How do I start dressing like an adult?
October 7, 2012 1:03 AM   Subscribe

How do I start dressing like an adult?

I'm a female in my early twenties still struggling to find my own personal style. My taste in clothing has gradually improved throughout my life, but I feel like I've hit my ceiling at this point. I'm a college student in a demanding major, leaving me with just enough time for a part-time job but I'm on a bit of a tight budget as I do like to save. My personal favorite places to shop are Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters, which aren't cheap.

Living in Southern California, shorts/jeans with flip-flops and a shirt are what I wear pretty much year round. I have a problem with this; I don't feel like I'm dressing appropriately for my age. My usual attire is very high school, partly because I prefer to dress more for comfort, and I consider myself a simple and low-maintenance girl. I mean, I'll do skinny jeans and a lace camisole with a cardigan… that's all I really know and it is flattering on me, but I feel like such a one trick pony.

I was blessed with good genetics. I'm petite and nicely proportioned (mostly hourglass shaped) and a slim athletic build, so almost everything fits me perfectly. I say 'almost,' because I did inherit my dad's linebacker shoulders and high trapezius muscles, so anything strapless is a no-go for me as they tend to accentuate my boulder shoulders.

I'm generally scared of taking risks because the thought of walking outside thinking I look fierce as hell only to later realize I looked foolish the whole time overwhelms me (which has happened on numerous occasions), and as a result, I experience frequent anxiety when I shop for new clothes. It's usually a mix of sensory overload and plenty of "Oh, this looks nice… but I'm not sure if it'll look this awesome when I wear it, and it'll probably be crumpled up in my closet." I've gone through buyer's remorse several times, purchasing articles of clothing I initially thought would be stylish, only to have no idea what to do with it. So I do have some nice stuff lying around, but they collect dust due to my ignorance with fashion. I bought a dress from H&M awhile back that was very flattering for my legs, but the top half looked awful, and I had no clue what to layer it with, etc. I felt like I looked like a housekeeper at a Holiday Inn Express.

More recently, I started following blogs and I peruse Pinterest and Pose daily to draw some inspiration. What else can I do to further expand my knowledge on the art of the looking fabulous, especially on a budget? I find that when I go out to shop, if I'm even holding anything, it's only 1-2… maybe 3 articles of clothing. My mom, sister, and lady friends end up with entire wardrobes draping over their arms within the first 10 minutes. Feeling pretty inadequate over here.

If it makes it any easier for suggestions, I enjoy a somewhat tomboy look for more casual wear, with a more feminine and classy appearance for business/date night attire. Some links for visuals:

TL;DR: I want to dress more like an adult without spending too much money, but I lack fashion sense. Where do I even start?
posted by HiphopAnonymous to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (20 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
When I was a twentysomething trying to figure out how to look more grown-up, I used to get ideas going to the Nordstroms' Rack in Glendale. Now that I'm in my thirties and with a better idea of how to dress, I'm willing to meet you there and give you some pointers, if you're interested.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 2:13 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pinterest has some great pics of everyday basics, say about 20 items that can easily be mixed and matched to work together to form a cohesive wardrobe. One blue pair jeans, ballet flats, camel trench, little black dress, striped tee... You get the message. You won't be setting fashion trends (though most can be accessorised or worn with additional on trend items for a new look) but you'll be well put together with outfits that go from day to evening. Search for terms like wardrobe basics to find them. I've found these pins really useful and I appear more polished without having to think too hard about what looks good as it's all made to go together.
posted by Jubey at 2:49 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Disclaimer: I have little advice specifically about women's fashion.

I'm generally scared of taking risks because the thought of walking outside thinking I look fierce as hell only to later realize I looked foolish the whole time overwhelms me

That is a mental game which may well be keeping you, like totally, trapped in high school, fashion-wise, OMG.

Mental game because there is something about your comfort zone here. You have a kind of uniform, and it is part of your identity. So in addition to going to H&M and Zara and all that, you also need to give yourself permission to experiment and be uncomfortable. To look out of place. Because right now, there is a very specific jeans and cami outfit where you do feel comfortable. So in addition to changing your wardrobe, you also need to change your mindset.

And not just blowing smoke here. I'm from SoCal, via SF, and now in London. Part of the LA fashion scene is SO relaxed, it can be hard to develop your own style. Moving to SF, I quickly noticed how narrow and unadventurous my wardrobe was. Coming to London, even more so.
posted by nickrussell at 2:57 AM on October 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

polyvore is a great way to play with outfits and mix and match to find combinations that you like.
posted by jonathanstrange at 5:48 AM on October 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

My body sounds very similar to yours. While I do like wearing skinnys with a tank and a cardigan, I never thought of it as being one trick. Make sure you switch up the color, style and fabric of whatever pieces you are using. To switch it up more, I love wearing skinnys with blouses.

Browse You can follow members (site is free) who put together outfits. I follow Adoremycurves and she has amazing outfits for all different types of scenarios. While she does use expensive pieces sometimes, it helps to get a general picture in mind and give an idea of what to look for. She also has an option where you can ask her to create an outfit based on the occasion, style, etc.

There is also a section where members ask questions like, "What can I wear with xyz ?"
posted by shortstuff13 at 5:55 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have two pieces of advice, one of which is about shopping, the other of which is about style.

First of all, you've already noticed that your friends and family try lots of stuff on, but you might also notice that they reject a higher percentage of stuff than you do after trying it on. That's probably because they're more open to trying on items that they're really not sure about. A very large percentage of the time, your instincts about a garment will be right, but it's also sometimes the case that things look better on, or suit you in ways you don't expect. Trying on lots of things gives you a much better chance of finding those garments. It also gives you an opportunity to SE how different shapes and colors look on you, and get familiar with general patterns (e.g. "this top looks terrible because of the print, but its shape is one that usually flatters me.")

Secondly, if you're not wearing blazers yet, give them a try. Your sample images include some, and they can be a great staple. They're easily styled to be a bit more casual, especially when they're cut closer to the body and/or are in unexpected colors. J. Crew does some great shrunken blazers, but H&M also has some surprisingly nice ones for cheap.

Third (apparently I lied when I said two), be patient with yourself. Figuring out your own version of adult style can take some time, and may involve quite a few experiments you look back on with horror. This is a great time in your life to be starting to think about this, but don't worry too much about it if it takes a while.
posted by dizziest at 7:04 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I started trying to do this a couple of years ago, after realizing my college wardrobe wasn't cutting it in the real world. I did what you're doing - looked at pictures of people who looked awesome, analyzed people's outfits on the street, and you know what? Most of them (especially people out in the world) were wearing more-or-less the same clothes as me, but they knew how to accessorize. Look at the pictures you chose - say the third one. What makes that a great outfit? It's not the sweater and the jeans - it's those basics combined with a great bracelet, watch, scarf, bag, and sunglasses. The jean jacket lady would look fine in the clothes, but the scarf and boots (WHERE ARE THOSE BOOTS FROM, I want them) totally make her outfit.

Unfortunately I can't really help you learn to accessorize, because I hate scarves and they seem to be the instant stylifier. I've had some luck with buying cooler necklaces (bigger or longer or chunkier - anything other than a tiny pendant on a narrow silver or gold chain) and more interesting shoes and purses (which sadly has meant more expensive). But pay attention to people's accessories, seriously.

Also seconding blazers, with the caveat that I too have broad shoulders and a not-so-broad body, which can make it really tough to buy a blazer off the rack. Tailoring is expensive, and a blazer that fits you wrong in the shoulders looks really bad. But I've invested in three that fit me really well, and they really do make you look put-together instantly. Way better than a cardigan - the structure of a jacket makes you look neat and tailored. (When it fits properly.)

One last thing: if I'm at a store like H&M or Old Navy where my budget allows for this, I will sometimes buy the entire outfit a mannequin is wearing if it looks awesome. Yep. No one will ever know.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:22 AM on October 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might get some concrete ideas-- or at least a chance to think through what you like and don't like-- from this tumblr: What an Employed Adult Would Wear.
posted by willbaude at 7:31 AM on October 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you need some reliable formulas (including accessories). I love YouLookFab for this. Angie lays out easy formulas such as "Mom on the Go" (totally worth looking at since they'd look good on a woman of any age) or "The Scarf-Bag-Bootie Complement for Fall". She also talks a lot about body type and makes very clear recommendations.

That said, I was just in Europe and marveled at how stylish all of the women seemed. Then I realized that they were wearing super basic clothing (a gray shift dress and leggings, for example), just remixed over and over again with different accessories and layers. How to actually pull this off? I loved this article on styling tips from a J.Crew personal stylist for ideas on how to layer and make tiny, mainly free alterations to clothing that give you a LOOK instead of just a bunch of clothing thrown on haphazardly. The stylist's fashion philosophies might be helpful, too.
posted by mynameisluka at 9:06 AM on October 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

A few quick ideas.

1. Replace flip flops with a nicer shoe. Even if you want to keep wearing sandals, trade up into something that isn't made of plastic. I like these and these, though I admit that's my aesthetic and maybe not yours. But regardless of your taste, you should be able to find something simple and affordable and not flip flops.

2. You mention t-shirts but don't get more specific. When I think "dressing too high school", my first thought is that you're wearing graphic tees, especially graphic tees with clever slogans, brand logos, or licensed characters (Hello Kitty or Snoopy or something). Instead, wear plain tees, or maybe something with a subtle and artful graphic if you really love that look.

3. Stay away from fashion victim flavor of the month looks. I'm not sure if this is actually a problem for you, since you mention that you fear being a "one trick pony" in terms of clothes. But you also mention shopping at Urban Outfitters, and their whole brand is built around outrageous trendy fashion victim crap. I don't think there's anything wrong with that -- and I think your 20's is the time to experiment and wear crazy stuff -- but it can make you look very young and silly and maybe unprofessional if that's a concern. You can still shop at UO (I do, to my occasional embarrassment), but maybe get this instead of this. Know what I mean?

4. Not sure if this is an issue for you at all, but as someone who has always looked younger than my (not so old, yet) years, when I wanted to look more grown up in my 20's I made a mental note to avoid styles associated with childhood. No mary janes. No "ironic" pikachu backpack. (In fact I'd say to steer clear of ironic anything, if you want to read older and more mature/professional).

5. Relax! From what you say, aside from the flip flop thing and maybe a graphic tee problem, you sound like you're doing fine. I wore far more terrible clothes than anything you mention when I was your age, and I still do the graphic tee, cutoffs, and flip flops look every now and again even in my 30's. Your 20's is a time to have fun and experiment and figure out what your "look" is. Unless you're getting written up at work, I wouldn't worry too much.
posted by Sara C. at 9:51 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I peruse Pinterest

Sorry to double post, but this just jumped out at me when I scrolled back up.

I love Pinterest, but I think it can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, there is cute stuff on there, and all those polyvore collection type things people build can give you good insight into interesting pairings or how to accessorize or the like. But I also feel like it can give unrealistic expectations about what you're supposed to look like. It's easy to get wrapped up in all this stuff and assume you have to be dolled up all the time, and you have to have a Signature Look, and that there is something wrong with you if you don't have a perfectly coordinated wardrobe of on-trend clothes.

Seriously, jeans, a tank top, and a cardigan is just fine. You probably look really cute. Probably cuter than the people sitting at home pinning fabulous outfits while actually wearing sweat pants and a ratty Hello Kitty t-shirt.
posted by Sara C. at 10:00 AM on October 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I highly, highly recommend the blog Extra Petite. She writes about office wardrobe and dressing "older". While her pieces (from J. Crew, Banana Republic, LOFT, etc.) may be a little out of your price range, she writes really great general concept posts - such as How to Look Older - which you can find the links to on the sidebar.
posted by krakus at 10:07 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Advice about how to afford some of these clothes: find the thrift store in your area where well-off professional types donate last year's clothes. Go in regularly and dig hard for recent name brand clothes in good condition.

I usually skim the racks for tags from stores I know, before I even look at what the item is. Just plant your eyes at that 'back of the neck'/'back of the pants' spot and flip flip flip flip until you get to a J. Crew or Ann Taylor or Banana Republic label. It's also potentially worth researching brands and designers you like at the next rung up the ladder. Not only will you know a thrift store steal when you see one, but you'll also know whose Target collaborations to get excited about and whether to bother opening todays Gilt email blast.
posted by Sara C. at 10:34 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think that "how to dress like an adult" Tumblr has it down. Now, speaking as someone who does NOT dress like an adult because well, I don't wanna, I'll tell you how to dress the opposite of me:

(a) I second the "skip the flip-flops," though you are in California and everyone wears them here, even and especially older adults so if you can get away with anything, you can get away with that. But if you are going for the grownup look: heels, flats, nicer sandals.
(b) Knee length dresses and skirts, preferably rather plain ones.
(c) No T-shirts, or at least not anything with words on it. Sweaters and blouses and pants and skirts. If you REALLY want to look old, get blazers. Carry a nice bag/purse and not a backpack.
(d) I don't know what you do with your hair, but you should probably either cut it to shoulder length or higher, or always wear it in a bun/chignon/some kind of fancy-looking updo. And wear makeup.
(e) Avoid bright colors. I dress like a technicolor acid trip and I get a lot of people who like that I do it...but real adults wear black and brown, maybe a dark purple or red if they are feeling frisky. Generally "professional" folks seem to dress like they could blend in with the nearest wall most of the time.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:39 AM on October 7, 2012

Is there a Buffalo Exchange near you? Rather than wade through the hit-and-miss possibilities of a thrift store, maybe visit Buffalo instead. I don't know how much their standards vary from place to place, but I'm pretty sure every piece of J.Crew and Banana Republic clothing I have came from my local Buffalo Exchange.

Their buyers also seem informed about the actual style of the clothing; there's a lot of differently shaped cardigans out there, and they seemed pretty particular as to which kinds they will buy. Sometimes just upgrading the style and fit of your wardrobe basics can make you look more respectable.

And yeah, they have some bright silly juvenile stuff, too, but I had a lot of luck shopping there when I made a job transition into an low-key office environment.
posted by redsparkler at 11:00 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Blazers. There are several places (Gap, ModCloth) where you can find knit blazers that are as comfortable as a cardigan but make you look more mature without too much work. Try flats instead of flip flops, skirts instead of shorts, and maybe some button down shirts and you'll easily look more like an adult.
posted by kat518 at 11:24 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love you all for your suggestions! The accessories and blazer suggestion was especially helpful -- I've noticed that THOSE really pull an entire outfit together. I never really paid much attention to those when shopping.

"You mention t-shirts but don't get more specific. When I think "dressing too high school", my first thought is that you're wearing graphic tees, especially graphic tees with clever slogans, brand logos, or licensed characters (Hello Kitty or Snoopy or something)."

Fitted solid-colored v-necks are staples in my wardrobe. I'd say about 95% of the time, I'm wearing one with skinny jeans and nice flip-flops, sometimes alternating between my favorite pair of cute flats (but I usually just wear flip-flops for simplicity; I'd have to take shoes off to avoid wrinkling them when I drive). I'm also very comfortable in blues (especially navy), because I'm Asian, I'm yellow-colored, and it complements my skin tone. I know that I play it too safely which is why my style is very vanilla. Though at least what I choose is flattering for my body, dammit, I want more! Ideally, I'd have a look that says I'm chic, awesome, and adorable... with minimal effort.

"I don't know what you do with your hair, but you should probably either cut it to shoulder length or higher, or always wear it in a bun/chignon/some kind of fancy-looking updo. And wear makeup."

Noted! I've been growing my mane out for the past ten months so I can donate it to charity, though I'm close to getting a really chic cut very soon as the maintenance is taking a toll on me. I'm not very skilled at styling my own hair and almost always just wear it down with my bangs pinned off to the side. I curl it and pin one side back when I want to look fancysauce, but that's about it. Still trying to get the hang of the rolling my hair in a sock bun since it's super thick and unruly. I've tried following YouTube videos, but my hair is so long now and my arms tire out that it ends up sloppy. The only time it's ever been nice and neat was when my older sister did it for me... but she isn't always around for that, haha.

I went shopping with mom earlier at the outlets and bought some fancy, versatile clothes since I have an important interview tomorrow. For the past hour, I dug through the organized part of my closet where all my nice clothes are, and I realized I own a LOT of Banana Republic clothes that have rarely been worn; they were used only a couple years ago when I worked an office job. Played dress-up for a bit and mixed and matched, which softened much of my frustration.

I'm overwhelmed at times because I feel that I'm not looking the way I should. But I realize this will be a gradual process and am patient enough to learn things (and continue making mistakes) along the way. Baby steps. :)
posted by HiphopAnonymous at 6:13 PM on October 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd have to take shoes off to avoid wrinkling them when I drive

Maybe I missed it but ... why? I don't know anyone who does this. If you buy nice-ish shoes and take decent care of them, you will not ruin them by driving in them.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:36 PM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

^ A lot of my shoes develop horizontal crease lines across the top (along the base of the toes) and/or stretch out that area. This is especially true considering I drive a stick shift -- working the clutch pedal quickly creases my shoes. My mom bought me a pair of awesome, black equestrian-looking faux leather boots for Christmas that I inadvertently sabotaged from not switching into more driving-appropriate footwear. I'm so mad at myself!

I usually bring flip-flops or drive bare foot these days, and just throw on my nice kicks before stepping out of the vehicle. :)
posted by HiphopAnonymous at 9:09 PM on October 7, 2012

purchasing articles of clothing I initially thought would be stylish, only to have no idea what to do with it

I used to do this, and it always made me feel like I had absolutely nothing to wear. Since then, I've devoted more energy to buying basic, versatile items in neutral colors instead of more stylish things.

For instance, I've found a cut of jeans I like, and have a couple of pairs in a dark wash. My favorites right now are Levi's mid-rise skinny jeans, and their 505 straight leg jeans. I have quite a few basic fitted tees that can go with any jacket or scarf I have. Since I buy almost everything in neutrals or muted colors, most of my clothing can be mixed and matched. Sometimes I wear a necklace or thick chain bracelet.

Casual looks are good for me because I'm a full-time student (also in a demanding major). I think the slightly tomboy-ish look plus the mostly neutral color scheme keeps me from standing out among the other students in my classes; I'd feel out of place wearing something really feminine or dressy.
posted by cp311 at 9:49 PM on October 7, 2012

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