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“Remember, my friends. Saludos, it’s better to look good than to feel good.”
—Billy Crystal in “Fernando’s Hideaway” on Saturday Night Live

Actually, I’d say it’s more likely that when you look good you often feel a lot better. Or, in the words of those wise sages of Trading Places: “Looking good, Billy Ray!” “Feeling good, Louis!”

Lots of New Year’s resolutions involve looking and feeling better, either by losing weight, exercising more, or eating healthier. These are all laudable goals, but what if you could look better right now? There are two things you could do almost immediately that will appear to take years off your age and pounds off your figure. The first is learning what colors are most flattering to you (they may not be what you think) and the second is learning what types of clothes best flatter your body shape. You may be thinking right now that it can’t make that big a difference, but I assure you, it can.

When I was bored and unemployed a few years ago and watching a lot of What Not to Wear, I decided to remake my own wardrobe as best I could with limited resources. The change in people’s reactions to me afterwards was astounding; I would even get random complements from strangers in elevators, something that I assure you never happened before. It gave me a huge boost of confidence, which of course helped me look even better—an anti-vicious circle as it were. Budgetary constraints have meant I haven’t been able to fully realize a dream wardrobe yet, but it’s nice that I at least know what I should be looking for. What follows are a few resources to help you get through the process a lot quicker than it took me.

If you can get your hands on two classics from the 1980s, I highly recommend Flatter Your Figure and Color Me Beautiful. Don’t be turned off by the ridiculous fashions and horribly outdated photos, the strategies they give for identifying your problem areas and figuring out your colors are right on the money. Modern books on style often talk about body shape and color, but don’t provide the tools for honest self-assessment in these areas. What I learned when I performed the steps in Flatter Your Figure is that one doesn’t always have a clear perspective about one’s body. Going into the afternoon, the three of us doing the measuring (it involves a stick and string and you need to do it with at least one other person) all had one “problem” area that turned out to be all in our minds.

Once you’ve identified your strong and weak points, you can get more contemporary shopping and fashion advice from books like the original What Not to Wear guide, which goes through a number of different problem areas and what shapes you should be wearing to minimize their effect on your silhouette. It was a revelation to me to finally understand why all those clothes I loved on the rack never ended up looking that good on me. It also made shopping, which I never really liked, much easier.

Color is often an even bigger part of the problem. Back in high school, I naturally gravitated to colors that look great on me, primarily pinks and purples, but my love of autumn and living in New York soon made me turned to darker hues that did nothing for me at all, especially black. But I had no clue and old habits are hard to break. (Seriously people, black is not slimming: fit, cut, and fabric are what count. Plus, if it’s not the right color for you, black is horribly aging.) Until I did a serious examination of the issue, I had no idea what a disservice I was doing myself.

Color Me Beautiful uses a system based on seasons and has a lot of tips for determining whether your skin tone is cool (winter/summer) or warm (fall/spring), but, in the end, I ended up going through every item in my wardrobe in front of a mirror in good light and making piles of what made my face look better or worse when held next to it. To an item, everything that made me look worse was a “fall” color, and everything that made me look better was a “summer color” (of which there were very few in my wardrobe). The “I have no idea” pile was almost inevitably “winter” colors. If you want to do a quick test, try holding up both fuchsia (cool) and orange (warm) next to your face and see which makes you look healthier.

While I don’t hold to a rigid interpretation of the seasonal system, having the summer palette identified and available made me try a bunch of colors, like aqua, that I never would have tried otherwise and that actually look very good on me. Even more important, it made me seek out cool (blue-based) makeup rather than the more prevalent warm (yellow-based) makeup, which makes a huge difference. After my sister and I did her colors (she’s a fall), we went shopping and I insisted she buy this mustard-color jacket we found. She hated the color, but bought it anyway, and every time she wore it received lots of compliments. This doesn’t mean you can never wear colors out of your season, but try to have something in your own colors near your face whenever possible—scarves are great for this purpose.

If you think the Color Me Beautiful system sounds dated, look no further than the recent publication of the it-costumer designer of the moment (Janie Bryant of Mad Men) who discusses this system in the very first chapter of The Fashion File (a fabulous book with lots of great advice on clothes and personal style). It is also the basic division of the color system used by Trinny and Susannah of What Not to Wear, although they leave out spring and just use “cool and bright” for winter (black, navy, jewel tones), “mid-tones” for summer (muted bright colors like lavender, periwinkle, most pinks, raspberry, blue-green), and “warm” for fall (olive green, mustard, rust, warm browns, tomato reds). I highly recommend their What You Wear Can Change Your Life for learning how to wear color. I keep this book in my closet since I am constantly referring to the great color charts for ideas. The color combination suggestions may seem radical at first, but just try them for a week or two and you will be converted.

This may seem overwhelming in the beginning, but, once you get the hang of both color and shape, shopping and dressing will become much easier, if only because the items in your closet will work together much better than before. And, remember, even if you do want to lose weight or exercise more, appreciate and dress for how your body is now, not for how it one day might be. Otherwise, you are doomed to eternal frustration.

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