Wednesday, July 31, 2013

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go (A Review of "Lessons From Madame Chic")

I've already mentioned that my wardrobe's been in a state of chaos lately. To tell the truth, I've been enjoying the process of overhauling my closet. I've basically gotten to start all over because so many of my clothes were worn out, impractical for a nursing mom, or just no longer my style. This time around, I was determined to create a wardrobe with fewer items, more function, and less "I have nothing to wear!"

It was while I was exploring the concept of a capsule wardrobe that I came across Jennifer Scott's blog, The Daily Connoisseur. I was instantly hooked! Her "Ten-Item Wardrobe" was an inspiration. And don't worry, it's not quite as drastic as it sounds. The idea is to have ten core items in your wardrobe each season, but it doesn't count staples like camisoles, tees, blazers, formal dresses, etc (though going overboard on "extras" will, of course, be counterproductive). Overall, the point is to have a small wardrobe of items that work together. That way, you're not overwhelmed by the choices (and possibly guilt) of an overstuffed closet, and every day it's simple to pick an outfit you love. If ten is too few, Jennifer suggests trying for fifteen or twenty core items. I won't go into too much detail here, because Jennifer says it much better on her blog! Here's a helpful post: Ten-Item Wardrobe: Getting Started. And here are all of her posts labeled "Ten-Item Wardrobe".

As I worked my way through Jennifer's archives, I became more and more determined to get my hands on a copy of her book, "Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris." I ordered it through inter-library loan, and once it arrived I polished it off in a few short days.

Image taken from the author's website

While I'm usually not attracted to this kind of "self-help" reading, I thoroughly enjoyed this particular volume! Jennifer's style is delightful, and her encouragement to savor the everyday things in life is certainly worth noting. I especially appreciated her challenges regarding why we use our nice things only on special occasions. Why save them, when we could enjoy them daily?

As a note, my philosophy is a bit different from Jennifer's because of the Biblical principles that I value -- for instance, I don't want to dress nicely because I think I deserve it or I'm worth it. I want to dress well as a reflection of my Creator's beauty, and as a way to bless my family and those around me (though I will, of course, get some personal satisfaction out of it). But overall, I was able to apply a Christian perspective to just about everything she presented. 

[10/2018 Update: Since writing this post originally, Jennifer has become a bit more transparent about her beliefs on her blog and it is quite obvious that she is a Christian. I thought back to this review, and hope that my comment about a "Christian perspective" did not imply that I was assuming she wasn't a Christian, or that her book was lacking in any way simply because I disagreed with some of her perspectives -- hopefully my overwhelmingly positive reaction to her book (and the two which succeeded it, which I've also enjoyed very much!) made that clear. But just in case, I thought I'd clarify it here!] 

Look Presentable Always

One of her suggestions is to "look presentable always." I love that! Do I want my children to remember me as someone who only dressed up if I had somewhere "special" to go, and spent the rest of my time in yoga pants and a messy ponytail? This is not a new concept to me, as evidenced by the lack of "loungewear" in my closet. I'm used to cleaning and cooking and cuddling in clothes that most people would consider too nice for "around the house." After all, at my local thrift shop, a nice top is the same price as a dingy tee shirt, so why not?! But being a momma to two littles can be exhausting (I know those of you with four or more are probably laughing dryly at that comment...), and I've found myself slipping a bit in that area lately.

Jennifer suggests wearing aprons during messy tasks, in order to protect your clothes. It's a little easier to wear your "nice" clothes when you're not worried about splatters of spaghetti sauce! I'm notoriously bad about remembering to wear aprons, but I've turned over a new leaf. Making a new apron that I love to wear has certainly helped!

Another positive about Lessons From Madame Chic is that it does not encourage some kind of artificial, high-maintenance beauty routine. Instead, Jennifer suggests that you find a low-maintenance look -- something that's feasible for every day (that's the point!). She encourages what she calls "le no makeup look," which are a few minimalist looks designed to enhance one's natural beauty. 

Counting the Cost

I quickly realized that Jennifer's suggestions of brands and retailers would not work for me. I simply cannot afford most of the labels she buys. I think one season of her ten-item wardrobe would be about what I'd spend on my whole wardrobe for at least five seasons! Also, some of the fabrics she prefers (like silk and cashmere) require dry cleaning; I don't think I've stepped into a dry cleaner's since I got married 3 1/2 years ago... But that's okay! I have a different style and budget. The principles of the book aren't ultimately dependent on having a huge income, or on buying specific items or brands; Jennifer points out that you can make the ten-item wardrobe work on any budget. 

While we're on the topic of cost, I was pleased to find that Jennifer promotes less consumption, rather than more. I expected a certain amount of materialism from a book about living well. But according to Jennifer, the Parisians she met were not interested in obtaining the newest, latest, greatest "thing." They valued quality over abundance -- which makes sense when you consider the ten-item wardrobe. 

I've also been able to implement some of the book's principles by finding cheaper (and more natural) alternatives to some of the beauty products she recommends. I'm very much a minimalist when it comes to makeup, but I've realized lately that I'd like to experiment a bit. Lessons From Madame Chic has helped me realize I can do that without looking artificial (via le no makeup look). Now that I have the materials I need, it's time to experiment and come up with a skin care and makeup regimen that works for me!

What This Looks Like For Me

Much of what Jennifer proposed was not new to me, but her presentation helped me realize that I want to make more of an effort to incorporate those ideas into my day to day life. I'm thinking specifically here about music, the arts, and reading. Like Jennifer, I've been blessed to live in and visit certain places where the museums are free, the art galleries are abundant, and even the buildings lining the streets were designed by masterful architects. My current locale is not one of those places. But that's hardly an excuse to throw in the towel. While I hope life in the military will take us to many places rich with culture, it will almost certainly also take us to "ordinary" places, too. I'll need to be creative in finding ways to incorporate culture into our lives.

On a different note, reading this book also made me realize that it's high time I paid more attention to my skin. That's something you only have one shot at preserving, and I'd rather put in some effort now than regret having neglected it when I'm 40. I can't afford the professional massages, facials, and mani-pedis that Jennifer recommends (that lifestyle seems very foreign to me, since I've had a total of one mani-pedi in my entire life!), but I can certainly do my own versions at home! French clay for facials is inexpensive, and the oil cleansing that I've started implementing recently has already improved my complexion. I've been more self-conscious about my skin recently, so Jennifer's suggestions were perfectly timed.

As for my closet? As a teenager, my walk-in closet bore painful witness to my thrift shop "addiction." I had about three feet of rod devoted to tops, skirts, and dresses -- each (though my dress section did include my then-substantial costume collection). Granted, I paid less for all of my clothes than I would have spent on just one high-end designer dress. Nonetheless, I had far too many clothes, and I still had difficulty creating outfits! I let my fondness for shoes run rampant, as well. I had no plan, and just purchased whatever appealed to me and fit into my budget. As a result, I had so many clothes that nothing I owned wore out, and I became bored with seeing the same items over and over again.

I've been slowly reigning myself in over the past few years -- two years ago I enacted a self-imposed shoe fast, and decided to not buy any new shoes until I wore out the pairs I already had. I had multiple pairs for each "style" (flats, heels, sandals, etc.), so when my last pair of a specific color and style wore out, I allowed myself to re-purchase equivalent shoes. I was tired of buying shoes (either new/clearance or thrifted), only to have them sit in my closet for years without showing the slightest signs of wear! As much as I enjoy shoes, I don't need to have two or three dozen pairs.  

Similarly, my wardrobe has shrunk dramatically over the past few years, thanks to pregnancy and a little more self control on my part. Jennifer's observations gave me the last little push I needed, and I'm almost to where I want to be. My summer wardrobe consists of about two dozen tops (that includes tanks, cardigans, etc.), five dresses, eight skirts (one of which I haven't actually made yet), and ten pairs of shoes (which will be five pairs in the fall, when my four pairs of sandals are put away). My maternity clothing fits in one large tub, and my winter wardrobe fits in a single under-the-bed bin. 

I don't technically have a capsule wardrobe, because not all of my tops go with all of my skirts. But I don't have anything in my closet that doesn't go with something else! That's a first for me. I've been picky this go around, and I really like everything in my closet. Part of Jennifer's inspiration was that French women have just a few quality items, and are not at all embarrassed to wear them repeatedly. While it sounds boring to 21st century Americans, I'm finding that when I love what I have, I'm excited to wear it again (though I'm still having trouble convincing myself to go ahead and wear a favorite outfit, rather than "save it"). And though I was skeptical of Jennifer's claims that she doesn't feel the urge to shop now that her closet is minimal, I've found it to be true! I'm reluctant to risk adding unneeded items to my closet (which I'll inevitably end up regretting), and find that I'd rather just skip the shopping and stick with what I have. I'll get to shop (and/or sew) when the season changes, or when one of my staple items wears out. It's a blissful feeling to be (mostly) free from the "want." 

In Conclusion

I think I'll post about my wardrobe in more detail soon, so I'll leave it at that for now! Suffice it to say, Lessons From Madame Chic was well worth the read. Jennifer covers a multitude of topics, from music to manners to how casual our culture has become. There are so many ideas for incorporating beauty and joy into everyday life! And I could always use a little encouragement to develop good habits.

I'd highly recommend The Daily Connoisseur if you're interested in reading more first-hand. Jennifer's taking a summer break, which is giving me the opportunity to work my way through the archives and take mental notes. It's been a refreshing and inspiring journey so far! 


  1. Shannon this is such a lovely post. One of your readers visited my blog and let me know about your review. I'm really happy you enjoyed Lessons from Madame Chic and will be sure to share this article with my readers.
    All the best, Jennifer Scott x

    1. Jennifer,

      What a pleasure to have you "visit!" Thank you for your kind words, and many thanks for writing Madame Chic and your wonderful blog. You have been such an inspiration to me!


  2. While clothing manufacturers often labels wool, silk and cashmere as dry clean only, you really don't need to dry clean most of them. (Thank goodness!) In-season I wear wool and cashmere every day because I run cold, and I wash everything at home, by hand. I just fill a bucket with warm water, swirl in a few drops of wool wash, and leave the item to soak. In 10-15 minutes, I carefully pour out the water, press the item to release the water, and then lay the item on a towel. Roll the towel up like a sausage and step on it a few times to press the water out, and then lay the item on a flat surface to dry. I clean my wool stockings, cashmere sweaters and wool skirts like this all the time. The only thing I won't clean this way are wool coats or dress pants that need a crease down the front. As a bonus, you can also wash your bras this way and they stay in much nicer condition for a lot longer.

    The wool soap I use is called Eucalan, and it's sold by the gallon at JoAnn fabrics. I bought my bottle for about $35, shipped, but it's at least a three year supply.

    1. Thanks for the tips! I'll definitely keep these in mind, as I have one or two woolen items that have been waiting for a wash.

      Perhaps some silk and cashmere will make their way into my wardrobe, after all... I greatly appreciate your taking the time to detail how to launder them!


  3. I can't wait to see what you share with us! I have always loved your sense of style and femininity. Interesting thoughts today! Good reading~
    Sending blessings your way :)

    1. Thanks you! Hmm, I need to get to work on my wardrobe posts...



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