the graceful wardrobe

backwards and in high heels
they seem to be floating on air…(via)

or Effortless Isn’t Easy.

I was born too late for the Golden Age of Hollywood, at least in theaters. But from an early age, I sought out those local TV stations that ran “old movies” (1930’s-1950’s) regularly, and especially enjoyed those that included dance numbers. I was entranced by the costumes, the grace and glamour. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30’s and joined performing folk dance groups that I began to understand just how much effort, discipline, precision, strength and control went into these dance numbers. Ginger and Fred made it look effortless, and as I labored to complete a turning leap and land without a giant thud, I got just some sense of how easy this was NOT.

cafe dance in funny face
this dance looked wild and impromptu but was painstakingly choreographed, and Audrey had a serious ballet background. (via)

So what does this have to do with style? A lot actually, if you think about it. Just as great dancers work hard for years, sweat and bleed to create a performance that looks effortless, great style rarely happens without effort. As with “chic” I think there is a lot of mis-use of the word “effortless.” I see it used frequently to describe street style looks or other outfits that either are very simple/minimalist, or that have a certain casualness or ease to the cut of the pieces, or have that enviable effect of looking put-together without trying-too-hard. But really, how “effortless” are most of these looks we admire?

Sure, there are those women, one in several thousand perhaps, who have that recessive gene that’s given them an almost flawless eye and sense of style. They’re the ones who wander into a charity shop for the first time and within the first 30 seconds find a Missoni sweater. In their size. For $5. Their closet is your definition of “a charmed life.” But for most of us, it takes more work to hone our style and wardrobes to that point where we can begin to make it look easy. Even for celebrities or street style stars with enviable figures, stylists, and brands paying them to wear fabulous clothing, that Easy Airport Look™ is far from effortless (and the effort may be a team one). In all likelihood even those jeans and simple tee shirt may have been altered to fit just so, the tops of the boots folded down just the right amount to balance the proportions. For those of us without a team of style professionals, it takes not only effort, but trial and error and practice, practice, practice to make it look easy.

Most of the time, “effortless” is an illusion. Trying to create a wardrobe or style that’s actually effortless will either be a frustrating and futile pursuit, or else (if we hew to the literal meaning of the word) will result in a drab mish-mash of pieces without any discernible style. Rather, I’d suggest a goal of creating a “graceful” wardrobe.

I once read somewhere that physical grace is the marriage of strength and control. I think this is a concept that can be applied to our wardrobes as well, and an investment of time and effort on the front end can help us create a cohesive, graceful wardrobe that makes getting dressed and looking put-together-but-not-trying-too-hard if not “effortless,” at least easier.

Wardrobe strength (for most of us) will come from having a foundation of basic, core pieces that fit well, suit our lifestyle, and can adapt to different occasions. I find it helps to stick to neutrals for these foundation pieces, and to simple designs. The idea is that you can build upon these pieces season after season. It may take a while (and some trial and error) to build a strong foundation, but again an initial investment of effort can help save time and anguish later on.

Control as it applies to wardrobes to me means creating cohesion. Do the pieces in your wardrobe work with each other? Like basic dance moves that once mastered can be combined in many variations, a cohesive wardrobe is one that allows most pieces to be worn in multiple combinations. Sticking to certain color families or silhouettes are ways to achieve this, but achieving cohesion sometimes means passing up an otherwise gorgeous item that doesn’t work with anything else in your closet. That doesn’t mean you can’t have the occasional outlier, but too many of these can lead to those nothing-to-wear mornings.

A graceful wardrobe isn’t static, however. Life changes, size changes, seasonal updating and wear-and-tear mean that that some ongoing effort is required to maintain strength and cohesion. But the effort pays off in ease in getting dressed day-to-day, when it really counts. Grace under pressure, and all that. 🙂

Do you have a word or concept that guides your style and wardrobe?

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  1. Since I’ve started reading you blog and a few others, I’ve saved a tremendous amount of money and stress over getting my wardrobe in order. I’m pairing things down and finding my style in the process. Great article this am and I do love the Audrey Hepburn style……

  2. What you’re talking about is sprezzaturra as set out in The Courtier by Castiglione (a still-relevant book, several hundred years later). Here is the wikipedia definition: “Sprezzatura [sprettsaˈtura] is an Italian word originating from Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”.[1] It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them”.[2] Sprezzatura has also been described “as a form of defensive irony: the ability to disguise what one really desires, feels, thinks, and means or intends behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance”.[3]”

    Next time you’re in the Louvre you can see a portrait of Castiglione–by Raphael. One of my favorites.

    As for me, my desired fashion mode would be unobtrusive–in a good way. In other words, I want to look nice (if one looks closely), but not attract attention or give any sense of my socioeconomic status.

    1. I’m in love with you! I agree completely! Baudelaire’s work on seduction and power brought 360 degrees to the fallacy of effortless chic. You go girl!
      Unefemme. This is one of your best posts ever.

  3. I’ve been reading your blog for 2-3 months now, prompted by an upcoming month-long trip to Europe in September, combined with a desire to have an “effortless” wardrobe. My closet is loaded with clothes … yet, more often than not, when I go in my closet, I feel I have nothing to wear. This must stop. I’m resolved to get to the point of “wardrobe strength,” as you put it … and you have inspired me. Just yesterday I was pulling things out of my closet and I was actually embarrassed at myself at the number of items that I don’t wear, have worn only once, aren’t really me, etc. I felt like crying! (Think of all the time — and money — spent on purchasing these items.) But I have made a commitment to myself to get to the point you describe in today’s post. Thank you for your inspiration!

    1. Valerie,
      I’ve been where you are now. The time and money spent on purchases that don’t work are “sunk costs” as my sons would say. You might get a little money back if the clothes are worth consigning, but other than that the time and money are gone no matter what you do with those clothes. I’ve found that I feel “guilty” when I get rid of them (the time! the money!), but if I don’t get rid of them I feel guilty every time I open my closet. Better for me (and probably you), to get rid of them and move on.

    2. This is me too Leslie! Susan’s blog has helped me immensely too but I still have a ways to go! I seem to be endlessly searching for the perfect jeans and black pants. Too many trial and errors in my closet! Susan and Audrey are my inspiration

  4. I am guided by the mantra of La Valise de la Garconne – I’m built like a brick house, and if I have more than will fit into a suitcase, I’m done! Yes, that’s exaggeration, but I do try to pick my wardrobe with both eyes fixed firmly on my next trip, both in terms of the money aspect, and the packability of the clothes.

  5. I love the idea of “graceful chic” as a wardrobe ideal. I do struggle, though, with the fact that “chic” seems most appropriate for the half of my life that is spent in big or medium size cities, at work, or at social events like weddings, graduations or fundraising dinners. The other half of my life is spent in a casual suburb – and not the big city sort of suburb that is like an extension of the city, but a no-sidewalks, deer marauding through the yards, leafy kind of place that is more like a small town in the country. Here, “chic” could easily slide into “too dressed-up” or the dreaded “putting on airs.” I like reading your blog, and others, for ideas on casual. The way forward for me seems to involve neutral basics and interesting tops – but I’m still searching for my guiding wardrobe phrase!

    1. I have a bit of this dilemma as well. Most of my life is spent at the easel or outside covered in sweat, sunscreen and paint. The other half is spent in cities like San Francisco and Paris. Currently I’m spending time in the tropics. I have 3 separate wardrobes right now!

    2. Murphy,
      cherie, I have a divided lifestyle 2 concepts have been helpful. First, you must find ways to become comfortable with attention. Second, it’s easy to be chic in the city, the practice, practice, practice for us is in flattering, feminine country chic.

  6. What a great post! One of the reasons that drew me to your site was the practical approach to a wardrobe. I have learned that first- it needs to be comfortable above all other things. Second, needs to fit together and interchangeably with other elements of said wardrobe Third- I look great and feel better with a pared down closet of things that really feel great to wear instead of a fuller closet with things there I can’t wait to take off after the event And dont forget quality: one things well made and well suited to me is worth more than 10 other lesser items.

  7. What a fabulous thoughtful post! And I love the conversation that has ensued. I love your blog and it has saved my life!

  8. What a great post! The phrases “graceful chic,” and “strength and control” applied to wardrobe planning evoke both beauty and discipline. And knowing. For me, knowing my style and what really suits me is evolving. Then, finding the pieces that evoke how I want to look means studious discipline.

  9. I guess you could call me one of the lucky ones that can go into a resale shop and find an entire wardrobe. This just happened in a small town in North Carolina last week. Everything I pulled looked fabulous on me. Found 19 pieces (mostly dresses for work) and a brand new pair of Ferragamo pumps for $525.00 total! I’m set for the next few months, with some great items to travel to London with later in the week. I will be coordinating the pieces, thanks to your fab blog posts, but want to have two dresses for dinner, as I always feel better changing after a day of touring. I take friends out shopping and help them do the same. Of course I do it for my two daughters, who have learned the value of good resale items. When we/they buy new, quality is always at the forefront, but sometimes you just can’t afford the better pieces. Thank goodness for the fashionistas who rotate their clothes frequently. I ordered the black purse you showed from Nordstrom’s and it will be my travel bag on the plane. So excited!!! Love reading your posts.

  10. This post is brilliant, as are the comments from your readers! I have printed this and your recent post on “chic” and am using both to help me get past the point in my closet/wardrobe overhaul where I have been stuck for the past year. Your thoughts on these topics have helped me better define the wardrobe (and life, perhaps?) to which I aspire. Thank you for your ongoing inspiration!

  11. The other day, my dad was telling me about his visit to Grace, the top of Chicago’s top-flight restaurants. Tattooed on the chef’s arm is this quote from Friedrich Schiller: “Grace is the beauty of form under the influence of freedom.”

  12. When I’m tempted to buy something beautiful, I think of Coco Chanel’s great quote: Elegance is refusal. Sometimes you have to say no to the gorgeous new colour (whether for your wardrobe or your home), to the eye catching extra accessory, to the latest IT whatever. Refusing to clutter or confuse your style or your home assists in the pursuit of chic. Of course, sometimes it’s too hard to refuse………


  13. The thought of effortless chic makes me crazy. Like people just role out of bed that way.

    It also reminds me of how we see women and beauty. A woman is supposed to be beautiful or attractive or whatever it is called but she can’t put in too much effort or work to hard at it. She cannot talk about it either, she is just supposed to be beautiful….

  14. My wardrobe changes as weather does. In Buenos Aires we have almost 9 months of mid weather and a full month and half of winter and summer. So in the past years my efforts have been on building a mid weather wardrobe that is also suitable for travelling. You learn to layer and have fewer pieces that are versatile. In the end, you finally realize that packing to travel is easier by the minute.
    I also learned valuable lessons when we sailed. Recreational sailors need very special clothes that can be very bulky and add to the boat’s weight, weight needed for food, water, fuel and sailing supplies. Plus, there’s always dining when on shore, and the ocassional club party. My wardrobe might not be the most glamorous ever, but certainly does its job with certain finesse.

  15. If I had to choose only one word to help define my wardrobe it would have to be variety. I rage against boring neutrals, solids and what some would call, basics. Give me colour, pattern and wild eccentric unusual pieces. It stimulates my creativity and expresses who I am.