How to Dress for Success

How to Dress for Success by Edith Head with Joe HyamsAuthor: Edith Head with Joe Hyams
Publisher: Abrams (2011) [First published under Random House 1967]
Number of Pages: 181
How long it took me to read: 3 weeks, 5 days (to read); another month and a half to face my closet
Where I bought this book: Just Fabulous—a true-to-its-name boutique in Palm Springs, CA
ISBN: 978-0-8109-2133-7

Like a Moth to a Flame

It’s purple. It’s covered in purple fabric. It feels like it knows about fashion. I don’t feel like I know about fashion. I’ve lost touch with my inner diva.

I’m on a trip to reconnect with myself. I’m tired of wearing the same things to work, week after week. I’m tired of being too tired to look through my closet and pick out something new.

It disturbs me that I squirm at the thought of wearing a vibrant color. It worries me that my flats are pushing my heels to the back of the shoe cave buried beneath the forest of the hems of the jackets that used to add dazzle to my ensembles; now they simply hang, limp and tired. It’s time to remind myself of how to dress. It’s time for a little bit of fabulous.

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Favorite Five

Whittling 15 down to 5…I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “In building your wardrobe, it is also important to decide each season what your color schemes are going to be. If you buy a lot of scrambled colors that bear no relation to each other you’re going to be in trouble with accessories. Choose a few becoming colors and build your wardrobe around them instead of getting on your clothes horse and galloping in all directions.” (p.78)

4. “A full-length hostess gown in a color that blends with your living room is the perfect answer, but make sure it is one you can move in gracefully without spilling the drinks, tripping over the skirt or knocking over the candles. When you choose it, bare in mind how busy you will be as a hostess, so don’t select something with long tight sleeves and a high turtleneck that will make you look and feel like a steamed clam after the first cocktail. Play it cool. And no matter how glamorous they look in the adds, avoid long dangling necklaces that wind up in the salad bowl when you’re serving.” (p.33)

3. “Conforming to the atmosphere in which you live is an important element of dressing for success. Success in any area involves having other people like you. Fundamentally, people don’t like oddballs and freaks. They feel uncomfortable in the presence of people who are entirely different from them. When someone says of a woman, ‘She’s my kind of person,’ that is the greatest compliment they can pay. If your way of dressing is completely out of keeping with your surroundings or with the tempo of life in your community, you’re taking the chance of being classed with the weird ones, including the town drunk and the village idiot.” (p.68)

2. “[A] shopping danger that practically all women succumb to at times is the ‘bargain.’ No matter how big the markdown is, it doesn’t represent a saving at all if the garment is going to be worn only by the hanger.” (p.75)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “At the same time that most women claim they have ‘nothing to wear,’ they repeatedly grouse and groan about closet space. They have dozens of things hanging around that they never wear, either because they don’t fit, are unbecoming or are inappropriate for the things they do and the places they go. If you are one of these Woebegone Winnies—here’s some advice: take each of those hardly-ever-worn dresses, coats, suits and shoes out of hiding and make a decision. Are you ever going to wear them?” (p.61)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: gridiron (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) a cooking utensil of parallel metal bars; used to grill fish or meat; 2) the playing field on which football is played
Synonyms: 1) grid; 2) football field
Origins: c.1330; ‘griderne,’ alteration (by association with iron) or ‘gridire’ (c.1290); a variant of ‘gridil’; confusion of ‘l’ and ‘r’ was common in Norman dialect
As in: “There’s nothing more revolting to the rugged gridiron enthusiast than a shivering, complaining female whose only comment about the game is, ‘I’m freezing!’” (p.30)

New Word: chatelaine (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) the mistress of a chateau or large country house; 2) a chain formerly worn at the waist by women; for carrying a purse or bunch of keys, etc.
Origins (Source: Antique Jewelry University): 1835–45; Chatelaines were popular from the 17th to the early 20th century. The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine that reported on the fashions in 1874 held that chatelaines were worn at balls, having hooks suspended from them to hold fans. A spate of chatelaines in the 1878 Exhibition reflected their acceptance in formal wear. An extensive range of gold and silver, steel and electroplate fittings and appendages came on the market. Purses, memorandum books, scent bottles, vinaigrettes, and sewing implements were suspended from them. Mass manufactured ones became available, indicating the widespread use and popularity. The beginning of the 20th century marked the end of the chatelaine although modern day seamstresses still like to use them for practical reasons.
As in: “The people you invite, the hor d’oeuvres you serve, the glasses you use, the menu you plan will all be carefully noted by this man who is measuring your qualifications (you hope) as the possible chatelaine of his future chateau.” (pp.32-3)

New Word: passementerie (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): a decoration or adornment on a garment
Synonyms: trimming, trim
Origins: from the French ‘passement’ decorative lace
As in: “Persian blue with kelly green, purple with hot pink, chartreuse with aqua, orange with bright blue—are as fashion-right today in both costumes and home furnishings as Grandmother’s passementerie trims were in hers.” (p.111)

New Word: peplum (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) a flared ruffle attached to the waistline of a dress or jacket or blouse; 2) a garment worn by women in ancient Greece; cloth caught at the shoulders and draped in folds to the waist
Synonyms: peplos, peplus
Origins: 1800s; see Emerson College Fashion Society‘s excellent overview of the style
As in: “There are some rules, however, that you can follow if you are heavier than you should be or want to be…Avoid short jackets and circular treatments that go round and round, such as peplums, contrasting belts, horizontal stripings.” (p.129)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I work in the coldest office in the world. Trust me, in my world, it’s the coldest. I’ve become a slave to wool. My silks, and my satins, and all my frilly lovely bits hang unworn in my bulging closet. Bulging for two reasons:

  1. I am still hopeful that one day, I’ll wear normal clothes again, so I buy them when it’s love at first sight.
  2. All these bloody sweaters take up an obnoxious amount of room.

“Having said that, thick, luscious knits really do me justice.

“But going back to the cold office, I’ve allowed myself to fall into a wardrobe rut in the name of self-preservation. I don’t want to invest in even thicker clothes, so I’m restricted to wear only my warmest garb. Since I don’t have that much of it, I wear the same things all the time. Well, that’s not completely true—I am wearing my 100% wool ski socks for the first time today.

“So I’m really, really, oh so much looking forward to have Ms. Head’s help in exploring my wardrobe. It feels a bit like I’m getting ready to go shopping in my own closet!”

“This book feels like a black and white movie produced by the creators of Sex and the City. It provides almost clinical instruction on how to dress to get what you want, whether it be a job or a man, with an endearing sense of righteous indignation. It’s difficult to take its advice seriously, yet I can’t help but agree with it most of the time. There really is a book of rules that the best players in life follow. Even though you may want to desperately believe that we live in a world where wearing pajama pants in public is ok, you’re not likely to be invited to anything more glamorous than a grocery store grand opening if that’s your go-to ensemble.”

“I think I was channeling Edith Head when I created Claire Coddles. It could just be a coincidence, but I think my attack on the beer chugging buffoon came out around the same time that White Collar started airing. My explanation (since I don’t believe in coincidences): people want to go back to a time when looking human was attractive. The ‘baboon look’ is ready for an overhaul.”

Claire Coddles, International Fashion Correspondent

“I’m really trying hard to tackle this book, but it’s mercilessly exposing such ugly stuff—the stuff I do really well to ignore. It’s shining light on a disturbingly high number of unworn items due to renew their second- or third-year lease in my closet. It’s forcing me to face the fact that my tendency to buy clothes that are just a littler too tight isn’t motivating me to loose a few extra pounds. Instead, it’s making me increasingly discouraged each time I have to decide what to wear.

“Is getting dressed about showing off, staying warm, reflecting one’s personality, or simply a way to avoid getting arrested for indecent exposure? Sometimes, I justify my unimaginative ensembles by blaming the weather, but deep down, I know I can do better. Yesterday, I took all my ‘hot summer day’ clothes out of the closet and stuffed them in an empty suitcase. The hangers breathed a sigh of relief. Now they’re hanging again. They weren’t hanging anymore. They were sort of pushing against one another, leaning to the side, forced to make room for yet another three-quarter length sleeve blazer that I’ll probably have to wait until August to wear when it’ll be warm enough to go to work with exposed wrists. In any case, I’ve taken the first step. I’ve made room to sort. Now, I just have to face what’s left dangling in front of me.”

“I think I’ve just identified a habit that I’ve developed as a result of fattening up my closet with too many random items. I think I’ve just pinpointed a symptom of not knowing how to shop. The more random the items in my wardrobe become (that great sleeveless satin top, the fabulous pencil skirt that should have stayed in Vegas), the more difficult it becomes to put a blipping outfit together. The consequence: I’m gravitating toward dresses. Think about it! You don’t have to match a skirt with a top; the dress has already done that for you. The problem is, the only time I wear dresses is at airports, where the mix of people from different places is so eclectic that it’s impossible to look out of place. But in my day to day, a dress would look ridiculous.

“So now I have a choice to make: change my life, or make dresses appear normal (notice that dress disposal is not up for discussion). Maybe it’s because I’m a Capricorn, or maybe it’s just because dresses are so pretty, but I’m going for option number 2. Now the weather just has to get warmer, and I have to figure out if I have the right pair of shoes and matching accessories. I’m going to try figuring that out this weekend; I bought a case of wine last week at Costo, so I’m set.”

“It’s Monday morning, I’m sitting on an empty train, and I’m early. What better time to tell you about what I did last weekend?

“I finished reading this book three weeks ago, but I haven’t finished all of my homework yet. Last weekend, I started doing inventory. I managed to finish all of my husband’s wardrobe (so much easier to start with him than to shine the spotlight on myself) and I got through all of my shoes.

“I have 56 pairs of shoes. I have three times the number of shoes as my husband, and I wear 3% of them 80% of the time. Evidently, I buy shoes that reflect the life I want to live (evening pumps) instead of the life I lead (flat boots, business flats). After seeing the reality of the numbers (that obviously had no intention of lying to spare my feelings), I’ve made two decisions:

  1. Rather than buy any more pairs of shoes, I’m going to shop in my closet. I’ve pulled myself together and finally thrown out the shoes with holes and tears and eroded heals. I’ve pulled out new business flats and a few casual pumps that I can wear to the office. Now I just have to figure out how to wear them with my current wardrobe.
  2. Up until now, I’ve shopped for the life I’ve wanted. From now on, I’m going to shop for the life I have. I choose acceptance and surrender. I choose to see the many ways I can make my every day a pleasure.”

“Here’s the template I created to do my wardrobe inventory (click on the image and it will open up an Excel file). If you want to go down this road of merciless self-discovery, maybe this will help make your journey a little less bumpy.”

Personalized Fashion Inventory (.xlxs)

“For a morning person, I have an incredible number of evening dresses. I’m also exceptional at forgetting that tops should match bottoms since almost none of mine do. But what stumps me the most is how a perfectionist could be so fashion illiterate. Books come to us to teach us lessons, but I’m thinking that this one came to me a little late. Nonetheless, it was an incredible lesson to learn. My eyes are so much more open to my (mildly compulsive) shopping patterns and I finally understand why I don’t wear more of the items in my wardrobe. Not knowing what to wear isn’t about feeling frivolous in the moment; it’s about not having all the tools needed to create an image and a feeling that aligns with a desired reality. The more mathematically you approach the creative process of wardrobe maintenance, the more resourceful you’ll be with your inventory, and the easier it will be to focus on what’s really important.”

Other Reviews of this Book

Kendahl Cruver's Review of How to Dress for Success by Edith Head with Joe Hyams


  1. […] How to Dress for Success by Edith Head with Joe Hyams […]

  2. Mariateresa Bombardieri says:

    I completely agree in the basic rule of building a wardrobe for each season picking up three colors schemes then assembling the matching colors…. absolutely no problems with the accessories !

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