Don’t Think, Shop

Brands and vendors don't want us to think about our style needs, they want us to shop and spend mindlessly.

Back when I worked with personal style clients, one of the first things I made them do was write. I sent them a laundry list of questions about their personal style preferences and choices: Tell me about brands you like and brands you hate, styles you love and styles you wish you could wear. List 5-10 adjectives that describe your style. Are you a skirt girl, pants girl, or both? Do you wear dresses, and if so, what style? Can you wear heels, and do you like to? Name a celebrity whose style you admire and tell me why. Introspective questions like these are helpful to nearly everyone who answers them. And I do NOT believe that’s because there is some magic set of questions that unlocks the secrets of great style. I believe it’s because we are trained to give only cursory thought to our personal style choices.

There are lots of books about style, and bits of style advice filter through from TV and magazines. Some of this advice urges us to be mindful shoppers and evaluate items before buying, and some of it focuses on jettisoning pieces that no longer work. But very little of it asks us to think seriously about what we’re already wearing and why, or encourages us to utilize what’s already hanging in our closets. Instead, most of this advice is tied directly to shopping.

We are told overtly and covertly that new stuff will fix our style hang-ups. Buy this thing and and you’ll finally be stylish. Add this item and your wardrobe will be complete. Wear this garment and your chic factor is instantly upped. Look like this celebrity and you’ll be a better version of yourself. Strap on this contraption and all of your body-image woes will vanish. The vast majority of entities that deal in style and fashion do so through shopping, so it is in their best interests to keep us buying. When we take the time to think about what we truly need, what may actually work for our styles, which items will get the most use beyond season-of-purchase, these folks become downright panicky. They want us to funnel our dissatisfaction with our current wardrobes into procuring new wardrobes, and never counsel us to work with what we’ve got. Or even think critically about what we’ve got. The longer I work with my clients on honing their personal styles, the more attuned I become to these, “Don’t think, shop” messages.

I had clients who wanted to skip the closet consult and go directly to personal shopping. I always encouraged them to do some analysis and writing first – even if they don’t want a formal consult – because I knew that introspection would prove valuable. Very few of us are completely content with our wardrobes or styles, so many of us feel near-constant urges to make change. But if we don’t examine our current behaviors and choices, we’ll have a harder time making informed and intentional choices in the future. Our current closets might not be working for us, but filling them with new stuff that was chosen without any examination of how the old stuff got there probably won’t work for us either.

So if you’re at a spot in your style evolution where you feel stuck, or utterly sick of everything you’ve got, or confused as to how to change your sartorial direction, look to the past and present before you jump into the future. Sit down and write about your current style, your wardrobe favorites and orphans, why you shop and what you’re drawn to when you do. Think about the shapes, colors, and fibers you are drawn to again and again, and if they’re not working in everyday practice, see if you can figure out why. List out brands, styles, fabrics, trends, colors, patterns, and shapes that you love AND ones you hate. Consider what you have the most of in your current wardrobe, and why. Resist the temptation to chuck the lot and start over. You may decide to do that in the end, but setting aside time to really think about how you got here will help you move forward with real wisdom under your belt. If you believe the hype and shop without reflection, you might nab a new wardrobe that feels new and exciting for a few precious weeks. But if you utilize introspection and contemplation, you’ll be able to craft a new or revised style for yourself that truly works in the long haul.

Image courtesy Willem van Bergen.

Originally posted 2013-07-15 06:25:36.

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18 Responses to “Don’t Think, Shop”

  1. Courtney

    Doing this made such a huge difference for me! I’ve always known that I like fall colors, but when I started writing I realized that I specifically liked colors that go with amber (teal, plum, mustard, cognac). I also realized that I’ve bounced around between preppy, steampunk, and boho, because my actual style is more edgy forest dweller chic (like urban warrior princess, but in the woods and with more focus on natural fabrics and modesty/comfort) After I did that and realized that about half my closet was clothes that didn’t fit that because of color or style, I made a Pintrest board of clothes that fit the style perfectly. It was SO inspiring that now nothing goes in my closet that doesn’t fit that look, and I have gotten more compliments on my wardrobe in the past year than I have in my entire life … it fits who I am better, so I look better!

  2. Dana

    Right on! Sometimes all I hear is this terrible cacophony of “buy buy buy change change change!” I don’t think I realize the extent to which I am pelted with these messages every day. This post is so refreshing! I should tape it to my closet.

  3. bubu

    Spot on, Sal! I have, under the wisdom of your site, become much more careful and thoughtful in how I shop. I keep a list on my phone of items I am looking for in any particular season, based on what I know about wardrobe holes or desired style goals, and it keeps me on track when I shop. So as many fun and crazy shoes as I may try on, if they don’t fit what I am trying to accomplish with my style, they don’t come home (even if technically they “fit”). And I realize the thrill of picking what really works, is a slower, more satisfying feeling than the temporary high of “oh my g*d they’re so cute I have to have them!” — it’s like the difference between real food and cotton candy — and the difference in the way you feel afterwards is somewhat parallel too.

    • Molly

      I feel similarly. I remember being in my teens and early 20s, looking at what magazines said we should have (the old white shirt, trench coat, black dress lists) and thinking I was somehow supposed to turn into that person at some point. Or picking up whatever looked cute or fit my body in thrift stores, and wearing it but not feeling quite right.

      Now I have a sense of my style and am continuously honing my closet, getting rid of the items I continuously pass over as “not right” and scouring stores for what really fits what I’m trying to do. I’m always willing to try a new silhouette (at least in the fitting room), but no matter what, I stick to my own personal vibe. And what do you know–I like my whole closet a lot better, and everything goes together much better, too!

  4. ksgentry

    I am definitely going to take your advice and sit down and think about my choices that I have made over the years. I seem to be all over the place, from teal and coral to orange and brown and perhaps throw in red along the way. My household furnishing make the same statement, vintage and modern all thrown in the same room. Looks like it is time for a little reflection of my past and present styles and colors and see what I really like. Thanks so much for the informative post.

  5. Hearthrose

    You know I am going to take your advice. I’m changing sizes and a lot of my favorite items have passed and I was staring at my closet thinking, “I don’t want to wear X, it’s too hot. I don’t want to wear Y, it’s too weird.”

    Thinking before sewing. a concept!

  6. Elsa

    This is all such great advice. I’ve been thinking lately about which clothes (and bags and shoes) I reach for first and why, and what things I keep (or keep buying) but don’t wear, and how to make sure my wardrobe is full of the first and not the second.

    Conversely, lately I’ve also been trying out unfamiliar or uncharacteristic shapes and styles and colors. It’s too easy to get unconsciously locked into thinking “Oh, I wouldn’t wear that” — but if I keep thinking that, I’ll never try anything new. What fun is that?

  7. Cari

    I love the message you have here. It’s one thing to say that people should consume less (as most of us have an idea that we should), and an entirely different thing to show some practical ways to go about consuming less and ending up happier with what we have in the process. That’s a big part of what keeps me reading your blog. Thank you.

  8. Lisa

    This is so true. I’d never say that everyone ought to blog, but it’s also true that there’s nothing like writing about, and taking photos of style for a couple of years to make it really clear to yourself what you want to wear and why.

    Shopping is about 30% of the whole gig:).

  9. Paula DeGrand

    This is the most insightful, useful piece I have ever read about planning your wardrobe. I can attest to the wisdom of this approach, which boils down to knowing yourself. It’s almost as if the people who want you to shop, shop, shop don’t want you to know yourself, as you may realize that shopping might not be the solution to the problem. Thank you for writing this, Sally. I’m so glad I happened upon this post.

  10. Tracey

    Dear Sal,

    you are a voice in the wilderness. I have just started my own ‘style’ business, after encouragement from family and friends to find something I really want to do and am passionate about (after devoting my last 2 decades raising a family and working in dull jobs). I am passionate about helping women become their best selves, and you are absolutely right about the messages that are shouted from every rooftop to buy buy buy. I take on everything you’ve said here and totally agree. I will be doing this exercise myself, and have bought some of your other material too. Thanks for being that clear sane voice of rationality, you encourage us all, wherever we are. I am in Australia on the Gold Coast. Love, Tracey

    • Sally

      Tracey, thank you so much for your kind words! And I’m so glad to hear you’ll be practicing mindful shopping with your clients on the Gold Coast – best of luck to you, my dear!

  11. Cassie

    Great advice! I get tired of my wardrobe very quickly, but I often replace my cleared out wardrobe with the same kinds of pieces. Lately, my wardrobe has gotten more diversified as I was feeling stuck in a style rut of skinny pants or trousers, blouse, and blazer.

    I feel much happier with it…for now, but I think I will follow your advice!

    As a fashion blogger, I also sometimes feel pressure (probably only self-inflicted) to change my wardrobe up more frequently to keep readers interested. To some extent, I think it has been good for my fashion boredom as it has encouraged me to get more creative with what I already have as well as to shop with variety in mind.

    My personal tastes are pretty eclectic, so a diverse wardrobe feels right to me.