Closet Case: A Personal Stylist and Me

How to build a wardrobe that works with a personal shopper.

By Marcia Menter

Time for a Change My outfits were all mistakes. If I went back to the stores, I’d only make more. But then I hired a pro — and learned what it takes to build a wardrobe that works.I need to confess that I’m in the fashion business, sort of: I’ve written about fashion for years, working in offices where women actually wear fur boas and Prada stilettos. I’m the one who comes up with clever things to say about little dresses that wouldn’t fit me on the thinnest day of my life. For years I managed to dress pretty well.Then, three years ago, I quit my job to write a book. Now that I was living a literary life, I thought, old chinos and turtlenecks were wardrobe enough. They weren’t. I looked awful, and once the book was done, I felt awful: aimless and useless. I had nobody to play with, and nobody to dress for. (It never occurred to me to dress for myself, or for my husband, who seems to like me any old way.) So I went back to work, for this magazine. My depression lifted, but my closet was a disaster area. The only things I actually wore were two pairs of black pants, shiny from too many dry cleanings; some matronly knit-jersey tops, and…no, that was it.Why didn’t I just go shopping? Because I hate shopping. The stores are full of clothes that don’t fit me. I’m a size 12, and (apart from a few size-10 interludes) have been ever since puberty. This, I’m told, is the size of the average American woman. I have hips, breasts, and thighs that create unseemly disturbances in the clean lines of pants and dresses. Cute little cardigans gap if I try to button them. Turtlenecks that fit in the chest are too long for my short waist and make my stomach — did I mention that I have a stomach? — look like a football. And everything I don’t like about my body is magnified a hundredfold in the dressing-room mirror. Find Your MuseI met my shopping muse, Annie Brumbaugh, last summer. She came to our offices to tell us about her work as a personal stylist and wardrobe consultant. "I change women’s lives," she said. "When my clients reach into their closets, every piece looks great on them, and it all works together." I couldn’t begin to imagine a closet like that.I looked her up and down. She was a woman in her 50s, full-breasted and short-waisted like me, but her outfit — flowing pants, a little silk top — fit her perfectly and, what’s more, suited her perfectly. She had a kind of Mary Poppins quality, a take-charge serenity. When Annie had finished her presentation, I dragged her over to my cubicle (very aware that my Gap blouse was gapping at the chest) and hissed, "I have to hire you." I didn’t blink when she told me she charged $1,500 for a consultation and $250 an hour to go shopping. Yes, it was a lot of money. But considering that I hadn’t done any serious shopping in at least five years, I figured it would average out. And, well, a reasonably successful working woman ought to look like one, and if she can’t do it on her own, she needs help. The $1,500 consultation felt like about six months of therapy. Annie came to my house one very warm September morning, refused my offer of coffee but said yes to ice water, and then, with ice in her veins, proceeded to make me try on everything in my closet. We had barely met and here I was, sweating in my underwear (which wasn’t in great shape, either). I’d weighed myself beforehand. Eight pounds had crept on without my realizing it — menopause firing a shot across my bow — and I was the heaviest I had ever been, jiggling in the clammy morning light. Annie gave me a benignly clinical look. "You won’t be hard to dress," she said. "You’re symmetrical — not top- or bottom-heavy. You’re really lucky.""Uh-huh," I said, feeling like Jabba the Hutt. Under Annie’s gaze, everything I put on looked like it belonged to somebody else. I had several classic blazers, purchased at a factory outlet. I tried on my favorite, in thick brown cashmere. Annie’s smile tightened slightly. "This jacket is not your friend," she said gently, touching the shoulder, the hem, the back. "It’s too broad in the shoulders. And see how far below your fingertips the hem falls? It’s too…""Too mannish," I said, suddenly realizing why I’d put it on and taken it off so many mornings.

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