Hello, fellow humans! How much are you loving this bright, warm weather? Isn’t it great to bust out all your favorite summer outfits, feeling free as a bird in your comfy shorts and cute skirts, while also creating sartorial optical illusions to minimize your glaring, repulsive figure flaws (don’t play, you know what they are)? And staying within your clothing budget? And dressing in a way that’s consistent with your gender identity, subculture of preference, and favorite color?
Putting clothes on your body can be so time-consuming and require so much thought and calculation that, honestly, it’s a wonder anyone ever does anything besides stand in front of the closet putting on and taking off outfits until it’s time to go to bed again. And it’s all the more challenging when you have a body type that is not well-served by off-the-rack fashions (too short, too tall, too fat, too busty, too narrow-hipped, too broad-shouldered, too WHO ARE THESE THINGS EVEN MADE FOR?), or a personal style that diverges from widely available trends, or a bank account that screams in pain if you even think the word “designer.” So let’s talk a little bit about how to avoid walking around naked while still preserving some tiny shred of your money, dignity, and sanity. Welcome to Fat, Broke, and Stylish Club. (You do not need to be fat, broke, or stylish to participate.)
The first rule of Fat, Broke, and Stylish Club is that there are no rules. Well, there are some rules. There are nudity laws, and things having to do with hygiene. But any rule that tells you a certain kind of clothing is forbidden for your body type is simply preposterous and should be treated with the same amused incredulity you normally reserve for pyramid schemes.
Every women’s magazine, “lady blog,” and mother’s best friend is constantly brimming with advice on how to “dress for your shape,” which never means anything other than “dress to hide your shape.” You can probably recite your own personalized figure-correcting wardrobe rules blindfolded; mine are vertical stripes, dark colors, low necklines, high heels to make my stubby legs look longer, and belts. Always belts. A never-ending parade of V-necked, vertically striped dresses belted at the waist; that’s what fashion magazines want for me. It is my responsibility to the universe, as someone shaped like an oblong with boobs, to spend my life pretending to have a waist. My lack of waist is a dark and powerful secret. If I ever let on that I don’t have a waist, God only knows what would happen. Locusts, probably. Lots of locusts.
In real life, however, I own like two belts, and only because I have a couple of dresses that fit weird without one. I wear shirts with high necks if they come in colors I like. I wear flats, except on special occasions, and by “special occasions” I mean “occasions I can spend sitting down.” After quite a few years of effort, I have more or less convinced myself that there is no thing or combination of things I can wear that will make me look like anything other than myself: short, fat, with big boobs and a flat ass. And you know what? That’s cool.
Because here’s the thing: V-necks do not make your boobs look smaller. Cuffed pants do not make your legs look shorter. Vertical stripes do not make you look thinner. Peplums do not make your hips look too big. People can tell what your body shape is, so stop worrying about what outfit will make you look like Christina Hendricks’s body double and just wear things that you think are pretty, regardless of whether it is medically prescribed for the shape of your ass. If you find something that you like, that fits you, that won’t get you in trouble for violating your work’s dress code, that doesn’t itch or cut off circulation to your legs, and – miracle of miracles – you can afford it, for God’s sake don’t pass it up because you’re afraid it might not create the correct optical illusion.
As a subset of the first rule, it’s okay if your guiding principle when putting together an outfit is “How can I best annoy my mother?” I don’t remember my mom giving me a lot of fashion advice growing up, but I do remember being instructed over and over that red and pink are clashing colors, and you must never ever wear them together. These days, I love nothing more than pairing red with pink, especially when I have plans to see her. The look on her face is all the affirmation I need.
The second rule of Fat, Broke, and Stylish Club is: Don’t follow trends. Put outfits together because you like them / they are comfortable / you can do cartwheels in them, not because they look like what that one actress wore in that magazine that one time. I mean, if you’re into following trends, you do you, girl.
If you have no difficulty (emotional or financial) consistently acquiring the Hot Piece of the Season in the appropriate color, along with the leggings, shoes, blouse, bag, and hairstyle necessary to wear it correctly, then rock the fuck on with your bad self, but also, why are you reading this, go walk down a catwalk somewhere. This article isn’t for you. It’s for people in the socioeconomic class known as I Can’t Spend My Student Loan Money On Designer Barrettes, Don’t You Know There’s A Damn Recession On?
Looking amazing on a thrift-store budget is about letting go of the need to wear something cute because everyone else has one. It’s about keeping your options open. It’s about being ready to snatch up an awesome bargain item when it crosses your path, even if you were looking for mint-green skinny jeans and what you find turns out to be a burnt-orange crocheted vest. Following trends requires money, it requires spending your time and energy going from store to store and hunting down the perfect booties (are booties still stylish? I have no idea, but I still wear them, because they’re cute and fuck it), and of course it requires a basic devotion to knowing what the trends are in the first place. No judgment if you feel like spending your free time reading fashion blogs, but it’s also okay if you’d rather go for a walk or watch Orange is the New Black over and over and over [Ed. note — Or Oz. You should really watch Oz instead].
The point here is, trendy can be fun, but it’s not a requirement. It’s not the same as being stylish. You can still be fashionable without keeping up with fashion. If you defiantly refuse to follow trends and instead throw weird, unexpected pieces together because they make you feel gorgeous, people will think you have amazing, groundbreaking fashion sense. Find things you love and mix them up in surprising ways. Wear dresses over jeans. Wear crazy-loud leggings and tacky Christmas sweaters. Mutilate your t-shirts and wear them as shrugs. Wear layers, because for some reason the more articles of clothing you have on, the more stylish you look. Wear red with pink. Wear cowboy boots with everything. Mismatch.
My little sister, who’s one of my fashion icons, says, “The way to figure out whether it’s okay to wear two things together is: Yes, it’s fine.” Mix prints, patterns, and colors; you can wear neutrals when you’re dead. (My other fashion icon is a five-year-old being allowed to dress herself for the first time. If I could wear a tutu and a firefighter’s helmet to work, I would.)
There are certain things you can always find on the cheap at secondhand stores, no matter what’s in style. T-shirts advertising inscrutable tourist attractions or bands you’ve never heard of are a given, and it’s always fun to do surgery and turn them into tank tops and minidresses and so forth. (Actually, I just turn them into tank tops; I’ve seen the minidress thing but never had the sewing skills to pull it off. But if you’re crafty like that, rock out with it.) If you’re into long flowery skirts or loud printed dresses, you need never leave Goodwill empty-handed. Anything that’s too long can be cut or hemmed; anything that’s too short can be layered over leggings; anything you buy secondhand and get tailored will still probably be cheaper than buying it new.
The one thing you shouldn’t count on being able to find used? Jeans. Goddamn jeans. Jeans are great and versatile and look awesome with every imaginable type of shoes, but shopping for them is the kind of torture you rarely see outside of Game of Thrones. You will inevitably find that the one store that carries the jeans you like has just changed their sizing, and you’re no longer sure whether you need the “Classic” or “Contemporary” fit (which one means big thighs again? Oh, right, it’s different at every freaking store), and the color you like only comes in a size 3 ½ Extra Tall.
If you prefer to wear men’s jeans, which are ostensibly easier because their sizing is based on actual inches, not arcane butt-measuring magic lost to the mists of time, you will enter the store at the exact moment when they have sold out of your inseam. I have no advice for you on how to find jeans. Just set aside a day for shopping, and make sure you have enough money saved not only for the pants, but for a treat to reward yourself with afterwards, like a fancy new vibrator or all the tequila.
This brings us to the third rule, which is: “Wardrobe staples” are whatever you decide they are. Fashion experts like to make lists of things every woman should have in their closet, like “a little black dress” or “boot-cut jeans” or “gladiator sandals” or whatever, and you’re supposed to mix these basic ingredients together to make outfits, like the way recipes will say “with things you already have in your kitchen!” but I never just have onions lying around. Which is just my even-more-roundabout-than-usual way of saying that universal “wardrobe staples” are a myth. It takes lots of kinds of people to make this magical world go ’round, and not all of them have or need a navy blue pencil skirt.
Now, yes, you should have some basic pieces in your closet that go with a bunch of things and can be styled appropriately for a variety of occasions. But you get to decide what they are, based on your own personal working definition of “basic” and “go with.” Personally, I haven’t owned an LBD in about five years, but I do have a different jean skirt for every day of the week. Also: leggings and tights in a variety of colors, and four separate pairs of Doc Martens, all purchased secondhand, lest anyone should fail to observe that I am a) queer and b) poor.
If you’re not sure what your wardrobe staples are, or you’re trying to make your stock ensembles a little more versatile, think about your current favorite outfit or outfits. What would you wear every day if you could? OK, buy more stuff like that. (Unless you can’t wear your favorite thing on the daily for whatever reason, like if you really love to wear sequined hot pants but you work in an office. If that’s the case, you need to find the garment that is spiritually closest to your favorite but is authorized by your dress code. The office equivalent of sequined hot pants is a metallic kitten heel, closed toe. I can’t explain why but you know in your heart that I’m right.) Stock up on men’s button-down shirts or wrap dresses or comfortable khakis or skirts made of neckties or whatever feels like a building block of fashion for you.
And be ready to embellish. Because, obviously, the fourth rule of Fat, Broke, and Stylish Club is: Accessorize. You know how people are like “Look in the mirror and take one thing off before you leave the house”? Yeah, those people are the enemy. Look in the mirror and put one more thing on. Add a hat. Add a ring, or several. Add a necklace made of candy. Add any piece of jewelry that you purchased when you were twelve; people will think you’re being delightfully, ironically vintage. Go super old school and wear a bunch of brightly colored ponytail holders as bracelets. Add a tie, even if you’re already wearing a tie. If the only major wardrobe purchase you can afford this fall is one new pair of black pants for work (hello and welcome to my life), be ready to jazz up those sensible trousers with something sparkly on your days off. Scrounge all the change from your couch cushions and the floor of your car and go buy earrings at the dollar store. Acquire some “statement” jewelry, which makes the all-important statement: I’M WEARING JEWELRY!
If you can afford to accessorize with a nice haircut every now and then, go for it. I finally got a cut that makes me look like a sexy gay mermaid, which has been my lifelong goal, and now all of my clothes are 48% more awesome than they used to be, just by association. A really good pair of shoes can have this effect as well. You’ll know when you find the ones that speak to your soul.
And the final rule of Fat, Broke, and Stylish Club is: Remember that you’re always playing dress-up. Or, as Our Lady of Fabulousness RuPaul says, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.”
If today you want to throw on your oldest jeans and a sweatshirt and dress up as Person Who Doesn’t Care About Clothes, you’ve earned that right. If you want to dress up as Pretty or Stylish or Sexy or Dapper, that’s awesome too, but it’s a choice, not a responsibility. No matter what you wear, your inner self will sparkle through. When I met the person to whom I am now married, I was wearing a cheap Halloween-store wig that looked like a pile of stunned ferrets on my head, as well as several quarts of fake blood. Somehow, they still found me attractive. It really is all about attitude.
Oh, and ignore the number on the tag (not the price number. The other number). If you like it and you think it might fit you, try it on. But you knew that already, right?
Lindsay King-Miller is A Queer Chick on another website. You can order her book here.