I found out about Claire McCardell’s What Shall I Wear?from Couture Allure, my go to site for vintage fashions. She reviewed the book in January, and I just got to it now.

It’s an interesting read. It isn’t a new book, but a re-release from 1956 by a master designer who made clothing more wearable and comfortable for American women. It’s sometimes hilariously dated, with things like what to wear when you drive your husband to the train in the morning. “When you drive your husband to the train, is the whole community there? If you are display, it is only sensible to be displayable.” On shoes, she writes “When you buy shoes, you are not just buying for your own feet. You are buying for  your husband’s tastes, for the things you are going to walk to. Does he take big steps? Would he rather help poor delicate you into a taxi?” Sports are limited to skiing, hiking, golf and tennis, and gloves must be worn, always. Oh, and “every woman should be able to sew on a button–otherwise she’s hardly a woman.”

These offering aren’t often, but they are jolting – and a remind of what 1956 life was like for a lot of women.

But her general messages about fashion and making clothes work for you apply today. I came around to her way of thinking about building a wardrobe gradually, first by starting to collect vintage clothing, and then by shopping for better made items that worked for me rather than trying to build a wardrobe out of whatever was on the sale racks at Banana Republic and the Gap. Instead of wasting time and money constantly trying to find good deals on clothes I didn’t always love, I work with someone at Nordstrom who picks out clothes for me based on what I like to wear, my shape, and my job (and she sometimes forces me to try new things, which is not bad!). I have most items tailored to fit ME, too (I’m a runner, so jeans are bought three sizes up to fit my legs, and taken in at the waist to fit there). These clothes are much better made, too, I wear the heck out of them. Goodbye, three cheap cardigans that somewhat fit. Hello, one kick ass bone blazer that cost more but works with almost everything (and becomes a coat when paired with a thick scarf).

I especially liked McCardell’s chapters about jewelry and coats. With jewelry, she advocates finding unique things that work for you, not whatever’s most expensive. Here are two of my favorite pieces:

This is my grandfather’s high school ring. He had it sized down to fit my grandmother because he had taken her high school ring to WW II where someone stole it. I have never seen anything like it, and I’m so glad my mom let me have it on a permanent loan. I sometimes wear it alone; other times paired with a trio of new Marc Jacobs bangles and turnlock stud earrings, which I bought not because of the brand name but because I liked them, and they were sized right for my wrist and ears. I was surprised when people picked up on what brand they are. I try to avoid that kind of stuff because it’s not me. For example: I HATE that Tory Burch medallion, and I passed on a 1960s Louis Vuitton oversized cosmetics bag I found in Alaska because I didn’t want to seem like a label whore, though now I regret not getting it. Despite what I think is a tacky trend to flash labels – like when I saw a slideshow from a recent black tie and women were in formal dresses with their label bags COME ON THAT NEEDS A CLUTCH – that vintage LV still would have fit into my wardrobe. Sigh. Anyway.

This was my grandmother’s silver charm bracelet, which is made up of sites from around New Jersey. After her funeral, her daughters, daughters-in-law, and then granddaughters were allowed to pick an item from her costume jewelry collection, and this was my selection. I usually wear it stacked with a Lagos rope bracelet that was a gift from an ex-boyfriend. I never wear earrings with it – two bracelets, especially with that much going on, is enough for me. I’ve also mixed the Lagos bracelet with a heavy 1950s rhinestone cuff that I bought at a now-closed antique store for $50. Why? I don’t know. I thought they were a fun pairing – and McCardell would approve.

For coats and jackets, McCardell suggests having many, and collecting them over time. I’ve been doing this without realizing it, starting with when my mother gave me the coat on the left below.

I rarely feel more glamorous than when in that coat. I’ve worn it to cocktail parties, black ties, and sometimes with jeans and a sweater when I want to feel dressed up. And it wasn’t a crazy expensive coat when first bought, either. My father got it for her from JC Penny in the 1970s, but it’s held up incredibly well, even through a cleaning that involved sending it to a specialist who could clean both the fur and the wool (and as for the fur – my mother wanted me to have the coat. I don’t buy fur, new or vintage, but I was not going to throw this away).

The jacket on the right is a wool princess coat that may or may not have been originally paired with a matching dress. I bought it at a vintage store that’s now closed. I think I paid $40. It’s a short coat that stops right at the belly button and makes my waist look teeny. I’ll typically wear it on a chilly day (but not cold day – it’s not a heavy coat) paired with leggings, boots, and a top that works with that kind of short coat. My favorite pairing is with a thin, hip length cotton hoodie. For whatever reason, that pairing looked fantastic, and I’ve repeated it many times since.

Now let’s talk about buying when you see the perfect item, not when you need it – another McCardell adage.

On the left is a tapestry coat I bought from one of Couture Allure’s last chance sales. I believe it was $50, and I bought it in March a few years ago when I *should* be transitioning into spring clothes. It’s heavy, and gorgeous and wonderful. We had some bitter cold March days that year, so I got to take it out a few spins putting it away until the fall, when it then became my go-to. I am stopped by someone almost every time I wear it. I wore it on my first date with my boyfriend, and it’s the one thing he remembers about my outfit. It’s not a coat to wear if you don’t want to stand out, but it also can turn a jeans and sweater outfit into something much more interesting.

On the right is a Burberry trench coat – with winter wool liner – that I found at Sherry’s Yesterdaze in Tampa (which I included in this story). I bought it for $55. It poured while I was in Florida, so I got to wear it right then, and many times since. I took it to the Philadelphia Burberry store to have the frayed buckles replaced for $30, and they guess that it was a petite jacket from the 1990s when Burberry made ankle-length coats. They were also shocked that I found it for that price. Me too.

And then there is THIS.

THAT is a fabulous faux cheetah crop jacket with sleeves short enough to show off my wrists and all those bracelets I wrote about. I bought it online in May. I’m not going to post the source because the jacket smelled TERRIBLE when it arrived, like they’d doused it when some chemical instead of actually cleaning it. I worked with my dry cleaner to get that stench out. I haven’t worn it yet, but I can’t wait to break it out this fall, whether with jeans or over a gown for the black tie I’m going to in November (which has a 1920s theme – McCardell writes about knowing your figure, and I know that drop waists do NOT work on me. So it’ll be a black dress I already have with a jeweled headband. Done).

I have one more coat project I’m working on for the fall:

That’s my mom’s high school jacket. She was going to sell it at a yard sale, but I took it home instead. As you can see, it’s in desperate need of a cleaning, which will happen soon. It’s very worn, but it’s comfortable and fits. Even if I only wear it twice a year, it’ll be worth it. I can see it being a great early spring jacket, too, paired with faded jeans and retro Nike sneakers or ballet flats.

I’d have taken photos of some of my favorite clothes, but the collection there isn’t as great since I only started last year. I’ve been working on the coats for 10. 
What Shall I Wear was a nice reminder that I’m not wasting time in trying to find the right clothes for me. I don’t work in an office, but when I do go out – to dinner, to see a friend, to something fancy – I’m not scrambling for the perfect thing anymore, or worried that I’m not dressed properly. I don’t think that’s vanity. I think that’s confidence, and I now find this kind of stuff interesting, like putting a puzzle together. 
You have to wear something on your body. Why not make it fun?

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.


  1. The Queen of Fifty Cents on August 26, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Wonderful coats! The tapestry one is fabulous. I'd certainly stop you on the street if I saw you wearing it!

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