Fashion Is a Form of Gardening

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Fashion Is a Form of Gardening by Wardrobe Oxygen, an over 40 fashion advice blog by Alison Gary

Fashion Is a Form of Gardening

The other day, I went for a walk in town with my neighbor and good friend. She was seeking inspiration for landscaping her yard. We wandered the sidewalks, admiring the work of neighbors and appreciating the variety. Some yards were carefully manicured, and some were charmingly haphazard. My friend has gotten into gardening and said she finds it similar to pruning a closet or creating an outfit: you know something is off, and you play with color and proportion until it feels right.

Playing with Color, Proportion, and Texture

I agree. I too believe fashion is similar to gardening, home decor, crafting, and many other artistic endeavors. While there are recipes and paint-by-numbers sets, blogs and books on how to garden and landscape, a lot of joy and personal style comes from playing around with color and proportion and texture until it “feels” right for you.

Instead of Styling a Plot of Dirt…

What makes fashion more difficult is how personal it is.

Instead of a plot or pot of dirt, you are styling your body. A body that may have been injured, that may feel as though it's failing you, that is so wrought with pain from bullying, societal expectations, parental expectations, partner expectations, traumatic moments from the fitting room to the locker room to the bedroom.

A body is not taut, and it is not unchanging. It fluctuates with movement, with time, with the moon. It can look one way, but inside, it feels completely different. It remembers; it reacts. But by thinking of fashion in the same way you do when landscaping your yard, arranging flowers in a vase, choosing the print of fabric or color and texture of yarn for your next garment or blanket, hanging artwork, rearranging a bookcase, plating a dinner, organizing a pantry… it may help disconnect some of the emotional heaviness.

Working with What You've Got

Your garden has rocks, or clay, or sand.

It's very shady in your yard, or it gets harsh direct sun. Your garden plot is in a spot that pools water, or you live somewhere prone to droughts… or rabbits, or aphids. You may plant what you deem pretty, regardless of what it says on that little plastic card. You spray it and fertilize it and water it and fence it in, but no matter what you do, that pretty plant just doesn't make it.

You can curse the clay, or the bunnies, or the sun, but it won't change your environment. You can keep trying the same thing, buying replacements of the same plants and watching them burn up, wilt, or be nibbled away and feel like a failure. Or you can learn from that experience and find different plants that thrive in such an environment. In fact, you can find joy and a sense of pride in figuring out what works and “feels” right.

Why I Started Wardrobe Oxygen

I started Wardrobe Oxygen back in 2005 because I was sick of reading advice from so-called style experts that said EVERY woman needed a crisp white shirt, a trench, and a black pencil skirt. I was a soft curvy body that looked like a disheveled catering waiter in a white shirt, cosplaying Columbo in a trench, and a black pencil skirt made me question every aspect of my body and how I lived my life up until that point.

Variety is the Spice of Life

I worked for years as a retail apparel trainer, visual merchandiser, and personal stylist.

As a personal stylist and trainer, I saw that most women didn't look or feel great in these garments. Different heights, shapes, sizes, and ages… they all tried on these so-called fashion “musts” and felt wrong.

Expecting every woman to own and wear a crisp white shirt is like expecting every yard across these United States to be a perfect habitat for gardenias. I began this site with a list of items I felt should be in every woman's wardrobe with nary a trench coat or crisp white shirt. But over the years, I learned even that a capsule wardrobe was too limiting.

We are as varied as our yards and home floorplans. As with our sandy soil and our weirdly-placed windows, we can curse those issues and give up, or we can find ways to work with what we have. And a lot of that has to do with play.

We can move plants after a season to a place in the yard that is a better location. We can spackle over that nail hole and move that painting up and to the right a few inches. We can be proud of the misshapen sweater we knit, knowing the next one will be even better. We play until things feel right. And our bodies deserve that same form of play.

It's a Matter of F*cks Left to Give

As grown-ass women, we may feel exhausted by still having to figure out our body and how to dress it.

And it's totally okay to say, “I have no more fucks left for this,” and choose apparel that gets the job done. I totally respect that, we deserve to be able to choose what is important in our lives. But if you do still find fashion perplexing, traumatic, and overwhelming yet intriguing or important, play with treating it like a garden.

Go slow; no one expects you to bulldoze and start from scratch. Find what works with what you already have and fits in your existing space. Try it out, and if it works, consider more of the same or similar. Research what is complementary so you can have variety without conflict. Use the internet to find those with a habitat similar to yours or, if not, a similar space with similar tastes and aesthetics. Know that if it doesn't work, it's likely to do with external forces, not you personally.

The Garden Analogy for Fashion

Using the garden analogy is a good way to start separating your emotions from your wardrobe. To give yourself grace for what makes you unique and know you're not the problem, the clothing is.

And if you decide just to replace all your flowers with hostas because you're over the whole process, I support you. Seriously, take one look at my front yard and you'll see I support you. Having something sturdy and reliable and made for your environment is a win. Life is short; don't stress over what doesn't ultimately bring you comfort and joy.

This post was originally published in May 2023, but I updated it for March 2024 because that original conversation with my friend came to mind recently. I think it's a good reminder as we head into a new season of fashion, and I thought you might like it.

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. A little late but this is one of my favorite articles I’ve ever read here (over 10 years)! Beautifully written.

  2. Oh my god, I love this!!
    I am almost 60, how this happened is a mystery to me… and have never owned a white shirt, apart from a charity shop purchase to paint the house in.
    Those essentials lists were always for someone else, someone taller, someone quieter, someone with different friends etc, etc.
    I have long given up the nonsense of trying to be the white shirt girl, and my wardrobe reflects me, not some tall, calm, mythical creature.
    I so love your blog.
    xx Fiona

  3. I love this, doubly because it addresses a conundrum I wanted to email you about, but could never phrase right. In short… to use your analogy, I find myself in a new garden – transplanted from Baltimore law firm/Annapolis life to a small resort town in Montana, courtesy Covid and 3 years into WFH. I have been trying to figure out what to wear… but, I am not a cowgirl… or a hunter… or a devout hiker… I kept asking myself, who am I in this new place, with less closet space, no need for office or fancy night out attire, but still want to represent myself? Some recent article of yours inspired me to look for something that felt comfortable in these new environs – not city, not country, but something I could wear outside of wfh and feel right in most situations. Chicos slim pants, no iron linen shirts, cool sneaks or sandals, fun jewelry – done. Took me two years to figure out. Not sure how to translate to winter, but I have a template that works for now. Feels silly, but thanks for helping me!

    1. I empathize with you, Melissa. I was transplanted, too, and it’s difficult to figure out how to thrive in a totally new environment. Right now, I feel like cool evergreen put down in a hot desert. Alison’s garden analogy is spot-on!

  4. I plan to take this advice to heart this holiday weekend as I assess my closet for more looks I can put together for the days I’m in the office. I did a try on and toss a few weeks ago where I bagged anything I didn’t like or that didn’t fit me for donation, but that still left me with a lot of clothes. I will use comfort and joy as my guides, and I hope to thin things out even more but have more ideas about combining what works.

  5. I love the Gardening analogy!!! Our gardens are always evolving as we do. Our gardens are not static, they are living bodies reflecting our own painterly vision that evolves over time. Our plants respond to changes in light, water, and the care that we have time to give. Seeing my body is a garden helped me not to curse the soil as you say, and damn the flowers that aren’t growing. What a wonderful picture of Grace! thank you Alison.

  6. It’s always refreshing to read your posts like this! My own style keeps changing, no doubt greatly influenced over the past 3 years because of Covid. But, I think it was already evolving as I headed into my late 40’s/early 50’s. Comfort matters & I’m trying to make better choices and not buy too much. Definitely haven’t mastered this yet but it’s a work in progress.

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