What not to wear, or, the fashion decision I never expected to make


This is a pretty good summation of my fashion philosophy.

I’ve never been especially into clothes. That was cause for laughter during my (very brief) stint writing fashion stories; I’m good at research and figuring out who can offer the insight I need, but I would show up for these interviews and realize I was woefully under dressed.

Generally speaking, that hasn’t bothered me much. I’m a writer, and I think of myself as a behind-the-scenes person. I’m comfortable being slightly rumpled, and I’m guilty of continuing to wear a favorite shirt long after I spot a hole in it.

So it may surprise those who know me that this week, I hired a style coach.

I’ve worked with Megan LaRussa Chenoweth for about four years, since she took over Birmingham magazine’s style coverage. Several things have stood out in that time: Megan has never made me feel ashamed of anything I’ve worn (and I’ve seen her on days when I know I wasn’t looking my best). She has a knack for encouraging and building people up, which I think is a significant value in a field focused on image. And most importantly, she’s kind.

What made me take the plunge? Well, several things. For one, I’ve gained 25 pounds in the past year or so. It’s a beautiful thing; my weight gain is largely because of muscle, and I’m more confident in my body than ever before. But I didn’t know how to dress for my new shape. Although the weight is distributed fairly evenly through my shoulders, core, hips and thighs, the end result is still a significantly curvier figure than I’m accustomed to. I’ve struggled to figure out what’s appropriate and what’s scandalous.

Similarly, I realized that just because I can still fit into clothes from the juniors department doesn’t mean I should be wearing them. I’m 32 years old, and most of those outfits are meant for teenagers. I’ve worn things to the office and realized later that they were far too casual. I can pass for younger than my age, but I still need to dress for my chapter in life.

And that chapter will soon include a variety of speaking engagements to support my forthcoming book (due out from The History Press in July!). It’s one thing to curl up in a hole-y sweater and too-tight pants when you’re writing. It’s entirely different when you’re trying to present those words to people who might want to pay for them.

This pile of hangers previously held half my wardrobe.

This pile of hangers previously held half my wardrobe.

This week Megan helped me move toward a more appropriate and defined image with a Southern Femme closet cleanse. (You can learn more about this and her other services on her website.) She asked me to send her my measurements in advance of the appointment so she could determine my body type. After her arrival and a little laughter with my oh-so-helpful cats, we began discussing my shape and what that means for my wardrobe.

Lucky me–apparently I’ve got an hourglass shape, which is fairly easy to dress. However, I can add the illusion of being top- or bottom-heavy by wearing the wrong clothes. Megan talked me through the do’s and don’ts. (Do wear wrap or surplice tops and dresses. Don’t wear crew necks or turtlenecks. That’s a big change, as these nicely highlighted my features when I was 25 pounds lighter. But I had already realized that and eliminated most of them from my wardrobe. Do wear mid-rise jeans. Don’t wear pleated skirts that start the pleats above your hips.)

Megan also asked me a few questions about the image I want to present to people and how I’d describe my style. I aim for a classic but eclectic look, but I often worry that I’m missing that mark. I want my clothes to show that I’m a professional, but also that I don’t take myself too seriously. My colleagues and students would attest to the fact that I’m just as likely to whip out a red pen as I am to strike a yoga pose or dance across the room.

And then, it was time to move toward my closet. Before my appointment, my sister had cautioned me not to let Megan toss out her favorite black dress (which I’m borrowing during Cheryl’s pregnancy). I told her that this isn’t “What Not to Wear.” Megan wouldn’t be disposing of my clothes (and actually, I’ve read that clothes seen on that show are donated, not thrown away), and besides, that dress looks fabulous on me. I’d prefer not to return it to its rightful owner!

Sure enough, as we went through every item in my closet, Megan deemed that dress the epitome of what I should be wearing. The neckline hits below my collarbone, the fabric skims over my silhouette and it hits just above my knee.


I didn’t realize I had an in-house stylist all along! While Mac opted to nap at the opposite end of my bed, Harry made himself comfortable atop–and eventually within–the try-on pile. He listened attentively as Megan dispensed advice. I may be leaning on him for tips in the weeks to come!

Other items weren’t so lucky. I knew I had things to get rid of–don’t we all? But I’ll confess, I was surprised to watch the “to donate” pile grow so rapidly. Megan asked me to pull each item from my closet and explain why it worked or didn’t. In some cases, she’d continue the line of inquiry by asking what I would wear the item with or making suggestions. From there, each piece of clothing was either returned to the closet (approved!), added to my summer stack (approved! but not until the weather warms), dropped in the donation pile, hung up for the consignment pile or added to the try-on pile.

The resulting try-on pile was surprisingly small, 10 items or so. About half of them found their way back into my closet. We then took a quick look at my shoes–almost all of which met Megan’s approval!–before examining the mess we’d made.

The results: Two garbage bags full of my clothes, ready to be sent off to the YWCA’s My Sister’s Closet program. Some lucky girl will also receive one of my old bridesmaids dresses as part of their prom dress giveaway. A stack of hanging clothes is bound for Zoe Consignment and Vintage. I was excited that not only will Megan take all of these clothes to their assigned destinations and bring me the appropriate paperwork, she has also worked with Zoe enough to have a good eye for what they will accept and what they won’t. Some of my clothes would have been hits if I’d taken better care of them, for example. Lesson learned.

My closet may be half empty, but it feels so good to know that each item flatters me.

My closet may be half empty, but it feels so good to know that each item flatters me.

And when I turned back to my closet, I realized it was now half empty. Some people may have been freaked out by that. I probably would have been if I didn’t trust Megan so fully–and if I wasn’t such a bargain shopper. Many of the items we discarded cost me $20 or less. The more expensive items found their way into the consignment pile, which made it much easier to let go. And most importantly, I now know that everything in my closet will look good when I put it on.

Of course, this also means it’s time to shop. Megan took notes throughout the closet cleanse, and I’m looking forward to seeing her assessment of what I should add to my wardrobe. The pieces I already own that seem to do the most for me are mostly from Anthropologie and J. Crew–both favorites, but both tend toward the pricy side. I’ve already popped into a few stores and tried things on, but I’m concentrating on making wise decisions both financially and with regard to fashion. For example, I picked up a Banana Republic surplice top yesterday for only $9. I expect to splurge on a few wardrobe staples, but I believe a little patience will allow me to rebuild a wardrobe full of things that make me feel great without putting my finances in danger.

After all, feeling great is why I began this journey. I don’t expect I’ll ever be a fashion plate. I’m not big on trends, and I will probably always prefer to be behind the scenes. But I have long agreed with those who argue you perform better in any arena when you feel good about yourself. That’s exactly why I think it matters what you wear, and why this experience has been worth every cent.


Filed under Autobiography

5 Responses to What not to wear, or, the fashion decision I never expected to make

  1. What fun! I’ve been thinking a lot lately how nice it would be to have a second set of eyes look through my closet and pair new things up and trash others. My jean pile is ridiculously overflowing, but I really could use some hell with other areas.

  2. Ha! Help. I think autocorrect is trying to add emphasis for me.

  3. Carlee

    Carla Jean, that was an awesome read.

  4. Pingback: If you’ve got a problem, yo, I’ll solve it | Carla Jean Whitley | Ink-stained Life

  5. Ooo. I could use some help with dressing for my new form as well. It’s tough to revamp after exercise!

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