You’ve got a Pinterest board (or album on your phone or computer) full of beautiful photos that are such a mood and totally your goal aesthetic. There are runway photos and flavor images and stock photos and street style snaps. But it’s not obvious how to translate it to a collection of wearable pieces that are cohesive enough to make getting dressed a non-ordeal in the mornings. How do you get there?
I wrote a post a few months ago about bringing the aesthetic of a Pinterest style board into your wardrobe, where I walked through how I took my personal Storybook Witch Style board and decided what sorts of items I should add to my own wardrobe to most effectively push my wardrobe towards the new aesthetic.
As a recap, the steps were:
- Identify recurring elements in your style board
- Reconcile these things with your existing wardrobe
- Figure out what core items you want by making a very constrained theoretical capsule
This post is going to go through a similar process, but instead make a fairly complete wardrobe from scratch, so I’m going to modify the steps. I’m also going to discuss things you can keep in mind to build a wardrobe that is cohesive enough that most things work together but varied enough that it’s pretty hard to feel stuck in a rut.
- What are the recurring visual elements in the style board?
- Colors, fabrics, silhouettes, styling choices
- What makes this distinct from other similar styles?
- What is the lifestyle of the imaginary person this wardrobe is for?
- Office? Bike commute? Active job? Tolerance for fussing with clothes? Dry cleaning okay? Do they party? Attend operas? How often? Do they have furry pets that shed a lot? Young children?
- What subset of the visual elements should we focus on to keep the wardrobe cohesive?
As a reminder, I’m not a professional stylist or costume designer. I just really never wanted to stop playing at paper dolls and enjoy thinking about these things to help me figure out how to make my own wardrobe more easy and fun to wear. Also you definitely do not need to have a wardrobe this cohesive. This post is also a demo on things you can do to have a more cohesive wardrobe, so it is by nature exaggerated.
None of this is novel information, and a lot of it is just common sense, but it’s always nice to have more examples around. The Curated Closet’s method is pretty similar and there are some other great tips on the author’s website.
Identifying Recurring Elements
Creating the style board is a whole beast on its own, which I’ll cover in another post eventually. For now, let’s start with this Circus themed Pinterest board that I made a while ago:
(It’s a larger board with 122 pins. I recommend viewing it on Pinterest here if you have an account or viewing the full res image in its own tab by clicking it)
There are a couple of different things going on here. While the board has colors of different hues, saturations, and values, for the most part, in any given image, the palette is either
- clean black and white
- very saturated,
- or muted dusty colors like the antique poster from the intro, or like cotton candy.
- Lots of patterns! Pattern mixing is a thing.
- Polka dots
- stripes of all sizes
- harlequin print
- Ruffles and layers of tulle (similar to traditional ballet costumes)
- Pom poms
- fancy embroidery
- Soft and frilly and floaty (ballet inspired costumes)
- bold and colorful (clowns, acrobats)
- exotic animals
- crisp and fabulous-ified military-inspired pieces (ringmaster).
Styling details and particular items:
- Designs are not subtle. They’re meant to be viewed by an audience at a distance.
- There’s some layering, but not a lot. (You don’t want your flowing clothes to get caught in a flaming hoop or step on a hem while walking a tightrope!)
- Frilly stuff is usually short.
- Fun tights.
- Colorful brogues are reminiscent of clown shoes – we’re embracing that here (so make sure all the clothing fits!).
- Double breasted coats and military jackets, metal buttons generally for closures.
- Corsetry/Victorian-era undergarment styling.
Distinguishing the Style
There are of course many ways you could implement a “circus style” wardrobe, but some of them are a little more ambiguous or fluid with other styles. We’re aiming to put together a wardrobe that should be definitely identifiable as circus and not generic bohemian style, rocker style, or children’s clothing inspired style (no shade to kid-at-heart/ugly-cute style – in fact I really loved the Junie B. Jones inspiration album from reddit ffa).
Distinguish from bohemian style/pirate costumes:
- No distressing.
- Avoid long flowy cardigans (a piece that I associate very strongly with boho styles), sandals, lace-up boots, botanical motifs.
- Have bright sparkly bling (vs duller antiqued stuff).
- “Fortune teller” def has a spot in the circus, but in the spirit of distancing from boho, don’t make it the primary branch of style.
- Avoid skull motifs.
Distinguish from rocker style (which is also has performing-art vibes, for obvious reasons):
- Avoid stud detailing (instead keep to geometric shapes, use beading or sequins for pizzazz).
- No leather jackets.
- Keep things more early 20th century rather than modern.
- Again, minimal distressing.
Distinguish from children’s clothing:
If you’re setting your heart on a circus-inspired style, you’re going to need to accept that the style is intrinsically going to be very whimsical. There’s enough material out there for a whole book on “how to look more like an adult”, but some things to keep in mind here are
- It will help a lot if shoes are mostly “grown up shoes” and not like, running shoes or round-toed flats.
- The majority of pieces should be in a more formal fabric. Not necessarily suiting/dry-clean-only stuff, but stuff with structure like woven fabrics. Kids clothes are usually quite soft and stretchy and untailored. Think smock dresses and leggings and gym shorts.
Whew, that’s a lot of things to keep in mind! Good thing we wrote them down.
If you work somewhere with a strict business formal dress code, are in a profession where it is a point to de-emphasize your individuality, you have a uniform, or you just absolutely destroy clothes due to the environment you’re in, accept that you will have a limited time to fully express your ~true inner self~ through clothes. Make it a point to get some loungewear that you love for when you’re hanging around the house, and/or make it a point to up your outfit game when you go out in the evening or on weekends.
I think it’d be fun to do this same exercise on a more constrained type of capsule (the next one of these in the queue is all athleisure), but for now I’m going to set out that our imaginary person whose wardrobe we’re building is a yuppie with a 9-to-5 office job (because that’s what I’m most used to looking for, and is therefore easiest to implement).
Work: Dress code is smart casual to business casual. Office culture: creative/quirky/whimsical style may not necessarily be the norm, but it’s generally not frowned upon. So no need to stick to neutrals or basic flats, pumps, and oxfords, and suiting is not required. They don’t need to keep their arms and legs covered for a lab, and they’re not going to be on their feet all day. But outfits should generally not be overtly sexy (you could implement a circus themed wardrobe with a more sexy corset-and-lace sort of aesthetic, but we want to avoid that here). They work this job 5/7 days a week, say Fridays are even more casual than normal, so that means there should be roughly twice as many office-appropriate items than loungewear/party items. Since they work in an office, we’ll not worry about choosing particularly robust items.
Leisure: Let’s say they do get out on weekends, but generally for more casual stuff like hanging out at a cafe or park, or going to museums or bars. So they should have some fun things, but not a ton of formal things like floor-length dresses or tuxedos.
What are they comfortable wearing: Let’s say they’re cool with wearing loud patterns and colors, but not head-to-toe sequins and tulle on a daily basis.
Weather: For this exercise I’m going easy on myself and declare that they live somewhere temperate.
For this round, I’ve pulled all my images from Topshop. While I do have a few pieces from there myself that I love, I definitely do not recommend buying yourself an entire wardrobe from there in one go (or at all – you can certainly find higher quality for the price).
I chose that brand because they have a large stock of bold items (it’s not Land’s End) and include a clean flatlay image of each item that is ideal for organizing on a Pinterest grid and creating outfit collages (since I obviously am not going to actually buy and model a hundred new outfits). Having flatlays photographed in the same style makes for clean collages, though in future posts for this series with more constraints I’ll probably have to branch out to more eclectic stock photos.
Keep in mind that having everything from Topshop also means that it’s going to feature a lot of trendy cuts. It’s a fast fashion store continually spewing a firehose of trendy items (though they do have basic leggings and coats and such). Also since I am pulling all my items from Topshop’s website right now, for the most part it’s already going to come from a collection of stuff that was specifically chosen by designers, buyers, etc to work together at some level. Topshop is varied enough (they don’t exactly do Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter collections) that I don’t really feel like this is cheating, bu remember that does make it a bit easier for me to find things that go together as opposed to if I were looking for things from ebay, thrift, consignment, and new from a dozen brands over the course of a year.
Also since I’m buying stuff at the end of January in the United States, it’s going to be pulled from a generally more wintery stock than if I did this mini project in July.
Two goals for this wardrobe are making it easy to put on a cohesive outfit while maintaining enough variety that it feels like there are endless possibilities for combining outfits. If you pick a random top, pants, jacket, and shoes, most combos should at least look okay. But we also don’t want everything to look very same-y. Imaginary person doesn’t want to wear the same silhouette all the time.
Keeping things cohesive
In my experience, the number one way to have a wardrobe that feels cohesive is to stick to a color palette. The color palette doesn’t need to be all neutrals, but it needs to be limited. There are a lot of ways to limit a color palette. It isn’t necessarily sticking to the same exact few colors, but rather limiting yourself in some dimensions of color (warmth, saturation, hue/tint, mutes, etc).
For example, you can have colors that are mostly cool colors and are less saturated. You could have a bold and pure colored pop art inspired palette. You could do 2-3 colors but have those colors be all over the place. E.g. cream, pinks, and greens: bright white, cream, beige, taupe + salmon pink, magenta, rosy blush pink, millennial pink, mauve, coral + spring green, spruce green, olive green, sage green, etc. I feel it’s ultimately less limiting since then you can have less mental energy thinking about cuts of stuff, which at least for me is harder.
On the other hand, you can also use color to add variety to a wardrobe within the scope of a palette by making sure you have different values. Make sure you have heavy, medium, and light values.
Here I’ve decided to go with a base of black, white, red, blush pink, and light blue.
- Black and white (crisp black and white, not so many grays) because it’s simpler to do less clash-y pattern mixing if everything is in black and white.
- Red because it’s a bold color + the stereotypical ringmaster coat color.
- Pink because it’s in the same family as red, but a soft option, and
- light blue which can be combined with blush pink to make a cotton candy color palette and get some of the aforementioned floaty and feminine vibes in without resorting to layers of tulle.
I’ve opted for a more muted palette to make adding mixed patterns and more statement accessories easier within an office context. We’re going for a distinct circus influence at the wardrobe level, not looking like you literally came from a circus in every individual outfit.
One thing I’ve recently noticed that simultaneously helps create cohesion and avoid feeling like you’re always wearing the same thing is having the colors in your color palette used in each category of clothing. If you only have gray pants and black shoes and black outerwear and then tops that are navy, chartreuse, forest green, and khaki, that can potentially feel very formulaic after a while. (Maybe you like the simplicity of that. That’s cool too, but presumably you’ve read this far into this post because you’re interested in turning your wardrobe in a direction with more variety.) It also makes it easier to mix and match things. If you have a skirt with pops of red in it, an easy way to make an outfit with it more put-together is having red somewhere else. If you have a red pair of shoes, or a red jacket, or red earrings, then you’re good to go!
If you don’t, then you’ll have to think of more advanced things like fabric weights and textures and layering… who has time for that when the bus leaves in 14 minutes? We’re spending a lot of time building the wardrobe to make it quick and easy to throw together outfits for the usual activities of imaginary person’s life. If I choose a random item from the wardrobe to build an outfit around, it should be really easy to come up with a few ideas immediately.
Speaking of fabric, another way to make a wardrobe feel cohesive-but-not-monotonous is to have the same handful of fabric weights and textures throughout the categories of clothing. So in our example there’s a lot of sort of satiny fabrics, so we can keep an eye out for skirts or pants with a satiny feel in addition to blouses and dresses.
Even if you won’t be wearing the same color or fabric every day, having it recur throughout a week or month will build a sense of longer-term cohesion in addition to immediate matching. Keep the whole wardrobe in mind when shopping, not just two or three outfits.
I first scanned a few random pages of the Topshop site to see what sorts of things they had. I then went through each category of item and pinned anything that fit the previously decided colors and design elements, while trying to fill the ratios of activity-appropriate clothing. I’d periodically check back and then fill out missing niches, e.g. “all the bottoms in the office trouser category are black and white – try and find a red pair next”, “there are no warm weather shoes”, “what would they wear to brunch?”, or “there should probably be a solid color skirt option”.
This is pretty similar to what I’d recommend doing when trying to fill out your own wardrobe, though obviously at a faster pace (don’t buy a hundred things at once, lol). Instead of just browsing for anything that fits your style, prioritize items that fill wardrobe holes and would make the biggest impact (bold items in color or silhouette or texture that can be used with most of your existing basics).
One thing I do to identify potential holes in my own wardrobe is if while I’m actually getting dressed I think “I wish I had a ____ to achieve ____”, I’ll add it to my I-Wish list. A wish list, but one that hopefully will end up more realistically tailored to filling wardrobe holes.
For heavily themed projects like this, I make sure that almost every item has something on it that will tie it into the theme in addition to color. A pattern, ruffle, interesting texture (i.e. anything that isn’t very basic like denim, t-shirt material, or stretch jersey), applique, buttons, etc.
If you do want to check out the items, there are links to each of their pages on the Pinterest board.
It’s a very reasonably sized wardrobe with
- 49 items of clothing (the last image is just showing the back of the denim jacket)
- 9 pairs of shoes
- 5 misc accessories
- 8 pairs of earrings
- 2 pins/brooches
- 2 sets of rings
- 1 belt
- 1 bracelet
- 3 necklaces
Of course this doesn’t include loungewear or activewear or layering basics like thermals, and it certainly could be expanded to cover more varied weather conditions, but let’s take a closer look at what we’ve got.
My workflow for making the collages:
- Make the direct image link the pin
- Link to the item page in the description
- After collecting all items, download the items off Pinterest manually (there are various browser add-ons or scripts you could try for this, but I like to see them and get the higher res images so I manually do it) into a folder on my laptop.
- Share images over Airdrop to my iPhone.
- Import images to Stylebook app and do rudimentary background removal on easy images, or crop ones with a non auto-removable background.
- Create collages in Stylebook
- Save collages to phone camera roll
- Share back to laptop via Airdrop, then upload to WordPress.
I would generally not recommend Stylebook for outfit tracking, because I think it’s much more valuable to see what items look like on yourself, and if you’re not interested in photos, then it’s faster to just use a spreadsheet or Airtable (or another wardrobe app that has a better UI). However the collaging feature is nice enough and I’ve already got most of my clothes in there that I still keep it around for making collages like these or for planning 10×10 capsules.
The “office tops”. Got two sets of different-colorway duplicates (that striped satin was just too perfect), but I think there’s enough variety of necklines and embellishments.
More casual tops, although I think everything except the three crop tops could still be worn to a casual office (red cami obviously as a shell under a cardigan or blazer). Made sure to get some easy-to-wear t-shirts in, but they all have something interesting going on (the black one is velvet). The pink shirt was a more casual looking fabric than the button downs in the first collage.
Office pants, albeit pretty fashion-y ones. I thought the zippers were a fun detail on the red trousers, and the double rows of buttons on the wide-leg pants and the long skirt add a bit of visual interest to otherwise the plainest items. Included one pair of basic black trousers because sometimes you just need those.
More casual pants. Again, even the jeans have some maximal detailing going on Because Circus. The black flares and polka dot wide-leg pants are plissé fabrics, making them less formal than the office batch, although still fancier than straight-up pajamas. The cotton candy pink jeans are corduroy for some added texture. The stripe leggings are a fun way to get the stereotypical ringmaster look in without actually including straight-up “stole it from a marching band” pants.
Can’t skip over this sweet knitwear collection. All black and white, but very different graphics. The colorblock sweater and rib-knit mock neck are more toned down options for less circus-y days or to balance out louder elements in other parts of an outfit.
Sleeker office dresses.
Non-office dresses. Only one formal dress, which continues the stripey effect from the office shirts, ribbed sweater, and plisse pants.
Outerwear! I think this is probably the first section I’d expand given more time. I made sure to at least get in a casual light jacket and heavy jacket, a Good Coat, a blazer, and a fluffy coat (to continue the animal motif, add a light colored option, and because it generally goes with the maximalist vibe). The red coats and structured jackets evoke a ringmaster costume, but I opted not to go for That Free People Band Jacket that is a lot more literal.
Shoes! This was the only section with non-Topshop items: the bubblegum pink Dr Martens boots and the black oxfords (Valentino, they were the first ones I liked that popped up in the Pinterest search). I made sure to get at least two color options for each type of shoe. The sneakers are glittery!
Miscellaneous accessories. I’d also add more fun socks to pair with the oxfords with more time, but Topshop didn’t have many dressier trouser socks in stock and I didn’t feel like looking for more at that point in my search. I think the red beret is a key accessory because it’s an easy way to accessorize with the other red items, and because it adds that a stereotypically old-timey and/or French vibe. The sparkly celestial headband was a concession I made to the fortune teller persona, which I tried to stay away from in the core clothes to differentiate from a generic bohemian aeshtetic.
Bling! A lot of the other pieces here were very loud already, so I focused on earrings for adding some sparkle. I used the sun earrings the most in the outfit collages (below) because I think the clean cut circle shape felt more polished, and the black ones also appeared a lot to ground some outfits that were otherwise already very busy. I had a few other jewelry pieces too that you can see on the full Pinterest board, but otherwise that was the whole wardrobe.
To check the versatility of my choices (and because it was fun), I then proceeded to go through every item and make an outfit with it. I didn’t limit myself to any specifics for each outfit, just that it had to feel aesthetically balanced. I found that it went very quickly! I had a lot more outfits I could have done, but I wanted to time box myself for the sake of actually finishing at some point. For the office tops and bottoms alone (not including shoes!), there would already be 48 outfit combinations since all of them work with each other.
- Having black and white solid color boots was a good choice, as it could either elongate a leg line or add pop in almost all outfits.
- I personally generally don’t love shorts… I liked those outfits the least, possibly because they felt the most childish.
- I liked the sneaker outfits quite a lot more than I thought I would. I think my personal wardrobe just isn’t super conducive to adding sneakers. This one had more modern elements to it which integrated better with the sneakers. Or maybe I just need to get an olive green or rust pair – the white and pink glitter just goes with the color palette.
- This would have been a lot harder IRL obviously, as here I can assume everything will just suit the wardrobe wearer and I don’t have a budget.
The 46 outfits (I seem to have accidentally skipped doing 3 of the 49 core items when going through at 1 AM last night, but they’ve all made it into the collages)!
InB4 “No one would ever wear that in an office in my town!” – This is definitely on the loud end, but I sincerely don’t think it’s too extra for a more relaxed office culture in a large city. However this would not pass an HR inspection in more a conservative office culture. Don’t wear statement earrings, a shadow-striped burgundy button-down, frill-hem plaid trousers, and mod white ankle boots to your interview anywhere that you aren’t absolutely sure will consider your ~advanced~ personal style as a positive indicator for your competency at whatever role they’re hiring for.
All of the outfits, grouped roughly with the more office-y outfits closer to the top:
Click the image to view it in a new tab, or view them on the Pinterest board.
Which are your favorites? Would you wear this wardrobe? What would you add? Let me know what other styles you’d like to see done in subsequent posts of this series!
Takeaways for building a cohesive wardrobe that doesn’t feel super same-y
- Limit your color palette
- Include light, medium, and dark colors in your color palette
- Have those colors in items in each category of clothing
- Repeat fabric types through different categories of clothing
- Keep in mind the types of activities you actually do when filling out clothing categories (officewear, loungewear, formal clothes, etc)
- Look for pieces to fill predetermined wardrobe holes, not just anything that fits the aesthetic