Find Your Style — How to Look Fabulous While Avoiding the Fast Fashion Trap

Sheryl Kirby
Photo by William Malott on Unsplash

I am bad for the economy. Despite really enjoying the artistry involved in fashion, I don’t buy a lot of clothing. And when I do, that garment has to meet a long list of qualifications before I hand over payment.

Much concern is generated with some regularity about how much clothing the average Westerner buys, how little we wear that clothing once we get it home, and how difficult it is to dispose of those garments once the closet gets too full and we want to make room for more new clothes.

Second-hand shops receive so many donations that garments often only get a week or so on the racks before they’re cycled out, baled up, and sent to countries in Africa where they’re sold for pennies and where they’re often not even wanted or needed. Fast fashion has made new clothing so cheap that people in countries that previously needed clothing donations now buy new items at rates that are inching up on the Western pace of consumption.

Services that allow people to borrow or rent clothing, wear the items a few times and then return them in order to try different pieces are becoming more popular, and definitely ensure that at least some items are worn a reasonable amount, but ultimately, these fast fashion items also end up in a landfill, as they will eventually fall apart or quickly go out of style.

Buying nothing, or at least, significantly less, is better for the environment, but not so much for the economy, which relies heavily on consumer spending. If we all stopped shopping it would result in lost jobs, from retail to transport to manufacturing. And let’s face it, we all need some clothes.

Here’s how I've streamlined my own wardrobe to make it more stylish, more environmentally-friendly, and more useful to me so that I actually wear the few items that I buy.

Style vs Fashion: Stop Following Trends

The first hurdle is the most difficult — stop following trends, unless they really work for you. While the fashion industry is based on the premise of convincing consumers that the next big trend is the one that will make our lives better, deep down, we all know this is never really true. As trendy items go out of style, sometimes in as little as a few weeks, followers of fashion need to move on to the next hot thing to stay satisfied.

Style, however, is a different beast. True style, the ability to know what cuts, colors, fabrics and yes, trends, work for you, and then avoiding mainstream fads to put together a wardrobe that is unique makes for a much more interesting persona. Moving away from finding comfort in homogeneity, that is, feeling confident because you’re NOT dressed just like everyone else, and discovering (and expressing) who you are by what you wear is a delightful process that signals a growing maturity and sense of self.

Once you reach the point where you’d be horrified to leave the house looking like anybody else, then you’re ready to create your own unique style, based on logic, comfort and self-expression.

Analyze Your Life, Determine Your Style

The hardest part of the process is determining your personal style, for this is influenced by so many things that are unique to you including culture, religion, body shape, musical preferences, and even, or especially, your local weather.

Keeping a style diary where you track every outfit you wear, for a month or more, will help determine the foundation of your clothing needs. Log each outfit, how physically comfortable it is, and how psychologically comfortable it is (IE. are you overdressed? Dressed inappropriately?).This will allow you to pinpoint the clothes you actually need versus the clothes you buy because of a whim, or the idea of the person you could be if only you had that perfect item in your wardrobe. There’s no point in buying ball gowns if you never go to balls, or vintage silk pajamas if you prefer to wear t-shirts to bed.

The style diary should show you where to concentrate your wardrobe updates. For instance, if you work from home and are happy in yoga pants and t-shirts, then you probably don’t need a large collection of office-appropriate suits and blouses. Note that your style will morph as you get older and experience life changes. Job shifts may require wardrobe updates. Having kids might mean that you can significantly pare down your collection of club wear. Buying a house may require that you have clothes appropriate for gardening, painting, or renovating, and no longer need quite so many dresses for a cute weekend brunch.

At the same time, start collecting images of clothing that you like (Pinterest is great for this) and sort into boards or folders that relate to your lifestyle activities. This will help you to pinpoint what styles you like, as well as what style will genuinely work for you, in order to know what to buy in the future when adding to your wardrobe.

Marie Kondon’t

Once you have an idea of the clothes you need, it’s time to get rid of the clothes that you don’t need. Despite the popularity of Marie Kondo’s “Spark Joy” philosophy, that doesn’t really work here. The key is to be ruthless. Get rid of anything that is permanently stained, torn and not repairable, or that doesn’t fit (in a favorable way) right now. Don’t keep a pile of “fat” clothes or “thin” clothes to accommodate future weight gain or loss unless you are literally pregnant.

Of the clothes that go back into you closet, each item must meet all of the following qualifications:

— fits you, right now

— does not need mending or altering (you can make a pile of things to be fixed, but do not return them to the closet until the items have been updated)

— works in at least one category of your style diary (IE. work clothes, around the house clothes, out for dinner)

— can be paired with at LEAST two other items in your wardrobe, ideally to make distinct outfits, unless this is gear specific for sports or similar activities

The clothes left in your closet, combined with your various Pinterest boards, should give you an idea of what you are drawn to in terms of style, color, and fit. In many cases we need clothing that we don’t necessarily love but which may be required for certain jobs or tasks. Look at each piece again and determine whether it’s a need or a love, and if the main part of your wardrobe is based on need (for instance, you are required to wear a conservative suit to work), think about ways you can love it more, perhaps with accessories or different colors or cuts.

The Capsule Wardrobe

Of the clothes that you’ve kept, you should have the foundation for a capsule wardrobe. This should be made up of items that will work together, ideally in a maximum of three colors, generally at least one neutral and one color that compliments your hair and complexion. Whether this is mostly pants or skirts, sweaters, jackets, shirts, or dresses will depend on your own preferences and needs.

From this point onward, buy nothing that doesn’t work with your existing capsule wardrobe. Everything you purchase must work with at least two existing items in your current wardrobe to make a complete outfit. For instance, when buying pants, can you pair them with two or more tops from your existing collection?

If you live somewhere with extreme annual weather changes, where summers are steaming hot and winters are well below freezing, then you will likely need two distinct seasonal wardrobes. Consider including items that can work across more than one season to extend your options, such as a lightweight cardigan than can be a layer in winter, but worn as outerwear in the warmer months.

Uniformity Not Homogeneity

Beyond the capsule wardrobe, many people find that a daily uniform makes their life simpler and less stressful. If you work in a job that requires an actual uniform or some semblance of specific items worn regularly, you already know that starting your day without having to figure out what to wear can be pretty awesome. The key here is to buy good quality items in bulk so that you can put on a clean version of your uniform each day. This makes for easy shopping, easy laundering, and allows you to concentrate your clothing budget on capsule wardrobe items for special occasions.

Don’t think that you can’t be stylish with a daily uniform, either. A friend who is a professor of fashion history at a university wears a uniform of black pants (she owns four pairs of the same style), a black turtleneck (shorter sleeves/necklines for summer) and some variation of a black and grey plaid jacket in different weights/fabrics for varying weather. She changes scarves, hats, and other accessories each day and her colleagues consider her the epitome of style.

Buy the Best You Can Afford

For many of us, money is a constraint, and we get more emotional reward from buying many cheaper items than we might in buying one piece of fantastic quality. However, well-made garments from quality fabrics last longer, saving money in the long run when you can make a winter coat last a decade (or two!) instead of replacing your coat every couple of years to stay on trend.

For this to work, you have to accept the idea of dedicating yourself to wearing garments in classic styles that are beyond fast fashion trends.

Sew, No Go

Many people suggest that sewing is the key to the problems caused by Westerners buying too much clothing, but sewing new clothes can be just as wasteful as buying fast fashion due to the large amount of textile scrap that comes from one person buying the quantity of fabric necessary to make a single garment. While labor conditions in most sweat shops are indeed horrible, there is considerably less textile waste per garment than in home sewing. This is not to say people should not create their own clothes if they enjoy it, but let’s not kid ourselves with the idea that this is any kind of solution to the problem, especially if the home-sewn garments are on current trend and will also be discarded once they are out of fashion.

Having said that, sewing is an skilled and creative hobby, especially if you use those skills for repairs or altering garments to fit better in order to keep wearing them for a longer period of time.

Vintage Vibes

Vintage items are definitely a fun way to stay stylish while not contributing to the waste and poor worker treatment of fast fashion. Vintage items can create a truly unique and individual look, but before you buy, check out these tips:

— vintage items, particularly pre-1980s, tend to run small, and there is not usually a great selection of plus-size options.

— body shapes have changed over the generations, and garments fit much differently; we are not only heavier than our grandparents, we’re also taller, so many vintage items might be shorter in the torso, or narrow through the shoulders. Make sure it fits well before you buy.

— check the garment carefully for stains, tears, and (sorry) odor. By this I mean, examine every seam, check the fabric inside and out, and sniff those pits. Reject it if you cannot reasonably fix these problems.

— be prepared to mend, alter, and clean your vintage items. Most vintage stores cannot afford to dry clean every item they sell, so a good wash (especially if it smells musty or like mothballs) is important before you wear it.

Get over Instagram

One of the biggest excuses I’ve seen for people buying (or making) lots of new clothing is that they constantly need new outfits for Instagram. The idea of posting a selfie while wearing something that has already been photographed is shocking for many fashionistas. If this is the only reason you’re constantly buying new clothes, you might need to re-examine your priorities. This is also where style versus fashion comes back into play. Some people might be impressed by a regular parade of new clothing, but images that demonstrate true style — how you put items together, as opposed to quantity, and constantly new — is far more impressive.

When You’ve Just Gotta Trend

If you can’t totally get past the desire to be on-trend, then set yourself a (low) seasonal budget and buy one piece that you will wear to death. I’d still go with accessories here, or something that can be worked into another part of your wardrobe. For instance, current runway shows for Fall 2019 show a lot of garments in bright orange. If you’ve gotta have something in that color, just to show that you’re in fashion, then go with a scarf, or a t-shirt where you can extend its life by wearing it as a layer under other garments, or even by wearing it around the house or to sleep in once it’s no longer on trend.

Paring down to a daily uniform or capsule wardrobe that suits your own unique style and personality can be far more creative and rewarding than buying gobs of cheap clothing that is in fashion for twenty minutes and then made redundant. Finding beautiful pieces that will last for years and that emphasis your own unique style means that you significantly cut down on the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills. Mending or dying existing pieces lets you enjoy them longer. Altering new or vintage pieces to fit you better ensures they won’t get lost at the back of the closet.

You can still contribute to the economy without contributing to the destruction of the environment, but it does take a genuine effort that includes embracing individual style over mainstream homogeneity.

Sheryl Kirby

Written by

Food writer and author based in Toronto, Canada. Exploring the experience of middle age as a post-punk weirdo. More here: www.sherylkirby.com

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