Women’s Ivy: Perfecting a Personal Uniform

After enduring seven years of school uniforms, I thought I’d left them behind when I started college. For me, clothing is an important way to share who you are with the world without saying a word. Practical as they are, uniforms clearly limit such self-expression.

Recently, I began to think of uniforms in a new light. What if you could create a personal uniform, something that would combine the convenience of always knowing what to wear with the personal statement that prescribed uniforms lack? This combination of ease and expression sounds ideal, but getting there is a process.

Defining a personal uniform requires reflection on your own style–not what’s in fashion, but what works for you, your body, and your daily life. It may seem strange that the bulk of people with personal uniforms work in fashion, but that’s because they know their style well enough not to be swayed by every trend. Take Anna Wintour, for instance. She almost always wears the same silhouette (A-line, belted), the same type of necklace (several gemstone strands together), the same sunglasses, and the same sandals (weather allowing). Any one of these items in isolation says “Anna Wintour.” But what if you’re not a trained editor? How do you develop that command of your own style that a great personal uniform requires?

A few elements of my “city uniform,” featuring a cropped tweed jacket, LL Bean Boat & Tote, and loafers.

The answer: self-examination. This is neither a quick nor easy solution, however. The journey to know yourself and your style can take years, if not a lifetime. I certainly haven’t perfected my own uniform, though I do have go-to pairings for certain circumstances (an example here). What I have developed is my wardrobe staples list. I’ve carefully tracked what I wear and when I wear it over each season and am working to distill my wardrobe into a small number of items I can always rely on. When you have fewer options, you make better choices. That leads to confidence and ease: the essence of a personal uniform.

Finding those staple pieces is difficult but rewarding, and leads you to discoveries about yourself and the designers who complement you. The hunt for those pieces led me to start a series highlighting the makers of classically-crafted clothing for women. Once you’ve found that piece that works for you, make it part of your uniform. Buy that pair of shoes, or that shirt, in multiples. Make them your own, so that someday that uniform is as much a part of you as Anna Wintour’s is of her.

Do you have a uniform, and if so, what is it?

Feel free to drop me a line at sarahcooney@ivy-stylemediagroup.com. You can find me on Instagram @fewerandbetterblog or on my blog.

Sarah Cooney

31 Comments on "Women’s Ivy: Perfecting a Personal Uniform"

  1. I am 50 years old and haven’t settled on a personal uniform, ideal capsule collection, or even a signature fragrance.

    There are a million fashion brands, and unless someone is a fashion designer, I don’t believe it is a good idea to limit yourself to a uniform, brand, or style genre (like ivy).

    My style is eclectic and some of my favorite items have a solid ivy pedigree: Brooks Brothers button-downs, knit ties, and Polo repp ties.

    Having a uniform simplifies life, takes the guess work out of getting dressed in the morning and promotes your personal brand. However, it takes away the fun of getting dressed and also inhibits creativity and discovery of new styles, and combinations of styles that were previously unexplored.

    I guess the analogy I would draw is that getting dressed is like preparing meals.
    Let’s say that your favorite meal is macaroni and cheese. Having macaroni and cheese 365 days of the year will not be good for you or the people around you. The same is true of fashion and uniforms.

  2. I do have a uniform, it is structured to days of the week. I have a uniform for Monday, Tuesday is Bow-Tie Tuesday, Wednesday is Navy Blazer, Thursday is Sport Coat, and Friday is sans-tie. Monday is Suit with White Shirt and serious tie, this sets the tone for the start of the week – we have serious work to do this week, so let’s begin it in earnest. The rest of the days are oriented around my theme.

  3. NaturalShoulder | April 12, 2023 at 11:31 pm |

    My personal uniform for work has move from suits five days per week to one or two. Remainder of days are coat and tie with heavy rotation of navy jackets and gray trousers which is derisively referrred to as the security guard. Between different weights and shades of navy and gray plus a limitless combo of solid and stripe OCBDs and repp tie, the look can be kept fresh. I also wear other odd jackets as well.

  4. My uniform during the week is suits and ties 3 days a week, blazer or sports jacket with odd trousers (flannel, worsted, linen in the summer)OCBD and rep stripe tie and chinos and a polo shirt with a cricket sweater on Friday. Jacket vise Friday is my Harrington or Belstaff day.

  5. Nice article, thanks. Also liked “Chris”‘ take on a weekday uniform.

  6. whiskeydent | April 13, 2023 at 8:33 am |

    It might be 100 degrees outside, but all the mid-20’s to mid-30’s tech guys in downtown Austin are wearing pale-blue quarter-zips with skinny chinos and those white-soled, unfortunate matings of sneakers and shoes. At least they have matured out of the tee shirts they wore when they first arrived here.

  7. Charlottesville | April 13, 2023 at 11:29 am |

    I’m not sure that it qualifies as a uniform, but I usually wear a coat and tie; a suit most days in the office, with sport coats and blazers filling out the rotation.

    This transitional season is a good time for those silk/wool/linen blend summer tweeds that I once wrote about in a post on this site: https://www.ivy-style.com/it-happens-every-spring.html. My wife and I are off to Charleston on Saturday, and I plan to pack the brown and cream Prince of Wales plaid shown in the picture, and a lightweight navy blazer as well. Charleston is one of the few places left where at least a few men still wear a coat and tie, and between stops to attempt to eat my weight in oysters, I am looking forward to dropping by Ben Silver, at least to look.

    • I think that can count as the start of a uniform–I’m not committed to the idea that a uniform has to be the exact same item in the exact same color every day–particularly if you live in an area with seasons. We live in a town where a coat and tie isn’t uncommon. I really enjoy the ceremony of getting dressed, and it’s a nice change from so much of the world!

      I just read your article and loved the Bertie Wooster reference! Have a wonderful trip to Charleston and enjoy the oysters!

  8. I look at people who wear uniforms like Diane Keaton t-necks and a sweater and white pants. If you have ever been to a Garden Club of America annual meeting they are all wearing white polio shirts collar up, a colorful quilted jacket tan tailored pants and the Belgian loafers, with a great scarf around their necks. GREAT UNIFORM

  9. I look at people who wear uniforms like Diane Keaton t-necks and a sweater and white pants. If you have ever been to a Garden Club of America annual meeting they are all wearing white poplin shirts collar up, a colorful quilted jacket tan tailored pants and the Belgian loafers, with a great scarf around their necks. GREAT UNIFORM

  10. Sarah — yes.

    For me, it’s either grey bottoms” (worsted Panama or linen in summer, whipcord in the fall, flannel for winter) or a shade of khaki– again, linen, worsted, cotton twill, moleskin, cavalry twill, or whipcord.

    Almost always a sport jacket or blazer– worsted or woolen (flannel), or tweed. Have a good tailor remove the padding from the shoulders and sleevehead and the look is more natural and modest than the “trucker jackets” , fleece, and field coats most people prefer.

    I wear a suit once or maybe twice a week. They’re dated– old Southwicks circa 80s and 90s. But still look A++.

    The better you look, the positive attention you’ll receive. Even from people who don’t understand dressing well. How you present yourself (appearance) has everything to do with the assumptions/guesses others make — about your sense of respect for yourself, and, if we’re being honest, stuff like intelligence and wisdom. In other words: books are indeed judged by the covers. (Publishers/booksellers know this, btw).

    It turns out the same the amount of (a.) time, (b.) energy, (c.) and thought are required to put on an old sweatshirt, jeans, and running shoes as the combo (jacket/blazer, trousers, loafers, tie). So, the slothful, slipshod, and slovenly have no excuse.

    I still contend that the demise of Ivy is closely connected with (causal and correlative) the steady decline of Mainline Protestant religion **– also known as the WASP Establishment. For them, clothing was indeed a uniform, but they knew full well uniforms can be interpreted creatively.

    Keep up the good work, Sarah. Cheers.

    ** Episcopal, Presbyterian (PCUSA), Lutheran, Congregational, a some of the Methodists

    • Excellent uniform, S.E.!

      I completely agree that the better you look, the more positive attention you’ll receive. As I mentioned in an above response to Charlottesville’s comment, I deeply enjoy the ceremony of getting dressed, and I’m glad that in the town where we live, there is still an effort to dress neatly and presentably. Even if you’re coming from your boat or the tennis courts, you’re not wearing old sweats or baggy/sloppy clothes; you’re neat, tidy, and wearing something nice. I appreciate that care!

      Have a great weekend!

  11. Such a great Women’s Ivy article, as ever. Having a uniform isn’t only a convenience, it’s self-expression. While I roll my eyes at the lingo around having a “personal brand,” I admit it’s a very apt way to describe one’s self-presentation, including one’s uniform. It’s something that, as Sarah writes, takes self-knowledge, not only in terms of what looks good on oneself, but what feels genuine and congruous with one’s personality.

    My “uniform,” as it were, is something I arrived at with equal parts intent and lazy habit: For work, I’m nearly always wearing an OCBD, either black or ecru jeans or Jack Donnelly chinos, and Bass Weejuns. On cold days, I’ll switch out the OCBD for a Shetland or turtleneck sweater. Going out, I’ll top things off with a sport coat or blazer. (On the jacket front, I’m as particular as most I-S folks probably are: It should have edge-stitched seams above all else, but patch pockets and a 3-2 roll button front are also something I look for.) Headed someplace like the Symphony, I’ll don a suit and tie unless it’s a matinée performance.
    Then there are all those clothes I have that I don’t wear nearly as often as I’d like to. Dress trousers in particular get unfairly left behind, as do some of the more fun things like the army surplus pants and the western yoke shirts with pearl snaps.

    • Thank you, Nevada! Your uniform sounds great and practical. It is a great treat when you know yourself and your style well enough to create a uniform, and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed developing.

  12. Randy Ventgen | April 13, 2023 at 9:42 pm |

    Interesting. I’m not sure I have a uniform(s) but certainly patterns; and they haven’t changed too much over the years although I’m long retired-e.g. changes re frequency of wear. I’ve added quite a bit in the last 10 years especially bespoke.
    For summer it’s khakis (O’Connell’s), polos/tees (Rowing Blazers (RB), Polistas, LaCoste, Polo, Andover, Piana, Zegna, Paul & Shark (P&S), Smedley) and casual shoes (Russell, LLBean, Mephistos, Quoddy, Eastland, Yuketan, Tods, Orvis, Peal) also sneakers (Opie May-North Carolina, Adidas, RB, New Balance, P&S) but don’t wear often. In fall/spring change shirts to long sleeve button down cotton (O’Connell’s, Mercer, Gitman Vintage, Polo, Andover, Orvis, P&S, RB) and Scottish wool cardigans (Lockie). In winter shirts change to Viyella (O’Connell’s) with moleskin (Farlows) and cord (Cordings) trousers; boots are LLBean, Orvis, Danner, Gates, Billy Reid cowboy and Le Chameau. We’ll leave sweaters (cotton/wool/cashmere), ties, accessories and outerwear specifics for another time. For travel to cities (San Francisco, NYC, London) bespoke suits and jackets from Henry Poole, shirts from Budd and shoes from John Lobb St. James. Also have some RTW Oxxford jackets, shirts from Charvet, Turnbull & Asser, Kiton, MTM Hamilton and RTW shoes from Cleverly, Edward Green, 6 pr Crockett & Jones, 4 pr cordovan Aldens, Gucci, 3 pr Lobb Prestige and Weston. For country (but not casual) wear jackets from Andover/Ben Silver-shetland/Harris tweeds, Camel/district checks from Piana-Brooks Bros./Maus & Hoffman, tweed from Horse Country (hacking), shooting tweed from Griffin & Howe and a 4 piece tweed suit from Cordings, blazers from Brooks Bros.-DB/Piana, Andover with my brass Ben Silver buttons from my University, Rowing Blazers and BB/Social Primer and 2 summer suits-cotton from Cable Car and pinpoint from O’Connell’s. Also Oxford button downs from Mercer, Rowing blazers, and Polo.There’s also a morning coat ensemble and black/white tie which I’m finishing off this year. I’m not sure what all that adds up to other than a lot and of course at 75 I’ve had the time to accumulate and learn; I do have an interest in fine clothing, among a number of other things. Sarah, I’m sorry that I’m sure this went well beyond your subject of uniforms except perhaps in the broadest sense.
    BTW I just finished reading “Seven Sisters Style” after ordering it when I read your Women’s Ivy Style column here a few weeks ago (which has gone missing and I hope will be reposted) and I found it very interesting; I now know 1000% more now on the subject (since I was at 2%) and of course men’s ivy was mentioned there throughout and I’ve most of the books on that as well.

  13. My wardrobe shifts with the seasons.

    Spring: OCBDs and chinos. Barbour jacket and Bean boots for rain. Fleece vest and camp Mocs otherwise. Ball cap. Add a sweater for those crisp mornings. Seersucker suits or JPress blazer for the weekend. An occasional bow tie.

    Summer: Polo shirts. Chino shorts when appropriate. Ball cap. Gum shoes or camp mocs. Same suits and blazers for the weekend.

    Fall: Flannel shirt or tattersall and tweed jackets. Alden chukkas. Ball cap or tweed cap. Gray Flannel pants with tweed jacket/cold weather blazer or tweed suit on the weekend. Barbour jacket and bean boots when needed.

    Winter: Same as fall with chunky sweaters. Loden field coat.

    All seasons: Fox umbrella

  14. Randy Ventgen | April 15, 2023 at 8:19 pm |

    A couple of things I forgot to mention in my earlier post are hats-Locke, Christy, Worth & Worth-fedora/trilby/homburg, Brent Black Panama, many baseball caps from travels, schools and interests, and winter caps/hats; homewear-pjs/robes/slippers from Budd and Crockett & Jones; a complete Scottish kilt kit I’m ordering this year for my Mother’s Stewart clan, and in five years hopefully for my 80th a bottle green smoking jacket from Poole in London. Also related are a lengthy list of fine leather goods, pens and watches.

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