I recently had a full-blown meltdown standing in my underwear. I was headed to dinner with friends and came face-to-face with the common conundrum: A closet full of clothes and nothing to wear. For the past two years, like most people weathering the pandemic from home, I’ve been living almost exclusively in pants with elastic waists, oversized sweaters, and shoes that you can slip on and off — no laces necessary. But now that the world is opening back up, I’ve realized something startling: I’m a 32-year-old woman with no sense of how to find my personal style.
That’s not to say I was necessarily a fashionista pre-pandemic. I love the way clothes make me feel, but I was always extremely pragmatic when it came to dressing. I’d never reach for the loud, bold prints that caught my eye, reasoning that they were a waste of money because I’d only wear them a handful of times. And my post-lockdown issues were only magnified by the fact that I was newly single and recently lost a good deal of weight during the course of my difficult breakup, and none of my clothes fit me anymore. Add that all up, and you’ve got a recipe for a wardrobe meltdown.
And I’m not the only one — even those who do fashion for a living were feeling the strain. “My personal style has changed a lot since the pandemic began,” says Michelle Li, a fashion stylist and writer. “I used to always consider myself a maximalist but through the pandemic I learned that I actually like when things are clean and refined too.” This flip-flopping between styles can be exciting for some, but majorly stressful for others.
So how does one redefine their style in their 30s if they have no interest in the trends of TikTok? Where does one even begin to rebuild a wardrobe after two years in stretch pants? I spoke to the pros to figure it out.
Start a mood board
Before you even open your closet, start paying attention to the clothes you naturally dig. “I always suggest using Pinterest and saving images to boards so that you can analyze them,” says Britt Theodora, a stylist who works with celebs like Pete Davidson and Anjelica Fellini. “This is a wellness exercise, essentially, because it helps you distill down what you’re gravitating towards.” (Not into Pinterest? You can save images anywhere you’ll reference them regularly.) When you’re pinning, she says, don’t focus on the individual parts of the outfit you love. Just pin completed looks you’re into in general.
“[Creating a mood board] is a wellness exercise, essentially, because it helps you distill down what you’re gravitating towards.”
Once you’ve got a decent number of items on your board, it’s time to really drill down into the nitty gritty. “Pay attention to the individual pieces,” Theodora says. “You can look to see if you’re gravitating toward silky pieces, or lots of accessories, or the combination of a baseball cap and a blazer.” If you see items popping up again and again, it’s an indication that those are your true wardrobe “basics.”
Theodora tasked me with creating my own Pinterest board, and very quickly, patterns started emerging. I’m obviously very into cropped cardigans, good denim, and oversized button-downs. But there were also playful aspects: ‘70s-style flares, the occasional pop of leopard print, and snakeskin boots also made regular appearances.
Now is the time to turn to your closet — which is something you might want to get in the habit of, anyway. “I clean out my closet once a season,” says Ryan Gale, a stylist and editor in NYC. “I like to take a look at all of the clothes I’ve got and take stock. If there’s a piece I haven’t worn in a long time, I’ll see how it fits. I’ll check the quality. I’ll try to notice whether or not I’ve washed it too much.” It’s a time-consuming process that can take the better part of an afternoon, but it’s an important one to take your time and truly consider the pieces you already own. Anything that doesn’t fit should be donated or sold, while pieces with visible damage or stained should be tossed or upcycled as something else.
I took an entire Sunday morning to go through my wardrobe. I pulled everything out, tried it on, and separated it into piles, sending some off of my cast-offs to ThredUP and donating the rest. As someone who was still in a weird place with their body, this turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. Seeing clothes I once loved fit my new shape oddly tanked my confidence, and realizing how much I had to get rid of left me feeling a little overwhelmed. But as the morning wore on, I started to notice pieces I completely forgot about hidden behind the things that no longer fit me.
This is another important step, says Gale. “Sometimes when I’m done with my clean out, I like to put together outfits out of what’s left over,” she says. “It also helps you to visualize the pieces you may be missing.” After the discards were cleared away, I started playing around with what was left over, and found that Gale was right. I realized quickly that my wardrobe could use some flared denim, a few pairs of flats that weren’t sneakers, and some fun, funky prints. I wrote down these notes, as well as what I’d observed on my Pinterest board, and got ready for the fun part: shopping.
Here’s the thing about the shopping bit of this experiment: It’s a constant work in progress. “Don’t feel like you have to buy a whole new wardrobe at once,” Theodora says. “Take a slow, personal approach. Don’t get overwhelmed with the trend download from the internet.” For me, it was really important to build vintage pieces into my wardrobe, as I’ve been attempting to build a more sustainable wardrobe in general.
Since I had the majority of my “basics” down, I decided my first piece would be something fun. I found an amazing sheer bodysuit from one of my favorite vintage shops Easy Seda. It was a perfect layering piece — something I could wear under a button-down or a blazer for a little peek-a-boo action. I also made an appointment with Omnia Vintage, another of my go-to sellers, to visit its studio.
In the past, I used to rush through trying on clothes, because it felt frivolous and silly to spend so much time on the way that I looked. But I tried to remember Theodora’s words: “Purchasing something for yourself is an investment in you,” she says. “You have to remember that you’re going to live life in these pieces, so you might as well invest a little in them and actually wear them. And it’s okay to rewear things!” It’s also important to remember that it’s okay to buy trendy items — you can always resell them or donate them when you’re ready to move on.
“Purchasing something for yourself is an investment in you.”
Li agrees. “Be patient and be ok with making mistakes when it comes to style,” she adds. “I think it's really tough because clothing has so many variables, from silhouette to fabric to cut, and every variable matters. It's hard to try everything, but that's also the only way you'll be able to develop a sharper filter and understanding of what works, doesn't work, and ultimately what you like.”
I’ve actually been enjoying the process of building out my wardrobe now that I have some guidelines. It makes the entire process a lot less scary and a lot more enjoyable. And so while I may not be able to define my style in a simple, succinct description now that I’ve entered my 30s, I have found something better: The ability to feel comfortable in shopping for myself, and the confidence to wear what feels good to me. And truly, that feels so much more satisfying.