Your Real Life

Let’s Get Real

Of all the major categories that influence a workable philosophy of dress, context seems the most sweeping and fickle. Culture, geography, lifestyle, social and business settings, economics, personal skills, consumer availability, and life events all play a part in what I call “context.” Essentially, context consists of your social and physical environment + your resources. Context can support or hinder your ability to achieve the personal style you prefer. The challenges can be daunting but they can also open up new possibilities.

Let me illustrate one example of “context.”

Some years ago a good friend convinced me to visit his mountain farm in Central America. “You won’t need much,” he said. “Just a couple pairs of shorts and t-shirts. It doesn’t get very cold.” He also warned me not to wear jewelry, as it might incite envy among the poor who lived in the surrounding mountains. I felt very, very plain, and I wasn’t that crazy about the shorts I bought—but they were cheap. (By the way, he forgot to tell me how chilly it could get at night and I shivered!)

I cherish this photo from the mountains of El Paraíso, Honduras. Nicaragua is 12 km in the distance.

I had left the land of running water and flushing toilets and entered a land of cisterns and outhouses. Many roads there are no more than a jumble of rocks resembling dry creek beds, and there is always the risk of a vehicle breaking down on them. I bought a pair of chanclones, as the country folk call them (sandalias, they are called in town) to fit in with the local women. In the English-speaking world, these are called flip-flops, zorries, or thongs. One can hardly dress to impress in such places because the context of culture and economics runs against it.

Many months after returning from Central America, I was sitting in my orthodontist’s waiting room when I saw a television show about a woman in California who bought a huge house for the purpose of expanding her closet to store hundreds of pairs of shoes. I sat gape-mouthed after being in the mountains of Central America where closets scarcely exist. I can’t shake this feeling that people accumulate more than they need because they have no real purpose. Personally, I couldn’t bear being owned by that many things. But what do I know? Whether the context of our lives brings us scarcity or plenty, we maximize our lives by either becoming inventive with fewer clothing choices or by limiting ourselves to the amount and kinds of clothes that it takes to achieve whatever we are called to do in this world. Both of these solutions put the emphasis where it belongs: on our personality and on our purpose in life.

Here are some things that may affect your ability to choose your personal style preferences:

topical surface
means of transportation
Social context
nature of job
social functions
levels of formality
Corporate/business dressing for
who you want to be/roles you play
conflicting philosophies
Consumer availability
ability to self-produce

You can utilize them when they are to your advantage, but you will have to work around them or compromise where they don’t. Don’t worry–as long as you don’t compromise over 40% of your core style, you will still look good.

Art Nouveau, the era of flowing hair, the serpentine line. Alfons Mucha / Public domain

Example: The style era that most represents my own best style is around 1895-1915 (Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Titanic fashion). Yet not everything common to that era would be optimal for me — like the pinned up hair and many of the hats worn by women in real life. (The next fashion phase for people like me would be in the early 1970s, the Flower Child era.)

When I moved to the north, it was darned difficult to find the lines I needed that would work in cold weather fashion. I located an acceptable compromise in 1930s fashion. It was a time of transition that still honored some flowing styles in draped necklines and unconstructed (at least not overly constructed) styles, yet was practical enough for jumping in and out of vehicles like cars and trolleys. Think “Indiana Jones” clothing where the shirts are not too tightly constructed, and the sleeves are rolled up.

Not extremely different from the Art Nouveau lines, but a little more pulled in and daytime skirts shorter. Both of these examples have a draped element to them that harks back to the seamless Greek draped styles. AnonymousUnknown authorState Library of Queensland, Australia / No restrictions
  • If your life context is in opposition to your best style, you can check out various fashion eras and see what might be incorporated into the clothing that works for your geographical, professional, or social environment.
  • You can always play around with collars, scarves, accessories, fit and proportions to bring your clothing back into alignment with your best look. Remember that problem solving is largely a matter of strategizing and engineering. I cannot stress that enough!!!

There are a lot of things I could say about levels of formality, too, and whether you need separate wardrobes for each level or an in-between wardrobe that you can dress up or down. It’s something you might want to explore, though there isn’t room to cover that here. Instead, I direct you to the page on Resources, for there is tremendous help out there. (Really tremendous!)

But I do want to make you aware of the jillions of labels that have been put to fashion styles, not to be confused with your style identity, but with the way you prefer to dress. Here I am going to steal (only a little) from Imogen Lamport of Inside Out Style Blog who has broken down the basic personality dressing styles into a few categories:

  • Classic
  • Relaxed/Casual/Natural
  • Feminine/Romantic
  • Creative/Innovative/Eclectic
  • Dramatic/Bold
  • Rebellious
  • Elegant Chic

I could have mentioned these in the section on Personality, but I wanted to make you aware of all the choices available. You will have a preferred dressing style, a style identity, and you must find a way to make these work in the environment in which you live and move.

You might be a Dramatic who prefers the Relaxed style. You cannot go as loose topped as your Natural friends or you will look sloppy, not relaxed. You will have to structure it a little more, keeping the overextended lines in something. Will your work environment support this look? Perhaps you make the fabric a little finer and add a statement necklace. Seriously, there is no end of possibilities. YOU have to define yourself and decide what you can and cannot get away with .

You may wish to read up a bit on these and explore other people’s lists. You’ll start to identify the commonalities of similar dressing styles and where they diverge.

Alhambra ornament 14

Facebook_verified_account_checkmarkWhat are your biggest obstacles to creating a wardrobe you can live with and even love right now? List every one of them. What are the top five? Don’t try to solve them all at once.

Is “lack of income” a big obstacle? Shift your thinking to an outlook of “abundance” instead of “scarcity.” What is in your hands already? Can you sew? Can you repurpose something? Do you have access to consignment shops, thrift stores? Can you change the buttons or topstitching on something? Study your options very hard. How far can you bend the possibilities?

Is “must wear uniform at work” one of your obstacles? Can you wear your personality in jewelry, colors? Can you wear the top or bottom of your uniform to go other places and just throw on a different second piece that works? If you are absolutely stuck in a uniform that you cannot manipulate in any way, it can present a huge compromise. Take time to accumulate the wardrobe that speaks to who you really are. Wear it every chance you get when you are off work for your own personal dignity. If you are shooting for a different line of work or have to mingle with a completely different group of people for some other reason, you will have to make the claim for your image paramount. You will have to plan for it, regardless of your temperament type. You can’t get out of that one.

Are you stuck in casual dress because you care for a disabled person or children? If you prefer a higher level of formality, find neutral clothing pieces you can dress up or down. You can “up” the level of formality in a jiffy by changing out second pieces for others made of finer fabric. You can also add third pieces or jewelry with a more formal feel to them.

Come on — you deal with many situations I haven’t even begun to imagine. Maybe it’s your commute time, maybe it’s lack of time in general. Perhaps there’s minimal space for your clothing needs. Everyone has obstacles and the answer is custom solutions. Sometimes I find that obstacles often spur me on to solutions that end up individualizing my look in a way I really love.

  • This entire pursuit is a matter of solving one problem after another, through engineering and reasonable points of compromise.

Obstacles stretch our minds. They make us more creative, more flexible, and tougher. Choose one obstacle at a time and solve it or find a creative compromise that makes it livable. Then go on to the next thing and the next. Eventually the solutions will add up.