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A blind chick writing about fashion on her own blog is unlikely enough, but what are the odds of being asked to do a guest post for one of the web’s best style bloggers? That’s exactly what happened when Australian image consultant Imogen Lamport of Inside Out Style approached me about contributing to her Stylish Thoughts series. I was stunned and flattered in equal measure and naturally agreed to do it. You can read the results right here.

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Today’s post comes courtesy of Julie, who posed an interesting query in the Suggestion Box

Iā€™m very curious to know how you have developed your style persona?
How did you know you prefer modern classic clothes and develop your old Hollywood look?

Most people I know developed their style identity through observing people, whether they were friends, family members, movie stars or just wworkaday folks going about their business. It’s natural to take a fancy to a look and decide to emulate it. If I tried to go that route, though, I’d have to embrace stripes in a big way, since my days would be spent doing jail time on groping charges. Tactile cues take the place of visual ones for me, and my sartorial choices stem directly from what I find pleasing under my hands. Except for that vital substitution, though, I suspect my style identity evolution followed much the same course as most people’s.

I’m not sure exactly how someone develops a sense of aesthetics or how they come to conclude that look A appeals to them more than look B. I only know that such preferences start to take root with most of us pretty early on. That was the case for me. some of my earliest recollections involve tracing shapes in books, handling household items and generally starting to furnish my mental picture gallery with images of how the world around me looked. The items I kept coming back to time and again were the ones that I could imagine clearly in my mind after feeling them. The vision I had in my infancy may have left me with some capacity to retain mental imagery, because that’s what I’ve done all my life. When I think of, say, an apple, I have two levels of recollection. One is to recall the exact shape of the fruit in my hand, the texture of its skin etc. The other is to actually picture how it would look sittig before me on a table. The image is based largely on the details I ascertained with my hands, as well as bits of information dropped by sighted friends (the mental picture will change whether the apple is red or green). The clearer my tactile impressions and the more detailed the visual descriptions, the more vivid my mental image becomes. This doesn’t matter in the least for apples, since they all wind up looking the same anyway, but the mental picture process is integral to my style evolution.

Essentially, I don’t feel comfortable wearing things that I can’t picture clearly in my head. My mental gallery is expanding all the time, pushing my stylistic boundaries as it does so, but when you get right down to it, I still struggle to embrace looks that fall outside of my tactile comfort zone. By definition, tailored, classic clothing with clearly defined lines are much more pleasing under my hands simply because they’re structured in a way that makes it easy to note garment details. They contour my body, which of course gives me an excellent idea of their shape. They lack excessive embellishments, which frequently feel distracting under the hand and compete with the flow of an outfit in my experience. The details I can make out, such as necklines, sleeve styling, collar type, pocket placement and the like, are important features to take note of in any garment and are particularly easy to pick out on garments with clean lines. And of course, many classic garments tend to be made in higher-quality fabrics, which can lure me in on their merits alone. I grew up with classic garments in the closets of all my family members and developed a discerning touch when it came to the types of details noted above. Classic was my comfort zone, and I had to reach adulthood before I developed any degree of curiosity about looks beyond this admittedly narrow scope.

Nowadays I’ve branched out considerably. I’ve come to enjoy and even sport looks you wouldn’t have found anywhere near my body in the past. Just as sighted fashionistas adjust their eye to knew looks, I’ve gained tactile familiarity with moto styling, slim-legged silhouettes, billowy blouses, empire tops, ruched dresses, handkerchief hems and even colour-blocking. All of these elements have crept into my style as I tried to keep myself from getting bored with my wardrobe and maintain a current vibe with my sighted friends and coworkers. Even so, it’s those mental images formed early in life that remain my benchmarks for fashion decisions. I have a turquoise bib necklace that I enjoy wearing, but still prefer my chunky or multilayered pearl necklaces best because they’re easier to picture. The jacket that warms my heart most at the moment is a tailored black blazer with interestingly-shaped buttons, easily styled cuffs and a subtle ruffle trim that elevate it from the status of a true basic. My leather moto jacket, which comes out to play at least three times a week, still can’t dislodge that more classic blazer from atop my favourites list, simply because the touch-friendly details make it that much more enjoyable to wear. In a similar vein, I’m slower to adopt of-the-moment patterns because they rarely appear in a form that I can touch. Is it any wonder that, when I first embraced animal print, I acquired a zebra dress with raised stripes over a leopard blouse whose design could not be felt?

I don’t know how accurate Julie’s incredibly kind description of my look may be, but I do know my style has a decidedly classic bent. I’m ok with this so long as I keep finding ways to stay current and have fun with the whole process. Hopefully I’ve done something to explain why my wardrobe and image have shaped up the way they have.

A picture of me in a black pencil skirt, black lace-trimmed camisole, low-cut teal top and grey blazer with contrast cuffs. I'm wearing a tripple-strand of pearls tied in a knot with the outfit.

Stil classic after all these years

Thanks for the great question, Julie! If any others want to follow her lead, I’d love to see more comments in the suggestion box. I’m not shy about questions, so if there’s a topic you’d be interested to see me cover or even something you’ve always wanted to ask a blind chick, fire away!

A picture of me in a calf-length cotton dress with a purple and yellow floral pattern on it. The dress is sleeveless, is cut fairly low in the neck and has a fairly traditional silhouette that fits through my torso and then flares out dramatically. To compensate for this traditional style, I'm wearing it with taupe faux-snakeskin sandals, silver and pewter dangly earrings and a bracelet of concentric silver leaves. I'm carrying a white shoulder bag.

My favourite dress silhouette...with requisite modern touches

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CAVEAT: Sorry for the sideways pictures in this post. We don’t know what’s going on, but we’re working on fixing it!

I’m not always a big one for brand loyalty. I couldn’t care less whether my peanut butter sandwich contains Kraft or Smuckers jam, I’ve been known to have both Royale and Cottonelle tissues on my night table, and my clothes have been washed with everything from Tide Liquid Fresh to Sunlight Powder and a lot of things in between. But every now and then I stumble upon a brand that hits all the right notes and inspires lifelong loyalty in this fickle customer.

I don’t know about you, but nothing psychs me up more than stumbling onto my personal magic fashion brands. You know how it goes. You walk into a store, grab a handful of items, then alternate between gasps of shock and squeels of joy as piece after piece slips onto your body and settles into a glove-like fit. Styles you thought were incompatible with your body type settle effortlessly over your problem areas. Colours that make you radiant and that are nowhere to be found in lesser stores populate the shelves. Those accessories you’d dreamed of for months and despaired of ever finding are positioned right by the counter as a casual afterthought. You want to scoop up armfuls of clothes en route to the cash screaming “budget be damned, I’ll take it all!”

Everyone has these individual fashion meccas, and I currently have two — one on either side of the border, no less.
The Halogen brand from U.S. retail giant Nordstrom. has recently blown me away with the quality and fit of their relatively affordable pieces, while closer to home the offerings at Laura Canada feel like they’ve been designed and cut specifically for my body.

Busty girls everywhere can attest to the fact that woven tops and jackets are notoriously hard to fit, particularly if you throw a defined waist into the equasion. If it closes at the chest, it looks like your torso went on a camping trip and pitched a tent. If it fits through the lower body, you’re likely to be recruited by the next Hooter’s manager you come across. So imagine my delight when I recently ordered two Halogen jackets from the Nordstrom Anniversary sale. Not only did they fit perfectly, but they felt great and fulfilled my number one criterion for styling myself!

A picture of me modeling a grey blazer, which has a single-button closure and rolled-back cuffs revealing a cream pinstriped lining. I'm wearing it with dark-wash slim-cut jeans and a red silk tunic shirt.

It fits!!

A picture of me wearing a collarless, black and white tweed jacket with a silver chain trim around the neckline, placket and cuffs. The jacket has three-quarter sleeves and a small fringe detail around the neck and black satin edging around the front pockets. I've just thrown it on over capris, which is not how I would wear it in real life!

And so does this!! Please ignore bottoms šŸ™‚

Woven tops, particularly those with button closures, pose similar challenges for the well-endowed. Enter Laura Canada with their great offering of crisp, high-quality summer tops that actually make me feel polished and appropriate. The sleeveless blue impressed me so much that I promptly duplicated it in white! The selection of bottoms was equally exciting for a tall girl like me who struggles to find capris, or clams as I’ve taken to calling them, that hit me at the right point between my knee cap and the widest part of my calf (the secret is to buy them in petites). .

A picture of me in a store modelling two eventual new purchases. I'm wearing white clams that end just above my calf. I've paired them with a silky v-neck top that has a pattern of leaves in shades of blue and green.

Pant length and pattern and fit, oh my!

A picture of me in the same store. This time I'm wearing black clams that hit at the same spot paired with a sleeveless, v-neck cotton blouse with buttons down the front. There's no pulling or gaping, which allows the two small tuxedo-type stripes on the lower half of the top to lie properly just under the bust and run down to the bottom of the shirt. The blouse is a fairly vivid shade of blue.

More proper clam length? And a woven top in a signature colour that fits right? Yes please!

These are just the basics of what my two current magic brands can do! More on their myriad wonders in another post.

So what are the brands that make your heart skip a beat and your credit card cry out for mercy? How about on the other end of the spectrum…are there brands or stores that consistently fail to deliver the goods for your body and style?

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I’ve talked before about my need to rely on others for some aspects of my style. The process has worked fairly well on the whole, but every now and then the approach leads to some hilarious misadventures. Take yesterday, for example.

I’ve been going to the same hair stylist literally my entire life. I was introduced to her as a baby in a basket, received my first toddler trim at her hands and continued to frequent her unpretentious, reasonably-priced salon from the time I was old enough to make my own style decisions. I felt more comfortable in a mom-and-pop operation than in a fancy shop; I felt someone who knew me since childhood and understood my major style influence was a lot more likely to listen to my requests. She’s also come to understand my occasional hnervousness about trying new hair styles, realizing that concepts like this are particularly hard for me to grasp. Hair is one area where my sense of touch is pretty much useless. There isn’t much correlation between the way faces and hair feel and they way the look to others (a face that sighted people described as heart-shaped just feels kind of angular to me, for instance). Hair cuts are the same way — other than length and very general shape, I can’t tell them apart, nor can I figure out which style would suit a particular face shape. My hairdresser gets this and has gained my confidence over time. I now let her take the odd risk with my hair secure in the knowledge that she’ll never knowingly stear me wrong. She’s not great at describing the work she does, but she’s excellent at making choices that suit me down to the ground.

So when she and her equally-trustworthy assistant suggested I should branch out and get a few highlights, I figured I’d give it a shot. I know full well my hair could use some additional textural interest, and the growing number of grey strands doesn’t need to come to the world’s attention quite yet. šŸ™‚

A picture of me as I'm about to leave for my hair appointment. My dark-brown hair is chin length in the front and somewhat shorter in the back (my former bob-cut needs a trim)

Me moments before leaving for my hair appointment

Despite my confidence in my stylists, ,however, my leariness was in full force yesterday when I went for my appointment. No matter how much I trust my style advisors, I still get nervous about branching out in major ways. It’s especially bad with hair, since I can’t just pop it off and swap it out for something more flattering if I’m not digging it. When I got to the salon, I emphasized time and again that I wanted the highlights to be subtle, unobtrusive, natural-looking etc. My stylist assured me that’s exactly the effect she was going for — something akin to the look you get when you spend a lot of time in the sun. Unfortunately, my nervousness spooked her, causing her to be extra cautious. When the colouring was done, the highlights barely showed at all!! šŸ™‚

A picture of me walking in the door from my hair appointment. My hair is now shorter with the longer front part grazing my lower lip, and the bob styling is more pronounced, but it's still the exact same dark brown shade as before.

Me returning from my hair appointment...with the exact same colouring

My poor stylist was a lot more upset about this than I was. If there’s going to be a snafu, I’d far rather have it be less obvious than more so! That said, I felt all kinds of guilty for freaking her out with my own uncertainty, wasting a bunch of her time and leaving her disappointed with the results. I would have happily paid full price, but felt even more guilty when she didn’t charge me for the highlights at all! After the judgment she’s shown over the years, I should have had a bit more confidence in her ability to get the colouring right. But therein lies the balancing act challenge, which occasionally leads to amusing results like this one. Next time, I promised her carte blanche on my head…we’ll see how that goes!

For the record, the pictures above also showcase occasions when my reliance on others paid off. The cream straight-leg pants, black tunic and black patent ballet flats were items I chose myself based on fabrication, fit and feel, but the multi-strand turquoise necklace and short brown leather jacket were items selected for me by others. The black mock-croc guess handbag in the second shot was also picked by me (I told you I’m a sucker for great texture)!

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To stop blathering on about this subject, of course? šŸ™‚

Thanks for sticking with me through this rather lengthy series despite warnings that it may get complicated! Your questions have given me fodder for some future posts, and I’ve loved hearing your input on this topic.

After wading through my previous posts, you may well wonder why I bother to try and develop a fashion sense of my own. Why should I care about such an ostensibly visual subject? Why go through the effort of devising strategies for something I’ll never fully understand? My answers are probably the same as those given by other style-conscious ladies, but as with so many things in my life, my blindness has informed my perspective. In this instance, my motives have made me something of an outsider in the blind community, with which I’m absolutely fine.

A person’s appearance and presentation are often a reflection of that individual’s personality. In my case, my quest for style reflects a variety of things; my interest in aesthetics, my desire to project a polished, confident appearance, and my fierce desire to fit into the sighted world. I learned early on that my interactions with sighted peers were strongly influenced by the way I looked, more specifically by my manner of dressing. If sporting unfashionable garb, I was far more likely to receive unsolicited offers of help walking down the street, to be spoken to in an unnaturally loud voice or simply to be treated as an anomaly. The discomfort that some people unfortunately feel towards disabilities can be reinforced in a variety of ways, and I firmly believe a sloppy appearance does nothing but further emphasize my “difference” from those around me. When I take time to pull myself together, on the other hand, I am tacitly accepting the terms of the world in which I have chosen to live — a world in which, rightly or wrongly, appearance matters. If I expect sighted people to treat me as a respected equal, I’d better be willing to meet them half way and learn to operate within a set of environmental norms that may not make inherent sense to me. Those norms include learning how to dress appropriately for the whole spectrum of life situations. My desire to distance myself from blind stereotypes has admittedly had a great deal with my decision to set my personal style bar higher. To me, looking good entails more than simply wearing clothes that are clean and don’t clash. Compiling a flattering, versatile and current wardrobe reaffirms my commitment to the lifestyle I have chosen and helps define the interactions I want in my life. It also suits my fastidious personality, appeals to my general interest in visual matters and has the capacity to bolster my wavering confidence. Plus, despite the occasional hassles and inevitable frustrations, fashion is fun, at least for me!

I strongly suspect I’ve fully tapped the existing well of interest for this subject, but if by any chance you’re wanting to know more about any aspect of what I’ve discussed, just let me know!

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The first two posts of my explanatory “dressing in the dark” series took a stab at explaining how I make wise fashion choices. If my goal is to look polished, pulled-together and current, I find I’m usually able to carry this off by focusing on clothing fit first, then applying rules and concepts I’ve learned through years of listening to my mom and shopping with friends. But as you can only imagine, the potential flaws in this approach aren’t so much loopholes as yawning troughs! My endeavour to look my best will always be a work in progress, due as much to my blindness as to my inherent lack of confidence (the two are likely linked, but more for another day).

The two most obvious problems with my strategy will likely make me sound manic; the approach tends to either leave me stuck in a rut or going overboard in efforts to get out of one. For years, it was all about the rut. I went for similar styles of pants and tops, bought them in predictable colours and matched them with unobtrusive silver jewelry simply because I knew the combo worked. By worked, I mean it wasn’t hideous. It was by no means hip, as I now realize, but this formulaic approach felt like the one thing that could stand firm on the shifting sands of my body confidence issues and that could guide me safely through the sartorial minefield.

Eventually I clued into the fact that relying on prescribed cuts and colours was rapidly sapping me of whatever style mojo I had and that change was in order. For me, that usually entails revisiting my core fashion guidelines rather than revising them; sometimes I just need reminding of the other options that can work for me. Discovering Angie and the amazing YouLookFab Ladies had exactly that effect by pushing me to turn back the clock and break out some long-rejected clothing items/styling options (jeans, cropped jackets and layering to name just a few examples). Unfortunately, while it also brought me a surge of newfound confidence, it also played right into the hands of my other major challenge; throwing caution to the wind in the name of change.

An “anything goes” approach rarely works when it comes to clothes, and it sure doesn’t do so for me. When feeling boxed in by my traditional strategy, however, I’m more likely to take a chance on something just because it sounds different. I’ve been suckered into a variety of purchases when this impulse takes control. The scary results are now lurking in the back recesses of my closet. These include a shirt in me-friendly colours that looks like it got sacrificed on the alter of Kindergarten tie-die projects, pinstripe pants that seduced me with their intriguing black/blue combo and are barely long enough to be worn with flats, A blue jacket with a fabulous quilted texture and few other merits, and shapeless white jeans purchased to fill a wardrobe gap and used to take up space. these purchases remind me of the need to keep my desire for style in check. My wish to fit in with the world around me sometimes trumps my judgment, which leaves me battling both standard-issue shopper’s remorse and shaken confidence in my own strategies.

Then, of course, there’s the challenge of noting the details that can make or break an outfit. What colour is the hardware on the shoe/bag I’m checking out and does it detract from the item? Do the beads on this necklace have a hippy, boho look that would clash magnificently with my more classic style? How about the contrast piping on this jacket; is it a striking accent or just plain jarring? Is there unsightly whiskering on an otherwise lovely pair of jeans? Nailing these details requires not just functional eyes, but discerning ones. What’s a blind chick to do? Accept the fact that a key part of her personal style will be shaped by others, figure out the best people/places to go for guidance and learn to strike a balance between input and instinct.

Why listen to others at all? Why not eschew any suggestion of sheep mentality and do whatever I want? For a variety of reasons, which I’ll touch on when I wrap the series up tomorrow.

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Thanks for all your feedback on my post about my sense of touch and the role it plays in making suitable fashion choices. I can’t tell you how cool it is that some of you plan to try the same strategy! I was actually surprised how many people ignore that sense while shopping, but that’s a post for another time.

In part two of this series, I’ll try to explain how I make choices that are either less intuitive for me or downright impossible without sighted assistance. Well-fitting garments are critical for a polished look, but silhouette, colour, pattern and texture are the factors that can take an outfit from drab to dazzling. This knowledge was imparted to me early by my mother, who took tremendous pains to equip me with the skills I needed to function in the sighted world. As a hard-working, style-conscious professional, she was very much awake to the perils her blind daughter would face if left to her own fashion devices. She knew that unflattering, inappropriate or ill-fitting clothing could harm my professional and social prospects and relligate my self-confidence to the rubbish heap where only Crocks should reside. Mom devoted a lot of time to giving me an early fashion education by dressing me in cuts that felt like they fit, providing detailed descriptions of styles and silhouettes, and debunking the mysteries of colour to the best of her ability. Colour is one of those concepts that’s nearly impossible to verbalize, but she accomplished a lot by simply explaining which colours she was using for different purposes (from food presentation to interior decoration). Her information was particularly detailed when it came to my clothing choices, and she took great pains to make sure I knew what colours looked best on my dark-haired, pale-skinned body and what other shades they should be paired with in outfits. It was through her I learned that I could sport black or white with equal ease, that red was pretty much flop-proof on me so long as it didn’t tend too far towards orange, that yellows were tricky but could work in the right shade, that muted tones like olive green were to be avoided at all costs and that I could pull off pretty much any shade of blue. My deep faith in Angie of YouLookFab was partially cemented when I saw how many of these early maxims she espoused herself: Mom would rest her case right here. šŸ™‚

This abstract knowledge was a great building block, but needed to be coupled with practical examples in order to really sink in. Besides, the foundations Mom laid weren’t always enough to keep me in step with my own peers, as I found out the hard way through a few lonely school years. But with age came friends, and with friends came further fashion wisdom. These lovely, non-judgmental people were more than happy to help me shop, and not just for social reasons. They realized that my understanding of fashion terms and trends would only sink in once I’d had a chance to experience them first-hand (full disclosure, they didn’t need much arm-twisting to go shopping anyway). Terms like boot-cut jeans, key-hole necklines and batwing tops were meaningless unless I’d seen some concrete examples and put them on my body to see if they worked. These excursions also gave me a chance to look at the garments that were dominating store shelves and find out for myself what trends, styles, silhouettes and fabrics were truly of-the-moment.

As I aged, I began to make note of the clothes that prompted the most complements and pay attention to the specific elements that were being singled out. It came as no surprise that the most successful items were the ones that combined Mom’s fundamental style guidelines with my friends’ up-to-date knowledge. Since I’ve entered the occasionally terrifying world of solo shopping, I’ve tried to maintain the balance between those two ideas. I’ve learned to seek out salespeople who can provide detailed verbal descriptions of garments and who will offer honest feedback as I shop. If they’re not listening to my requests while we browse, I walk out the door and try somewhere else (I suspect I’m not the only one who gets riled when people violate the first tenet of Good Customer Service 101). If the salespeople working that day just don’t have the knack of describing things like patterns and colour nuance, I’ll refrain from buying that day and try again another time. I try to stick to stores that have an approved style quotient from my friends and that can usually be relied upon to stock modern, current pieces. I’ve learned to come equipped with detailed lists of what I need and won’t hesitate to be excessively picky about cut, colour etc. And thanks to advances in modern technology, I now have the option of asking a salesperson to snap a picture on my cellphone so I can fire it out to either local shopping buddies or new online, style-savvy friends — I’m looking at you Marianna and Maya (Dude, where’s your blog)! :p

This approach, while generally successful, has definite pitfalls. The fickle world of fashion thrives on subverting formulas like the ones I’ve devised over the years, and there’s no doubt I’ve fallen victim to it. Tomorrow I’ll cough up on the things I consistently struggle with in my ongoing attempt to look good.

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