Sunday, July 31, 2005

Living with limits

When it comes to clothing, I am a power shopper. Given the information that management would prefer to see more formal, businesslike clothing, I spent yesterday re-engineering my wardrobe. I won’t say the transformation is complete, but I do have two closets now—one devoted to clothing that can be worn to the office (some “full business attire” consisting of suits and separates, some slightly less formal but still a step up from what I have been wearing) and one for everything else (all denim is there, along with most cotton knits, most bulky sweaters, a surprising amount of at-home lingerie and loungeware, and all the frilly and funky clothes I keep because I may want to dress up to go out someday).

The truth is that I love pretty clothes, so I have a secret discount shopping habit, which I have applied—ironically—over the last few years in systematically making my wardrobe less formal. It appeared to me that to fit in here in Vermont that I needed to be more casual, but now it appears that I have overdone the swing to the casual, and need to move back the other direction. Yesterday, I spent just under $700 and five and a half hours to score:
2 mid-weight outer jackets (for $70 for the two, I will have alternatives for most of the year)
1 suit (with pants)
3 blazers suitable for office
7 pants suitable for office (one matches a blazer I already own)
1 skirt (gray and hot pink pinstripe for $10—I couldn’t resist!)
10 shirts (most in the $7-10 range)
1 turtleneck sweater (possibly a mistake, but at $5 not a big one)
3 cardigans suitable for the less formal days in the office
3 pairs of good quality brand name shoes (Anne Klein, Born, and Capezio)
1 pair earrings
1 pair cufflinks
6 pairs of kneehighs
6 pairs of black socks (all identical because socks get eaten at my house)
I figure I still need a replacement for my winter parka, two more suits, and—when the dust settles—possibly a couple of specific fill-in pieces like a classic cream silk shirt or a pair of navy pants. It would be easier if I were less fussy about clothing, but I draw the line at frump, although I have had to relax the prohibitition against polyester, as the fabric has improved and is used more often in higher quality clothing. I almost always buy brand name clothing because it lasts longer and fits better, but occasionally I will spend up to $20 on a gamble, if I really love the piece. Like my favorite brick-red silky poly knit shirt with v-neck and four ruffles up the front—an enduring high scorer on my personal rulebook derived from all those multiple copies of What Not to Wear that people have given me.

Anyone who knows me in person may be surprised to know that I am fussy about clothing, because I am one of those people who tend to look casual no matter what I wear. It is something about my short stature, tendency to plumpness, sloped shoulders, curly hair that won’t stay combed, and a mobile face that shows everything. Over time, I have learned that I have to wear more formal clothing to get to the expected baseline than do taller, thinner, more reserved people. But that’s an easy fix, right?

It’s not really about money. It is about finding the personal style that fits, then shopping relentlessly to find clothing that really works. I don’t have the patience to shop often, so I do a couple of large shopping trips a year, then fill in gaps. I make it a policy never to buy only things that look great or that I love. Although I make mistakes sometimes, they are few and inexpensive. Since moving to Vermont, I haven’t needed to pay more than $20 for a shirt, $30 for pants, or $100 for a suit—this the impact of dramatically lower clothing prices over the last several years, as well as of my firm resolve to live within my income. It doesn’t hurt that I am handy with a needle and can make simple alterations myself or even whip up the skirt or pants that will be the perfect go-with for a purchased jacket.

Yesterday, I saw lots of jackets this year that look as if they are made out of upholstery fabric....hmmm. Maybe I will see what is in my fabric stash. As long as I don’t have to rely on my sewing skills to dress me appropriately—what frustration and anxiety that would provoke!—I can have a little fun and maybe expand my wardrobe alternatives.

One of the valuable lessons I learned in business school is that you can't optimize everything, so it is important to know what you are trying to optimize and what are the limits. The limits on my clothing adventures are a need to meet a certain appearance standard and a small budget. Within those limits, I can apply creativity, a disciplined approach, and shopping and sewing skills to optimize my wardrobe along a number of parameters--ease of getting dressed in the morning, easy care of clothing (washable, no ironing is best!), and what looks great on me. With unlimited time and money, these might seem to be much easier to optimize. My experience suggests otherwise. It can be a joy to live within limits, once we accept that they are there.

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