How NOT to dress like Queen Victoria

Like many of the locals here in beautiful downtown West Melbourne, I used to have a wardrobe absolutely full of black clothing, and not much else in other colours. Almost everyone down here is the same, with more black in their wardrobe than Queen Victoria mourning her beloved Albert. For some people it can look ok, but for most of us, black is a draining, heavy colour that can age people by ten or even fifteen years, and at the end of a day wearing a lot of black, I feel tired and drained. I’m not alone in feeling this way: check out Fashion Help for Recovering Goths.

And there are lots of excuses: black is slimming (it’s not), it’s chic (you missed the boat by a few decades on that one), it’s versatile (well, if you wear nothing but black of course everything will match), it goes with everything (it doesn’t: pastels and soft tones are overwhelmed by black), it’s sophisticated (dull is a better word)… the excuses go on.

The ugly truth is, wearing black is dull, unintersting, not flattering, and draining. So here are seven easy steps to get you from Queen Victoria (or Johnny Cash) to interesting and alive:

Step 1: Get your colours done

There are no shortcuts here: you need to find out what colours work best for you. A few places to start are here (skip past the make up if you’re male and go to the colours below) or here (again, geared for women but men can use it) or here or here or here. That should get you in the right direction. If you get stuck, consider getting a colour consultant: it’s money well-spent, you don’t waste money on clothes that are wrong for you.

For me, for example, I know that I have olive skin that tans after half an hour in the sun, but if I wear anything with a yellow tone it makes me look ill — that makes me a cool season. I look better in a crisp white shirt than a pastel blue one (pastels and me: not good friends), which makes me a winter. Finally, I lean a bit toward some of the autumn colours like rust, chocolate and olive, so that makes me a deep winter. If you click the link you’ll see some men’s clothing (yes, it includes black but there are other colours — I love the wine red shirt, though I’m not so sure about the lilac one. Then again, I never am too sure about lilac).

Step 2: Pick the best and favourite colours

If you look at a colour palette, the choices can seem overwhelming. Some of the colours will look better on you than others. For me, for example, the yellows, pinks and purples are difficult to wear, so I don’t wear them. If I absolutely have to wear yellow, pink or purple, the ones in my palette are my best options, but I don’t have to wear those colours.

Similarly, the old saying “blue with green should never be seen”: I like blue (especially the navy and pale icy blue), not so fond of green. My favourite colour is red, so I really want to put that in the mix. I like neutrals, they’re versatile, and I can add a little black (think shoes, belts, leather jackets) if they’re part of a mix, not on its own. My final trimmed-down palette looks like this:

Dark neutrals (suits, jackets, pants, “go-to” colours)

  • black
  • charcoal
  • slate
  • navy
  • taupe

Light neutrals (shirts)

  • white
  • ice blue
  • silver grey
  • sand

Accent colours (here is where I go nuts with red: ties, casual shirts)

  • ruby
  • ochre
  • rust

Your colours will almost certainly be different to mine, so feel free to experiment once you know your palette. If there’s a colour that everyone says looks good on you (e.g. you have blue eyes and everyone says you should wear blue), take note. Have fun with this, and you can change these colours down the track if you want to add or subtract a few, as long as they’re from your colour palette.

Step 3: Design your ideal wardrobe

Close your eyes and imagine that you have the perfect wardrobe: your fairy godmother has come and waved a magic wand, or something like that. Get past the “ego” stage of the walk-in wardrobe filled with Armani (you’re not Karen from Will and Grace after all). A wardrobe that has everything you need and is practical.

Now start writing. If you work 9 to 5 in an office environment you’ll probably need more formalwear than if you’re working as a tradesman. Just make a list of the clothes you are likely to wear, and remember to add things out of season (if you’re making this list in summer, remember to add your winter clothes, unless you live somewhere that doesn’t have a winter).

It’s a good idea to write down the colour of the clothes too, although you can allow some flexibility here. If you’re looking for a grey coat and you end up with a beige one, provided that the beige is one of your colours, why not? Remember to add underwear, socks and shoes in your ideal wardrobe.

Step 4: Perform a wardrobe audit

Do you have too much of anything? A dozen sweaters that have been sitting up the back of the wardrobe, unworn and unloved? Time to give them away. Sort your current wardrobe into categories: discard (and either throw out or give to charity), replace (can be immediate or long term), and keep. You will probably have a few gaps in your wardrobe, in which case, these will be buy. Some items may be urgent, but most can wait a while.

Anything near the face (shirts, blouses, scarves) need to be in your best colours. This is particularly important for scarves, as they frame your face. So any scarves that are in the wrong colours need to go. Give them to an op shop (goodwill) if they’re still in a condition to be worn.

The most important thing here is to not skimp on quality. A small number of well-tailored quality items is far better value than lots of chain-store poor quality clothing that falls apart after three or so washes. As you replace or buy new things using your wardrobe list as your shopping list (yes, that’s exactly what it is!), opt for good quality, even if it means you purchase more slowly. It’s worth it. For example: in 1995 I bought a thick greatcoat, made in Poland, for $350. It’s still in “as new” condition today: and yes, I have worn it a lot. Worth every penny.

Step 5: Take the first (baby) steps

So, going without black altogether is a little scary? Then start gently. Instead of all black, add a bit of charcoal or navy (“off-black”, as Morticia Addams would put it) to begin with. Or keep wearing black, and slowly add garments with a little pop of colour. You don’t have to do it right away and all at once. Black clothing can be like a security blanket, hard to let go of, but the question is: why are dressing like someone in mourning? It’s boring. Add a pop of colour and let the fun begin. Think scarves, ties, necklaces to begin with, all in your best colours of course.

Step 6: Take note of compliments

If you’ve been dressing like Queen Victoria or Johnny Cash for a long time, people will be used to seeing you in black. Once you start dressing in living colour, you are likely to get some compliments. “What have you done with your hair, you look different?”(nothing, you’re now wearing a colour), “Have you lost weight?” (so much for black being slimming) or my favourite, “WOW that colour looks GREAT on you, you look ten years younger”. Make a note of which colours bring these compliments and make sure you wear them!

Step 7: Enjoy the new look!

Congratulations! You are now living in colour!


I hope this short guide is useful. Drop me a line in the comments for your thoughts!

2 Responses to “How NOT to dress like Queen Victoria”

  1. The Power of Lists | Live With Less, Live With More Says:

    […] Colours that actually suit me (as opposed to the ones that make me look deathly ill; canary yellow and mustard, I’m looking straight at you!) […]

  2. Shopping for clothes like shopping for groceries | Live With Less, Live With More Says:

    […] minimally, living CONSCIOUSLY « The freedom of less (rocks) How NOT to dress like Queen Victoria […]

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