I have yet to go through the entire process (she advises a 30-day period of relatively commitment free time and, well……you know how it is).  But I plan to do as much as possible, and soon, because I think she guides us to step outside our own preconceived ideas of what fits with what.  There’s a free-floating, left-brain, outside-the-box creativity to this that appeals to me a lot.  Finally,

Fashion Guru $3 is Kathryn Finney, aka “The Budget Fashionista” (featured both in her website and the book, “How to Be a Budget Fashionista”).

Let’s face it:  she had me at the word “budget.”  There is SO much useful advice in this book — again, I worry about selling her short — but what I’m loving right now is her concept of having a “signature piece” (or pieces).   Her basic idea is that every woman should have one particular thing — or type of thing — that she uses for Pop Factor.  She describes the Signature Piece as an individual woman’s fashion “calling card” — an item or style that makes her unique.  It might be a hairstyle, it might be great shoes, it could be funky handbags.  Finney emphasizes that we can make smart choices about our signature items — tailoring them to our needs, interests, and most importantly, budget — so that every woman can find a way to stand out in a crowd.  And that is great news!  I have NO idea what to do for my signature item…. but at least maybe I can start looking for one.

Because blending has its place….. but I think I’m finally ready to stand out!

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About Anne @ The Frump Factor

Reflections on beauty and style, for women who weren't born yesterday. Bring your sense of humor and "Fight the Frump" with me!
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