Outfit Formulas, 101

The stated goal of this blog is for all women to effortlessly pull perfect outfits out of their closets every morning, every day for the rest of their lives, and then be free get on with the important work of this world.

We may be a few months off from total success, but I have high hopes.

One key to effortless style is what Anuschka Rees calls outfit formulas. The premise, found in her lovely book The Curated Closet, is that we all have certain outfit formulas we fall back on. Other writers have called this “finding your uniform.”

Hard to get me out of boots/jeans/jacket.

Women who have their style dialed in like this are easy to spot. Google image search a few women whose style you admire and their outfit formulas become clear.

Jennifer Aniston has three formulas that she tops with a navy blazer or black moto jacket.

  • Neutral tank top/stretchy skirt
  • Neutral tank top/slim cargo pants
  • Neutral tank top/jeans.

The Duchess of Cambridge has two casual formulas. She wears these with wedge heels, boots or cute sneakers.

  • Striped Breton t-shirt/skinny jeans or pants/navy blazer
  • Printed blouse/skinny jeans or pants

Michelle Obama’s bright dress/cardigan sweater/basic pumps took her through 8 years of extreme scrutiny.

Honestly, if I had Michelle Obama’s arms, I would never, ever cover them up with a cardigan sweater.

Benefits of an outfit formula

Outfit formulas are a way of understanding and organizing your closet. They take the guesswork out of getting dressed. Here are a few of the many upsides to thinking in formulas.

They can be mixed and matched without draconian color schemes

One of my springtime outfit formulas is a printed boho top/skinny jeans or pants/short jacket.

With three jackets, four tops and three pairs of jeans/pants I have 12+ ensembles, and I love all of them. Every piece doesn’t need to look good with every other piece, I just keep the jackets and pants fairly neutral and pick any crazy colored top I want.

So long as I don’t wear the olive jacket with the olive pants, or all four shirts at the same time, I’m golden.

You know they work for your life

The best thing about a well-established outfit formula is that you know it will work for pretty much anything life throws your way. In the spring I’ll be riding my bike around town, teaching, watching track meets, meeting friends, occasionally heading out to dinner or a play. My two spring outfit formulas can handle all of this easily.

Outfit formulas help you shop

When you want or need to refresh your wardrobe, having a few formulas to fall back on helps you target your purchases. You can invest in quality pieces because you know you will wear them in specific combinations. They can also keep you from purchasing closet orphans, those sad and lonely pieces that seemed like a good idea at the time but never get worn.

You will always have friends in this wardrobe.

How to use outfit formulas

Ideally, you have two or three outfit formulas per season. Items from one formula can certainly be used for another. My spring formulas are as follows

Classic top/skinny jeans or pants/ cardigan sweater

Printed boho top/skinny jeans or pants/short jacket

Casual dress

Can I call it a formula if it doesn’t have to go with anything else?

I’ll wear these with boots until it warms up, then switch to tennis shoes or sandals. I’m not above mixing the formulas, either. I will certainly wear a classic top with jeans and my denim jacket. If it’s cold, I’ll pair a cardigan sweater with a dress.

I just get up, check the weather and run down my calendar for the day, then decide what to wear.*

Find your formula

The first place to look for your formula is in your closet.

What is your favorite outfit? Say you have a knee-length skirt you wear with leggings, boots and a slouchy sweater that you always feel perfect in. Find a couple of similar sweaters, another knee-length skirt and pull in a few other pairs of leggings and you have a mini-wardrobe that will feel fantastic.

Grab a couple of pairs of leggings and you could spend all winter in this mini-wardrobe.

The second place to look is on the women you see everyday. The ladies you work with, the other moms at your children’s school, women picking up groceries. Look for patterns in their style of dress. My guess is your will find a few formulas you could try.

Finally, as noted above, a google image or Pinterest search of stylish women is inspiring. Just be sure to look at the entire ensemble and know you can commit to the details. Sophia Coppola has fantastic style, but that woman always has exposed ankles. I’d love to try a few of her outfit formulas but none of them would work with socks or boots and I simple refuse to have cold ankles.

If you can wear it with flats you can wear it with ankle boots…right?

How to try a new formula

When trying out a new look, I always suggest shopping second hand. Your town probably has a few trendy resale shops (I love you, Buffalo) where you can score pieces at a fraction of the retail price and at significantly less environmental cost.

Be sure to complete the entire look when trying out something new. A few years ago, I wanted to try out an elegant pair of fluid joggers for hostessing. This involved buying a pair of flats and finding the right top to go with them. Since then, I’ve been able to bring a few pairs of casual joggers into my wardrobe using the same principles.

Currently, I’m working on how I can incorporate high waisted jeans into a formula without a crop top (because I’m 45 and I don’t ever have to wear a crop top again if I don’t want to. Sorry, 1985.) I found a pair at Buffalo exchange, and have been pairing them with things on my closet until I find something that feels perfect. If need be, I will wear them out shopping and try different tops on with them. Once I hit on a formula, I can incorporate a few auxiliary pieces into it and have a new look to enjoy. But right now, it’s a struggle…

Oh forget it…I’ll just wear plaid with everything.

Potential Problems

You can get stuck in a rut

I’ll never forget seeing a woman attend a funeral in bootcut jeans with rhinestone detailing, a plunging neckline blouse and stiletto heals. It was obviously a formula she felt very comfortable in, but really not appropriate to the situation.

I have to be careful not to fall into the black hole of puffer vest/t-shirt/jeans in the wintertime. This is an easy problem to manage, though. Just plan a few outfits in another formula and have them ready to go at the front of your closet. You will remember you love them in no time.

But it’s so warm…

Other people’s outfit formulas will not necessarily work for you

When googling Jennifer Aniston, the Duchess of Cambridge and Michelle Obama, I was seized with a desire to go buy a neutral tank top, a navy blazer and a bright colored dress, before remembering that my life might be significantly different than all of theirs. While incorporating the ideas of other, inspiring women, be sure to make the look your own. Always come back to your life, your body, and your style.

An outfit formula challenge

Your task for this afternoon, should you choose to accept it, is to head up to your closet and find a few outfit formulas you love. Let me know how it turns out!

Just hanging out, waiting for spring so I can wear my spring formulas…

* Actually, that’s not true at all, I just get dressed and hope the weather and my day fall in line with what I’m wearing.

Shop Your Closet, Survivor Style: Part 2

7 items, 7 days to prove themselves, and a commitment to looking and feeling fantastic all week long.

I called it my week of dressing dangerously.

The rules were simple; I had to choose seven items in my closet that I liked, but was not currently wearing. Then I had to work each piece into an ensemble that looked and felt great, and wear it all day.

To be fair, I had to set each item up for success. Too often when I try to work unworn items into my regular rotation I’ll try some sort of crazy conglomeration of unworn items. And I’m surprised when the outfit feels weird?

For this experiment, I called out my heavy hitters – the denim jacket, my Frye boots, a favorite pair of jeans, the perfect cowl neck sweater. I did my research ahead of time and thought out possible ensembles.

If you missed last week’s post, here it is: Shop Your Closet, Survivor Style:Part 1

Monday – The odd colored pants

I bought them because: The fit was fantastic, and I thought I’d mix it up with the interesting color.

I never wore them because: The color was too interesting.

The final verdict: Success

Off to a great start!

You can tell from the way I am standing, this was my very favorite ensemble of the week. I love these pants! Paired with my favorite winter sweater and boots they look great. In the spring, a simple grey or white t-shirt will work nicely. Welcome to the regular rotation pants!

Tuesday – The swingy white sweater

I bought it because: I wanted a warm, light colored sweater to wear on cold days that didn’t look like I stolen the fur off a Yeti.

I never wore it because: The dropped sleeves made me look strangely broad

The final verdict: Fail

I’m unhappy and attempting to hide the fact that this is a weird sweater by carrying around a big bag all day.

I wore it, but I didn’t like it. The dropped sleeves and jewel-neck collar created a really wide line across my shoulders. I tried pairing it with a vest, with a jacket, with long necklaces, nothing seemed to work. I felt like I was wearing a tablecloth. I want to keep this sweater, because I’m under the impression that it’s practical. But this is Shop Your Closet, Survivor Style, and the swingy white sweater was given a chance along with everything else. It’s out.

Wednesday – The simple rust colored sweater

I bought it because: Loft was having one of those weird sales where the more you buy the less you wind up spending. I need to avoid those.

I never wore it because: I’m not really sure why, I just didn’t.

The final verdict: Success

I may have been making this harder than necessary…

This top is very simple. I paired it with corduroy pants and my denim jacket. It looks great with a necklace, and it was warm. The next time I’m reaching for a layering t-shirt, I will remind myself to grab this instead.

Thursday – Long olive jacket

I bought it because: It looked great in the store

I never wore it because: It seems a little sloppy

The final verdict: Success

This outfit was straight off Pinterest, and in fact was the inspiration for Shop Your Closet, Survivor Style.

As I was scrolling along I passed this outfit with a dismissive “I couldn’t do that.” Then I scrolled back up. I had every piece in my closet: wine colored top, long olive jacket, boots, scarf. I ran upstairs and put it all on. Dang.

The sharpness of the pants and boots make the drape of the top more manageable. The elegant top and scarf make the ensemble seem planned, rather than sloppy. The whole thing was fabulously comfortable. A few days later I found a picture of The Duchess of Cambridge in a similar ensemble, and that clinched it for me. The jacket stays.

Friday – Cheating with double denim

I was supposed to be wearing a piece of fan wear today. Our lovely assistant principal gave each staff member a great t-shirt and I haven’t worn mine yet because it is too stiff. I tried a DYI project of soaking it in salt water to soften it up but it didn’t work. The t-shirt looked terrible, to the point I didn’t pass the Allen, or any other, test. I plan to try other t-shirt softening schemes and will let you know how it worked.

It’s like I’m back the early 1990s, without the inconvenience of being in my early 20s.

So in the spirit of the week, I tried a look I’ve wanted to work on, double denim. It’s back, and I couldn’t be happier. Here I toned it down with a puffer vest. I will definitely be posting about the Double D in the near future.

Saturday – The bat wing sweatshirt

I bought it because: I needed something to go with Lulu Lemon joggers

I never wore it because: I have other sweatshirts I reach for first, and I don’t wear the Lulu Lemon joggers that often

The final verdict: Fail

Saturday morning was the low point on the journey. I don’t hate this sweatshirt. I feel like it has potential but I just don’t wear it. The fabric bunches up around my belly, which is not a great look on me, and the rounded jewel neckline doesn’t do anything for me.

I felt like we should have been able to work together.

I put the sweatshirt on with the joggers and realized that the pants were a fail from the start. A heavier weight than the joggers I wear in warmer weather, they have a cropped ankle, meaning I would have to wear them with sneakers and no socks in the winter!

As if.

On top of that the joggers had too much fabric at the waistline, which might look dramatic if I were shaped like a two by four. When the pants didn’t work I bought the sweatshirt to go with them… brilliant. Both are out.

Sunday – The Thneed

I bought it because: It’s awesome! I’ve been wanting to try some sort of drapey, scarf/poncho/wrap thing. This was one is grey cashmere and only $18 at Buffalo Exchange? Yes please.

I never wore it because: It’s a drapey, scarf/poncho/wrap thing and I don’t even know what to call it, much less how to wear it.

The final verdict: Success

As it turns out, all I needed to do was put it on. I kept the underpinnings simple and let the cashmere do the talking.

I love it. It feels stylish and easy, and is fantastically cozy. I originally thought I’d save it for dress up, but wearing it with jeans a boots felt natural. I wore it to church, running errands and at a family lunch.

Wear a drapey, cashmere thing and you, too will be on the verge of making an insightful point in conversation.

And that was my week of dressing dangerously. A few items bit the dust, but in exchange I have four new items in regular rotation without spending a dime.

Lessons learned:

Don’t buy jewel neck tops

Don’t buy dropped sleeved sweaters

Keep pushing myself towards drapey tops, just balance them with a sharp background.

It’s OK to buy pants based on fit and fabric alone.* I have enough black, grey and white in my closet to accommodate a few funny colors.

Photographs are an excellent way to judge an outfit. Having hard evidence of how well an outfit works can keep you rolling back to it in the future, or avoiding the look all together.

Best lesson of the week: This was really fun. I didn’t expect to get giddy over forcing myself to try new things, but by the second half of the week I was in a fantastic mood, just ask my husband. This small, self-imposed puzzle gave me a challenge each morning, and the extra spring in my step that comes with wearing something new.

Coincidentally, I was teaching my psychology class about the study of happiness during my week of dressing dangerously. According to researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, shaking your brain up by making small changes can add significantly to your happiness. She notes that something as seemingly insignificant as altering the route of your jog can boost your mood. As I asked my students to try one of a number of similar positive psychology exercises, I was unwittingly trying one myself.

So while you are out there engaging in meaningful activity, creating strong connections with family and friends, being smart about your diet and exercise, go ahead and add a wardrobe puzzle to your week. You will wind up with new additions to your regular wardrobe rotation, spend no money and walk around grinning all week.

Did you try a week of dressing dangerously? How did it go? Let me know in the comments below.

*Within reason

Lessons From a Chronic Closet Cleaner


IMG_7414 2

Your goal: To love every item in your wardrobe.

To get there, you have to give away every piece of clothing that you don’t absolutely love.

If I had followed this advice when I started my style journey, the only things left in my closet would have been a cocktail dress and a couple of pairs of hand-knit socks. Not a good look.

Truly cleaning and organizing your closet is not an overnight task, no matter what Real Simple magazine may try to tell you. It took me nearly a year, but today my closet only holds clothes that I love and look forward to wearing.

I have spent years purging my closet, then filling it right back up with the same type of detritus I’d just gotten rid of. During this futile cycle I read every article on closet organization I could find. After much trial and error, I present to you my lessons for cleaning out your closet.

Lesson one: Start easy

Have fun getting rid of the obvious wardrobe downers. Take an hour one afternoon and throw out anything pilled, ripped, ill-fitting or faded in a non-fashionable manner, no matter how much you used to love it. This goes for workout clothes as well as work clothes. Hold it up and think, “Would my most polished friend wear this?” If not, get rid of it. If you’re wondering if anyone will notice the little stain, I’m here to tell you they will. Put it in the give away box. *

I can only shave the pills off a sweater so many times. It’s on to new adventures for you!

That’s not to say ripped and faded clothes can’t be stylish. I have a couple of t-shirts that are just now ripening to perfect vintage softness. But I’m wearing them because they’re faded, not in spite of it.

You deserve nice clothing that fits and is in good repair. Get rid of anything that does not fit this description. And no, you may not save all these clothes for the day you repaint the living room or turn the garden. Keep one set of work clothes for these occasions and purge the rest.

Lesson Two: Give it the Allan test

Your closet is now free of stained, stretched out old clothes. How do you decide what to keep of the clothing in good shape? Allan.

Years ago, a friend was dating a man (Allan) who was not good enough for her. She spent several months convincing herself to settle for this guy, and then he dumped her.

Is there anything worse than being dumped by someone who wasn’t good enough for you in the first place?

Now, obviously her life got a lot better after losing this chump, but there was still that annoying little sting that went with his memory. Until one day, my friend ran into Allan. It just so happened that she had on a killer outfit, and had taken an extra 30 seconds to pull her hair back. Allan, looking shlumpy and under-employed as always, could barely get a sentence out.

We all have an Allan in our past, don’t we? And you never know when you’re going to run into him, or that old boss who didn’t take you seriously, or that girl you knew in school who looked down on everyone else. Every outfit should make you feel ready to take on the bullies and bummers in your life. Look at the clothes you have in your closet. Would you want to run into Allan wearing that sweater? No? Give it away.

Oh, hello old boss who didn’t think I was capable of teaching advanced classes. I didn’t see you there in the glow of my AP pass rate.

Lesson three: It’s OK to be indecisive

You will have some items you’re unsure about. They might be things you loved last year, but are a little tired of. Or something you had a lot of fun in, but doesn’t fit well anymore.

Take these items and store them outside of your closet. See how well your wardrobe functions without them. As you shop, keep an eye out for similar pieces that would serve the same purpose, but you like better.

I am lucky enough to have bought a house from a couple who loved closets more than Ludwig II loved Wagner. I keep one wardrobe just for things I’m unsure about. In most cases these clothes find their way out of the house, but I feel better when I give myself time to say goodbye. If you don’t have a spare wardrobe, use a box, the hall closet, your son’s closet (He never hangs things in there, anyway, right?) the trunk of your car, just get these confounding pieces out of your closet.

I’m pretty sure one of these leads to Narnia

Lesson four: It’s OK to keep once-in-a-while pieces

Common wisdom suggests you rate your clothing by how often something gets worn. While that’s a good indicator of how something is working for you, it doesn’t always make sense.

You make Easter easy.

For instance, I have a bright pink coat I only wear on Easter. Easter is always cold in Oregon and I need a coat. It doesn’t get much wear, but it has made every Easter for the past 6 years really easy. That’s worth the closet space to me. I also have a platter with turkeys on it that belonged to my grandma. I only use this once a year  and no one is nagging me about it.

If I can keep a Thanksgiving platter, I can keep an Easter coat.

If something gets worn regularly, no matter how infrequently, keep it.

Lesson Five: Respect the feelings of your clothes

I love the work of Marie Kondo but the truth is I don’t have much in common with her. She and I feel very differently about how much fun it is to tidy things up.

I read organizational books… then leave them lying around the house.

But her book is lovely. The biggest take-away for me from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was to respect the service of our clothes.

Give the clothes you are wearing space to breath and relax after the hard work of running around with you. If you have a shirt that isn’t being worn, release it to the world so someone else can love it. Piles and racks of squished up, unworn clothing are just sad.

If you haven’t already, read Kondo’s reflections on socks here: https://www.buzzfeed.com/rachelwmiller/marie-kondo-showed-us-how-to-fold-socks-perfectly?utm_term=.xdBdErLN#.yo817O0g

Your wardrobe should be made up of pieces you respect and value. How would you feel jammed in a closet, never being worn by someone who resents you for not fitting correctly? Exactly. Give it away.

Lesson six: Nostalgia is for photo albums

Love an item of clothing that you’re really never going to wear it again? Take a picture. You can then open up the photo album and remember that great skirt for years to come.

I was crazy-proud of this sash.

You wouldn’t store your 6th grade book reports on your desk at work. You don’t haul your childhood skis with you every time you hit the slopes. You wouldn’t keep your children’s pottery experiments in the cabinets with your everyday dishes (OK, maybe you would…) The point is, a closet is a working space. Don’t overwhelm yourself as you get dressed every morning with memories from the mid-1990s.

If you really must keep something (OK, my 8th grade graduation dance dress) store it properly in a chest with cedar or the moth repelling substance of your choice. But before you do, imagine people cleaning this out when you’re 97 and downsizing to a tiny house in an elder community. Do you really want someone else to have to throw out your mud-stained sweatshirt?

Let’s not make this any harder than we already know it’s going to be.

Lesson seven: Give yourself time

Pulling everything you own out of every drawer, and your closet, and going through it all in one afternoon is a very bad idea. Trust me here. You will get better long term results, and cultivate good habits, if you slowly purge your closet.

Yes, an all-in-one clean out is invigorating and dramatic, but it’s not the best strategy for creating a well-functioning closet. Particularly if you’re left with one cocktail dress and two pairs of socks.

Not an inspiring photo

The process of culling the chaff from your closet will take time. Start small (lesson one) with items that obviously need to go. Then take a half hour and go through your t-shirts one day, and another 20 minutes in your shoes another day. Notice a pair of pants you keep putting on and taking off in the morning? Set them free. Over time you will learn to identify the items that are taking up space and weighing your wardrobe down. You will begin to purge your closet effortlessly.

Keep two bags in your closet, one for Goodwill, and one for resale shops. Get in the habit of dropping anything that doesn’t pass the Allan test into one of these two bags. If you have a spare afternoon by all means go through your clothes and do a big purge, but keep practicing regularly getting rid of things that aren’t working for you.

Over time you’ll find space opening up in your closet. Like pulling weeds from the garden, getting rid of unwanted clothes will allow the items you do like to shine and thrive in your wardrobe. You’ll find a few holes and need to do a little shopping. We’ll look at strategies for filling these spaces in a future post.

This will be hard work, but over time you’ll find your closet has only items you love. You will enjoy incredibly easy mornings of getting dressed and will for the rest of your life. Awesome.

*Ever wonder where all your clothes go when freed from your closet? According to Elizabeth L Cline (Over-Dressed, a great book!) Some, of course, will be resold an go on to help other people’s wardrobes. Some will be recycled into new clothing. Some will be recycled into insulation, carpet padding, or any number of things. Some are shipped in huge bales to other countries. It’s like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, only for your clothes.