Erica Davies: Rip the fashion rules to shreds, because we can all wear leopard!

That’s right, says fashion stylist Erica Davies, whose common sense (and sometimes surprising) advice will have you rethinking – and re-enjoying – the way you look and dress.

For nearly 20 years, as the fashion editor on some of Britain’s biggest newspapers and magazines, I helped perpetuate the myth of ‘rights and wrongs’, of what we should and shouldn’t be wearing.

Then one day I put something on and suddenly felt constrained and uncomfortable. Instead of making me feel happy, this outfit did the opposite. And in that moment, I realised something: the rules I’d been telling people to follow were wrong.

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Sitting in my vintage chair to say I’ve shared lots of recommendations for vintage interior Insta-stores over on stories. I don’t think anything makes me happier than a potter around an antiques shop – and right now, even if it’s virtually, you can still help support a lot of small businesses by mooching and buying online. Also, if you fall in love with something don’t worry if they are miles away from you – there’s always a way! There are plenty of man-and-van options (I’m not being sexist, that’s generally how you’d search for them!) and I have used a website called Shiply several times, where couriers compete against each other to bid for your pick-up job. PLEASE suggest and recommend any other interior vintage accounts you love in the comments below! . PS Tangent: I’m also looking serious here because – NO SPOILERS – I was BLOWN AWAY by the final two episodes of I May Destroy You. What. A. Series. Michaela Coel! Warning, if you haven’t seen any of it yet, it does depict sexual assault and its associated trauma, so please do tread carefully if that affects you. But it does open so many conversations surrounding consent and does so much to dismantle the narrative of blaming the victim. My friend Kirsty and I discussed it today and as she said, ‘this will be dissected by everyone who watches it and they’ll all have their own views.’ It’s an incredible piece of television and Michaela deserves ALL the awards 👏🏻 . Dress, H&M Sandals, Pull & Bear Chair, @flamingnorauk

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Instead, the clothes we choose, rather than being the latest fashion, should make us feel good about ourselves. They shouldn’t hide us away or make us feel less than we really are.

It was this epiphany that led me to leave my office job and create a style website called The Edited. It’s based on my philosophy that in order to feel happy in clothes, we need to feel happy with who we are beneath them. I’ve learnt it’s possible to create a personal style that not only suits you but opens up a whole world of confidence and possibilities.

So what is personal style?

It’s a funny thing, style. You can feel perfectly fine in the outfits you put together for years without giving anything a second thought. Then, one day, you wake up and find you’ve completely lost your confidence. Out of everything I’m messaged about online, it is requests for advice from women who feel they have lost their way with fashion that make up the majority. There’s a whole host of reasons for this – everything from gaining or losing weight to having a change of career.

First, we need to establish the difference between style and taste. Taste is the pieces you select, while style is the way you put your taste together. A person with their own sense of style has a strong look that may not necessarily adhere to convention in the same way as taste. One person’s style might have its foundation in a cultural dress code, but with a twist that makes it uniquely theirs.

Style is individuality, about being able to put pieces together in a way that suits the wearer’s personality, so they look happy wearing them. When your wardrobe is a collection of all your favourite things, it will make a statement about who you are.

How to feel good in clothes

This is all about how you feel when you look at yourself in the mirror. During my teen years, I always worried that boys wouldn’t like me if I didn’t wear clothes that showed off my shape, but, deep down, that thought made me feel uncomfortable. How many times have you heard comments such as, ‘You can’t wear that’ or ‘That doesn’t suit you’ or even ‘You’re the wrong shape for that’? The resulting upset and embarrassment can stay with us into adulthood.

There are probably dozens of ‘rules’ you have processed from childhood that have formed your own sense of self and the pieces you’re ‘allowed’ to wear, even decades later. From blonde women can’t wear yellow, to stripes make you look wide and tall women shouldn’t wear heels – we’ve grown up hearing them and learn to accept them.

Let me stress the point: body image has such a huge impact on the clothes we wear that we can only get to a happy place when we resolve those issues. A little while ago I wrote an Instagram caption while on holiday about wearing my first bikini in nine years (the first time since having my eldest child). I had wavered about putting it on that morning, but then just thought, ‘Sod it!’ As I typed away, the words flowed… because I suddenly felt free. The shame of not looking ‘like the models look’ disappeared, because I’d said it out loud. It was one of my most liked social media posts to date. Sharing those feelings of vulnerability struck a chord and to this day I receive messages from women telling me they’ve just worn a bikini for the first time in years.

Of course, it takes time to learn to care less about the opinions of strangers, and strength to accept yourself as you are right now, rather than thinking your life will become something complete and wonderful once you’ve lost a bit of weight, or gained a few pounds, or found a partner or a new job. It really won’t – but finding a style that makes you feel genuinely comfortable and happy, as the person you are right now, definitely will.

So forget all the rules you were taught. We only get one body and one life – let’s stop living it apologising for who we are. Once we start to like ourselves, we can get a clearer vision of who it is we want to be. And creating your individual style starts right there.

Why leopard is a neutral

It’s a print with a history. It’s divisive. It’s beloved. It’s gone from being the choice of a certain type of woman (please note, the italics represent an eye-roll!) to a fashion classic. Technically, leopard is a catch-all term that’s used for all big-cat prints, including cheetah, ocelot and jaguar. Big cat energy, if you will. But since J Crew’s former creative director Jenna Lyons announced that, ‘As far as I’m concerned, leopard is a neutral’, the print has been accepted in an entirely new and totally versatile way.

Generally, a traditional leopard print consists of three colours: black, camel and either a lighter cream or darker brown. To uncomplicate dressing with leopard, think about it as just one of these colours. Take a leopard blouse, if you pick black as your main colour: pair it with anything you would wear with black, in whatever texture fabric you’d like – whether that be black leather trousers, a velvet skirt or a cotton knit. If you want to consider it as part of the brown or camel family, leopard prints look beautiful with sparklier versions of themselves – think gold, bronze, copper. They’re part of the same colour family, so all the shades harmonise.

Remember, denim has the effect of muting louder, more statement pieces, so they don’t feel ‘too much’ worn during the day. But you can also push the envelope a little. Try pairing a leopard-print blouse with lilac and red, blush pink or bright orange. Leopard works with all of those shades. It’s really not as scary as you might think. Honestly. And once you have considered the options of stepping away from the comfort colours, you might be ready for mixing with other prints – and for myriad other outfit possibilities.

The style tricks you need to know

★ You are your own fashion authority. You can appreciate the ideas of others, but your gut instinct is all you need.

★ Sizes really don’t matter, but if you want an outfit to have power, you need to understand proportions (see below).

★ Want to try print or colour but not sure where to start? Imagine your outfit’s component in terms of three. Take a key piece – such as a pink and orange skirt with a hint of white – and dissect the three main colours. Mix in a print in the predominant colour (pink) and pick out plain pieces in the accent colours (orange and white).

★ Try new ways of wearing things. My happy hem is between a midi and maxi, so to get more use out of my kneelength pieces I wear them with trousers. Would you wear that long silk dress more if you teamed it with jeans?

★ If you feel excited when you put something on that’s how you know it works for you.

My four non-rules

1. Take a pragmatic look at yourself in your underwear and try to take the emotion out of getting dressed. Regard yourself as a stylist would: without criticism – just assess which clothes will work.

2. Think about the pieces that make you feel like you. If you’re a skirt + T-shirt + flat shoe wearer, try elevating your fabric choices and re-create that particular equation with a textured black below-the-knee skirt (perhaps leather), worn with a smarter silk-mix T-shirt, underneath a printed or contrast-coloured jacket and a pair of black patent flats.

3. Focus on small changes at first. It may be that you just want to wear black, and that’s fine – you could always add a bold lipstick or a statement shoe to lift it.

4. Your body is an incredible thing – never feel you have to hide it away.

Forget colour, think shades

It’s a fashion fact that some colours will suit you more than others. There are lots of companies that offer to ‘find’ your colours, but I have a simpler strategy – and it doesn’t cost a thing: if you hold an item up to your face – in a room with lots of light – and it suits you, your eyes will sparkle and your skin will glow.

Ditch anything that makes you look tired, as it’s wrong for you. And think about colours as tones: don’t dismiss an entire colour just because one shade doesn’t suit you. For example, while hot pink might drain you, blush might make you pop; black may wash you out, but navy make you feel a million dollars.

If you’re shopping online look at the darkest and lightest shades within your iris. They are shades that will always look fantastic on you. Looking at the veins in your wrist can also help – yes, really! If you see blue, then you’re more likely to suit cooler colours, while if you see greenish veins, warmer shades will work better.

Proportions are key

By understanding the power of proportions, you can create a killer outfit that works best for you, which will make shopping and dressing easier. Sizes and numbers don’t really matter, but if you want an outfit to have balance and power, proportions definitely do. So with a Breton top, the eye will follow its stripes width-wise, making you look wider, whereas in a V-neck top and a longer-line coat, their shapes and cuts will draw the eye down, creating a lengthening visual.

You also need to consider balance. So match the hemline of your dress to the hemline of your coat. Looser tops work best with slim trousers. If you’re self-conscious about your boobs, choose a pocket-free shirt. You can wear a poloneck, but layer a V-neck over it, as the two necklines will ‘confuse the eye’ and make it hard to focus entirely on your chest.

Find your outfit superheroes

These are the pieces that always give me a style boost

How do I like my tee? Thick cotton, stripes and long sleeves.

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How are you? No really, how ARE you? I’m OK – but have been feeling in a little bit of a social media fug of late. I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those people who finds it hard to hide my feelings. If I’m feeling particularly rubbish, I’ll find myself in a funk I find difficult to shake. If I’m feeling a bit flat, I want to talk about it, or curl up in silence. Life isn’t always great and we’re not always full of the joys. Should these squares ever give another impression, everything is not always tickety boo! So being honest, I’d started to feel as though I’d lost my Insta mojo – comparing myself to other people, feeling pressure (self-inflicted!) to ‘say something’ on every post, or trying to come up with ways to change up what I am doing. But here’s the thing I have realised: this is a space where you can share what YOU like. Whether that’s what you’re wearing, or watching, or love doing, or making, or even if it’s a paid partnership helping to sell a brand you love, it’s ALL OK, because it’s what YOU’VE chosen to talk about. And if it makes sense to you, it’s all good. (It’s also fine if someone isn’t keen on what you’re talking about, because ultimately we all have the choice to be here, or not). I’m here because I love creating photos, writing about all kinds of stuff, working with brands on interesting projects and chatting! So I’m going to stop the fug, stop comparing, stop stressing about whether the numbers are ok and stop worrying about the odd snippy message. We can’t change what other people think about us, but we can focus on all the positives this space brings! ✨ CREDITS: New ‘foxed glass’ mirror, Sofa.com (gift) | Trousers, Topshop (bought) | Jumper, Hades (old season, gift) | Shoes, By Far (bought) | Everything else in the room paid for by myself, except the bin, which was a gift from Kalinko, brands tagged on image for ease 🌱

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A girl’s best friend? Boyfriend khaki chinos.

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I really need to stop drinking rosé ‘just because’ it’s a bank holiday. I really need to stop Googling the real life names of all the Game of Thrones characters (we’ve almost made it to season five!), because, SPOILERS. I really need to sort out that bag of dry cleaning that’s been sitting in the corner of the kitchen for a month. I really need to work out when we can pay off the credit card bill so I can book in the decorators again! Milk! We really need milk! Life’s just a rolling to-do list, stored in my head. I probably forget to do more than I remember, but it’s fine – because the ones that I DO remember become actual victories! Don’t sweat the small stuff – because with a change of mindset, the small stuff could be considered the big wins! (Also, maybe one more glass of wine) 😎 CREDITS: Beret, ASOS | Leopard jacket, & Other Stories | Trousers, Zara | Striped polo neck, M&S | Bag, Anya Hindmarch (all items bought) | Sunglasses, D&G at John Lewis (gift, paid partnership) | Shoes, Grenson (previous season, gift) 😎 📷 @bangonstyle

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You can’t beat the extra legroom wide-legged trousers provide.

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I feel a bit out of sorts. I feel as though I have taken on too much this month and the deadlines are a bit overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful that people do want to work with me (!) – but when I feel a bit out of control with work, I retreat into my head. I’m distracted, I spend too much time on my phone. I try to ‘cram respond’ to emails before offices close for the day, when the reality is there are two small people at home who just want my attention. And it doesn’t feel very good, being physically there but not mentally present. But instead of putting the phone down, I snap at them and tell them to put the TV on, just so I can get the emails written – and then make myself feel worse in the process. And therein lies the rub. What is success? Is it earning lots of money and getting promoted at work? Is it feeling important because lots of brands want to work with you? Or does it lie in striking that clichéd balance between work life and home life? What I DO know is that today, I put down my phone, got in the car and went to see my friend Alex and her new baby girl for a coffee and a newborn head sniff. Then I got home and had lovely chats with my own children about their days. And both those things made me feel way better. I suppose the juggle can only happen when you can physically manage the balls you have in the air. So this t-shirt says it all. I WILL get it all done, but I will be more honest with myself about how many balls I can juggle next time! CREDITS: T-shirt, The Colorful Crew (gift) | Skirt, & Other Stories | Shoes, M&S (a pick as part of my paid partnership with them) | Sunglasses, Boden | Bag, & Other Stories (old season) | Cardigan, La Redoute (old) | Earrings, Maya Magal (gift) | Tap for brand details ✨📷 @hannahfgale

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Always spot on: a leopard midi skirt.

Is it a shirt, is it a jacket? It’s a shacket! I like mine army style.

Chunky lace-up boots are perfect mixers.

This is an edited extract from Leopard is a Neutral: A Really Useful Style Guide by Erica Davies, which will be published by Yellow Kite on 17 September, price £16.99. To order a copy for £11.99 until 20 September go to whsmith.co.uk and enter the code YOULEOPARD at checkout. Book number: 9781529333718. Terms and conditions: whsmith.co.uk/terms.