5 Steps to Kids' Wardrobes that Photograph Well

I often get asked about my kids' clothes.  I will be an open book with you today.  Because I am not a portrait photographer, but a lifestyle photographer, I rarely plan the outfits for the photographs I take.   And I usually let the kids pick their own outfits (unless it's just outrageously weather-inappropriate).  And I hate to shop and only do it twice a year.  That said, it doesn't mean there isn't intention behind their clothing choices.  In fact, they are basically photo-ready most of the time.

There is a lot of work and planning that goes into creating a situation where this can happen.  Here, I'll tell you about my process, so you can replicate it.  Let me make a disclaimer, though, you guys.  I am in no way claiming to be a stylist.  I am just a mama with three kids who has to spend time doing things like shopping for undies and tiny socks and church outfits with my "spare" time, and this is just the process I came up with!  So feel free to take what you can out of this and use whatever is helpful to you.

The first thing you should know is that you do not need to spend a fortune to create not only outfits, but entire wardrobes, and not just wardrobes, but coordinating wardrobes for multiple children.  It's funny, because the core of this solution is to buy less.  Be intentional and limit wardrobes to only what you need, and you can more easily coordinate your items and buy higher quality, fewer things.  And honestly, I think my process is simpler, less wasteful, and less expensive than the typical trickling-in style of shopping as you find things you like or need along the year.  In fact, for my almost-seven-year-old son, I have saved almost every article of clothing he has ever worn, and his clothing is just now filling up his third plastic bin in our attic.  Proper prior planning creates a look that not only shows off your best pieces and a clear style at a more affordable price, it also creates less stress because there are fewer choices for your child, and almost zero ways they can combine their clothes to make a hideous outfit.

The second thing you should know is that the process outlined below is not something to be practiced all the time, but done all at once to curate one central, cohesive collection.  When you define your collection and contain what can be in it to only what is actually needed, you can increase the quality and coordination of the items in it.

While there are many beautiful styles of children's clothing out there, and many of them *can* photograph well, here are some general guidelines for things that will photograph well.  And when I say "photograph well," what I mean is that they complement the child, not distract from him or her.

  • Try to stick to one style for all your children, or only add pieces that do not conflict with the main style.  The exception to this is that for children who love dress up, let them!
  • Eliminate all distractions from your main style and color palette.  Yes, even if it's cute/expensive/was a gift/etc.  (Unless it's sentimental, then of course, hang onto it, and find a special day for them to wear it.)
  • It's true what your school portrait photographer says: solid colors look great.
  • Start with the most bold pieces: things with large designs or beautiful textures, and design around those.
  • In general, avoid lots of text or large characters on clothing.
  • Although some people love it, I personally find clothing with lots of patterned patchwork distracting and busy. 
  • If you're planning on shooting video, tiny, thin ticking stripes can create a strange moire effect, which makes a wave-like pattern happen on screen that you don't see in real life.
  • Neon.  Don't go there.  Not unless you're riding bikes and need to be seen on the road.

My personal style choice for my kids is a combination of classic and mod, with bohemian touches.  I love solids, stripes, and anything bold, but I also refuse to compromise when it comes to natural fibers (no synthetics - no polyester).  I dislike ruffles, lace, frou-frou, etc.  Those things can photograph beautifully, if that goes with your style.  My photographic style tends toward the stark, so my clothing choices do as well.  And the two kind of go together.  Some people love frou-frou, and their style is super-feminine and twirly, and their photos and clothing go together to create a different effect.  So think about your photography style, think about your personal aesthetic in your own clothing choices, in the way you decorate your house.  How would you describe it?  I recommend coming up with 3 words, and try to put them in order.  For me, it would be classic, followed by modern, followed by bohemian.  (I had a heavy dose of crunchy influence after my first two were born, living in Tucson.  To this day, I'm attracted to natural items, natural toys, natural textures in everything I decorate with in my house, and most definitely all natural materials in my children's clothing.)

Once you've nailed down the style and general look you're going for, it's time to go shopping!  I do most of my shopping online, and the rest I do at consignment sales.  The pricing balances out in the end.  Some people refuse to shop secondhand, but I've always done it and see nothing wrong with it. I wash and sterilize all the clothes as soon as I get home.  To me, secondhand shopping is a way to reduce consumption and save the Earth.

FIRST STEP: PREPARE TO SHOP: Before you let the horse out of the gate, I want you to put the bridle on.  Before you open your browser, make a list of everything you need for each child.  If you do not make this list and stick to it, you WILL overspend and get carried away, because I am warning you, there are a lot of really cute clothes out there and your biggest enemy is your own weakness for all the cuteness!  We can't have all of the cuteness.  Only some of it.  (No one wants to have to pick from All of the cuteness every morning.)  A list will also make this system work, because in order to stick to a color palette (we'll talk about that below), you need to close the loop so you can decide what does & doesn't belong in your curated collection.  A list will help you stick to just what you need and make sure your budget allows you to buy the nicest things your budget allows.  In my book, better a few nice items than a dozen cheaper ones.  Think from the top down and inside out: underwear, socks, hats, whole outfits, tops, bottoms, and shoes.  And for all occasions: church, school, play, camping, and special occasions coming up.  Get all your shopping out of the way at once, then live your life!  I shop for everyone just twice a year, just before the weather turns.  After I'm done with everyone else, I find a way to go shopping alone for most of one day, for myself.  My list for the warm seasons usually looks something like this:

  • Son
    • 5 pairs shorts (4 leftover from last year still fit)
    • 6 t-shirts (8 leftover from last year still fit)
    • 3 sets PJs
    • 2 swim trunks
    • one church outfit
    • one set suspenders to go with sisters' dresses
    • one pair church shoes
    • two pair fisherman sandals (I buy two pairs at once, one in his current size, and another pair in a different style the next size up so I'm not shopping mid-fun-season with 3 hot, cranky kids for sandals when everything's already gone.)
  • Daughter
    • 4 dresses
    • 2 pair shorts (4 leftover from last year)
    • 3 shirts
    • 5 t-shirts
    • 1 nightgown
    • 3 one-piece outfits of some kind
    • 2 pair sandals (one must be white)
    • tennis shoes
    • 2 bathing suits
    • 1 church dress
    • socks
  • Baby
    • 6 outfits (4 leftover from sister that fit)
    • 2 x baby bathing suit
    • sun hat
  • Husband
    • blue golf shirt
    • medium white golf shirt
    • white socks
    • updated swim trunks
    • sunglasses
    • belt? Not sure - ask him

SECOND STEP: Check your kids' stash of stuff from the last time the weather was warm, wherever you may already have things on your list.  I have two systems going in my attic.  The first is called The Future Bin, and whenever we have clothes that aren't grown into yet, or aren't the right season yet, or are special items found on Etsy, passed down from friends, etc. - it goes in this bin until the right season and right size person converge at the same time.  Second, I have labeled bins of outgrown clothing for each child.  Now that I have my second girl, I simply open up the baby girl bin and go shopping for free.  Check off items from your list that you find in the stash of clothes you already have.

THIRD STEP: Let's SHOP!  I start with eco-conscious boutiques, especially work-from-home mamas, most of whom I find on Instagram.  If this isn't in your budget, skip to the next step.  These are expensive, but create beautiful handmade items you can pass down, and they are worth supporting.  No sweatshops here.  I generally only buy one or a few items per child here, partly because the supply and sizes are usually limited.  Some places I frequent are Mabo Kids, Hum Stitchery, and Zuzii Shoes.  Shopping at these kinds of places will give you a feel for what's newest and coming up in fashion, not only for kids, but the general aesthetic for adults as well.  These small artists and artisans are part of the first tier of influence when it comes to fashion development in today's new culture of up-ended, craft-minded, social media, eco-conscious, consumer-driven fashion design.  This may help drive what you buy in your next stop.

FOURTH STEP: Style-Focused Catalogs & Websites.  If this isn't in your budget, skip to the last step. Oh, there are so many!  Here are my favorites: Mini Boden, Hanna Andersson, Zara, and H&M.  I also occasionally use Tea Collection (I love their message!) and Target (I love their new Cat & Jack line!).  This is where you'll make the bulk of your decisions on color palettes, as you'll pretty quickly see what colors are in this season.  If you buy multiple coordinating outfits & pieces from these places, a color scheme can easily fall into place.  When I shop, I add everything I'm interested in to my shopping cart, then I separate all my browser windows and re-size them so I can see everything in my cart side-by-side.  This allows me to see what multiple kids' clothes look like together.  Then I delete out anything that doesn't go with everything else.  It's a fun little which-of-these-items-is-not-like-the-others game.  Before you jump all over me about the True Cost movie and the cost of "fast fashion" - listen.  I care.  I really do.  But I also have to live in the real world I'm planted in, and that means compromise.  I do my best to make, shop secondhand, and buy from conscious vendors.  But the world isn't a perfect place, and I've got to buy from somewhere.  I'm trying to be the change I want to see.  But I also need my kids to have a few changes of clothes.. it's a work in progress isn't it?  Just by following this consumption-limiting process, we are already reducing the clothing turnover.  And while I'm on the subject, you can recycle all old clothing and any cloth you would normally throw away by bringing it to any H&M store.  It's shredded and made into new items.

FIFTH STEP: Check off everything on your list you've already bought.  Now go fill in where the gaps are.  I do this at consignment sale events and consignment shops.  Some places, like Once Upon a Child, even organize every size by color of the rainbow, so it's super-easy to go put your finger on *exactly* the size and color you need.  If you plan to do the bulk of your shopping at a consignment event, bring a rolling rack with you.  Put everything you're interested in on the rack, then take off any misfit items at the end.  If you're not a Secondhand Rose, if thrifting just doesn't give you all the treasure-hunting thrills, then for online shopping, my favorite places to start are Primary (because whatever color you need, and whatever item, they have it!), and Old Navy (because they have a wide variety in colors, basic styles, and lots of stock for the whole family).  Amazon and eBay are my second-tier go-to's for filling in the gaps with the right colors.  Between those choices, you should have your list all checked off now!

A NOTE ON GETTING KIDS TO COOPERATE:  Basically, this system of shopping requires zero effort or patience from your kids.  Sometimes, I need to measure them.  I wait until they're asleep, then I sneak in their rooms with a tape measure and measure what I need.  I have measured for hats, shoes, rompers - everything.  Through years of trial and error with all the kids, I have found that the best time to do this is approximately 2 hours after they fall asleep for the night.  Sometimes, I need them to try on clothes when they come in the mail.  And honestly, I'm a totally lazy parent about this; I just bribe them with a penny or a sticker or hand stamp. If they're being super-resistant, I pull out all the stops and let them put on a temporary tattoo, especially if they have to try on multiple things.  I know, I know, don't bribe your kids, blah blah blah.  Look, I grew up in the '90s spending hours and hours and hours of my life in the mall.  I never want to put my kids through that.  So pennies it is!

The galleries below are actually from Spring 2015, so they are a little outdated (i.e. the teal and peach colors are now out), but what you should know about these photos of my kids' clothes is that every item shown in this blog post was homemade or secondhand.