Cultivating a Sense of Personal Style

Ramona, who may have thought I would just think she was being cute, asked this yesterday,

Once again I am reminded how utterly shoe-clueless I am. I saw oxfords all over the place when browsing for a fall casual shoe last weekend and thought, “How frumpy. Auntie Peacebang would not approve.” Lo and behold – you do.” Are there guidelines that can be learned so I can distinguish frump from stylish? Or is it something you’re gifted with?

Ramona my pigeon,that is a good and worthy question.

Style is nothing more than having an artist’s sense of intention about creating something of beauty or interest or impact, using yourself as the medium.

Style can be beautiful, pretty, dramatic, shocking, erotic, and many other things. Whatever it is, it is mindful. It is intentional. It is knowing. The stylish person knows a few things:

1. What they love.
2. What kind of impact they want to create with their apparel, accessories and personal grooming.
3. How to use fashion to communicate their inner vision of who they are.

One gal may want to adorn herself in thrift shop finds, rock a choppy haircut and ripped stockings, and create an image of sexy rebel. She has style.

Style is different from taste.

One man may want to wear a perfect pair of jeans, a black turtleneck and serious black spectacles every day, making sure that his hair is always impeccably shorn as short as possible. He wants to convey cleanliness, efficiency, and almost militaristic self-discipline. He has style.

Another person may want to make choices about subverting gender expectations in dress by wearing fitted suits that have both masculine and feminine elements, cutting their hair very short in a traditionally masculine style, wearing smudgy eye shadow and bold lipstick, and men’s oxfords and hats. That’s a person with a style. (And P.S., that’s a personal style that takes a lot of commitment to maintain)

Style is about making of oneself a work of art.
It is about seeing clothing not just as pieces of cloth that cover our bodies, but as materials by which we create a whole “look,” head-to-toe. Having style means never going into the store and saying, “Yea, this is a nice color and it fits, I’ll buy it” but asking, “What overall vision do I have of myself? How do I want to feel when I step out of the house each morning? Does this garment not only literally ‘fit’ my figure but does it fit my vision of myself? How does it work with other items in my closet? Where will I wear this, and WHY will I wear it?”

People with a great sense of style are keen observers of human culture. They cultivate a sense of aesthetic and design. I am convinced that one reason pastors are typically so frumpy is that they hardly ever GO anywhere or look at anything but the Bible and the interior of churches and hospitals. They are visually impoverished and culturally self-limiting. This is especially true of white suburbanites, if I may be so bold — people who live in lands of strip malls and who would consider it an inconceivable waste of time to visit a museum or to look at a fashion magazine. Yet we should. We all should open our eyes. One of the reasons I am so deeply offended by sloppy, thoughtless, dead-looking attire on clergy is that it indicates a deadness to life itself, and to creation.

I noticed the oxford trend last summer in London. As so many fashion trends begin, it was young working women who were the first adopters. They paired oxfords with skinny jeans, skirts, and dresses. It’s not a sophisticated look and not even flattering, but it took off like wild fire because oxfords are comfortable, they’re sassy, they’re a natural extension of the whole “boyfriend” look that became popular about five years ago (“boyfriend sweaters,” “boyfriend blazers” “boyfriend shirts,” etc.), and they were a perfect orthopedic balance to the super high heels and platforms that are de rigeur among the fashionistas. I knew they’d appear in the U.S. in short order, and they did.

To a certain extent, the fashion industry dictates trends. They decide to make a certain look “happen” and they succeed. Yet far more often it is the guy and gal on the street who start a trend, and the fashion industry that spots it and popularizes it. We should never be so arrogant as to poo-poo the fashion industry as a bunch of Macchiavellian taste-makers who are trying to brainwash us into spending our money on ugly clothes. I get so frustrated when I see terribly-dressed women — women with zero sense of personal style — carry on about how proud they are for not falling into the clutches of fashion marketing. The fashion industry is a first responder to the natural, organic expression of personal style and beauty that comes from (mostly) young people in playgrounds, schools, the streets, the arts, the fields, and the factories. The fashion industry observes, identifies and then translates into wearable art the things they see in these many environments, and in nature and technology.

By the time these designs and trends filter down to you and me, they’re coming in fairly prosaic form. A skirt. A sweater. A jacket. Developing a sense of style isn’t something that only artistic or fashion-y type folks can do. Anyone can do it. It starts with a sense of playfulness, curiosity and creativity. Start by taking everything out of your closet and asking yourself, “What does this say? Why would I wear this? What else can I wear with it?”

A few ideas for cultivating a sense of personal style:

1. Collect magazines. Cut out and make collages of people who seem interesting and compelling to you. What are they wearing? How do they carry themselves? What about them inspires you to pay more attention to your own look?

2. Walk through the stores with no intention to buy. Treat the outing as you would a museum visit. Just look. See how the mannequins are styled. Don’t judge. This isn’t about whether or not you could wear something, or even if you like the outfits. Just look. Educate your eye. Make note of things you love. Be curious about the things you hate. BANISH all thoughts of “I could never wear that style” or “That color isn’t my color” from your mind. Those thoughts are the murderers of personal style.

3. Go to the library and spend some time with old issues of fashion magazines. Try some more highbrow (“W” or “Vogue”) and some for more ordinary fashion (“In Style” or “Real Simple” “GQ”). Just look. Educate your eye. You cannot develop a personal aesthetic if you’re ignorant of the basic language of fashion. Until you become conversant with that basic language you are at the mercy of the retailers. Make them work for you, not vice versa. Retailers are counting on you not knowing quite what you want to look like, and consequently buying clothing from an insecure and uninformed place. That’s how they get you back the next week combing the racks for something that will actually feel right.

4. At least once a week, put real thought into your head-to-toe look, including outerwear and bag. From undergarment to accessories, what are you wearing? Why? How does it all make you feel? If you put together an outfit that makes you feel fabulous, take a photo of it. If you don’t feel fabulous and interesting and like your most compelling self, what would it take to get there? Have no idea? Ask a friend to help.

5. Borrow or purchase one accessory that you really like but wouldn’t ordinarily wear, and wear it.
A sparkly necklace. A bright purple tie. A pair of red oxfords. Wear this accessory a few times during the week. Make it your signature piece or item. See how it makes you feel to include it in your outfit. This is a fantastic exercise in getting you to move slowly out of your comfort zone. I do this frequently with accessories I already own, and it’s always a creative lift. Like, I have scarves that I buy during travels and never wear for years. I hang them in my closet as art, and then during this exercise I force myself to choose one and wear it. It’s a treat.

6. Tone one thing down and snap one thing up.

For example, if you think your bright blue fingernails are zippy, get a neutral manicure and move the drama somewhere else, like your lipstick. Move around your “snappy” focal point on a regular basis. You may be in a rut and not even know it. So many times women think they’re really making a statement with one slightly dramatic styling choice, but what they’ve done (for example) is added blue fingernails to sweatshirts and jeans. That’s not a dramatic styling choice. It’s blue nails. Know what I mean? Blue fingernails is not fashion. Neither is a pink stripe in your hair. Neither is striped socks. Style is a head-to-toe proposition. One detail or accessory does not do all that heavy lifting, but it’s perfectly fine to take out that pair of insane shoes or that amazing belt and use it as the basis of your whole outfit.

7. Know who you are and what you want to say. This first. Proceed from there. Say it with beauty, with pizzaz, and with elegance.

Thanks for asking, Ramona!

15 Replies to “Cultivating a Sense of Personal Style”

  1. Yes especially on #6. Until reading that, I’d never been able to spell out what quite made me uncomfortable with the people who kept one single fashion quirk – cute different socks every day on a person otherwise doing nothing with her/himself, funky mani/pedis on someone with nothing else polished about his/her look, a colored stripe in the hair – things like this done and maintained for years and years?? I totally understand the mindset and expression of it and think that is great! but I think the reminder here to change around the snappy focal point from time to time is important!

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! This represents all of what is good in what we do. We all work hard to make our liturgies work well on a Sunday morning. We care for our vestments and books, why not look after our appearance as well.

    I shall print and refer to this checklist often, as it will be a great reminder of how not to get stuck in a rut. I put on my ankle boots from last year with a pair of tailored jeans, a clergy shirt and a blazer and felt amazing. Had a cute corduroy cap that I wore ‘cos it was chilly this morning on the way to my meeting and received many compliments on how “effortless” the look was.

    And you, dear Auntie PB, deserve the credit. Thank you for showing me how to be confident. *kiss of peace*

  3. A shoe update from Los Angeles: I see many folks in the entertainment industry and on the street in comfy shoes for everyday wear. Big trends in L.A. the last couple of years have been short leather boots with slim pants tucked in and driving mocs or loafers with just about everything. Not many oxfords seen here. Nice and comfy driving mocs, loafers, and ballet flats in all kinds of colors by nearly every designer are available in a broad price range. I personally like the driving mocs by Cole Haan with Nike Air technology. Available this season in the usual black, as well as red, purple suede, and a 2-tone metallic. [Thanks for being our West Coast correspondent! – PB]

  4. I loved the question and the column. Thanks! Re: #2 – when I was a kid and my parents and I found ourselves living in “austerity” mode, my mother, who taught me to love clothes and care deeply about how I present myself, and I would go “shopping for ideas.” We’d go through the mall looking at everything and then go home and “shop” the clothes in our closet by trying new pairings and combinations.

  5. Actually, I really was asking – not trying to be cute. I simply don’t understand shoes – what makes one pair cute and the next frumpy when to me they look to be pretty much the same style. I’m trying. I’ve done more shoe shopping in the last year than I have in the previous ten – looking, comparing, trying to decide what I like and what I don’t , and if what I like is frumpy. I still don’t get shoes, but I’ll keep trying. Your check list is a relief – it’s good to know this is something I can learn.

  6. I’m with you, Ramona. I’m so glad you asked your question and that Peacebang took it seriously and answered. Style is something I want to get, but I just don’t. Not yet anyway, but I keep working on it. Recently I thought I had really put together a great, professional outfit – grey pencil skirt, black microfiber tank, blue and white patterned blazer, and a low black heel. Then I found out that my mary-jane heels in patent leather communicate something different from plain leather without the strap. Who knew? Right now what I lack is the third element of style: knowing “how to use fashion to communicate their inner vision of who they are.” Some days I think I just need Garanimals for adults!

  7. Another place to observe style is standing in line for a cultural event. It’s interesting to see who’s dressed in safe, appropriate taste (but not headline-grabbing), who’s making a look work without spending a lot of money, and who should have taken an extra minute or two to “represent.” Last summer I spent an hour standing in line for the final day of a much-publicized art exhibit, and by checking out the multi-ethnic, teen-to-senior crowd, gathered a lot of information about stylish dressing for hot weather. I learned: 1) It’s worth a few bucks to get light-weight slacks hemmed to the right length; 2) There are ways to make comfy shoes work without destroying the line of the outfit; 3) Monochromatic with a pop of color looks good on a wide variety of people.

  8. I never miss reading Beauty Tips for Ministers, and I especially loved this post. Yes, yes, yes–we can all make ourselves works of art, and how glorious it is when we do.

  9. Remind me again about how to send you a picture. A young colleague of mine was rocking a fabulous outfit on Sunday.

  10. I’ve had the chance to spend some great time in the city lately, and it has just awakened to me how fashion dead most of the world I revolve in has been. This post drove me straight to Pinterest to browse what people are posting these days. (I find Pinterest to be dominated by an uber-casual style that is much more about the perfect size 2, 23 year old body underneath than the actual clothes or fashion, but it is still fun) I’m still WAY new to this, but I have taken the role of observer and since this post went up I have been walking around with new categories. I scan a crowd and see “style, not taste,” “taste and style,” or even occasionally “taste, not style.” [Oh, fun!!! Yes, sweetheart, we live in a fashion-dead part of the world. There is very little sense of personal aesthetic beyond Red Sox baseball caps. I despair sometimes. It’s so dull. It’s so un-alive. – PB]

  11. I’ve been pondering on this, and I think part of the key of your whole post was encapsulated in this sentence:

    (And P.S., that’s a personal style that takes a lot of commitment to maintain)

    Don’t you think that is part of what holds back the most style-phobic of us? The idea of incongruous style. For those of us in ministry, we are usually adding to our wardrobe with such agonizing infrequency that the slow evolution of style over time is really challenging.

    I can remember as I started growing my grown up wardrobe and I would buy a piece that just seemed so totally out of place in my closet and it would just SIT. Even if I found a great structured piece, the idea that it might have a place in my jeans and sweaters- dresses on Sunday wardrobe was really unfathomable, but slowly, it happened.

    And let’s face it, some of us are just self-conscious and we need to get over it!

  12. Wonderful post, useful to all! I started reading when I was a young(er), part-time, non-ordained religious professional and have never stopped, though my career path has changed. I recently moved jobs from a nonprofit contemporary art gallery to a small private school and it’s really fascinating how that has affected my style. Things I thought to be nondescript–compared to artists and curators at least–really stand out around comfortably dressed teachers and parents.

    I do get a little bit judgy at church these days (JUST a little, see further), which is funny because growing up UU I LOVED that we could be super-casual going to church. Now I look at Jr & High schoolers doing pieces of the service and wish they’d just bothered with a collar, or to switch out the old sweatpants. I’ll be a Coming of Age mentor to one this year, I will do my best without being too pushy.

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