Thursday, August 14, 2008

Reader Mail: City Dressing

A few weeks ago a gentle reader posed the following question:

I moved to New York ten months ago and realized my wardrobe needs a major overhaul due to lack of closet space and the simple fact that what worked for me in my home state does not work here. My closet is extremely small, and my budget is somewhat limited.

Additionally my clothes don't even work well with each other—I have bits and pieces of an "adult work wardrobe," a preppy suburban wardrobe for weekends, and a few "city" pieces.

I suppose a general question for you is how you curate your wardrobe—when do you keep and when do you get rid of items? Is it according to age, wear, how pieces fit into your life? Also, did you ever consciously decide on a "style" and begin to buy for that, or is it constantly evolving? Any insight into your buying strategy and closet purging would be most appreciated.

I remember when I first moved to New York, while writing my dissertation. I moved out of my university town to take a position at a Big Apple Publisher, keeping one eye on the brass ring: a job at a Conde Nast publication. (I interviewed at two of them but was overqualified—almost-PhDs don’t schlep coffee, apparently—or underqualified—I didn’t have editorial experience at the time.)

Anyway, I remember buying my lunch and bringing it to Bryant Park that first July week, feeling pretty fine in an oatmealy DKNY linen skirt and yellowy J Crew linen shirt. But then, as I gazed out upon the sea of polished urbanites with their gleaming heels, expensive hair, and tailored suits in colors that commit(!), my steadily rumpling linen felt like it belonged among the stacks in a research library.

That moment was when I decided to redefine my style. And lucky me, I had all of Manhattan to research it—no dusty stacks here, but the polished floors of Bergdorf Goodman or the smart little boutiques of Soho to ponder.

So what to buy first? As my job was entry level, I had a modest income, and wanted to make the most of my clothes. So I picked my best city colors—navy for fall and winter, a tobacco-y flax for spring and summer—and built around them.

My good clothes were these: I chose a navy DKNY trouser suit, with a cool, buckled, nipped-in waist (this was 1996, OK?), a navy DKNY skirt to switch off, an oxblood Tahari trouser suit with self belt, an inky Calvin Klein trouser suit (I know, perhaps too much blue), a tobacco-y flaxen Jaeger trouser suit (which I already owned, having found it at Canada’s Holt Renfrew earlier), and my still-favorite go-to piece: my navy Prada belt-buckle nylon jacket.

While I was buying it at BG, a lovely dark-haired lass was moaning to her mother that she was “sooo sick” of Prada nylon jackets, but immediately corrected herself when she saw me trying it on, so as not to hurt my feelings. I am not sick of it yet and probably never will be.

To complement these neutrals, I had some shoes already in my closet: Via Spiga lace-up oxford high heels in oxblood and black; knee-high boots in brown and black. I have never been able to find a black dress/skirt shoe I like, and so that gap still remains in my closet.

As for color, I could have punctuated the suits with some bright shirts, a la Gwyneth in her velvet Gucci suit days (Ok, ok—her suits supplied the color, but use your imaginations!), but trailblazer that I was, I preferred to wear my suit jackets sans shirt, buttoned up, of course. This felt less office-y and more publishing rock star, which was, of course, the look I was going for, if I had to give it a name.

I even had an innocent “All about Eve” moment when my VP complimented my oxblood suit and I responded that I was “dressing for the job I want, not the one I have.” “You’re aiming high,” she said, and I embarrassedly realized that I probably implied that I wanted her job. (I didn’t. I wanted Holly Brubach's job. Still do.)

Some twelve years later, I still follow those principles that guided me in the city: good neutrals in strong shapes, shoes with equally strong shapes (nothing annoys me more than a blah shoe), with spots of color or trends.

I find that the pieces don’t have to be expensive as long as they have character. For instance, I just bought two J Crew cotton taffeta skirts in dark fog and buttercup to wear this fall with my cashmere crews. The lines are clean, which I appreciate, and strong, so they don’t wilt on the body, but they don’t “wear me” either.

As for closet purging—oh dear—I still have those original suits and yes, I still wear the DKNY jacket. The trousers are sadly passé—but the jacket still rocks.


Kim said...

Dear Ms. C:-)

For years, I was the DKNY and Anne Klein type, as I worked on Wall St. for years. But now I work at home, running my business.

I love clothes, but find it challenging to balance the whole working from home w/o looking sloppy bit. Any thoughts?

LOVE,love,love your blog.


miss cavendish said...

Hi Kim--Thanks ever so much for your kind words. I do indeed have thoughts on dressing for working at home (I'm a freelance editor in the summers). I'll devote a post to that soon. . .

Lecia said...

I'd love to see a post about dressing for working from home! rz

Songy said...

I've been through phases of styles over the years.. made lots of mistakes and wasted money on things that just don't go with my body shape. After reading your lovely post.. again realising there's really no quick answer. We discover as we go and lots of trial and error. :)

Sal said...

What FABULOUS advice, and in a presented in such a captivating girl-in-the-city narrative package! You're such a rock star, Miss C.

Although my wardrobe is an ever-changing beastie, I definitely subscribe to your policy of starting with good neutrals in strong, flattering shapes. That was key for me when I decided I was sick to death of black slacks and chunky-heeled boots every damn day ...

Anonymous said...

These are great suggestions, but I have one other question. When you have to send your clothes out to a laundry/dry cleaning service, the clothes don't last as long as they do when you have your own washer/dryer - regardless of how good that service is. Commuting on the subway and train for two hours also seems to wear on the clothing. So how do you determine how much money to put into some of the clothes? Do you just assume everything will last one season - maybe two and shop accordingly?

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for replying to my question- I think I will feel much more inspired the next time I go shopping! - Anonymous reader

miss cavendish said...

Hi anon--If I buy a suit, I'm assuming it will last a few seasons, ditto cashmere sweaters.

You know, I really don't factor in dry-cleaning costs any more, because I'm not in the city, but you're correct on the wear and tear that can happen on subway/train commutes. It's wise then to consider how often you'll bring the items to the cleaner.

It would be frustrating to spend more on dry cleaning in a month than you did on the price of the suit!

K.Line said...

What a fantastic post, Miss C! Hilariously, I was working that very same look in 96 (though I didn't have the Prada - wasn't that stylish!) Since I started blogging, I realize more and more how, when we open our eyes and look around, beautiful ideas are everywhere. And nowhere moreso, I imagine, than in Manhattan!

enc said...

I think this is my favorite post from you, miss cav. Very well-done, full of practical info, and a really nice read.

pve design said...

Oh, I need a curator to come and edit my wardrobe, seasonally. I am a fabric snob and love really good quality fabrics, for summer, it is all about canvas, linen, knits and some gauzy pieces. For Fall - I turn to tweeds, denim, canvas and dreamy cashmere. The silhouette is always start with the Jacket or Coat - a trouser, a t-neck and boots - and the bag is always an important part of the equation.
Great post and excellent guide to follow.