Tips from a Formerly Unfashionable Femme

Ellen’s dapper will not be upstaged by Portia!

“You’re wearing THAT? I feel so… UNDERDRESSED!” These are dreaded words that your girl wishes never to hear again. Trust me! I have heard them on occasion from my partner, and from meaningless jokers who came before her. The second that such phrases are uttered, I know the exact question my gal pal will pose next; “how do Rachel Maddow and Ellen Degeneres make it look so easy?”

I’ll tell you one important secret to their style: money. Money to purchase quality clothes, a good tailor, and a great stylist.  Well, here’s some information that will help you get over the fact that you don’t have a team of people working on your image, or unlimited cash to buy all the Versace suits that your heart desires.

In a 2008 Daily News interview, Maddow addressed the issue of her wardrobe stating, “No one picks out anything for me – are you kidding? You think it would be worth paying someone to choose for me between my eight different, nearly identical, dark gray suits?”  For more proof of the star’s simple wardrobe, look at Arianna Huffington’s brief video (brief because there’s nothing to really see) shot of Maddow’s modest pantsuit collection.

So, Maddow and I have something in common.  We have both found that the key to

Rachel Maddow shows that you can be both fashionable and casual.

building a good wardrobe is to invest in classic, versatile pieces. But, that is easier said than done, especially if you don’t know where to start. I certainly had no clue how to dress when I first moved from my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico to New York City in 1999. No offense, but Albuquerque is not a fashion forward town (before I get hate mail arguing to the contrary, I would like to clarify that I love my hometown; it offers natural beauty unparalleled by many other American cities. But, it is no Milan).  As a femme, I do not face the same challenges that genderbenders and genderblenders encounter, especially since the menswear inspired items that I gravitate toward tend to already have the feminine twists I covet.

But, that doesn’t mean I was born with any fashion sense. Even though my friends and family shop for me in the women’s department, each person has their own vision of what Juanita should be wearing (some of which is not fit for visual consumption, if you ask me). Further, there was, and continues to be, a serious dearth of positive images of fashionable African American women who’s skin pigmentation has not been lightened to high hell like Beyonce in a L’Oreal ad.

My pre-NYC style was not so fashion forward in NYC.

When I arrived in The Big Apple, my idea of evening-ware was a button down floral dress paired with clunky 90s sandals.  Coincidentally, at the same time, NYC had “Carrie Fever” (of Sex and the City), and women who were never before into fashion were becoming increasingly fashion conscientious. One could only imagine how awkward I looked walking into a chic downtown bistro wearing shoes chunkier and cheesier than the blue cheese dressing on my Cobb salad. I admired stylish women, but botched every attempt at creating a smart closet that was both fashionable and worked for me.

Slowly, I did learn (and am still learning) how to develop a personal dapper style and a functional wardrobe. I’ll share some tricks I’ve picked up along the way, so that you can cease wishing you were as stylish as your fashion icons and finally do something you want!

Tips from a Formerly Unfashionable Femme

1. Take an inventory of what you have. This requires that you clean and organize your closets (and drawers). You may have things hidden that you have completely forgotten about, or may have to replace items that no longer fit. Take a read of this post for some tips on how to organize your closet while earning cash and karma.

2. Shop with your style icons. If you like what Ellen Degeneres, Rachel Maddow, Jane Lynch, and/or Katherine Moenning are wearing, take them shopping with you!  Find images of your fashion icons in outfits that you feel could work for you. Take these images with you to use as inspiration (I say inspiration because you should adapt the looks to make them appropriate for your body type, as well as personalize them by adding elements that represent your unique style).

3. Know what you’re shopping for. Nothing is more counterproductive and frustrating than wandering around aimlessly through clothing stores. If you follow tips #1 and #2, you’ll have a better idea of what you need to purchase, which will reduce stress and prevent poor decision making when you’re actually in the store.

4. Make sure whatever you buy can create at least three different looks. That gray and black vest in your hand can go under a jacket for work, over a tee-shirt for the club, and over a patterned button-down for brunch? Really? Excellent! The pink polka-dot pants you’ve been stalking don’t match with anything in your closet? But they’re really campy? Fuggedaboutit!

5. Try it on, and sit down in it. Ever buy a pair of pants because they looked good on-line or when you stood in them at the store, only to find later that when you sat down in them at work your ankles and/or back were exposed? Unintended faux pas like high-waters and plumber’s crack can be avoided if you take just a few seconds to try items on AND assess how the items look when you’re in a seated position.

6. Alterations are your best friend. As I mentioned earlier, a good tailor is the secret to many of our icons’ sleek looks. Spending money on getting a couple of jeans tailored to fit your body is far better than purchasing a million pair of ill fitting jeans that don’t achieve the look you desire. Also, what you probably don’t know is that many stores offer free basic alterations (i.e. hems). Here is a short list of retailers that will provide basic dappering at no charge:

  • Brooks Brothers. “Basic alterations on unfinished trouser hems are available at no charge for online and catalog orders. You may enter alteration information in the Trouser Alterations area on the product page.”
  • Club Monaco. “We hem gratis.”
  • Nordstrom. “Select services are free on full-priced merchandise.”
  • Saks Fifth Avenue. “Many of the most common and basic alterations are provided as a courtesy on full price garments.”
  • Ralph Lauren. “We offer complimentary alterations on full-price men’s suits and Collection apparel in select Ralph Lauren stores.

7. Don’t purchase anything on sale that you would not purchase at full price. In the past, I would easily fall victim to sales. It was the same old routine. I would see something in a store that was perfect but pricey. I would pass up my dream item to purchase five not-so-perfect items that would hang in my closet unworn for years. If a sale item doesn’t fit or flatter, or if you wouldn’t buy it for full price, put the money you would have spent on the sale piece aside and spend it later on a splurge purchase that will surely satisfy.

You are now armed with information. Stop torturing us with your whining about Ellen’s perfect pant suit. Go forth my brave shopper!

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  • You’re the best dude.

    Sitting down in your new pants is KEY. I learned that trick from my mom… a long line of ladies with big hips!

  • Great post! I just wish it was easier or even feasible could find the items I like where I live, or that the weather would allow me to follow some of my desires. Besides my inclination to be the jeans, t-shirt and sneakers gal, it is a tad difficult to be fashionable when it’s 100F and humid! Any suggestions beside Tarzan/Jane outfits?

    Moreover, any post that depicts Rachel Maddow (especially that photo) deserves higher praise! hehe

    I’m loving your posts, Juanita! Please remember give me a free subscription of Vanity Fair when they hire you!

  • Thank you for these great tips lady!

    I think that we make dressing up harder than it really is and each of us can improve our fashion sense by following these easy-to-do tips.

    Two of your suggestions have already helped me. First, finding inspiration in high-fashion men’s photographs have helped me (with your assistance) put together two outfits which have already brought me multiple compliments and have made me feel fashionable for once! This is so easy and brilliant. I’m excited for more!

    Second, thank you for introducing me to tailoring. I’ve missed out on so many cool clothes because I never thought to actually get it tailored to fit my body right. I finally have hope that soon I will be wearing some awesome blazers without literally swimming in them!

    So, no more whining from me! Thank you! xo

  • This was another great story to post but i also wish that when you do go and buy a suit, make sure that you dont look like “sponge bob square pants” and look like a box not a good look. get a shirt that fits your next not like it is your dads and ladies buy a dress that makes you look good not that everyone looks you feel me it does not have to look like spandex on your hips, and always get the right shoes, they have them in your price range you need not have to buy Jimmy Choos.

  • Lol thanks for the visuals of what not to do, if the jeans are falling of the ass please makes sure you have some nice drawers on.

  • Great piece. May I remind or inform y’all of Uniqlo. Uniqlo is your friend. Terrible Web site but great store.

  • This was a really great article. I enjoyed reading about the tips on fashion that you emphasized. Keep up the excellent work!

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