My very first thoughts on this issue were laid out when I started thinking about my presence as an aspect of developing the virtue of beauty, and they were developed a little further when I talked around the issue of budgeting for fashion. So I was delighted when my early research suggested that others struggled with wardrobe planning too, and I decided right then that my next book would be about Building a Signature Wardrobe.
So much of the advice that we see is all about having the perfect crisp white shirt, the all-season trench coat, sky-high black heels. This kind of advice has to be generic one size fits all because it’s instantly accessible by all of us regardless of our size and shape, whether we live in the city or the country, work in an office or out in the field, drive or take public transport and so on. And for the most part, it’s all “you MUST do this”, no questions permitted or reasoning provided.
Personally, I don’t find this sort of thing useful – I’m all about the detail. Why do I need a crisp white shirt? Where am I going to wear it? What kind of white? How do I keep it white? Would ivory do instead? What exactly does crisp mean? Would a pleated or ruffled shirt count as crisp? How do I keep it crisp? Can you still buy spray starch or will I need to wash in potato water? That kind of thing, especially now that I work from home. Why would I spend $250 (those advice columns are never cheap) for a crisp white shirt to wear while I scrub the toilets?
Until recently I had never seen any advice that explained the reasoning behind the advice, but now that I have found some in the course of my book research I have to share it with you. I have been reading Marjorie Hillis’ book Orchids on Your Budget: Or Live Smartly on What Have You, originally published in 1937. It’s a lovely book (with sweet drawings) which among other things, tells you that no matter how dire your financial situation is you can’t afford to let yourself go. Can’t argue with that!
The book was written towards the tail end of “The Great Depression“, the global economic crisis with effects that stretched between 1929 and World War II, depending on where you lived and which economic historian you believe. You may have heard comparisons between that and the “Global Financial Crisis“, the impacts of which are still felt in many places despite it being “over” in 2008, so this reprint is handy in more ways than wardrobe planning.
Just to give you her functional (and surprisingly relevant) background rules, she argues you should:
- establish your wardrobe on one practical dark colour such as blue, black or brown
- buy all your essentials (coat, bags, shoes, hats and dresses) in that one colour
- supplement your essentials with coloured blouses, jackets, scarves, belts, jewellery and handkerchiefs
- buy all your clothes and accessories (in your colours) with simple silhouettes, fabrics and patterns that can be worn to a variety of places and occasions
- choose your clothes based on who you ARE right now (your actual age, size, location and occupations) not who/what you want to be, or where you would like to go
- buy clothes at different price points from different shops, spending more on street clothes and less on house and evening clothes
- only buy clothes that fit unless it is unavoidable, in which case buy ONE size larger and have them tailored to fit (this also makes cheap clothes look more expensive)
- remember that unworn clothes are a waste of money
She states that the key wardrobe planning problem is building this year’s wardrobe around last year’s clothes (not lack of funds). I think this may be one of those universal truths that are so obvious you need someone to point it out to you. She advises that planning and building a wardrobe times time, money and taste, and needs to include renewal cycles that take account of changes in your skin, hair and body as well as fashion. She declares that your wardrobe plan must include at least one dress (or in our terms outfit) that makes you feel pretty and elegant, as well as a decent coat.
She works with a twice yearly wardrobe refresh in Spring (now called Spring/Summer or S/S for short) and Autumn (now called Autumn/Winter or A/W). This relates to the traditional haute couture calendar of January – June and July – December. It seems a handy way to break up your shopping, but in modern times not necessarily so easy:
- If you work in a nice climate controlled office, you probably dress more or less the same all year round.
- If you live in the southern hemisphere and love particular northern hemisphere designers, you may be forced to buy your Autumn clothing in Spring.
- Some stores and brands now offer mid-season collections such as “High Summer” or short-term collections such as “Resort Wear”
Nonetheless, bi-annual wardrobe reviews are recommended by all sorts of people, and for those living in more extreme climates than me, the summer/winter wardrobe swap is the ideal time to do it. If you have never had the occasion to do this, Clinton Kelly advises that you need to be a ruthless bitch, and given the state of my wardrobe post-transplant I agree ruthlessness is warranted.
Dear Marjorie recommends you make a wardrobe plan before you buy anything, in the full and certain knowledge that you will require “nerves of steel” to stick with it. I am not exactly sure how the Spring example detailed below relates to the previous year’s clothes, or what the budget might be. I am assuming that the shopping list is based on a thorough and logical assessment of the post-review remains of the wardrobe and careful thought about how to supplement them. And takes into account the rules listed above.
Spring shopping list:
- warm plain brown wool coat
- black silk crepe dress and brown suede belt (to wear with coat)
- black sheer wool dress with wood buttons (to wear with coat)
- lightweight brown wool jacket (to wear with dresses and skirt)
- brown/black/white check wool skirt
- brown/white patterned silk dress (to wear with or without the coat)
- brown hat, bag and shoes
- light brown gloves and stockings
- warm weather essentials – white gloves, bag or hat and jacket (to wear with skirt or print dress)
And now the results for not sticking with your wardrobe plan… Say you did not hold your nerve, and bought a brown coat with “fur” collar, black crepe dress with white trim, black wool dress with silver buttons, red jacket, a blue ensemble and a black floral dress instead of the first six items listed above, you would find yourself with some wardrobe matching, and therefore cost, quality and wear issues:
- The coat will look too hot on warmer days, and won’t look good with the floral dress – the “fur” will probably look tatty quickly
- The white trimmed dress will not look good with the fur-trimmed coat, and the trim will probably discolour unless it is very carefully washed
- The silver buttons are very distinctive and may reduce the black dress’ overall usefulness
- The red jacket may work with the black dresses and last year’s black hat but won’t match this year’s shoes
- The blue ensemble replaces the skirt but requires a white bag and hat (and savings made somewhere else to permit this)
- The floral dress doesn’t match anything else
- If you go ahead and buy the brown bag etc., they won’t match the black dresses unless the trims are changed. Nor will they match the floral dress or the blue ensemble.
- You can’t replace the brown bag etc. with black because that won’t match the coat. Nor can you replace with blue as that won’t match anything except the blue ensemble.
- If you buy cheaper sets of both black and blue, they will almost certainly be of poor quality and won’t look nice for long
Who knew so much could go so wrong? If you haven’t worked it out, her solution is to stick with the wardrobe plan. Or if you can’t find anything on the list, revise the plan before you buy anything.
Marjorie also advises that you can maximise the life of your clothes by treating them well, regardless of how much they cost. She advises you put your house clothes on as soon as you get home and inspect and brush/clean/mend/press your street clothes before hanging them on a proper hanger that will maintain the garment’s shape. This has the added bonus of ensuring that your clothes are always ready to wear.
It makes sense to me, that if you want to maximise the usefulness of your wardrobe (and get the best value for your budget) you need to strategically plan your purchases. You need to work with the life you currently live, the clothes you already own, and what you need for the coming season keeping the longer term in mind. And if you want to avoid buying, say a coat, every year then you should maximise the life of the one you already have by taking good care of it. Does that make sense to you? Did you find the Spring example useful?