Create a signature look and avoid buyer’s remorse with this four-step plan.
1 of 5Laurie Rosenwald
Step 1: Identify What’s Working
You probably have a handful of go-to pieces you instinctively reach for when you want to look put-together. Now imagine having a rack full of them. The first step toward achieving that goal is figuring out what makes those favorites so, well, favored, says Amy E. Goodman, the author of Wear This, Toss That ($27, amazon.com). “Pull out the five things you would wear every day if no one was keeping track,” she says. Choose something in each clothing category: tops, pants, dresses, and skirts. Then ask yourself a few questions about each piece. Jot down your answers so you can use them as a shopping guide later (or download the Never Buy the Wrong Thing Again worksheet).
How would you describe the item? Crisp and tailored? Soft and ruffly?
What image does it project? Smart and professional? Edgy and fashionable?
What color is it? Does the shade brighten your complexion?
What fabric is it made of?
What is the silhouette like? Nipped at the waist? Flowing and hip-grazing?
What parts of your body does it accentuate?
What parts of your body does it de-emphasize? Is it comfortable?
Your answers reveal: Your style barometer. Use your notes to help pinpoint what you like. “Be careful of buying replicates,” says Goodman. You may learn you prefer darks and flared shapes, but you need only one good pair of black bootcuts. “Think of it as nailing down a signature look, not getting into a rut,” she says.
2 of 5Laurie Rosenwald
Step 2: Analyze Your Mistakes
Like rehashing a bad relationship, this cringe-inducing ( yet cathartic) exercise helps ensure that you don’t go down the same dead ends again. Ready? Take out five things you wish you hadn’t bought and ask yourself the questions in step one, plus the questions below. Then let go of those items, plus anything else that’s not pulling its weight—even if it still has its tags or it will be perfect once you lose 10 pounds or you have friends who throw fancy parties. “Your wardrobe should reflect who you are now,” says Kendall Farr, the author of Style Evolution ($22.50, amazon.com). “Don’t hang on to images of what worked for you 10 or 20 years ago.”
Do you have anywhere to wear this?
Is it high-maintenence?
Does it make you feel old and frumpy? Or young and silly?
Is it poor quality?
Did you buy it for the thrill of the bargain?
Did you buy it only because it was trendy?
Was it a panic purchase for a big event?
Does the color make you look pale? Yellow? Ruddy?
Your answers reveal: Your shopping blind spots. (Write down details about your mistakes so you never waste another cent falling into the same trap.) If your favorite pieces are tailored and crisp, that’s why you’re not reaching for the ruffled chiffon top. If sales or the newest trends are your weakness, you don’t have to give up clearance racks or Forever 21. But you will want to hold firm to your “likes” and “dislikes” lists.
3 of 5Laurie Rosenwald
Step 3: I.D. the Missing Pieces in Your Wardrobe
Separate your clothes by type. Ideally, you want to have three times as many tops as bottoms—the same ratio you see in stores, says Julie Watson, a wardrobe consultant and a former senior director of merchandising for Banana Republic. “No one remembers your pants,” she says. “We associate with people from the waist up.” Watson also suggests a 60-40 balance of staples (timeless, solid-color pieces) to novelty items (prints, funky details). To refine what you need, write down your responses to these questions, then check off what’s lacking from your closet on the Wardrobe Basics Checklist.
What items would make the pieces you own more versatile? (For instance, a polka-dot blouse to perk up a pencil skirt or pointy-toe flats to make cropped pants look less casual.)
Do you spend most days in a corporate environment but have a closet full of cheery sundresses? (It might lift your spirits more if you invested in a new suit that makes you feel great.)
Have there been occasions (maybe a dressy dinner, a job interview, or a funeral) when you were at a loss about what to wear?
Do you need to update any go-to items that you’ve reached for one too many times (say, a pair of overly dry-cleaned black pants, a wool suit with shine marks, or a ring-around-the-collar white blouse)?
Your answers reveal: The only things you should be buying. (Stay strong!)
4 of 5Laurie Rosenwald
Step 4: Shop Smarter
Take your lists of likes, dislikes, and needs and head to the mall. But before opening your wallet, run through this checklist to determine whether a piece will last the long haul. This may seem tedious, but if it prevents pricey mistakes, it’s worth the effort, right? After a while, you’ll automatically ask yourself these questions.
Will it work with your lifestyle?
The more an item costs, the more seriously you want to consider these factors.
Where will you wear it? Ideally, this is a place you go every week or month.
Does it coordinate with at least three other pieces in your wardrobe?
Can you wear it year-round? Imagine it with tights, a sweater, or open-toe shoes.
Can you picture yourself wearing it next season? Next year? In five years?
Will the effort of hand washing or dry-cleaning prevent you from wearing it regularly?
Is it good quality?
This quick inspection is the fashion equivalent of kicking the tires.
Buttons: Give them a tug to see if they’re well anchored, and look for frayed thread. Embellishments: Steer clear of stretched seams and excess glue around beading. Fabric: Test if the material is a lint magnet by rubbing it with a fluffy white knit. Lining: Make sure it lies flat, without bubbling or poking out from underneath. Pattern: Eyeball plaids and stripes; they should line up perfectly at the seams. Seams: Check that the stitches are small and straight—no loose or jumbled threads.
5 of 5Laurie Rosenwald
Step 4: Shop Smarter
Does it fit and flatter?
In the dressing room, be merciless.
1. Look at yourself from all angles. Pay attention to often overlooked areas.
Shoulders: The seams need to align with the tips of your shoulder bones. Bust: The garment should lie flat against the body without pulling, puckering buttons, or bubbles of excess fabric. Waistband: If it bunches up when you add a belt, it’s too big. Muffin top? It’s way too small. Find a happy medium. Rise: This is a tough alteration, so if the crotch is snug or droops low, the item goes directly into the no pile. Thighs: The fabric should hug curves smoothly, not pinch the backs of the legs.
2. Stand up straight and assess the length. In general, shirts should fall between your waist and hips; long sleeves, at the wrist bones. Pants should brush the tops of the shoes you plan to pair them with (or be alterable). Skirt lengths vary, but a hemline just at the kneecap flatters most body types. 3. Evaluate the give factor of stretchy clothing, particularly jeans. Wear them for 10 minutes or so while you’re trying on tops. If they get saggy, go down a size. 4. Imitate real life. Bend over and sit down in skirts and pants. Do they ride up/pull down/dig in? With jackets and tops, Watson suggests a test she used with fit models for Banana Republic. “Give yourself a hug,” she says, then lean over to “pick up the groceries” and reach up to “ride the subway.” The garment shouldn’t feel constricting or expose your midriff.
Wait! Don’t clip those tags just yet.
At home, try on your purchase with items from your closet and in natural light to be sure it’s truly a good match. Because in the end, the payoff of finding the right fit is worth more than any bargain.