On Saturday I braved the hell that is Oxford Street with one of my best friends to see what was in the shops. We overcame torrential downpours and hordes of tourists (WALK! don’t GAWP! jeez...) to check out the new season collections which are starting to appear on the rails now.
And as we sat, glassy-eyed and shell-shocked on the tube going home (successful purchases: one Kiehl’s moisturiser, some cotton wool pads), we discussed the difficulties of defining your personal style when you’re a regular person who doesn’t work ‘in fashion’ and wants to look nice, not ‘trendy’.
These were the rhetorical questions that were thrown up between Bond Street and Bethnal Green, which I don’t really have satisfactory answers to, but I’m going to give it a stab anyway.
How do you settle on your style? Are you influenced by the people around you? Do you dress to fit in?
When we were at school and university, the music we listened to defined our style: Britpop = Fred Perry polo shirt dress, Adidas Gazelles and vintage Adidas tracksuit top. Punk meant baggy jeans, tight t-shirts, skater chains and chunky skate shoes. Now we’re ‘grown-ups’ (ahem), it’s harder to evoke who you are by What You Like (unless you’re a middle-aged man who works in a record shop like in High Fidelity, in which case that approach is still seen as perfectly acceptable.)
You might work in an office all day and have to look smart, or you’re a midwife and wear a uniform – our jobs influence our day to day clothing choices significantly, meaning sometimes you can only express yourself in your downtime – evenings and weekends.
What if you’re not a particularly ‘creative’ person, but you still care about your clothes and want to wear things that express who you feel you really are?
I am a firm believer in trusting your gut. Sure, it’s great to go shopping with friends who might suggest you try things on which you ordinarily wouldn’t have considered, but with the best will in the world, they will still be projecting their own personal tastes onto you. Sometimes it’s best to go by yourself, so you can focus properly.
Quite simply, be honest - think about the clothes you already own that make you feel really good when you wear them. Look at the lengths of trousers, the cuts of shirts and jumpers, whether you prefer wearing prints and patterns, or plain colours with minimal fuss. If you never wear dresses or skirts, that's fine, if you hate jeans, that's ok.
Then take it up a notch - what would you on a really good day look like? I find the notion that it's shallow to care about your clothes extremely tedious. If you're wearing an outfit that makes you feel happy because it fits properly and expresses something about you, why wouldn't you want to dress like that every day? Don't save your 'fancy' clothes for special occasions! Wear them regularly and get enjoyment from them as often as possible.
One woman we know actually makes a ‘mood board’ every season, featuring clothes she likes torn from magazines. Then she systematically assesses her wardrobe, identifies any gaps and makes a list to fill them. That is so organised it terrifies me. I just make a list in a notebook and add things to it as I think of them.
What if you don’t like any of ‘the trends’?
Screw the trends – if there’s nothing in a particular season that appeals to you, if you think it all looks silly and ugly, then just ignore them. Either buy nothing (slightly depressing prospect) and save your cash for when there IS stuff you like in the shops, or use that season to update your basics – chuck out laddered tights and t-shirts with sweat stains under the arms (oh come ON, we all have them) and get fresh ones, then your wardrobe will have a new lease of life and you won’t feel foolish in trendy clothes that you don’t believe in.
And how do you budget for it all?
In terms of budgeting, I’m quite extreme – either super-cheap, or quite pricey. I save up for months, then do a ‘big shop’ maybe once or twice a year, spend as much as I can afford on decent footwear, coats and bags, then plug all the gaps with the most affordable basics I can find – £4.99 cotton t-shirts from Uniqlo, underwear from M&S, that kind of thing.
And on a related note: only buy something if you really love it. NEVER buy something you’re slightly unsure or half-hearted about, thinking “oh it’s only twenty quid, and I’ll probably get some use out of it...” You won’t. It’ll languish in a drawer or closet making you feel guilty every time you notice it. Save the money – go home empty-handed that day and you might find something you really love the next month which you can put that £20 towards and get so much more pleasure from.
I think a successful shopping expedition is one part planning and one part serendipity. You don’t know exactly what you will encounter in the shops, so be open-minded, but also make a bit of a list of stuff you know you need, and do a bit of research beforehand so you have a few things to aim for – if there’s a jumper you’ve seen on a website, you can then go and try it on in a shop, decide if you really like it or not, then possibly buy it cheaper online – result!