Do you need a "mom uniform"?

If your idea of a mom uniform is yoga pants and a hoodie, read on!

This June has been all about you: your dreams, your goals, and your deepest inner self.

For the rest of the month, I was thinking it would be fun to talk about clothes and hair!

And why not? Though moms definitely get the message that they should focus all their energies on loftier things – or, should be far too frazzled from the daily grind to even notice how they look – I refuse to feel bad or frivolous for taking five minutes away from my kids to wield a blow dryer.

And just because my abs aren’t quite cut out for superlow hip-huggers these days doesn’t mean I have to resort to pleated jeans. (Okay, I actually shuddered when I typed “pleated jeans.” I think I’m having a bad 1989 flashback.)

In one of my most widely-shared posts, “The Lesson of the Blue Dress“, I wrote about my unsatisfying decades-long affair with the clearance rack. How I’d feel weird investing more than, say, $12.99 on any one item of clothing for myself (so selfish!) so I’d cobble together an unattractive and ill-fitting wardrobe out of clothes that were “good enough” (as long as they were marked way down.) In the end I wound up spending much more money because so many of the things I’d bought were flops, or just didn’t go with other things I’d bought. From the piece:

I focused on quantity–how many shirts can I get for X dollars?–over quality: how awesome can I feel for X dollars? And I passed over things I loved, but didn’t feel were affordable enough. Of course, the money I spent on the “value” outfits was wasted, since I never actually wore half of them. Wow, what a bargain! Lately I’ve been thinking about how illogical my shopping habits have been. I don’t actually save money in the long haul when I buy cheap, unflattering things. I’d been confusing frugality with some twisted, frumpy sense of virtuosity. I realized that the most value-conscious choice is to buy things that are well-made, that will last…and that I love.

Of course it’s one thing to realize you’re worth investing in, and another to actually figure out how to pull together outfits that look good on you and fit your lifestyle (which I assume for most of you is a lot heavier on outings to the park than the martini bar) all with limited time and money.

Some women are great at experimenting with trends and mixing and matching different prints and styles…and then, there are the rest of us. We want to look polished, but we don’t want to spend tons of time thinking about our clothes. So how do we keep it simple while still keeping it cute?

After a lot of trial and error, I’ve come to embrace the idea of a mom uniform: a look that we can return to again and again because we know it works for us. A mom uniform allows you to grab just a few things to try on rather than filling your cart with those “maybe this will look OK with…something” options, and then having to do that awkward run out of the dressing room to swap out mismatched and ill-fitting tops, bottoms, and skirts from your cart while your toddler is crawling around on that disgusting carpet chewing a plastic hanger. (You know you’ve been there, ladies.)

My mom uniform started to come together last fall, when I got invited to a weekend in the Hamptons hosted by OnStar. The other attendees included fashion bloggers Audrey McLelland and Vera Sweeney.

I panicked. A weekend? In the Hamptons? With FASHION BLOGGERS? I sent a desperate email to Shana at my favorite fashion site Ain’t No Mom Jeans begging for help. She very sweetly coached me via email…and text…while I went on a mad shopping dash. My goal was to spend as little money as possible to pull together two outfits that could possibly be mix-n-matched into three, all while looking Hamptons-Sweeney-and-McLelland-worthy.

In the end, I wound up with a pair of cute boots and two outfits: leggings and a dress, and skinny jeans and a slouchy sweater.

My original mom uniform.

And then I realized I could wear the sweater over the leggings.

Or the dress over jeans. With a cardigan on top when it was chilly.

Ta-da! I had my fall/winter mom uniform. Tight on bottom, loose/long on top, comfy shoes/boots, ready to go.

I realized that once I had the essentials of the uniform down, it made dressing a lot easier and faster, and packing for book signings and conferences super-easy. If I kept the shapes more or less the same, I could just have a couple of things to mix and match and layer at will. And surprise! My uniform is just as comfy as the old standby of (often unflattering) jeans and t-shirts I used to throw together because I didn’t have time to think about what might look better.

I’m not a purist. Once in a while I stray from the formula, and wear, say, a pair of boot-cut jean with a form-fitting top and heels if I go out. But since I know I’m only going to wear an outfit like that once every three months or so, there’s no reason to have more than one pair of jeans in that fit, and no need to have an arsenal of shoes to go with each different cut of the pants. Since I need fewer of everything I can invest more in good quality items I love while still spending less money, and bonus – my closet and drawers are a lot less stuffed and it’s easier to take good care of my clothes.

Why I love the summer dress – it looks like I tried, even when I didn’t

For my summer uniform, I decided I would have to embrace the dress, especially now that I’m no longer nursing. What could be easier and more throw-together-and-go than a great summer dress?  

Maybe you’re thinking you’d like to come up with your own mom uniform, but the idea is overwhelming. Your drawers are already stuffed with clothes you hate and most trips to the department-store dressing room end in tears (yours or your kid’s.) I found that simplifying my wardrobe wasn’t too hard after I asked myself the following questions:

  • “What basic shapes look best on me?” I’m an apple shape so I look better in flowing tops and snug bottoms. Your body shape may dictate a different look.
  • “What really suits my lifestyle?” Maybe you look your best in evening gowns, but that’s not necessarily a great option for the zoo. If you live on a farm and spend most of your days gardening, your uniform is probably going to be different than if you spend most of your time sitting in a desk chair.
  • “What do I already have?” If you went through all your clothes and shoes right now and got rid of the stuff you didn’t really like, what would be left? Could they be the bones of a uniform? For example, I initially decided to go for the leggings-and-tunic look because I already had a great pair of boots that I was always getting compliments on, and one pair of skinny jeans. As it turned out, those boots became the backbone of my wardrobe and it was easy to rotate the one pair of jeans through different tops (after all, with the boots on you could only see about eight inches of jeans anyway!)
  • Where do I want to wear the most color and/or prints? I decided to go with all neutrals on the bottoms – denim, brown, or black – so that I could mix them with almost any top and it would still go together.
  • “What do I really need to create a few go-to outfits?” Once you’ve whittled the so-so out of your closet,  you may find that you’re closer to a great mom uniform than you thought. Start small. Unless you’re a die-hard fashionista, you really don’t need to own eighteen different outfits. It just creates mental and physical clutter and gets in the way of being able to grab a great outfit and go.
  • How are other people putting these shapes together?” Inspiration is great, so head to Ain’t No Mom Jeans for ideas about how to pair things together. Audrey and Vera, the fabulous ladies who scared me into this concept in the first place, also know how to put together a look. If you work in an office, Susan Wagner’s Working Closet is another helpful resource, and Susan’s also written plenty of articles about dressing for the playground and beyond.

So tell me: Do you have a mom uniform? Does it involve terrycloth or velour? Or have you figured out a basic formula for putting together outfits that are both comfy and being-seen-in-public-worthy?

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