The Daily Uniform: Is Anything Wrong With a Stylistic Default?

Amy in her everyday, stylish “uniform.” (Photo courtesy of Amy Barr)

When I was in my 20s, I worked for a woman who wore the same outfit every single day. No matter the season, no matter her mood, Marian arrived each morning in black pants, a black turtleneck and a pixie haircut.

Was she making a fashion statement or rather, a statement that she cared not a whit about fashion? My guess is that Marian, a wealthy art collector who, with her husband, ran a multi-million dollar business that employed hundreds of people, adopted her signature style by default. She simply went for the easiest option.

As I think about Marian some 30 years later, I consider my own signature look of blue jeans and a black top (t-shirt in summer, sweater come autumn). I wonder: Do I wear some variation of this combination most days because it truly reflects my personal style or have I, like Marian, opted for brainless dressing?

Perhaps a bit of both is true. On the one hand, I’ve got a foolproof formula: No chance of colors clashing, appearing passé or outing myself as a fashion victim. The fact that jeans and a black top always look great together greatly reduces my margin of error when it comes to looking presentable.

But beyond the can’t-fail factor, my black-and-blue proclivities just feel right. While writing this essay, I took an online quiz that promised to define my signature style based on answers to questions such as: Who is your celebrity crush? (Can someone please tell me who Chace Crawford is?) The exercise seemed ridiculous, but the result was actually dead on. Turns out, this New Yorker is actually a “California girl at heart…Jennifer Aniston best exemplifies your signature look…soft T-shirts and flattering jeans are in your comfort zone… with accessories like a pair of black riding boots.” They totally nailed me.

Do I wear some variation of this combination most days because it truly reflects my personal style or have I opted for brainless dressing?

Back to memories of Marian, I ponder whether my go-to get-up diminishes my sartorial creativity. After all, I’ve got a closet full of colorful (often pricey) non-denim togs, but the closet is where those garments typically remain. Apparently it takes too much effort to discern which skirt would be best with my orange silk blouse or whether those green pants I bought in Paris work with a sky-blue sweater. Making such determinations would also require me to have interest in creating an interesting ensemble. Evidently, I do not.

I long ago gave up my subscription to Vogue, ignoring it even at the nail salon where I opt instead to skim the latest issue of People or play Words with Friends while soaking my toes. More evidence of my fashion fog: As my birthday approached this year, I asked my son’s chic girlfriend to suggest one important addition that would freshen up my wardrobe. “What should I want?” I asked, clueless to the trends. (Her spot-on advice: a motorcycle jacket, which I promptly purchased with my birthday cash.)

But despite my lack of interest in high fashion, I care very much about denim. I’ve loved jeans forever — for their comfort and versatility and for a pedigree that’s rooted in function rather than fashion. Lumberjacks and farmers wore dungarees and got the job done. Maybe that’s why slipping on a pair makes me feel capable, like I could hew a tree or plow a field (when in reality, I’m heading to Trader Joes for hummus).

But not just any jeans will do. I’ve got a dozen pairs in every conceivable cut and hue: J. Crew “boyfriends” for days when I’d rather be wearing pajamas and broken-in Gaps I throw on with Chuck Taylors for errand runs. I’ve got boot-cut Levis and four pairs of Rag and Bones in varying degrees of blueness and skinniness. My current faves hail from a store called Paige. These magic pants look like regular jeans but stretch like taffy, cradling my curves without cramping my crotch or muffin-ing my top.

My go-to black tee is a J. Crew “vintage” V-neck (I’ve always got five in rotation). As for sweaters, name any combination of fabric, neckline and sleeve length and chances are there’s a specimen in my black stack. Why so bullish on black? I like the way my pale skin looks with dark colors. I like how black offsets every shade of blue. And, I’m a New Yorker, so wearing black is in my blood. I try to buy other colors (I even have one red sweater) but when I stand in front of my closet, some blue jeans/black top combo seems to climb on my body all by itself.

That’s beneficial when you’re a speed dresser as I am, devoting no more 60 seconds of thought to where I’m going that day. The rare business lunch demands a dark wash and slim (but not too slim) silhouette with a tissue-thin cashmere tee and a blazer. On volunteer days at the Home for the Aged, my “boyfriends” – topped with a black hoodie – allow plenty of leeway for pushing wheelchairs up ramps. Dinner in the East Village demands super-skinny, dark-as-night R&B’s (and my new moto jacket, of course.)

So what does our signature style mean in terms of telegraphing our inner self to the outside world? I’ve come to realize that for many people – and especially for women – our clothing choices impact not only our own ideas and emotions, but also those of the people with whom we interact. The trick is to adopt a style that feels right from the inside out so you convey an accurate message about who you are.

Not sure how to do that? Here are three bits of advice I’ve followed, with thanks to uber stylist Rachel Zoe:

  • Figure out your fashion comfort zone. For me, that’s tailored, classic, understated. I’m neither a trendsetter nor a risk taker, nor do I aspire to be.
  • Find someone whose style you admire and emulate it. For me, that’s my friend, Donna, who always looks coolly elegant, even in leggings and sneakers. On my rare shopping expeditions, I often give an item I’m considering the Donna test, asking: Would Donna wear this? If the answer is no, it goes back on the rack.
  • Think of an adjective that describes how you want to look and feel or how you would want someone else to describe your style. For me, words like sleek and put-together come to mind. On some deeper level, I’d like to convey intelligence and kindness. I’m not sure clothes can accomplish such a feat, but if it’s possible, I’m putting my money on blue jeans and black tops.

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