Book Review: “A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style” by Tim Gunn with Kate Moloney

Personal Blurb-style Intro (aka “Why I picked up this book”):

I picked up this book the day I found out I failed the interview. Okay, that doesn’t sound so positive, but it is the most active, efficient way to say it and it is true, after all. Although I was really disappointed, I have a lot of practice in keeping my chin up, so I did just that. After the follow-up phone call ended with the bad news, I sat for a moment and breathed hard. A few tears welled in my eyes and I took note of how the pit of my stomach felt intensely centered around the backs of my knees and my heart was pounding heavily, though not quickly. “So this is what disappointment feels like today.” I thought. After a minute or two, my breath returned to normal, along with my eyes and heart, though my stomach stayed out of whack the entire day (okay, okay, I cried again, too). Then, I picked myself up, returned to my daily to-do list and went along my less-merry-than-usual way.

I was still riding the subtly ebbing and flowing waves of disappointment when I got to the library. I was returning dvds and hadn’t intended to check out a book (what with a stack of blogging projects waiting for me at home). Yet, I craved a new distraction from the free time that might tempt me to engage in garbage talk about myself later that night (sort of a nasty habit I acquired in my early 20s, and I’ve been in rehab ever since). I have also been thinking about what role my clothes play in my self-expression lately. This thought arose from blog exploration that led to a whole community of fashion bloggers and consumeristas (as I call them). Could I be invested in a personal style without betraying my anti-consumerist soul? Would I be able to fit my personal outlook into a style of Tim Gunn’s approval?

There would be only one way to find out. I picked up the book, and with gleeful delight found that I adore Tim Gunn’s approach to style.


Gunn and his partner (sidekick?) Kate Moloney start by creating an atmosphere of open acceptance and genuine enthusiasm to share their belief that anyone can achieve the mantra of the book “Quality, Taste & Style,” no matter your heritage, socioeconomic status, philosophy, size, age, etc. – all of that makes you who you are. “Who you are” is the first chapter and it is Gunn and Moloney’s goal that you “be unflinchingly confident in who you are. Own that person. Own your look.” (30). Since I cracked open the book with a skeptic’s chip on my shoulder, I was pleasantly surprised by these beginnings. Still doubtful, I jumped ahead to scan the appendices in anticipation of a list of labels and brands out of my price range. Instead I met with a style guide that included a recommended film list, a literary section (!!!), AND a glossary, because “[f]ew activities are as delightful as learning new vocabulary.” (191). Za-zing! A book after my own heart. Maybe this book could help me uncover my sartorial sense of self.

As I pressed on, the book presented useful information, including a closet organizing section, a brief overview of fashion mentors and icons and rolled on into physical beauty in posture, before leading into the retail sector. Gunn and Moloney offer tips for exercising discretion when shopping, including advocating for shopping less, and also raise the issue of emotional shopping and how detrimental it can be. Accessories were given a thorough once-over, including the advice to sniff around your environs and assess your emotional reaction to certain smells; this will help you know what to look for in a fragrance. Finally, the book ended with directives for different special events (think black-tie attire, vacation attire, etc.).

Looking back on it, the only pieces missing from the book were how to shampoo your hair and that you should never wear seersucker! (Personal distaste of mine, Gunn does restrict it to the summer months and says it must go away after Labor Day). Though these types of rules are not part of the book, that is a good thing. Gunn and Moloney produced a starter course in how to present your physical self in a way that reflects your personality, beliefs and tastes. They do demand that one should dress appropriately for the weather, and thus incorporate a seasonality to your wardrobe, the way there is a seasonality to fruits and vegetables, and even menu offerings (at least, there should be). For example, lightweight cotton sweaters are great for September, but should be shelved in favor of a more dense fabric by December.

Perhaps the most valuable part of this book (and most surprising to me), along with the simple posture tips (see below), are the fashion, artistic, literary and film references Gunn and Moloney drop in the text, they sparkle like the subtle accessories endorsed throughout the book, just enough to attract interest without overwhelming the intention of the outfit, er book, in this case. Names like Anna Piaggi, Leontyne Price, and Chita Rivera; movies like Doctor Zhivago, Grey Gardens, and Il Grido; and books like “Death in Venice” (Thomas Mann), “Either/or” (Søren Kierkegaard), and “I Shock Myself” (Beatrice Wood), are scattered among discussions of the basic shoe requirements of every woman’s closet (two pairs of boots, one fancy, one casual; one pair of flats suitable for the office and jeans; one pair dress-up-to-the-nines evening shoes). And, all the while, pressing the mantra: silhouette, proportion, fit.

Speaking of women, the book focuses exclusively on fashion for women and is written with a female audience in mind, but it’s sage advice would hold true for men, as well. Gunn and Moloney point out that fragrances are not gender-specific, only the marketing of fragrances is. Maybe ballet flats and a suitable pair of evening heels don’t apply to most men, but one never knows. As Gunn would say to those of us creating and maintaining personal style: “Make it work!”

Best Excerpts:

“I find that often students who struggle with an assignment are inclined to abandon the struggle and begin again. This practice unnerves me, because it’s like playing roulette with one’s work. What assurance does one have that the next spin of the wheel will be successful? Important learning occurs when a struggle is examined and analyzed, diagnosed, and a prescription offered. Ergo, make it work.” p. 16.

“Who you are embraces everything about you, from your family’s origins to your predilections for particular films and music, to your fantasies and reveries, to your weekly routines. It’s also your size, shape, and proportions, and your coloring. And it’s the city or town in which you live, your home, and your friends and colleagues. It’s milieu.” p. 18.

“Allow yourself to make a distinction between what appeals to you and what works for you. (If you love chartreuse but it looks dreadful on you, get your chartreuse fix around the house: perhaps some throw pillows would do it.)” p. 22.

“If you wouldn’t want to run into an ex-lover, that’s a sure sign you could do better.” p. 59.

“Style requires a “like it or lump it” attitude toward one’s public. Your public includes husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, mothers, children, workmates, classmates, and the people who pass you on the street. You do not exist to win their approval.” p. 70.

“Focus on pulling the shoulders away from the ears. Imagine drawing the shoulder blades down the back and allowing the collarbone to be as open as possible without thrusting the breast forward. At no time should the shoulder blades be pinned together. This position makes keeping the head perfectly balanced on the neck far easier. This means you’ll sail through life and into old age with a limber body and not a trace of a dowager’s hump.” p. 95.

“There will always, always be something to fret over, and too often the fretting takes the place of actually taking care of oneself.” p. 104.

“Everyone with a good eye and a sensitive soul loves beauty. The ability to appreciate and feel joy when beholding something that speaks to you has nothing to do with your tax bracket.” p. 133.

“[Y]ou should never buy something on sale that you wouldn’t buy at full price.” p. 140.

ISBN: 0810992841

I couldn’t find a website for the book, so here is the amazon link.

I am thinking of incorporating some of the aspects of this book, particularly the closet organization, the shower routine, and the top ten shopping list. Once you check out the book, let me know what you think, and most importantly, whether you feel this book helped you become “unflinchingly confident in who you are.”



Filed under Book Review

2 responses to “Book Review: “A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style” by Tim Gunn with Kate Moloney

  1. I might need to read this. I have no idea how to dress myself. I have a closet full of clothes, yet I gravitate to the same 5 things over and over again and I don’t think any of my clothes make me feel “unflinchingly confident in who I am,” with the possible exception of pajamas. Have you implemented any of the suggestions? If so, what do you think?

    I thought the recommendation to have two pairs of boots was interesting. I would love to have nice boots, but apparently my calves are abnormally large. I’ve lost count of how many pairs I’ve tried and can’t even zip halfway up. I finally found a pair of casual boots that I can cram on, but I lose all feeling in my legs if I wear them for more than a couple of hours.

    • The beauty of this book is that it really tells you that you should dress just the way that feels right to you – as long as you (1) make choices that have a continuity and create a statement and (2) avoid flip flops except on weekends. Just kidding about the flip flops (sort of). Gunn really tries to stay away from hard and fast rules and instead focuses on having fun with self-expression, instead of harping on conforming to one person’s style or opinion. He just thinks you should be able to back up all of your choices, and all of your choices should reflect who you are AS WELL AS make you feel good about yourself.

      The last part I am incorporating more than anything else – if I don’t feel good about clothes, I have started giving them away and not guilting myself about using it til holes show in the fabric.

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