November 11, 2008

Chicago Manual of Style—November 11, 2008

Mary-Kate Olsen went from child star to fashion wunderkind when she ushered in the era of “bag-lady chic” style. Swathed in jersey dresses and oversized cotton T-shirts and swaddled in chunky knits, Olsen accentuates her look with enormous sunglasses and bangles. Olsen combines clothes from fashion houses like Chanel and Proenza Schouler with pieces from thrifty megachains like Top-Shop. The diminutive diva is fluent in high-low fashion, mixing high-end splurges with low-end steals. It’s all about the mix.

You don’t have to be a celebutante to get in the mix. Third-year Virginia Rangos is a mix-master who elegantly and effortlessly mixes high and low fashion. She helped me compile a list of guidelines for dressing the part.

Splurge on the Staples

Some style experts suggest buying bargain basics and splurging on stylish accessories, but Rangos disagrees. Investing in high-quality basics ensures that your wardrobe will have staying power, both literally and figuratively.

“My strategy of late has been to buy basic things from higher-end stores so that I have some things that are really well made,” she said. “I know that I will be able to wear them for a few years without them falling apart.”

In the fickle world of fashion, trends change in a flash, but well tailored dresses, blouses, and trousers never go out of style. Rangos recently purchased a beautiful midnight-blue corduroy dress with silver buckle accents and a simple, gray long-sleeved sweater-dress from Marc Jacobs. These purchases are versatile and well-made, and will be wearable for years.

Once you’ve built a foundational wardrobe, you can indulge momentary trends. Fashion emporiums like Forever 21 and H&M stock cheap, of-the-moment items that can be used to take a basic outfit from tired to trendy.

“I fill in the gaps in my wardrobe with stylish things from Forever 21, which will shred after I wear them twice,” Rangos said. Fashion-forward items like charm necklaces and plaid headbands can be bought for only $3.40. Dropping the big bucks on basic items will give your wardrobe a sense of timelessness and prevent it from falling apart the moment you take off the price tag; buying trendy items at low prices means that you won’t feel guilty dumping the disposable duds when their moment has passed.

Accent Artfully

Rangos understands than when it comes to flamboyant fashion, less is more. Spandex, crazy colors, metallics, and animal prints should be employed with discretion. These items can add a much-needed “pop” to a basic ensemble but can quickly turn from glam to garish.

“I love my gold Puma tennis shoes, but I don’t wear them very frequently,” Rangos said. “I don’t want to be known as the girl who wears gold Puma shoes.” Distinctive pieces are best used as accents to dramatize a simple ensemble. As Rangos puts it, “You don’t want your entire wardrobe to be different shades of spandex.”

Buy for your Body

It’s not true that you have to be svelte and six feet tall to look stunning; you just need to find a style that compliments you.

“Things that aren’t fitted don’t look good on me,” Rangos said. “They hang off me like a tent.” Instead, she picks figure-flattering fitted tops and high-waisted skirts, as well as belted dresses that emphasize her whittled waist.

Women with a pear-shaped figure may want to wear a dress or skirt that skims the lower half of the body while accentuating the waist, or choose a blouse with fuller sleeves that balances out the wider portion of the body. Women with broader shoulders, on the other hand, might select a dress with dramatic, body-balancing details on the hemline.

Finally, a piece of clothing that looks better on the rack than it does on your body should never make its way to your closet. “I’ve made the mistake of finding something that I loved and just buying it in a size that was too big or too small if they didn’t have it in my own,” Rangos said. “It never works out.” It seems that even a Marc Jacobs dress that doesn’t fit simply isn’t worth the money.

Comfort, not the brand name, is key. After all, it’s impossible to look your best if you’re self-consciously tugging at an outfit that is too skimpy or constricting—fit has to be just right. “Never buy something you have to wear with strategically placed tape,” Rangos said, laughing.

Remember that good fit doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. “The last formal dress I bought was from Zara, and it was only $40,” Rangos said. When accented with costume jewelry, including a $5 strand of fake pearls from Marc Jacobs, the affordable dress became black-tie attire.

Forget the Rules

Rangos’s style is not calculated; she buys what she likes and wears what looks good on her. By wearing what she feels best in, Rangos is always able to look confident, comfortable, and chic.

Rangos’s sweater-dresses, chunky boots, and massive necklaces look stunning on her—but they aren’t for everyone. Just as many of us would look like drowning beetles in Mary-Kate’s multiple layers, we wouldn’t all look great in Rangos’s blue Marc Jacobs jumper. We should all find whatever fits us best and run with it. High-low fashion makes it easy to stay true to our personal styles without entirely disregarding trends. If “bag-lady chic” has taught us anything, it is that sometimes, fashion rules are made to be broken.