Book Review: Style on a Shoestring by Andy Paige

Style on a Shoestring by Andy Paige

Style on a Shoestring by Andy Paige

Two summers ago, as a geared up for a presentation at a major conference and for the beginning of a college-level teaching position, I decided I needed to revamp my look. I had to go from slouchy-backstage-person-slash-academic-slash-bookworm to Credible Scholar (and not the absent-minded kind, that only works when you are older and/or a man).

Thing is, grad students don’t have much money–and I had only three months to upgrade my look (including having enough sharp outfits for a five-day conference, without repeats). This might not seem like much, but I didn’t even have stylish shoes. Because of my scoliosis, I wore clunky Danskos or Birkenstocks–and the former made me twist my ankles so often that I was beginning to despair of being able to wear them.*

That’s when I decided to buy Style on a Shoestring by Andy Paige, an ex fit-model who runs a website called

Paige’s book is my favorite style handbook out of the three that I’ve read. Although I find her diction overly colloquial (full of “Can we have an Amen?” and “Woo-hoo!” asides) to be grating when I re-read it (and I could go a life-time without hearing my bottom referred to as a “bow-chicka-wow-wow,” or whatever it was, again), her content is excellent.

Paige focuses on two points: what you need to look for when examining ready-to-wear clothes to ensure a flattering fit, and how to work the retail and thrift-shop systems get the most bang for your buck. She starts simply, with five basic rules to elevate your look right away (ranging from the simple “always wear lipstick” to the very-unhelpful-to-me “you must wear cute shoes”). She explains how fit in the fashion industry works. She even spends a whole chapter on foundation garments, including bras and shapewear, and how spending a bit extra to make certain the former fits properly (and most of us wear bras that do not fit right) will make all of your clothes look and lay better (it’s true, I can attest).

Other topics covered by the book are how to find a pair of pants that fits properly and hit the waist at the most flattering position, how to operate in discount stores and outlets, insider information about why garments end up on sales racks or in T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s (often fit issues, it seems, which means that you shouldn’t trust the size label, but always bring a measuring tape and try various sizes on).

She also stresses the importance of shaping and encourages the reader to elevate her wardrobe by having her clothes tailored or hemmed to the proper length, because (so Paige claims) the small expense of fitting a garment just right can elevate it’s perceived cost by a great deal.

The author also covers color–like which colors look richer and more expensive–and gives tips on how to get a unified wardrobe going quickly (pick your poison: turquoise or coral as your core color, then add contrasting accessories, and build from there).

The downside to this book is (for me) a heavy focus on sale-stalking–something I have no patience for–and that irritating girl-talk diction. Also, since this book is intended for a general audience, she focuses on what styles are most likely to be flattering to the majority of body types, and though she addresses some figure variations, her bugaboo really is showing the reader how to get a flattering, body-skimming fit that falls from one’s curves at just the right places.

Fortunately, her advice is applicable to many body types and most budgets.**

In summary, I found Style on a Shoestring immensely helpful. During the time when I was following her suggestions and challenges, I definitely elevated my personal style, got more compliments, and felt more attractive. I am still grateful to her for helping me find out that Lucky Brand jeans fit me better than the tried-and-true brands I had been wearing for years before (which sat too low on my hips).

Just last week, I re-read Paige’s book from kindle-cover-to-cover, and though I wish I could strikethrough every single “Yippie!” I once again feel inspired to do a closet-cleanse, to narrow down my stock to what really looks good, and to systematically build my wardrobe stocked with versatile, dark, neutral basics and eye-catching tops and accent pieces.

* Finally, a year and a half later, my ankle twisted as I walked down a NYC block and I fell–twisting my back because of the heavy bag of research books I was carrying–and hit my head on a metal trash can. The Danskos immediately went into a bag to Goodwill, despite how I loved them, and I am still looking for a mildly attractive, flat, non-wedge or platform-style replacement shoe.

** Paige suggests a fun game/challenge of putting aside $20 of “mad money” each week to spend on whatever item you fall in love with, or if you don’t spend it, save it for a more expensive purchase later. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford $80 per month for basics or accessories that you really, really want. Fortunately, I think this game can be scaled back a bit–and one should remember to buy only what you really, really love.

Personal Style Time Travel (Results)

Well, I did as I said I would. I took advantage of being at home to dig through all my photo albums (and my mom’s) to find pictures of myself in favorite outfits from when I was in my teens–a time when I had a definite “look” that I felt good wearing. (Back in the days before my job led me to wear tanks, jeans, knit tops, and sweaters with sneakers, and little else).

Well, when I called kittens my fashion accessory of 1988, I was joking. Turns out, the joke is on me. I went through a decade worth of photos, and this is what I found:


Lily: One of the Many Pets that Covered Up My Clothes in Photographs.

Yes. I definitely had a sense of style, but I have nothing I can post as a sample. Every single photo of me dressed nicely is either a closeup of my shoulders and face, or features me holding a pet squarely in front of my beloved and carefully chosen outfit.

Every. Single. One.

That speaks well to my happy childhood and love of animals. It does not help me create a visual collage of what I wore when I felt strongly about what I was wearing. What I can do is summarize what I liked and wore over and over again:

  • Maxi dresses and sandals (with a cat or dog in my arms).
  • Knee-length dresses with empire waists and/or smocking around the bosom, releasing at either a high waist or empire waist.
  • Floor-length sheath dresses (which I think suited my 98-106 lb body more than they would my 125 lb body, which is hippy-er).
  • Peasant-style tops, sometimes with flared sleeves. Gosh, I loved those bell sleeves.
  • Scoop-necked tops. Square-neck tops. V-neck tops.
  • Princess seams–again, often on maxi length dresses, but sometimes knee-length.
  • Dressy-dresses with a flair at the skirt, hemmed at the knee.
  • I had an absolute favorite brightly colored, woven wrap-dress with a square neck. I can’t remember how it hung below the waist, though, so I’m not sure that it would suit me now!
  • Circle skirts with draw-strings (long). These won’t look good on me now, I’m pretty sure.
  • I wore earrings, necklaces, and makeup more often–at least when I knew I’d be photographed.
  • Jeans: always bootcut or slightly bell-bottomed, even when it wasn’t in fashion.
  • And when I wasn’t dressed nicely, I was in oversized sweaters and too-big t-shirts (I was so tiny that most of my clothes were a bit too large, at least on top).

The only thing that was a constant style-choice then that I have not worn or bought in ages is a maxi-length dress. I think that I quit wearing them when I stopped wearing shoes with any heel at all.

Looking back, it strikes me that I had a good idea of what suited my body–at least when I chose to dress up. Almost all of those shapes are still in my list of “best looks.” So, I think I’m going in the right direction. I’m picking shapes that worked and appealed, and still appeal, and I’m going to make an effort to find fabrics I fall in love with. That way, I can–once again–develop my personal style.

After which I will surely pose for a picture or ten with my cat.

Personal Style Time Travel


An Armful of Kittens: Fashion Accessory of 1988.

Since I am trying to rediscover my “personal style” and I also happen to be at mom’s home, I’m thinking of doing a little digging through the photo albums. Little demoiselle had a definite idea of what she liked to wear, and so I wonder if a trip through her past might give me some ideas of what I’d like to do now–always taking into consideration the fact that I now have a thirty-three year old body rather than a twelve or fifteen year old one.

Anyone ever do this when you felt you’d lost your way? What did you find out? *

* I already know that I’ll find out that perm I had at eleven did not suit me.


More kitten-accessorizing (1988).

Seriously, a grey kitten goes with EVERYTHING. Even boys (1988).

Seriously, a grey kitten goes with EVERYTHING. Even boys (1988).

In dire straights, such as a beach vacation, try an off-the-shoulder number with a cartoon cat instead (1988).

In dire straits, such as a beach vacation, try an off-the-shoulder number with a cartoon cat instead (1988).

At ages seven to eight, I also liked to pose with fish, lambs, and horses. But really, cats and kittens were the clear winner and the defining feature of my style circa the late eighties.

Defining Personal Style


Which question mark expresses the real me?

A couple summers ago, just before I went to a major conference, I decided that I needed to spruce up my wardrobe. I needed to get away from my casual, comfortable style–a style that was as uninteresting as it was practical. I bought several style-on-a-budget guidebooks, went through the advice, and tried to pull together a fashionable look.

Or, at the very least, enough fashionable outfits to get me through a five day conference.

I was astonished by what a difference a few accessories, nice belts, some high-quality purses, and brighter colors made. Even something as simple as finding a pair of jeans that hit in the right spot made a big difference in my “look.”

Unfortunately, despite what I learned from those books, in the last year I have slid comfortably back into my jeans-and-tank-top with matching sneakers or sandals.

This evening, I came across an article entitled “8 Tips for Developing Personal Style When You Have None.” Jackie, the author, does a good job expressing the conflicting desire to “dress cuter” (or more stylishly) when it goes against a lifetime of habit and self-limitation.

Now that I am returning to sewing (and still on a budget), I am returning to those books, trying to pick out a flattering and limited color palate, and working up a wardrobe that will fit and flatter me.

Often, this means stepping out of my comfort zone. Two years ago, I bought saturated colors and patterns and belts that I never would have picked in the past (I was a neutral + neutral + neutral, no jewelry kind of woman). I was thrilled by the results. In fact, the only thing that disappointed me was the fact that the clothing (bought cheaply) lasted a shorter amount of time than I would have wished.

Over the next weeks, I’ll be re-reading style books, going through my sewing guides and reviewing my “look for / avoid ” chart and plan outfits that will make the most of what I have. It’ll be a slow process, but maybe–maybe–by the end of the year I will have a small collection of complimentary, custom tops, skirts, dresses, sweaters, and even, if I am brave, pants.

How do you find and define your personal style? Is it something that you had once, that somehow slipped away? Or have you never quite known for sure what would suit you and set you apart from the crowd (in whatever way you wish to be perceived)?