What to wear that’s not Mom Jeans

By Mir
April 5, 2007

I know I haven’t been answering many questions lately, but I just got this one and thought I’d try to tackle it before we have to leave Panera and go back home to our cold, powerless house.

Michele writes:

Hi Mir, the most beautiful of all bloghers.

I am a stay-at-home mom of two young boys, 2.5 and nearly 1. Before having kids, I worked in the publishing field, and had (what I thought was) a wardrobe that I loved. Now that I have kids, I am astonished at what I end up wearing every day. It’s embarassing (although not as embarassing as the ladies wearing the matching sweatsuits IMHO). Plus, I’m 41, so I can’t pull off a lot of the styles that are in the malls (ie, cheap and easily found.)

I need clothes that are A. Sturdy, meaning that I can wash and wear them and that they will last longer than one afternoon. B. Cool, so I don’t look like I’m trying to be a teenager again or that I am closer to menopause than my kids first day at preschool. and C. Reasonably priced. I am staying home and forgoing my career because I think it’s the right thing to do. Must my sense of style be sacrificed too?

Please help!

This is something I can answer, I think. Hang on, Michele! Help is on the way!

There are a few variables here which I’d like to have to really give the best possible answer, but we’ll soldier on without them. Namely, I do not know what body type Michele is, or what sort of climate she lives in. Both of those would influence specifics, but we’ll see what we can do without them.

First of all, if you’re not reading my gorgeous and beautiful and smart friend Susan at Friday Style you need to bookmark her immediately, because she’s good with this stuff. She riffs off a lot of the rules from What Not to Wear, which are all excellent guidelines for dressing yourself to your best advantage. My only quibble with WNTW and sometimes Susan herself is that neither of them really take price into consideration. The rules are good, but you may come away from either of them feeling like it can’t be done on a budget (which is not true, but I’m just warning you).

Second, I’m not sure what Michele means by being 41 and so not being able to pull off a lot of readily available styles. We don’t want you running around in a belly shirt and skinny jeans, Michele, but there are plenty of classic, age-appropriate options out there suitable for women our age without looking dowdy.

Let’s start at the top and work our way down.

Tops. You want tops that fit you; nothing makes you look sloppy more quickly than a too-big top, and nothing makes you look cheap more quickly than a top that’s too small. Choose colors that compliment your eyes/skin/hair and patterns appropriate to your size; if you are petite, stick to solids or small patterns, if you are larger you can go bigger with patterns. An easy way to look more polished is to layer. WNTW is all about a couple of casual blazers, but even a camisole under a button-down blouse is more together looking than a blouse alone. Tops should cover your midriff (always) but only the very skinny can pull off a tunic-length without looking thick and shapeless. The ideal top hits you mid-hip.

Never underestimate the power of a bra. I don’t want to see you dressed in anything if you don’t have the ladies taken care of, if you know what I mean. Nothing, and I mean nothing, looks sloppier than poor support. You can dress to the nines and you’ll still look like a slob if your nipples are at your navel. Nuff said.

Bottoms. There is absolutely nothing wrong with spending your days in jeans, provided that they fit you well. That means they are long enough (but not so long they’re swallowing your feet), a nice straight leg (every body type looks good in a straight leg), and not so tight that I can tell whether or not you shaved today. Dark washes look more polished and contemporary than lighter washes.

Khakis, cargo pants, and capris will round out your everyday pant wardrobe nicely, provided they fit you and don’t look like you just pulled them out from under your bed. Stick to neutrals that will match a variety of your (colorful) tops.

Susan advocates for well-fitting yoga pants as the ultimate alternative to sweats and being public-suitable for those ultra-casual days. I don’t happen to like them for wearing in public, but that’s just me. My casual option, instead, is some nylon Aeropostale pants I found at a thrift store; they’re structured like regular pants (button and zipper fly, pockets), fit me well, but are basically dressy running pants. To each their own on this.

Skirts are a nice casual option in warm weather, although personally I find them impractical in the cold. Come summer, though, it’s just as easy to throw on a casual little skirt as it is to wear shorts, and you look much more appropriate/adult. Skirts should come to just below the knee (again, like the straight-leg pant, this is a style that flatters every body type), and an A-line will either balance out a larger upper half or disguise a larger lower half.

Shoes. You all know how I feel about shoes. Shoes always fit (no matter how many cookies you’ve eaten) and are, to my mind, the ultimate accessory. They can transform an outfit for better or for worse. While I cringe to see moms running around in their gym shoes, there are so many comfortable options out there nowadays; there’s really no excuse not to have a pair of visually interesting shoes that you love and can run around in.

A note on accessories. Susan talks a lot about making outfits with gorgeous accessories, and I can only say “ditto” and encourage you to go read her. I wear earrings every day. Some women always wear a necklace. It doesn’t matter what you choose, but something to draw attention up to your face is always good.

Now. Where do you buy such things?

I say that by and large, you can forget the mall. The prices are high, the crowds are annoying, and you’re likely to get frustrated before you find anything. Stick to off-price stores like Marshalls, Ross, and TJ Maxx if you must shop in person.

You can’t go wrong ordering shoes from either Zappos or Shoebuy. Shipping and returns are always free, so you can buy, try, and return if you need to without any money out of pocket. Plus they’re great about price protection. Shoebuy often has coupons, and both sites have plenty of clearance. Look for a sneaker equivalent (an everyday shoe that will support you through errands, playing outside, etc.) and some cute flats.

For clothes online, there are many great, classic options at Lands’ End, LL Bean, and Eddie Bauer. All three of these stores will afford you iron-tough options that will wash and wear well. While you will not necessarily find the trendiest options here, you will find stuff that is relatively timeless and shaped to fit a real woman’s body.

Online and off, I do like Kohls for stuff a little bit more modern, although often the quality is not going to be as high as the aforementioned options. (But keep in mind that between sales and coupons, they’re likely to be a bit more affordable, too.) One of the advantages of Kohls, if you have a local one, is that you can order online and return to the store (and they often have shipping specials).

I also like consignment stores, but that can be a time-intensive option, and with small children it may not be a workable option for you. It is, however, a great way to find items from more expensive but classic stores (J Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, etc.) at affordable prices.

Readers, chime in. Where else is a great resource for dressing casual but well, on a budget? Because I don’t believe that Michele needs to sacrifice her sense of style!


  1. Sierra Trading Post is a good option
    They have a wide variety of clothing, easily searchable, for good prices.

    I also like Coldwater Creek’s outlet. You can browse by size, color and type of garment.

    Campmor is a good source for activewear and casual wear. It’s also good for camping stuff, but that’s secondary to the fun clothes for me. 😀

  2. another thing I learned from WNTW is to invest in a few great jackets. even if you’re wearing jeans and tee shirt (not one that advertises anything!), throw on a jacket and a cute pair of shoes and you can go anywhere! I just bought
    the lantern sleeve jacket at Ann Taylor Loft (and yes I paid full price for it because now that it’s on sale, you can only find it in petites…but try the store, they’ll check other stores for your size) and I wear it with dresses, jeans and capris!

  3. Aww, Mir is so pretty. And so well dressed!

    I use the internet as a pre-shopping tool quite often. I hate the mall with a white-hot passion and try my best NOT to go there; it’s stressful and overwhelming and when I’m overwhelmed and stressed, I am more prone to the impulse buy (which requires ANOTHER trip to the mall to undo). I will browse on line to see what’s hot and what’s available; I also use the internet to keep up on sales at my favorite brick-and-mortar stores. Then I can go into a real store with a purpose and come out with something that works with what I already own.

    I am also ALL about shopping your closet–Michele, I am willing to bet that you have things in your work wardrobe that you can repurpose for your new mom wardrobe. Steph mentioned jackets, for example, but look at your trousers and blouses, too. Mix dressier pieces with jeans or chinos for a chic casual look, no shopping required!

    And yes, I do love me some $200.00 shoes. It’s a weakness.

  4. I try to keep an eye on what The Gap has on sale. I find their jeans (especially) are of high quality, and they wash really well. You can often find jean sales specifically a couple times a year, so you can buy new jeans a couple of times instead of forking out loads of money up front (this is what I’ve done).

  5. But I like my gym shoes!

  6. As absolutely nothing flatters a mutant body type like mine, I find the whole subject too depressing to even bother, I’m going to go cry in my chocolate now.

  7. Hey! Shoes are the hardest part for me! I wear a 5.5 Wide (thanks to my 3 kids). Go find cute shoes in my size. So yeah, lots of sneakers here.

  8. perfect post 🙂

  9. I have been stuck in jeans a lot lately because of the need for (gasp) tennis shoes. (Medical issue, name of “neuroma”) I like the suggestions for brightening and dressing up the tops; I can do that even with my Avias and Vans!

  10. Don’t laugh, but I’ve also found that JC Penney- especially online- has lately added more cool and updated, yet affordable pieces. They also carry plus sizes that actually have some cut and style and are not just giant mumus. I’ve had a lot of luck there.

  11. I’m lucky enough to have my own personal shopper of thrift stores (aka my Mom) who has endless hours to go hunt down clothes for me and discriminating tastes about what she buys. No exaggerating she just brought me an entire spring/early summer wardrobed (which I needed since I’m 35 lbs lighter than I was last spring, yay me!) for under $200. And that includes work and home clothes, many of which still have tags attached.

    When that’s not an option, or I need something new fast, I am also a fan of Penney’s online. I’m tall and plus sized, they have a decent selection in my sizes and almost always have a sale or free shipping (or both) going on.

    Finally – Beth – I wear an 11W in shoes! You think you have a hard time finding cute and stylish in your size, come shop for my boat-feet for a while!

  12. Hurray for help!

    OK, now I am frantically looking for a jacket….. I have none. I am a chesty (36DD) and short-waisted size 12. I think I am supposed to wear a one-button jacket?

    Also, I do like some of the sweatsuits … I didn’t mean to make fun of ALL matching sweatsuits. Just the ones from Kohls.

  13. Thanks to one of the lovely Mir’s recent posts I was able to score 40% off at the outlet of Coldwater Creek and get 2 blouses, a skirt, 3 jackets and 2 sweaters all for under $160. Coldwater Creek clothes last for ages.

    Thanks Mir!

  14. Target is great for the occasional spurge. I love Lands’ End clothing. And you are so right about wearing good bras- if possible, check out a Balis/Playtex outlet for an amazing selection. Also good are Victoria’s Secret semi-annual sales.
    J. Crew has okay sales for suits and dresses that will last for-ev-er.

  15. For those with wide feet that are looking for an alternative to sneakers, consider Birkenstocks. They have a lot more than just sandals these days and their slip on clogs are much dressier looking. My back and neck thank me too!

    I’m also quite wide and simply order in the “regular” width (which is considered the men’s width). They only have “regular” and “narrow”, but they all run wider than most lines. (Regular is the wide width and Narrow is the regular width–clear as mud?) Additionally, since some of you have unusual sizes, you may find that you can get great bargains online. I regularly pay $30 to $40 for $120 Birkies on clearance because few others buy my size.

  16. Once I made the change from sneakers to regular shoes, I felt a lot more grown-up. After three kids and with a size 11 foot, my shoe options are limited in both size and comfort. I’ve discovered that Merrell makes incredibly comfortable shoes, often in funky styles and colors. I highly recommend them to other sneaker addicts.

    I’m also a mutant body type (excellent term, Brigette!) — average height but with freakishly long arms and legs, and plus-sized with a short waist. Tall black jeans from Lane Bryant are my replacement Mom Jeans, and when I find a t-shirt or top that is not atrocious on me, I buy multiples when I can. (If you are a plus, sign up for Lane Bryant’s e-mail list — they regularly send out coupons for $50 off, etc.)

  17. My favorite plus-sized store ever is the Avenue. Lane Bryant carries a lot of things that aren’t flattering to me. IMHO, just because it’s made in your size doesn’t mean it looks good on you (i.e. super short skirts, spaghetti strap tops, etc.).

    I’m working on losing weight, and am down to a 14 (the smallest size carried in most of these plus-sized stores). I’m worried about finding comfortable, good-looking clothes after I lose more weight, because I’m very curvy, and plus-sized stores seem to be the only places that understand that!

  18. I like shopping New York and Company. They size just a bit larger than everyone else. You can shop just as well online or in the store. Their prices are pretty much the bargainists dream, especially if you shop the sales so you don’t feel bad about buying something on the trendy side.
    I wore a pair of their pants before, throughout and after my pregnancy (to work!!!), and the only thing that retired those pants from work was a bleach stain on the left leg.
    Oh, and their tall lengths are actual talls, I’m about 6’2″ with a 34″ inseam and they go all the way down to the top of my shoes. Ney York and Company is my best friend.

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