Book Review: A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style

This year I have decided to give myself a Tim Gunn inspired sewing challenge, based on his short lived television series, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style.  However, when my mother recently got his book, A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style, I simply had to “borrow” it and read it first.

This book was released about the same time his show’s first season aired, so many of the ideas contained within are prevalent in the show, although the list of essential items is slightly different and less geared towards television editing and serve as more general guidelines for everyday life.  Since this book is sort of part of the inspiration of my year-long challenge I am going to write an in-depth review in case I should need to refer to it later.  As such, I think the best way to review this book is to provide an overview chapter by chapter.

1. Who You Are.  In this section Tim (and Kate Moloney, the co-author) discuss the importance of dressing for your lifestyle and personality, and how that can change over time.  In this section Tim discusses the importance of “Make it work!” in terms of your wardrobe (ie, you don’t need to buy something new for every occasion), that it is ok to have a personal “uniform” as long as your clothes fit – both in terms of sizing and in terms of appropriateness.  He discusses how critically looking at clothes/fashion and figuring out why you do or don’t like something is more helpful in determining a personal style than simply rejecting it out of hand.  Finally, Tim cautions readers to avoid potential problems like age appropriateness, sloppiness (aka the comfort trap), and craziness (aka the costume trap).  I found that reading with Tim Gunn’s voice in my head made this much more enjoyable – the book is written as though he is giving a lecture, and reading it as I would normally read a non-fiction book didn’t really give the full effect.  As far as my sewing challenge goes – I feel like I took on this challenge (partially) to get out of “the comfort trap” as well as because I am at a point where my sense of style and self is evolving.  I feel like sewing started me on the path of critically looking at clothes and wanting to develop a personal style, so I pretty much agree with what Tim had to say and I am currently working on implementing it.

2. The Fit Conundrum.  Tim cautions readers against wearing clothes that are too big or too small, and to not worry about the size on a label (avoid getting sucked in by vanity sizing).  He also discusses the importance of proper proportion and achieving a desired silhouette.  As far as my challenge goes, I am hoping a pile of muslins will help me avoid the fit issues he discusses, although it will still be important to think about proportion when wearing the pieces I will be making.

3. Diagnosing the Common Closet.  In this section, Tim discusses how (and why) we should all take a good long look at what is hanging around in our house, and what we should do about it.  The goal is to have a closet full of clothes that will help you project the image you want for any given occasion.  He suggests you go through you closet and make 4 piles: the soul-stirrers (clothes you love, anything truly magnificent, clothes you may need if you are going through rapid shape change like pregnancy), the repairs (Tim suggests you have 5 days to fix things, but for us home-sewers who hate mending I think at least a month is more appropriate), the give-away (expensive items of questionable choice, items you never wear, once trendy items you think might come back in style, items you own in overwhelming quantity), and the throw-away (items that do not fit, work clothes you hate, emotional items you would never wear).  He suggests that for a week after cleaning the closet, you wear at least one “soul-stirring” item per day, as people tend to “save” things they love instead of actually using them.  On one hand, I know I need to go through my closet and get rid of (the many) clothes that no longer fit.  On the other hand, that would, at this point, leave me with so few clothes that I don’t know if I would last the week.  I have become much more anal about fit now that I sew, and length issues on tops and gaping waistbands on pants are no longer tolerated.  I think this part of the challenge will have to wait until after I finish sewing up some more clothes – perhaps this will act as my right of passage after I have finished the challenge?

4. The Fashion Mentor: Beyond Audrey.   In this chapter Tim discusses different sources of inspiration for creating your own style, and how you may have to experiment a bit to figure out what fits you and your lifestyle.  He discusses various looks (classic, sexy, youthful, bohemian, rock, etc.) and discusses who to look for as inspiration and what sort of “signature look” helps to convey this image to the rest of the world.  I found reading this chapter to be a bit on the dull side – perhaps because I have missed most of the style references?  Or perhaps because I have little interest in pulling off rocker or bohemian looks.  In any case, I found myself thinking that as home sewers we have the best of all worlds – we can draw inspiration from modern and historical sources, as well as from each other.  There are some truly fabulous seamstresses out there, and I find myself inspired by their sense of style as much as the Hollywood starlets and political figures of our time.  (Though, I must say, if I had to choose one fashion mentor at the moment it would probably have to be Lady Catherine.  Probably a bit cliche to say it, but I honestly do think “I would wear that” whenever I see pictures of her.  Of course, I don’t think my wardrobe has to be quite as proper, nor do I have the need for all the gowns and formalwear, but, as pointed out by Tim, the mentor is someone who should inspire, not someone to copy.)

5. Shoulders Back: Style from the Inside Out.  In this chapter Tim discusses proper posture and skin care.  He makes the point that it doesn’t matter how well the clothes fit if the person wearing them moves or stands awkwardly.  He points out that proper footwear is important to easy movement, and that having proper posture is something that one should work to improve constantly (as a figure skater I couldn’t agree more).  He also promotes a simple but effective skin care regimen (wash, moisturize, eye cream, lip balm, brush teeth, and bed), as well as pointing out the importance of hair care in the quest for style.  I have to admit, this is an area I need to work on, though I don’t plan on getting a fancy hair cut anytime soon.  But focusing a bit more on my posture and skin care shouldn’t take too much extra effort.

6. Preparing to Shop.  Ah, getting to the good stuff!  This is where Tim discusses what he considers to be part of a well rounded closet, which is the basis of my sewing challenge!  Though he elaborates a bit more in the book than in the TV show, and has a few slightly different recommendations:

(1) The Trench-ish Coat.  Tim discusses the military history of the trench, its versatility as a styling option, and the variety in lengths and styles.  He notes that many have removable linings so that it can be worn year-round (not a bad idea for my challenge!), and points out that it needs to be functional for where you live (consider weather-proofing, warmth, length, etc.).  As far as my challenge goes, I am working on a rain trench now, and have plans for a more classic one in the future.  I really like making coats, so I can totally see myself making more in various color and length options in the future.

(2) The Sweat Suit Alternative.  Tim agrees that most people need to have something comfortable that they can put on and run errands in.  However, he cautions that for too many people it ends up looking like work-out clothes and sweatsuits.  For winter weather he suggests things like cashmere pants (hahaha, yeah right), slim black pants, or dark jeans with V-neck sweaters, cardigans, and crisp T-shirts. For summer weather he recommends linen pants and simple T-shirts (with optional cardigans for the strongly air-conditioned indoors).  For my sewing challenge I was planning on a linen pant and simple jersey top, since winter is more mild here.  Although I can see the versatility of a great cardigan, so I might think about adding that to my challenge plans.

(3)  The Boot, The Pump, the Ballet Flat.  Tim recommends a great boot (in any style) in black, brown, or dark green to be used with fall looks.  He also recommends a classic pump (smaller heel, pointed toe) as an alternative to the more common strappy heel (I don’t know that this is the case anymore – strappy shoes seem slightly less ubiquitous now than a few years ago).  The ballet flat seems to be Tim’s suggestion for an every-day shoe – he promotes its appeal with a wide-legged trouser as well as pointing out that it would make a great shoe for comfortable travel.  As far as the challenge goes, obviously I won’t be making shoes.  But this does give me a bit to think about in terms of what shoes I own, what I would wear them with, and what sorts of shoes I should consider buying in the future.

(4)  The Shapely Jacket and the Go-Anywhere Top.  Tim points out that the jacket is one of the best ways to create a look for your personal style – there are so many variations in fabric and shape that it really can say something about who you want to be.  As for the top, Tim suggests that it can be a button down, a knit, or a tank for summer.  Having multiple colors can be helpful as well.  While my challenge calls for only one Go-Anywhere top, it also calls for a button down shirt, and I will be making another top as part of my Sweatsuit Alternative.  I expect that I might want to make some extra tops this year as well, to fill in my wardrobe.  As for the jacket – I have one planned in a more classic shape, but a less classic color.  Recently I have been really digging the blazer with jeans look, so even if I only manage to get one sewn up this year, it should at least give me a feel for if I want to make more in the future.

(5)  Signature Jewelry.  By this Tim means two things – first a signature piece that is a dominant accessory to your outfit.  A large cocktail ring, statement earrings, a bold cuff, or a long necklace.  The second meaning is more of a personal statement piece – that charm bracelet you always wear, your grandmother’s earrings, etc.  Tim points out that a watch can act as a great signature piece, but cautions readers to resist trendy “of the moment” jewelry (those Tiffany heart bracelets, for example).  I had a signature piece, but it isn’t really appropriate to wear it anymore, so I don’t really have anything “signature” at the moment.  Accessorizing is definitely an area where I could put more thought into things, so this is something I will have to think about in the future.

(6)  The Under Arsenal.  While Tim doesn’t go into much depth in this area he does point out that “[y]our underwear drawer should be like a Boy Scout, always prepared.”  He highlights this importance of having nude options that can be worn under thin fabrics.  As far as sewing goes – I have no plans to sew underwear, but I have recently educated myself on how to find properly fitted undergarments, so I think I am pretty well covered (tee-hee-hee) on this front.

(7)  The Day Dresses.  Tim suggests that every closet needs at least two.  These are great day-to-evening transition pieces, and he points out that a wrap dress can have a casual day vibe with a camisole worn underneath, and a more daring evening look with the cami removed.  Many of the patterns I have been considering for my challenge are wrap styles, so at least I am on the right track there!  I don’t often wear dresses, so I am going to start with the goal of making one, and going on from there.

(8)  The After-Five Look.  Aka the cocktail dress.  While the LBD takes the cake, tuxedo pants are another options.  I do plan on making a LBD as part of my challenge, so I think this will be covered.

(9)  The New, Cheap, Terribly Trendy Item.  Tim suggests sources such as Forever 21 and H&M.  He thinks that these items shouldn’t cost more than around $20, and if they start to take over your closet you need to cut yourself off.  I can only assume Tim is talking about things like Yeti vests and furry leg warmers.  Which I usually see (and make fun of) in Burda magazines before I see (then turn around to avoid pointing and laughing at) on the street.  Or in the grocery store.  You know.  Wherever.  For some reason I just can’t seem to buy into the trend-chasing fashion of the moment sort of idea, but then again, I am making an allowance for one crazy trendy item in my sewing challenge, so, well, that is something I guess.

(10)  Denim.  Tim suggest having at least two pairs – one for dressing up and one for running around in.  If denim is part of your “uniform” (I think he is looking at all us college kids here) then more pairs are acceptable, but no more than ten.  He notes that denim trends tend to last for around 2 years, so he points out that you should buy less expensive versions of the “trendy” styles and invest in better quality for something that is your personal favorite style (even if it may not be the trend of the moment).

As an end-note to the chapter, Tim points out that you should spend more on basic items you will wear often, as cheaper items will need more frequent repair or replacement.

7.  Let’s Go: Shopping at Last!  In this chapter Tim discusses why we shop, and how we should shop. He points out that to shop more wisely we should shop less.  He discusses how one should consider if a piece is seasonally appropriate (your winter holiday dress should not be made of cotton – unless, you know, you live on the other side of the Equator), if the form matches the function (yes, the shoe is pretty, but can you walk in it?), and how one should shop around for similar items (don’t let brand and marketing sway you – pants are pants, and as long as they look good who cares about the label?).  He warns against going too far with adventurous pieces (love it in the store and hate it at home), and resisting the temptation of going crazy at outlet stores (if you are looking for something specific buy it, but don’t buy things you don’t need), as well as point out the fact that one is far less likely to find amazingly inexpensive quality name-brand vintage clothing in vintage stores today.  He cautions readers about the use of clothespins on manequins and how it can distort the shape, especially for online purchases.  Lastly, he warns against using shopping as a way to deal with stress, noting that a new cardigan won’t solve the root of the problem.  As far as my sewing challenge goes – this chapter was interesting (as he mentions how shopping has changed over the years), but it isn’t directly applicable as I will be sewing my clothes instead of buying them from a store.  However, it is good advice for any shopping situation, and hopefully I can apply his words of wisdom to my shopping habits in the future.

8. Accessories: Say No to the “It” Bag.  In this section Tim discusses how the accessories should work with your clothes to create an overall look.  He points out that a designer handbag is the easiest way to show off with a status symbol, which is fine if it goes with your outfit.  However, it just looks ridiculous to carry a $400 leather purse when you are wearing gym clothes.  Like the clothes in your closet, Tim suggests having several bags to choose from – the workhorse (everyday work-appropriate bag), a summer bag (canvas or other lightweight woven type material), and an evening clutch (black is the safest bet.  As far as shoes go, Tim recommends two pairs of boots (one dressy, one casual), a pair of flats that can go with anything, and one pair of super fancy evening shoes.  Other accessories discussed include pashminas, silk scarves, and perfumes.  While I don’t really think any of these later items would go with my personal style, I do think I could be more mindful of my handbag selection.

9. Not Your Everyday Occasion.  This chapter discusses appropriate attire for more formal occasions and dressing to meet expectations.  Tim points out that technically correct attire may not be in sync with modern expectations.  White Tie affairs are the absolute in formality – white ties with tails for the guys and full-length gowns for the ladies, no exceptions.  He discusses the various levels of black tie (for ladies this can mean dressy cocktail through evening gown), what to wear to an office party (setting is key here), California casual, and what to wear for warmth (dressy trench coat, fur stoles, etc.).  Tim says that it is now acceptable to have a dress hem peaking out from under your coat, but that it isn’t his favorite look.  For weddings he suggests doing some cultural research, avoiding white, and covering your shoulders during the ceremony (I had not heard of this rule, but now I know!).  He points out that you should always plan ahead for travel to avoid over packing (you probably want extra space to bring things back), and to bring clothes you like to wear.  You might want to think of a theme to your travel wardrobe so that all of your pieces will work together.  For vacations to beach resorts it is permissible to bring multiple bathing suits, with a few cover ups and sandals.  Bring extra gear for hiking or athletic activities.  Personally I found this chapter to be quite informative in terms of understanding various dress codes.  I don’t know that it has changed any of my sewing challenge plans, but it will be handy reference for the future.

10. Appendices.  In this section Tim lists a few stylish movies, and provides a brief fashion glossary.

Overall assessment:  I am glad I read this book, but mostly because of the sewing challenge I have created for myself.  I don’t know if I would classify this book as a must-read, but it is sort of fun to see the world of fashion from Tim Gunn’s perspective.  Probably the most helpful parts of the book are decoding dress codes and planning out what one should have in their wardrobe.  I found myself agreeing with many of the things he said, but not much of it was new information.  If you are a die-hard Tim Gunn fan it is a fun read, but if you already have a sense of personal style, then I don’t know how helpful it would be.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style

  1. Thanks for writing such a great, in depth review. I think I'm fairly confident about my personal style so I don't think it's a book for me, but it was fun reading about it. Maybe it's an age thing, but now I'm in my mid-40s most of what Tim writes seems to be just common sense to me – but it probably wouldn't be/wasn't as obvious in my 20s and early-30s.

    I also think, as you have said, that a lot of it doesn't really apply when you are sewing for yourself. One of the best things I have found since starting sewing is that I no longer save things “for best” (soul-stirring items as Tim puts it), because if I really, really love something I've made I can wear it as much as I want and then sew another one if it wears out, gets stained, etc.

    I've also, over the past few years, fallen into and then climbed out of the comfort trap. I feel a lot better out of it.


  2. Yes, I love the fact that I can always sew a replacement item if something gets damaged. I totally wear things more if I love them and know they are replaceable. Aside from comfort dressing, “saving” certain pieces was also one of my habits that I am trying to break.


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