Make Your Style Unique to You: Ten Ways to Make This Happen
Let how you dress project who you are — your adventures, your hopes and dreams, your priorities, your love, your soul. Let your inner artist be your guide.
I was really lucky (for many reasons) to grow up in Baltimore, Maryland. One lovely reason is we had the most marvelous downtown department store, Hutzlers, where you could find anything in the world you dreamed about — from books to antiques, to clothing for all ages. Plus, imagine: there was an easy to find, spotless ladies’ (the accepted term) room on every floor.
My father made it very clear to me that I was expected to contribute a paycheck to the family income, and so, as soon as I could get a work permit, I got a Christmas job at Hutzlers wrapping packages. My supervisor, Alma (how I wish I could remember her last name so I could write to thank her!) asked me to remain after the holidays. This meant every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and all day Saturday you could find me behind the wrapping desk in the teen department, working with a friend I lost touch with (and cannot find), Betty Gorman, who introduced me to Elvis’s music and loved my cameo ring, which I gave her.
Then, when I left for college, I became a summer member of Hutzler’s College Board, which meant that we put exhausted moms shopping with their daughters in a room with magazines, and worked with their daughters, who depended on us to get all they needed for college. I remember the day I made a several thousand dollar sale (three daughters, each in a different dressing room): The head of the department, Mildred Cooperstein, usually quite calm, quiet, and contained within the confines of her small, hard to find office, came to the check out counter, let out a “Whoopie,” and began jumping with joy. The absolute highlight of this working experience came on the days when models from Hutzler’s high end designer department walked though our department modeling their marvelous fashions. I looked and I learned.
These years gave me a chance to see how designers changed syles to necessitate new buying. I learned to watch as hemlines changed. I remember when my exquisite, stylish, creative mother, with little money to spend on herself, had waist inserts put into the skirts of her suits to lengthen them. There were the cold winter evenings when we would read Vogue together, and turning the pages, she would tell me, “Darling, dream a little.” There were the wonderful days we spent going to antique stores and pawn shops, searching for affordable treasures. My mother bought depression glass and put live flowers on cakes before Martha Stewart was born. Her window treatments were flowering plants (she lovingly watered) in antique brass containers. Her floors were covered with hand made rugs — not a wall to wall carpet in sight. Not able to afford full sets of china, crystal or silver, her table was set with blended colors and styles from our antique-pawn shop journeys that made my heart sing.
I watched sadly as, unable to leave a marriage that was doomed, my mother lost her slim figure as well as her health. And in time, her interest in fashion and creative design. “Nothing looks or feels good anymore,” she would sadly tell me.
However, the years at Hutzlers, coupled with the experience of my mother’s innate, individual style were not lost on me. During my first marriage, a group of friends calling ourselves, CICC (Committee for Individual Clothing Choice) visited every designer department of Philadelphia’s fine downtown department stores (we used to have several), where we met with buyers and warned them not to tell us what the lengths our hems should be. (We CICC women were versatile: Dressed as we wished, we also met with obstetricians, telling them it was absurd that husbands who desired to be in the delivery room when their infants was born, were forced to miss an experience of a lifetime, relegated to fathers’ waiting rooms and endless cups of provided coffee, which many no doubt spiked again and again. It is no wonder that so many new dads fainted when seeing their new born for the first time.
Years later I got my greatest style compliment: The co-owner of one of Philadelphia’s major clothing stores asked me if I wanted to open a small boutique on the newly designed second floor of his store, and put together jewelry, clothing, dishes, etc. for a “total look,” which today would be called a “concept store.” I was flattered, but declined, as I loved the work I have continued and feel privileged to do.
I would like, however, to give you a few tips that, had I accepted this generous offer, I would have stressed:
- Understand the difference between taste and style: For example, the late Nancy Reagan had taste, but no style, while Madonna has style, but no taste.
- Know who you are and what you like, and do not be afraid to project it. For example, if boots with a floor length gown excite you, go for it. A lace blouse (I adore mine made from my grandmother’s lace) is great with jeans. With black jeans and the right shoes this is a perfect ensemble for a formal event.
- If you buy something of real quality, never, ever throw it out. Even if it no longer suits you — a sister, a friend, a daughter, the daughter of a friend, or someday a grand-daugher will love, love, love it.
- Never fear being creative. Trust your instincts. Be you!: I found the most exquisite Chinese antique robe, which I wore as an evening coat for years. When one of my closest friends, who borrowed it again and again and loved wearing it, died young and suddenly, she was buried in it.
- It is fine to wear wonderful antique jewelry (even pieces with some bling — have fun!) during the day, as well as night. I have some of my mother and grandmother’s treasured pieces that they saved for and found on sale, and I wear them all of the time. On important occasions I always try to bring something that once belonged to my mother — a handkerchief, brooch, purse, etc. In this way, we continue to share. Before I leave for the event, I say, “Thank you for all you made possible. We are going out now to have all the fun you should have had.”
- Tell yourself, if something is lost or stolen, and not returned that whoever has what you have lost needs it more than you ever did. I had a wonderful collection of antique stick pins that disappeared during a move three years ago. I think I know who took them, but have no proof. To need to steel something from another is a sign of inner pain, feelings of emptiness, as well as self hate. Those who act this way deserve our prayers.
- Remember something that makes you happy is never out of style. Wear it with joy. I have a pair of boots that are 15 years old, and they are wonderful, regardless of their pointed toes. My shoemaker welcomes them for repair and upkeep like an old friend, always making them look like new.
- Keep your mind open when you shop. I found a wonderful dress, on sale, with delicate beading on the lower three inches. It was perfect for a morning family observance, a granddaughter’s summer Bat Mitzvah, but far too short. “By any chance, is there another dress like this one in the back?” I asked my sales person. “Yes,” was the response, “but the top is damaged and we are sending it back.” Could I buy it at a very reduced price?” I asked. And so I did, and my dressmaker (see tip 9) placed the lower three inches at the bottom of my dress, which made it a perfect length. (I am wearing it in the above photo, where I was asked to share my research into the extreme dangers of burnout in the helping professions.)
- Keep your closet as organized as possible, even if small. When stuck about what to wear, look eveything over carefully, and let it “talk” to you. Last night my husband and I were having dinner with a friend whose husband of many years died a few months ago. I wanted to wear something that would make her happy. Suddenly my eyes turned to a navy skirt and sweater set I love but have not worn in years. It is over 15 years old, and I had the skirt (it had been ankle length) cut to just below the knee, thinking I would wear it more. Yet, I hadn’t. Last night, however, the skirt and sweater seemed perfect. I put on a string of highly mismatched baroque pearls that speak to my soul — yes, you’ve guessed it — parts of me do not match either — grabbed my mother’s bright red purse, put on my red 3 inch shoes — 20 years old, well worn and comfortable — there was a little nick I cured with nail polish, put on red lipstick (this was not a night for natural lip gloss, but some are), and off we went. “Hello, dear gypsy,” was my friend’s greeting, followed by a hug, this one longer than ususal.
- If you do not sew well (I do not), try to find someone who enjoys sewing for you and helping you create your styles. I was blessed with such a person, Rose Greco, my dear friend and confidante for over 30 years. Born in the impoverished coal mining town of Potsville, Pennsylvania and raised in an orphanage, Rose, the 6th of 7 children, had only love in her heart. She would visit me monthly, her portable sewing machine in hand, and what fun we had. Rose died this month at the age of 95. Her memory is a forever blessing.