How to Build an Interchangeable Wardrobe

by Antonio on November 14, 2013 · 29 comments

in Dress & Grooming, Style


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For the man with an unlimited budget, style is easy. The rest of us have to work a little harder to look good with the cash we have.

A key wardrobe concept for any man is interchangeability.

It sounds complicated and tedious, but it’s a very simple idea.

An interchangeable wardrobe is one with fewer specific pieces, but many possible clothing combinations.

That is to say, each piece you purchase works with the maximum number of other pieces, allowing you to mix and match in a variety of ways.

Building an interchangeable wardrobe isn’t a one-time project. You don’t just go out and buy one at the store. So treat this as a long-term goal, and in fact almost a mindset, rather than a quick fix for your look!

Work With What You Have – Check Your Current Closet

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Take an honest inventory of your existing style.

Look through your drawers and your closet and see what you have to work with, including the old pieces that you haven’t worn in a while. Some of those might be surprisingly easy to repurpose while others are destined for the thrift store or the trash heap.

Do a realistic assessment and adjust your existing wardrobe as needed:

  • Throw out the obvious losers. Anything that doesn’t fit (and can’t be adjusted to fit) needs to go, not just to the back of the closet but to the trash or a thrift store, so that you won’t be tempted to try to include it in an outfit someday. “What was I thinking?” pieces that you can’t bring yourself to wear with anything else in your wardrobe can probably also go — don’t fall for a “sunken costs” fallacy by wearing a bad style just because you bought it and it’s still in useable shape.
  • Pull anything that needs repairs or adjustments while you’re looking through your options. Make a pile and get it seen to — that way you take care of all of the “I should have someone fix that some day” tailoring jobs in one go. To be interchangeable, clothes have to be in decent repair. A frayed hem doesn’t go with anything!
  • Think about repurposed styles. Maybe you don’t wear an old suit anymore because the pants don’t fit — but if the jacket still fits, see if you can dress it down with jeans for an urban-casual look. A lot of pieces can have a second life as a funky accent once they’ve served their time as a wardrobe staple.

Be thinking about the common themes that tie your wardrobe together as you do this. Are there a lot of work clothes? Business dress items? Sports jackets?

The items and styles that you have a lot of will determine, to some extent, what you should be shopping for in the future. If the only shirts you own are T-shirts and flannel work shirts, for example, there’s no sense in running out and buying sharkskin wool slacks — they don’t go with any of your shirts.

In a case like that, a man would need to buy shirts to bridge the gap between his current wardrobe and his desired wardobe. Someone who’s starting with nothing but jeans and T-shirts, for example, can branch out into casual dress shirts that go with jeans — but that will also look fine with nicer trousers, should he choose to add them at some point.

Pick Your “Core” Items

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An interchangeable wardrobe is a lot easier to build when you’ve got a half-dozen to a dozen basic staple pieces that go with everything.

These aren’t necessarily exciting on their own, but they make you look good, and they serve as a neutral framework for more unique accent pieces.

Everyone’s core items are going to be a little different. That’ll be a part of defining your own personal style. But here are a few can’t-go-wrong staples that just about every man should consider owning for purposes of interchangeability:

  • A dark suit, navy or charcoal. I can’t think of a reason why any successful man shouldn’t own at least one well-fitted, timelessly classic suit.
  • A really solid pair of jeans. Sturdy, simple, and dark, with a nice close (but not tapered) fit.
  • A sport jacket made from a fabric that does not look like it comes from a suit. Brown, blue, olive, tan — in muted patterns are all options. Practice wearing it – you’ll learn to love what it does for your confidence and how it affects the attitude of others.
  • Five solid or small-patterned light-colored dress shirts (white and light blues). You could wear it with a suit for the most formal business setting imaginable, or you could wear it with jeans on a cattle ranch. It’ll work for pretty much everything in between, too. Now that’s versatility.
  • A lightweight, conservative (grey, navy, olive), solid-colored sweater. The quintessential layering item. Goes with everything. See what we mean about sweaters here.
  • At least two pairs of dress pants. Grey flannel, tan, medium-grey worsted wool, or khaki. A pair of well-fitted chinos or cords is a third option – but these are more casual, so make sure they suit your needs.
  • Two pairs of casual shoes. Pick your style (brogues, work shoes, dress boots, loafers, saddle shoes, etc.), but have ‘em. This is how you dress up jeans, or dress down nicer outfits. Click here for a refresher on footwear.

Are you getting the idea of interchangeability? Simple, sturdy, and functional are your key words here — styles and qualities that’ll last you for years.

Not everything has to be as plain as Amish country, mind you, even in the core wardrobe. Your “plain white dress shirt” can realistically be something with a light stripe or check pattern instead, if you prefer. It won’t serve for ultra-formal business dress, but it’ll do for everything else, and look a little more interesting in casual outfits.

Price can also be kept under control by thrifting or asking family for gifts/gently used items. I know men who have assembled all the above for less than $100. Read more about how to build a wardrobe inexpensively.

The goal is to build your core around things that will play nice with others, not to eliminate all uniqueness from your wardrobe staples.

The end result?

  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 3 trousers
  • 5 shirts
  • 2 jackets (we’ll double that navy suit as a blazer)

2 X 3 X 5 X 2 = 60 unique outfits from a simple wardrobe. 

Add in neckties, pocket squares, the suit, and sweater…we could turn this into 300+ outfits.

Expand the Core

There’s a difference between adding to your wardrobe and expanding it.

Expanding means you’re actually pushing the boundaries a little — moving into new styles and areas where you weren’t already strong. That’s how you take the existing core and “interchange” it (the goal here is interchangeability, remember?) into new looks without leaving it completely behind.

If your entire wardrobe is based on jeans and casual shirts, for example, you should be looking at things like sports jackets and blazers that can be worn with blue jeans. Once you have those, you’ll rapidly discover that they can be worn with nicer slacks as well — making those your next likely expansion. And so on.

It works both ways on the scale of formality, too — a guy with a high-paying job and a sharp wardrobe of suits, wool slacks, and crisp blazers can benefit by adding some casual trousers and some softer sports jackets to give him access to a more relaxed style.

Think of it as a game of leapfrog. Each new item should provide a springboard to new options, but it should work with the clothes you already have, too.

Create Uniqueness with Accent Pieces

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Let’s think about a completely neutral, ordinary outfit for a casual man: dark, fitted jeans and a white (or lightly patterned) dress shirt tucked in.

Generic, right?

But no man’s going to leave the house wearing just those two items. He’s also got his shoes and belt to pick, possibly a jacket, as well as any jewelry he wears (and hopefully undergarments of some kind).

Turns out those choices make a lot of difference. The same jeans and shirt are going to look very different paired with a broad brown belt and brown tooled-leather western boots than they would with black brogues, a slim black dress belt with a silver buckle, and a silver watch.

One outfit is rugged and “country,” the other is sleek and urban. That’s the power of accent pieces.

Use your choice of accents to turn your core wardrobe into a true personal style. Traditional accent pieces that you can play around with include:

  • Neckties (smooth, knit, bow, etc.)
  • Pocket squares (worn with any kind of sport/blazer/suit jacket)
  • Jewelry (wristwatches, tie clips/chains, rings, cufflinks, etc.)
  • Belts (plain, braided or stamped leather, cloth, decorative buckles, etc.)
  • Shoes (dress and casual leather, canvas, boots, etc.)
  • Outerwear (coats, hats, gloves, etc.)

These will be your primary tools for turning basic core items into a fully-functional wardrobe that expresses your personal style.

That said, there’s also room in everyone’s wardrobe for larger pieces that are too eye-grabbing or unique to really be “core” pieces. A pair of brightly-colored corduroys, for example, aren’t nearly as versatile as a pair of khakis, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever wear them. Just treat them as an accent, and pair them with some neutral core pieces so the whole outfit doesn’t get too overwhelming.

Most of your outfits will consist of a couple core pieces and a couple accent pieces. The more accents you add, the more unique the outfit gets. Learning not to overdo it is a valuable skill — if you’ve bought good core pieces, you don’t need to go overboard layering on top of them!

Invest in Quality

Fit - Fabric - Style - The Style Pyramid

Fit – Fabric – Style – The Style Pyramid

One of the most important wardrobe-building skills is knowing when to say “no.”

A single good piece of clothing that works with almost everything in your closet is worth more than two or three single-use items that you can only work into one or two outfits.

Focus on the style pyramid when you shop: the three priorities of fit, fabric, and style.

  • Fit is the most important characteristic of your clothing. If a piece doesn’t fit properly — comfortably close but not over-tight, with no pinching or sagging — it’s not going to make you look good, and it won’t work with the rest of your wardrobe. Only buy pieces that fit well, or that can be easily adjusted by a tailor.
  • Fabric the weight and thickness of the cloth matters! A smooth, heavy fabric will drape more naturally than a thin, cheap one. You also want to look for quality construction — there’s no sense in buying something that’s going to come apart at the seams in a year or two.
  • Style is your personal judgment of how well the piece in question will fit with the rest of your wardrobe. Don’t be afraid to add the occasional outlier or experiment — but make sure most of the things you’re purchasing are interchangeable with your core items.

Turn things down if they don’t pass all three of these tests. You want to be satisfied with the fit, the fabric, and the style. Something that suits your aesthetic tastes but doesn’t fit right, or isn’t made to your satisfaction, won’t ever become a good wardrobe addition. You’re better off holding out for something better.

How to Test Interchangeability

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This all might sound great in theory, but how does an interchangeable wardrobe work in practice?

Try this: pick a piece out of your wardrobe. Any core piece will do — a shirt, a jacket, a pair of trousers.

Now, think about another type of item that you wear with that piece. So if you’re looking at a shirt, think about jackets you might wear over it.

Do at least half of your options match? (So in the example of a shirt, do half your jackets go with it?)

If the answer is “no” — if there are really only one or two items that go with the piece you’re thinking about — it’s not that flexible.

That doesn’t mean you should throw a piece out, but it does mean it’s probably not a reliable core wardrobe staple. Use it as more of a statement piece, jazzing up otherwise neutral outfits from time to time.

Overall, you’re shooting for a wardrobe that’s about “half working with half” — in other words, about half your options should be neutral enough that any one of them would work with half the wardrobe.

If you can achieve that — and can slowly build a good collection of accents that speak to your own personal style — you’ll have interchangeability mastered.

Watch a Video Summary of This Post


Written By:
Antonio Centeno
Founder of Real Men Real Style
Creator of The Style System – a college-level course that teaches the foundations of professional dressing so you control the message your image sends.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Phillip November 14, 2013 at 7:36 pm

As a soon to be 43 year old I’ve spent the past couple years putting more effort into my wardrobe. Thinning things out, avoiding being one of those folks who just accumulates clothes that will probably not be worn.

Taking Antonio’s advice, I set out what I’m going to wear the night before. Also, I purchase less but better quality. I try to have durable stylish clothing. Here in Michigan, durable, comfortable winter wear is a must. Stormy Kromer hat to my Double H boots.

2 Ambrose Santiago November 14, 2013 at 9:11 pm

I’m 44 and about two months ago I finally decided that it was time to improve the way I dress and have noticed that my confidence is up because of my new attire, an added benefit of looking good is feeling good about yourself.

3 David November 14, 2013 at 10:39 pm

One thing that I’d like to add in the repairs or adjustments category. I don’t know if this has already been discussed on this website, but buy and learn to use a sewing machine. There are several varieties, and even a cheap one will do. If you don’t want to spend too much money, singer does some that are not too hard on the pocketbook, and pretty reliable. Also, buy and learn how to use a serger, if you can afford it. They are a little more expensive. I only have one because it was half price and I had run into a monetary windfall. (Actually, the monetary windfall had run into me with her Mustang while I was stopped. The damage was cosmetic and not too bad, and my car is a total piece anyway, so whats a small crack on the rear bumper? I spent the money on a new serger) They are great for shirts where the hem has started to come undone, and Singer makes one that goes for about $400. Every man should know how to sew his own clothes. After all, are you going to rely on someone else to clean and gut your fish for you? No, you are a man and therefore self reliant, and a sewing machine lets you be even more so.

4 Jef November 15, 2013 at 2:28 am

I don’t know if I can link to other sites here, but I have been looking at for inspiration about style. I think men often need examples (while women work more with intuition), so a look-book is always great!

5 Phil Demeter November 15, 2013 at 5:10 am

Ambrose Santiago is right. At my job we only have to wear business casual. I started adding ties and nicer shoes and the accent pieces to make it all come together. I was amazed at how much better I felt going on sales calls and also the compliments I received from the others in the office.

6 Paul d'Aramitz November 15, 2013 at 5:44 am

Great article.

I’ve always been the guy who pays attention to his wardrobe, though ever since reading John Bridges’ How to Be a Gentleman a couple of years back, I’ve gone from the typical casual, yet good-looking wardrobe, to a more ethereally classical and sartorial style, and I doubt I’ll ever change it.

I probably have a dozen or so jackets, two overcoats, a dozen pairs of shoes, a mountain of trousers, shirts, belts, ties, etc, and several sweaters, jumpers, waistcoats, et al. All those items provide endless combinations, some of which I’m still discovering today.

I’m frequently asked by friends ‘when did you get [item]? It looks great!’, but I’ve actually owned it for months. All it takes is some swapping around various accessories- sometimes something as little as a shirt, or a different colour of belt and shoes.

7 Kenny November 15, 2013 at 6:57 am

It’s so hot during the year here in Phoenix, AZ. It makes it hard to wear anything other than shorts and tees. I’m a welder by trade, so even my “professional attire” looks like crap. Any advice? Also, we have a very shed-y dog, so anything that gets sat down n will instantly have fur on it.

8 Root Bizzle November 15, 2013 at 7:02 am

Good article. Also, there are lots of online subscription services that let you “rent” clothing, which is another way to have a diverse wardrobe without buying a lot of items or filling up a small closet.

9 Jason Gaines November 15, 2013 at 7:07 am

Good post. A lot of these posts on “fashion” are not applicable to some folks. I agree it pays to look nice, especially if you’re in a professional office setting but if I were to show up on the pistol range in a tie and/or sport jacket it wouldn’t necessarily convey power, charisma, or proper fashion.

Aside from that, I do appreciate all the effort put into this and the core concept of not looking like a slob is applicable.

10 Beemo November 15, 2013 at 8:08 am

You should take account of the people that exercise their 2nd Amendment right, in short those that carry x)
and give us options too

anyway great article as per usual

11 Beemo November 15, 2013 at 8:11 am

here’s a nice blog if you need inspiration, check out “”
it has descriptive info on what outfit was worn in movies and such, pretty neat

12 Alexander November 15, 2013 at 8:38 am

I’ve recently struggled with my wardrobe quite a bit (ripped the elbows out of almost 30 dress shirts since 2011). Definitely appreciate the pointers Antonio – interchangeability seems like the way to go. Too many of my pieces don’t work well together. As well, although it sucks to drop the cash, I’m learning more and more that you might as well spend the $$ on custom MTM if the generic won’t last. Being of an athletic build (trim waist and larger than normal chest and arms) has been really tough in light of the new way men are “supposed” to look (i.e. super skinny….yuck) according the fit of all these clothes being made today. I don’t like anything to be baggy, but so much of the stuff being made today (BR, Jcrew, etc. etc.) is just ridiculously tight, and I know I’m not the only guy who suffers from this problem (tearing these clothes to shreds!).

13 Jeremy Anderberg November 15, 2013 at 8:44 am

@ Beemo — Antonio wrote an article for us on style and concealed carry just about a year ago. Check it out:

14 Bryan November 15, 2013 at 8:52 am

Like a lot of guys, I suck at trying to figure out what colors “go” together. As a male, frankly, I don’t care, but since half the population (the ladies) do apparently think it matters, and since their opinion is worth a lot more, I’m trying to get it down.
Is there an article on this site or elsewhere that would be a man’s guide to making sure the colors don’t clash?

15 Charles in Florida November 15, 2013 at 9:11 am

This is a great site…so helpful! I’m an older man, retired,72, who still likes to dress well, timely, and stylishly. The tips and advice are wonderful, very informative, and helpful. Let’s all keep dressing well. Trust me, it does make a difference!

16 Beemo November 15, 2013 at 9:23 am

@Jeremy Anderberg:
I know, great article too, but a lot happened in 1 year in the gun-world

anyway, i carry different handguns (and concealed SBRs/long guns), including my on duty carries
I had to change the way I pick my clothes from old skool leather IWB holster to my current love, the HSP/G-Code INCOG
not to mention my 4 mags mag-carrier…

I challenge you to try and dress sharp with all that x)

17 Dave November 15, 2013 at 10:24 am

This article is great. My wife wants to know where she can find similar advice for a woman. She is not in the professional workforce, so the articles on how to dress “professionally” are not helpful. She wants a classic feminine style, not business attire.

1000 points to the fellow reader who can point me to that!

18 Jeff November 15, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Never underestimate how what you wear affects the way folks interact with you. Nothing underscored this more than when I used to throw darts pretty competitively. Some of the pros that I got to know began to chide me about my jeans and t-shirt approach, so one tournament I took their advice to the letter: comfortable black shoes, black trousers and a collared pol shirt. That was it. I played average for me, but did better–what drove it home was one match. I shot spectacularly (for me) in the first leg and after that it was clear my opponent had given up. Overheard him walking away, “eff’n pros”.

Never wore jeans and a t-shirt to tourney again.

19 David November 15, 2013 at 1:44 pm

I’m a 28-yr old dad with two young kinds, and I work in a white collar environment (investment advisor), so my clothes get messy pretty quickly just by virtue of being a dad. So I have to regularly replace my dress pants and shirts (usually once a year). Also, being young, I’m not on the wealthy end of the spectrum. What I’ve found is that Nordstrom Rack is the best place for finding good clothing at a steep discount. I bought a $65 vest for $13, an $800 Hugo Boss suit for $300. Dress pants that are normally $80 or $90 can found for $30. If you have a Rack nearby, I would highly recommend stopping in and checking it out. Doesn’t work for my outdoor lifestyle (hunting/fishing), but gets the job done for looking good at work or on dates with the wife.

20 Elf M. Sternberg November 15, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Just one thing missing: underclothes. I would never presume to tell someone how to shop for underwear, but socks and undershirts, yes. Buy your socks in one style, in bulk, and never worry about pairing them ever again. Don’t have mixed sock groups. When they start to go, throw them all out and start over. A bag of seven pairs of goldtoes isn’t that expensive.

And for undershirts, well, I work in the IT industry. For years, my undershirts were things given to be by various tech companies. When I started dressing better, I replaced them with nicer, real undershirts– first Calvin Klein (which actually makes a pretty nice bamboo-cotton variety), later with Tommy John (and yes, those are indeed completely worth it).

21 Elf M. Sternberg November 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm

If you’ve never experimented with a sportcoat, you can do it on the cheap– any thrift store will have dozens, and a few will fit, and a few will look good, and one or two will qualify as both. Spend $10, buy it, and wear it for a few days. When the barista starts calling you ‘sir’ and treating you with some respect, you’ll understand the power of the sportcoat.

22 Jeremy Trice November 17, 2013 at 12:04 am

Thrift stores like the goodwill are great places to find cloths. I have gotten plenty of name brand like new shirts, trousers, sweaters, sport coats, etc for next to nothing!

23 Scott Englishman November 17, 2013 at 12:52 pm

I agree with Jeremy Trice and Elf M.Sternberg’s comments above. I am on a budget and have found that the salvation army is an indispensable tool for the savvy dresser/shopper. I have been able to increase both the versatility and quality or my wardrobe for a pittance. name brand, high quality garments for the price of a single pair of trousers.
my most recent trip rewarded me with the following items, all under 5$ each and in like new condition with no stains, tears or rips, basically of the rack at the retailer condition.
Trousers: Haggar dark brown dress slacks (immaculate fit and quality) 2.99, levis 559 dark denim jeans ( fit is fantastic and look great) 2.99, Calvin Klein black slacks , again great fit and outstanding quality, perfect for more formal dress 1.99, Stafford charcoal colored slacks, 1.99, Calvin klein Coffee colored cords ( thicker cord, but excellent fit and very comfy and warm, perfect for autumn,1.99, Banana republic “smithfield” cords, very fine cords, fit is on point, many compliments, more formal than the CK’s (also coffee colored, but lighter than CK),
Gap grey wool vest, thin but warm, great with any button down, v-neck to show of a smart tie with the right knot. 0.99$ (this is a staple item in my wardrobe now, everything looks great and if the shirt is slightly wrinkled hides it well, a must have)
banana republic Grey turtle neck, say what you want, turtle necks are great with a sweater and keep out drafts on brisk days. 1.99
CK Grey cotton button down. light grey,( paired with gap vest and tie, smart and fresh. many compliments on the combo)
Am. Eagle Blue/white striped button down with white collar/cuffs, very fine lined striped, more casual but easily dressed up 0.99$
Aeropostal grey wool blazer, ( deep plum silk lining) 2.99, this jacket, plus gap vest and any light shirt are a go to for me. MY accent piece is a vintage grey/black wool fedora with matching silk lining. (coincidence there and a fortuitous one)

all i all I think i spent around 40$ or so for above mentioned items plus some other items i cant recall ( i got about 15-20 pieces or so, so 2$/item)
I follow the tips from this and other AOM articles and have found my look and confidence have increased tremendously. I have to wear shitty polos for work and when i wear any combo of the above mentioned pieces i am treated remarkable better by management and customers etc. MY co-workers (mostly female) are astounded by how i “clean up” and cannot believe the outfits i pull off are under 30$ sans shoes. I always shop with interchangeability in mind as i have limited space and funds.
I encourage all readers to check their local Salvation army for bargain finds, the prices are ridiculously low and any piece that isn’t up to snuff can be donated or handed down to friends and family without feeling guilty bout a loss of investment. I’d post pics if i could, you’d be amazed by what you find. Also i find silk ties for a buck! $1.00!! clean and fresh too. i now have great accents and functional pieces that rival many bought new items and i find i wear them more often in more varied setting since the cost is so low i can afford to replace anything that is damaged or stained by inconsiderate bar patrons and general public.
ALso, Salvation Army is totally non profit and nearly all sales (say 97% of income) go directly to the needy. Goodwill is for profit and makes money off the backs of underpaid employees while the CEO makes 6 figures off your donations (ie free merch) why support that. helping out less fortunate individuals is something i consider a hallmark of gentlemanly character and you gain a quality wardrobe and new found confidence in your style for next to nothing. You wont be disappointed. Final note, make sure you check the garment for any stains marks or damages. no returns or exchanges but really if you buy something on a whim and it doesn’t work out, consider the cost a donation to the needy, Happy hunting gentlemen

24 Native Son November 17, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Excellent article.
Many years ago, I ran across an uncle’s “Bluejackets Manual” from WWII. Funny thing was that there was a uniform list for Navy Chief Petty Officers that amounted to a navy blue suit, a tan suit, white and tan shirts, and black shoes. In other words, the ‘classic basics” needing only accessories and from literally 70 years ago.

25 Parker November 18, 2013 at 4:21 pm

I think it’s very important to build a great wardrobe. Making a wardrobe out of staples that play well together is a skill that every man should acquire. I think taking care of these items is crucial as well. If you buy some nice shoes, keeping them nice will make them an investment in the future.

26 ryan December 1, 2013 at 10:09 pm

I noticed there are a lot of options for being in public when the temperature is nice or even cold. What about when I’m at home on the couch, or when it’s 110 degrees outside? I’m in AZ. What do you suggest for those situations?

27 Milly Shinsky December 8, 2013 at 1:40 am

Tammy this a wonderful blog post! It is so nice when persons appreciate all that you do.

28 Tyler December 12, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Something I’d be interested in would be a discussion of styling for the colorblind man. Since this afflicts around 10% of us, I know I’m not alone in being very unsure about anything in my wardrobe except blue.

29 Keaton February 6, 2014 at 3:07 pm

I’m 17 yrs old. Earlier this year I really started taking AoM’s suggestions seriously. I used to dress like my peers; wearing mesh shorts year-round and cycling through perhaps twenty or thirty favority t-shirts.
Since then I’ve gotten several nicely fitted suits, colored cordoruys, sweaters, plenty of dress shirts, etc. I frequently wear self-tied bow ties, and I get compliments all the time. I feel much more confident interacting with others. Thank you AoM!

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