I am the black sheep of the family – I ended up with a steady government job. However, I grew up in a family who worked in the rag trade. When I told my mother, Lee Bird, I was going to write about having a frugal wardrobe, she was not enthusiastic. "I don't do frugal," she said. "That sounds so boring. But I am all about looking fabulous on less."
Looking fabulous is something Mum knows a lot about. She was a fashion icon in Queensland in the 1980s and 1990s, before "retiring" to the Gold Coast and operating a fashion boutique in the upmarket Tedder Avenue on Main Beach.
Be guided by what suits you, your shape and your style. If something doesn’t look good on you, don’t wear it.Credit:Stocksy
These days, she prefers to dress in simple black and white, adopting a very Gold Coast casual resort look. When I was growing up in Melbourne, she was into '70s disco, and a decade or so ago everything was matching leopard print.
In the early 1970s, Mum went to London to work. When she returned, she opened a boutique and started designing clothes to sell. She often tells a story about how she once caught a lady shoplifting in the boutique and, heavily pregnant with me, chased her down the street and got the dress back. She was a determined woman.
Mum would often work from home, making patterns and cutting fabric for samples. I would sit under her large industrial cutting table and play with sequins or buttons. I had lots of fun threading lace and ribbons through the holes in the metal edge of the table. Mum left all of that to make a sea change to Queensland, moving to Noosa and setting up a boutique in Hastings Street in the early '80s.
I remember her sewing early designs – resort dresses fringed with seashells she picked up on the beach – from our garage. She said that she had to train staff from scratch, as there was no fashion industry in Noosa at that time. She built her factory in an industrial area away from the resort town. Eventually, her solo business spread to four boutiques and a national wholesale business. She even sold overseas for a while, with one bright hand-knitted mohair coat being worn by Dolly Parton.
I had a few unsuccessful attempts at learning to sew. For years, I thought that I lacked the fashionista touch my mum had, in part because I was always frugal and liked op-shop clothes. However, I must have absorbed more than I realised by following style tips I learnt while growing up. I might not look like a supermodel (funnily enough, there are only a handful of people in the world who do), but people often comment on what I wear and how I look. I usually have the confidence to feel good in what I wear.
Here are a few tips about style I picked up from my mum:
1. NEVER SLAVISHLY FOLLOW FASHION
Just because everyone is wearing leg warmers, bell-bottom pants or gingham check, it doesn't mean you should, too. Be guided by what suits you, your shape and your style. If something doesn't look good on you, don't wear it. (To this I would add that, despite what the media will have us believe, there is no perfect shape. I am envious of slim, tall and sporty friends; some of them are envious of my substantial cleavage and soft, straight hair. Be proud of who you are and dress according to what looks good on you.)
2. DO NOT WEAR EVERYTHING IN THE LATEST "IN" COLOUR
Millennial pink, rose gold, lime green or teal blue/green may be the latest "it" colour, but that doesn't mean everything in your wardrobe should be that colour. You could invest in one jacket, shirt or scarf if you want to get that season's look. That way, when the latest "in" colour is "out", you aren't stuck with several outfits that you need to replace.
3. BLACK AND WHITE WORKS
Black and white is a classic combination, and it always works well.
Serina Bird gets most of her clothes from op shops. One of her best buys was an $8 ball gown.Credit:Elesa Kurtz
4. DO NOT WEAR SOMETHING UNLESS IT LOOKS FABULOUS ON YOU
Maybe you think something has potential, that it's a bit interesting but not quite right. If you are in a change room and you do not feel entirely fabulous and glamorous when you put something on, then just do not go there. If you don't love it then and there, you never will, and it will just clutter your wardrobe. On several occasions I have been shopping with Mum and have come across an item that was a bit "schoolgirl understated 1960s interesting", with potential but a little drab in a cool way, and wondered if I could pull it off because I like quirky things. "No way," my mum would say. "You can do better." She was right; I could, and I did.
5. KEEP IT SIMPLE
Classic is always in style. Simple, well-made and elegant pieces are an investment. I still have a brown wool suit I had made in Hoi An, Vietnam, in 2007 that I wear nearly every week. The cut is classic, the materials are quality and it always looks good.
6. AN ELEGANT SCARF IS AN ASSET
According to my mother, you cannot have enough scarves: "Classic basics never date – by adding a new scarf you create a new outfit." There are YouTube tutorials on how to tie scarves, but it depends largely on the shape of the scarf and what you are wearing. You don't need an expensive Hermes scarf, just something interesting.
7. GET RID OF ANYTHING YOU HAVEN'T WORN RECENTLY
Go and have a look in your wardrobe. What items have you thought about wearing in the past four weeks but dismissed? Why? Why didn't you feel good about them? If you keep bypassing certain outfits, there will be a reason. Give them to a friend or a charity shop – they are just taking up valuable space.
8. WEAR CLOTHES THAT FIT YOU WELL
It is often worth the small cost of having quality basic pieces altered. For example, you could have shoulder pads removed, or a coat made smaller or larger. Since I am short, I often pay to have items taken up at the shoulder so they are not so low in the body (read: showing lots of cleavage).
9. WEAR YOUR CLOTHES WITH ATTITUDE
So much of fashion is not about what you wear, but how you project confidence when you're wearing it. Wear something like it is the latest fashion and people will believe that it is. Your dress might be a cheap op-shop find, but wear it like it's Chanel and believe in your own style, and you will project yourself as a fashionista.
10. SMILE, SMILE, SMILE
Just like in the song from the musical Annie, "you're never fully dressed without a smile". No matter the price of your clothes, nothing beats a smile. Positivity and laughter are much more attractive to be around than someone who is dour yet fashionable.
Edited extract from The Joyful Frugalista (Murdoch Books) by Serina Bird, out now.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 3.
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