How to Look Polished

"How Does One Get the Polished Look?"

This, or different variations of this question show up in my keywords on my blog’s stat counter every day. It seems that most women are searching for the Holy Grail of style instead of working on those spreadsheets or proposals at work!

Looking polished… well some women are born with that skill. They are able to wear a simple tee shirt, jeans and flats and look like Audrey Hepburn. Their hair never frizzes, their lipstick never gets on their teeth, they have perfect yet natural posture, and possess effortless confidence and style.

I am not one of those people. I always spill my Starbucks latte on my sleeve while walking into work. Friends are always picking a piece of lint out of my hair or a crumb off my sweater. I wear more bruises and scratches than articles of clothing and due to my shape can quickly look dumpy or dowdy in a simple tee shirt or sweater.

The first step toward achieving a polished look is to destroy that mental picture of Grace Kelly, Jackie Onassis, Cate Blanchett and Audrey Hepburn. If you are asking how to look polished, I can bet you weren’t one of those born with their frame, their personality, their “polished” look. To attempt to force yourself into an ideal will never be successful, look authentic, or be enjoyable. 

For a week, keep a style journal. Note what you wore (and what condition it was in), how you styled your face and hair and what events took place during the day. Notice how people look at you, respond to you, what comments or compliments you receive (not just on your outfit, but on your work, your talent in another aspect of your life, your health or weight). Also note how you felt when you looked in the mirror before leaving that day, and how you felt when you returned in the evening.

If you leave your house in something that you don’t love and does not love you, you will not look polished, composed or comfortable. Maybe it’s a dress that is a smidge too tight, a blouse that requires a few carefully hidden safety pins to keep your bra from public view, a sweater made from a fabric that itches and of a color you don’t really like but seems popular this season. I always say style comes from quality and not quantity; donate or re-gift those items that make you uncomfortable and save up for worthy replacements.

How does the garment wear throughout the day? Does that chic pencil skirt end up resembling your venetian blinds by noon? Are you constantly adjusting the neckline of your blouse so all your feminine bits are not on display? Did the sleeves of your sweater stretch out so much from pushing them up on your forearms that now they are saggy bells around your fingertips? Again, these items do not deserve a place in your closet. Who cares how sassy you feel at 8am if you feel like a recycled grocery bag by happy hour.

But what pieces make you walk tall and feel good? Maybe it’s that matte jersey wrap dress you found for $10 on a clearance rack at Macy’s, or a cashmere turtleneck in robin’s egg blue that you bought with your holiday bonus. Possibly it’s a frilly feminine confection that makes you feel as though you have been transported from a different time period, or a black suit that has been tailored to fit your shape like a glove. When I say “good,” I don’t mean comfortable. I don’t mean an item that reminds you of your mom because she knit it for you back in college, or because it’s of cozy fleece and hides your lumps. Women often mistake feeling good for feeling safe. Again and again we see on What Not to Wear and How Do I Look? women who cry over a pair of threadbare flannel pajama pants or a college sweatshirt with a paint splatter across the stomach. These are not clothes that make you feel beautiful, strong, confident, sexy, creative, unique, daring or feminine. These are clothes that attempt to recreate the womb or your bed. Whether we like it or not, we have to get out of bed and we have to face the world. Best to armor ourselves with the type of garments that make us feel strong and true, not passive and unimportant.

So you have gutted your closet of the ugly, the uncomfortable, the meek, the shape-shifters. What do you bring to your wardrobe to make you polished?

Keep it Simple You never see a “polished” woman in cabbage roses, brand logos and bedazzled fabrics. The simpler your pieces, the more versatile they are, the more flattering they are, the more timeless they will be. It is tempting to buy the blouse with the kicky embroidery, but more often than not, you will tire of the pattern, the look will be out of fashion in less than three months and people will think, “oh there she is again in that embroidered shirt!” Fun and flashy pieces are added once a simple working wardrobe is created.

All About Fit Look at the cut of garments – a polished woman is never in a muumuu or a shapeless shift dress. No matter her shape, size or age, a polished woman has accepted her frame and purchases garments that work to her advantage. An oversized sweater does not hide your stomach, if anything it draws attention to it. Whether you like it or not, everyone can tell that you have a tummy, very small breasts, large hips, short legs, back fat or heavy arms. Hiding these things under swaths of fabric tricks the eye of no one but you. Find garments that work with your lines, and if you cannot find well-fitting pieces, have them tailored. A great pair of black trousers can easily survive a decade in your closet if they flatter, fit, are made of quality fabric and are treated well.

And accept your size. I agree, it SUCKS when you are sure you are size X and you go into a store and you need to try on a size Y or even Z to get the zipper closed. This does not mean you are fat or bad or weirdly shaped. This is just proof that the sizing in stores these days is all out of whack. Once you let go of the “oh, I’m a size 6” mentality, you will have a better time shopping. If need be, cut the tags out once you purchase these garments. Heck, I have even removed the tag advertising the brand of a garment if it makes me uncomfortable (no one needs to know if your dress is from H&M, Lane Bryant, Mossimo or Prada). When you wear garments that are too big or too small, you look uncomfortable, and you never look polished.

Get Over the Name Stylish, polished women hardly ever wear obvious brand names. So many times, a fashionista is stopped after attending a runway show or a gala and is asked who she is wearing and we find out that fabulous frock is from Club Monaco or that perfect-fitting shirt is from Gap. Walk the mall and scan the internet and catalogs looking at cut, style, fabric composition. Crap is sold at all price levels, and so is quality. Wearing an ill-fitting, and un-you dress from Stella McCartney is far worse than wearing a well-fitting simple one from Ann Taylor Loft.

Know Thyself You got rid of the impossible dream to be Grace Kelly, now get rid of all those lists that say you need X perfect pieces to be well-dressed. I’m talking about that crisp white shirt, that trench coat, that pencil skirt, and the little black dress. Yes, these are great pieces for many women, but not all women. You’re an artist, you’re a weekend warrior, your wedding registry was at R.E.I., you have more curves than Marilyn Monroe, you live hundreds of miles from a city and heck, it never rains where you live.

Go back to your style journal. Did you feel strong in that rust-colored turtleneck with your brown tweed trousers? Did someone ask you if you lost weight, or notice your green eyes while wearing it? How about that turquoise sundress you bought on your trip to Mexico, the one that you were wearing when your husband told you that you looked beautiful and when your son’s teacher was shocked by your actual age, thinking you were a decade younger? More often than not, these pieces feel good to you AND to those around you because they express your personality best.

Personally, I love the look of a crisp white shirt tucked into a pencil skirt with some fabulous slingbacks… on another woman. A tucked-in blouse accentuates my short torso, my tummy and large breasts, most pencil skirts are unforgiving to my solid legs and round bum, and I have thick ankles and not enough definition from them to my heel to keep slingbacks up all day. However, I feel great in short shift dresses in stretchy fabrics and tall boots because they work with my petite frame, de-emphasize my midsection and wide calves, fit my lifestyle, and make me look pulled-together, stylish AND true to my personality. Accepting and embracing your exterior AND interior is the key to achieving personal style, and looking polished.

General Guidelines

These don’t always work for every woman, but a few tips that may help you on your journey to a polished look:

- Purchase a new purse. More often than not, a woman’s purse is a mess. It’s fraying, overstuffed, stained and tired. Look for a bag that fits your style, but will also be timeless. Try to find something that is stylish instead of trendy, relatively free of logos and shiny decorations so it will span seasons and trends.

- Get a new haircut. A polished woman does not have her hair in a claw clip or a messy bun 24/7. Get a cut that fits your lifestyle as well as your personality. Only have five minutes in the morning and have wavy fine hair? Don’t try Katie Holmes’ new bob – you won’t have the time to keep it looking good. Talk to your stylist before he shampoos your mane. Let him feel the texture, get to know you as a person before those scissors get anywhere near you. And be realistic – unless you want to spend a lot of time on your hair, you can’t make curly locks pin-straight, you can’t have a head of romantic curls when your locks are fine and straight. Just as you should accept your body, so should you accept your tresses.

- Stop purchasing prints. A few prints tossed in every so often are great, but polished women are those decked out predominately in solids. A solid blue sweater will look more polished than a striped one, a simple white shirt will get you more miles and compliments than a paisley one, and a black pencil skirt will look far more elegant than a purple tweed one with a satin-trimmed hem.

- Cut down on the cosmetics. A polished woman many have one facial feature accented, but that is about it. A polished look is clean skin, groomed brows, an elegant and simple look. If your brows are sparse, invest in a brow powder or gel – brows define a face and also your look. Instead of multiple products on the face, consider a great concealer and a highlighting tinted moisturizer to give the look of fresh, healthy skin. Lips are soft, moisturized, and either subtly colored or the focus in a subtle red or wine shade. Glitter, high gloss and shimmer are not in the makeup bags of polished women. As for eyecolor, it should be subtle neutrals to accent the eye, lashes curled and defined, but never thick, heavy or false looking. A blush or bronzer should give only a subtle flush to the skin and not attempt to recreate the look of the sun, cheek implants or a trend seen on the pages of Allure.

- Take care of your shoes. They say shoes define the man, but they also define the woman. Be they ballet flats, classic pumps or knee-high stiletto boots; your shoes need to be cared for. Get them re-heeled and resoled each year, polish them, store them carefully and immediately treat them for stains, scuff or any other damage. Instead of five pairs of fun and cheap shoes that will last a season, use that money to invest in one pair that will last you a generation. Simple black leather pumps will provide you with miles of wear, a tall boot with a classic heel and toebox will work for decades, and there are many adorable flats out there that can be just as comfy as your ratty trainers. No matter how beautiful the woman, how sassy the outfit and how perfect the hair, a pair of scuffed, cheap and worn down shoes will destroy your image.

I would like to thank The Sartorialist for these images.

Alison is the author of Wardrobe Oxygen and Me & Emerson Elaine.

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