Studying the Science of Clothes

Jenny Cathcart speaks to Clothesology expert Alma McManus

What is Clothesology?

‘The science of clothes,’ explains Alma McManus, who studied design and pattern making for a degree-equivalent qualification in Clothing Studies at Belfast Technical College. McManus founded her Enniskillen-based business to advise men and women what to wear.

If ever a lady has discovered her true vocation it is McManus who started making clothes for her dolls and then, as a teenager, progressed to working on the family Singer sewing machine, the old fashioned treadle type.

She made clothes for herself, her brother and her six sisters. ‘It was a matter of necessity in such a large family,’ says McManus. ‘We lived in Lisnaskea but my mother shopped for fabric in the street market in Enniskillen and I made skirts and trousers for school and planned a new outfit for each of us at Easter.

'Apart from that it was hand-me-downs. One of my earliest memories was sitting up until 3am sewing a shroud for a neighbour's child who had sadly died.’

McManus describes her excitement when she first arrived in her college workroom, a large loft space with row upon row of sewing machines, switches of cloth and an atmosphere that held the promise of a glamorous career in the rag trade.

In her student days, McManus experimented with her own 'look', creating distinctive outfits for herself; a shocking pink jacket, a saffron yellow sari, matched with equally flamboyant shoes budgeted from her student grant. Arriving home in Lisnaskea on a Friday evening her mother would look at her latest ‘mad creation’ and ask her what she had brought home to wear to mass on Sunday.

In 1987, McManus was appointed to her first paid job as sample-room manager with Cooneen Textiles, a childrenswear factory in Fivemiletown. Women who worked in the office wore a uniform of pleated skirts and prim blouses and McManus felt obliged to conform.

To attend meetings she bought her first suit in regulation navy with a straight skirt. But she never felt comfortable in it for it was just not her style. Thus McManus discovered how it felt to be at odds with her own creativity wearing the wrong garment.

She believes that each of us has an innate ability to know what suits us for we manifested it naturally when we were children dressing up for fun. McManus differentiates between the ‘makeover’, which is image, and ‘style’, which is the true expression of our inner being.

From the start it was obvious that McManus was cut out for a career in fashion. It is her unique combination of talents that has led to where she is today.

She is tall and slim, confident, loquacious and naturally elegant. A perfectionist and a people person, outgoing, she is interested in what makes other people tick. Add to that her obvious desire to help people make the most of their potential and you have the driving force behind Clothesology.

The primary aim of Clothesology is to help men and women rediscover their basic instinct for dressing well in order to become confident, poised and powerful.

‘We can reach a point where we are so sure of our own personalities and our wardrobe that we can get up in the morning, know how we feel and dress perfectly,’ says McManus, who has some pet hates when it comes to fashion outlets.

Among these are the Bratz stalls and Bratz movies promoting 'trendy' Bratz Babyz clothes which encourage little girls to dress like teenagers. McManus also feels that some small, privately-owned clothes shops can be careless of what really suits their clients. It is most beneficial to both client and shop owner if the customer is ultimately satisfied.

According to Alma, Marks and Spencer were enlightened when they employed her as their in-store stylist during the launch of their new store in Bangor, Co Down.

‘I was on the floor advising women what to buy and many of them were so pleased to have good advice and so delighted to find someone who was genuinely interested in their personal style that they would have been keen to see me back in the store on a regular basis.’

Established in 2000, Clothesology has flourished through word of mouth, referrals from the Clothesology website, articles in the press and a spot on Radio Ulster`s morning magazine programme when the producer invited McManus to purchase three outfits for less than £100.

McManus understands that both men and women can neglect their wardrobe when they have other priorities like children, a mortgage or a busy job but ultimately she believes everyone needs to feel groomed, confident and at ease in what they wear and, with careful shopping, it is possible to achieve this on a limited budget.

‘No matter what your business,' warns McManus, ‘Appearances count, and you only get one chance to make a first impression.’

Clothesology offers day-long workshops where up to eight women gather at McManus' studio or another neutral venue, bringing with them some or all of the items in their wardrobe. The morning is spent on basic theory beginning with a general study of shape, proportion and colouring.

The afternoon is dressing up time. Each lady in turn braves the catwalk to have her outfit discussed by McManus and the other women. Alma believes this benefits both the lady in question and the entire group. By the end of the day each woman will have a YES pile and a NO pile of clothes.

In a one-to-one service Alma helps her client develop a style statement defining the shape, cut and colour which best suits him or her. A wardrobe audit discards the little-worn items, often one-off purchases that may have been a sale bargain but do not match up with other garments.

McManus affirms that most people wear 20% of their clothes 80% of the time so it is wise to make ‘investment’ purchases which will be worn. The next step in the Clothosology path to perfection is a shopping day on an established budget.

One of McManus' primary rules is that each purchase should match three other items in the client`s wardrobe. 'Capsule wardrobing' means buying a basic suit and then building different combinations around it such as a tee shirt for daytime, a top for evening wear and a range of interchangeable accessories.

Clients come to Clothesology when they need advice for special occasions like weddings, interviews, church and social evenings, while hourly clothing reviews are available at £40 per hour. McManus has a small male clientèle. In general she finds that men buy jackets that are too big and trousers which are too tight or too short.

When dressing herself, Alma has a penchant for Italian tailored clothes and designer labels like Max Mara.

‘When a woman puts on clothes which are right for her, her posture improves, she lifts her shoulders back and her chest out. Her inner self is aligned with her outward appearance and she is in her power.’