Ellen Freeman Roth                      

August 28, 2008

Turning 50, she gets wardrobe in order with a clothing makeover

A friend said that when she first saw me, she thought "Manhattan." Unfortunately, my style's taken a wrong turn over the past decade. Most of my clothes didn't look right on me. Recent purchases missed the mark, and I was reluctant to part with clothes that had become more artifact than wardrobe.

I'm not alone in this. Plenty of us have closets packed with clothes that are dated, unflattering, out of step with who we've become. Clothes we swear we'll slim down enough to wear again, but never do. A few misbegotten items with price tags still on them. And who can part with pieces woven with memories?

I was turning 50 and so, it seemed, was my closet. I needed to revamp, to look as good as I felt about the big day. Then came the solution: My husband got me two hours with a wardrobe stylist, Johanna Foster.

The notion that I had my own stylist made me laugh. My work-at-home dress code trended toward New Balance, not new Balenciaga. But Foster arrived with breezy elan. I shared with her my saga of searching for an ensemble for my keynote speech at an executive women's breakfast. I'd shopped in desperation, settling on something merely passable.

She wasn't surprised I'd had trouble. It's difficult to shop for an event, she said, because you're limited by what's available that season. Designers make a lot of mistakes, creating trendy items, so you need to own clothes that reflect your needs and identities.

The proper closet should be proportional: Fifty percent of your wardrobe should be everyday, functional clothes with long shelf lives, she said. Twenty percent should be timeless dressy items. Only 15 percent should be mementos and sentimental items. The last 15 percent should be trendy items from the current season, and since those items have shorter shelf lives they should be less costly. Ditch anything dated.

Most wardrobes are unbalanced, Foster said. As if on cue, she parted my sea of scarves. "You have a lot of these." "I wear a lot," I protested. "Some were my mother's." I'd drawn a line in the silk. Foster moved on to skirts, pulling out a short pleated floral.

"My summer favorite," I said.

"The fabric looks like my grandmother's curtains," she responded.

Form fitting is better on you, she advised. Stick with a clean design below the waist; no little pockets or embellishments that will make your hips appear wider.

I donned my tuxedo jacket, ready to wow her. "Wow!" she said. "That's too much for you. Too shiny, too black, too long."

I tried to toss a black wool double-breasted jacket I bought years ago, but Foster wouldn't let me. "That's a beautiful piece! Have it altered."

Last year's sweater? Stale. The rich navy sweater coat my Nana knitted for my mother 35 years ago? Magnificent. Fashion typically works in 30-year cycles, she explained, so it's not unusual for something beautiful like this to come back around.

I was catching on. I modeled the magenta wrap dress I bought for my engagement party 25 years ago. "Keep?" I ventured. "Maybe bring up the hem and move the hook?" She nodded.

After the stylist left, more than 50 percent of my clothing lay in a pile for charity. In my closet, two blouses hung like workaholics at the office. A glance at my wardrobe suggested I'd be best suited for a bike ride or a cocktail party. Yet when I got dressed, my half-empty closet seemed to offer more options. What remained was flattering and easy to find.

When it comes to closets, less can indeed translate to more. We have more confidence without the reminders of who we're not, the bodies we don't have, the shopping mistakes we've made.

A week later, Foster and I met in Boston to shop for the basics I lacked. Paying for additional time with her was a worthwhile investment.

"Building a wardrobe is like building an art collection," she instructed. "You add items over time."

She had a rack of clothes waiting for me in a dressing room, including some things I'd never buy. Just keep an open mind, I told myself.

I wouldn't have selected this one, but it's got panache, I said, pulling on a cotton jersey with a linen stand-up collar. When I asked what to wear with it, her jaw dropped. "Almost anything. It's a problem-solver."

She was right about the form-fitting skirts. We selected a chic one for my birthday party, then, in search of a top, sprinted from Barneys to Ralph Lauren to The Gap, which Foster said has great design this season. We squeezed into a dressing room, I stepped into my new skirt, and she handed me a cotton/cashmere sleeveless sweater. When I pulled it on, Johanna screeched as though she'd won the lottery. A match.

The outfit for my birthday was so easy and sophisticated that I'm hoping I can wear it for my 80th birthday, too.