Seeking a Personal Style

For some, a personal style isn’t something they’ve had to think about, or take much time or energy to craft. Some people just get it, and they got it at an early age. If you aren’t one of these people, you likely had at least one or two friends who were like this. You know who I’m talking about: the girl who showed up at school looking amazing and avant-garde in an outfit you never in a million years would have thought would look good.

Maybe you had a uniform in high school; if you didn’t, it was easy enough to follow the trends and squeak by feeling relatively with it. In college, if you weren’t into clothes, or simply didn’t know where to start, you could blend in perfectly well with jeans, a school sweatshirt, and a ponytail.  And, just think of all the professions that allow you to avoid choosing a style: working from home (jammies), police, medical, or emergency professions (uniforms), generic office work (unofficial “uniform” of dress pants, blazers, button-downs). Many offices also have a restrictive dress code that many find restricting but others may find to be somewhat of a relief.

The ability to externally express oneself doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and the advice out there for finding your personal style is frustrating in its assumption that this is an easy task. As you can see, those of us (yes, I am picking a side) who aren’t born self-stylists are able to coast pretty well without really having to develop this skill. That’s what makes it so challenging to start working on it later in life. (Say, in your late twenties.) Just as it’s harder to learn how to ski or pick up a new language the older you get, trying to cultivate a personal style can feel awkward, foreign, or just plain forced.

While I don’t have any earth-shattering advice, it was simple and easy enough for me. And it worked. My friends pretty much threw a little party the first time I showed up in a pair of moderately stylish boots last year. I got two offers to go shopping with friends who were thrilled to see that I was taking an interest in fashion. All over a pair of boots that I bought for $20 at Payless.

As incredibly stupid, obvious, and dorky-sounding it is, what worked for me when I took my first baby step was making a short list of celebrities off the top of my head that I

Stylish blond woman wearing a tweed hat
Tweed: not just for nerds anymore

 thought dressed well. I tried to avoid the over-styled celebs that you know don’t pick out any of their own clothes. When I looked at my list, I realized they were relatively minor celebrities, and more than half of them were British. A few clicks through Google images and Getty showed me that I seem to favor a kind of tweedy look that is exactly as nerdy as it sounds. But it was a start! This short little exercise led me to buy those boots, which gave me the confidence I needed to keep trying new things.

Rule number two is to forget designers. This may be a horrifying thought to stylish folk, but for those of us just starting out it is a waste of money and energy to get wrapped up in the intimidating world of designers. You could go to a store like Forever 21 that makes trendy clothes for cheap. You could shop online at discount sites to get the brands you want for a lower price. You could go to nice but mid-level stores like JCrew, Banana Republic, and the like. They’re just expensive enough to make you feel like you’re treating yourself, but they’ll never charge you thousands of dollars for a purse that their PR people forced upon the world. As long as the clothes are made well enough for your needs, and they make you feel pretty, then buy them.

Next, take a look at your closet (and, if you live in a tiny place like I do, your under-bed storage bins as well). What worn out sweaters, ill-fitting pants, or outdated shoes and accessories have you been holding on to? And more importantly, why? Everyone needs to keep those comfy, Sunday-afternoon who-gives-a-crap outfits, but if that’s your rationale for keeping every frumpy clothing item you’re going to still have a closet full of unstylish clothes. I did this for years, but was finally able to whittle down my chunky sweaters and corduroy pants to a much smaller, more manageable number. And, while I hope it goes without saying, you should donate all clothing that isn’t stained or damaged to the Salvation Army or similar thrift store.

My only other word of wisdom is to just dive in. I was intimidated by clothes and accessories, and I remain somewhat so, but I was able to at least take a bit of the fear out of the whole process by just taking a deep breath and trying out a few things. You’ll make mistakes; I bought a pair of patterned tights last year that not only look horrible, but don’t match anything I own. Thankfully they were on sale so I didn’t sink too much money into them. But you’ll also make some great discoveries. Mine? I love boots, and there are lots of cute blazers out there that won’t make me look like the principal from Ferris Bueller. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

6 thoughts on “Seeking a Personal Style”

  1. I went through this my senior year of college, after ignoring style for thirteen uniform-wearing years of Catholic school and avoiding it for another three. I’m still working it out. I think it helps to recognize that it’s an ongoing process. “Personal style” does not necessarily equal “personal fashion”. YSL is always quoted, but it is true: “Fashions fade; style is eternal.” It is much more about finding a silhouette or a pattern of dressing, and playing within that as trends shift and your lifestyle needs change.

    It’s as much about discovering your own body as it is exploring clothes, and finding which ways they best work together. Recognize, too, that your “dream outfit” may not even work on you – but you can take the key elements of it and translate it to something that does. For example, I always want to be the woman who throws on a simple top and looks effortless. But I’ve found that one has to be shapely for that; my straight body works much better in layers that create shape through motion.

    This does take time – you have to try everything on, and make sure to take at least two sizes into the dressing room to see which lays on you better, though it’s entirely possible that neither will work. Don’t feel bad it if doesn’t. It just means that piece was meant to fit someone else, not that there’s anything you need to change.

    Analyze each piece like you’re giving it an interview: Is it going to do the job you need it to do, which is make you look awesome? Is it quality, or can you find something else at a comparable price that won’t pill or fall apart after two washes? Is it going to hold up to your lifestyle, or will it show pitstains from slinging coffee or wrinkle as you sit at your desk? Is it something that you can actually see becoming a part of your daily life, or will it languish in a drawer? Become Clothing HR – every piece of crappy or ill-fitting clothing you need to get rid of requires you to buy a new one eventually. It’s a waste of time and money, like hiring a string of bad employees who quit after two weeks.

    If you’re still getting the hang of it, but have identified at least one silhouette that works for you, I recommend sticking with it for the most part, and adding accessories to give it some flair. Scarves are magic. As I’ve told my friends, “I wear really boring clothes, and really stupid jewelry.” But that’s what works for me.

    Last year someone I’d met pretty recently told me, unsolicited, that she thought I was one of the most fashionable people she knew, which came as a bit of shock to me. But it’s gratifying to know that it can be done, though it definitely takes a lot of work, and a lot of critical thinking.

  2. Love this article. I’m at the early point in the process. I think winter helps for me because it allows me to layer and try out things that I normally wouldn’t wear without something over or under it. Jersey dresses, leggings, boots and scarfs are my new favorite thing and I’m getting more adventurous with accessories. I got into making some clothes for myself a couple years ago, but time just runs away from me. Its a great way to make what’s right for your shape, though.

  3. I’m in this process at the moment. I’m trying to think much more about the things I buy. And I also try to do my “research”. I just really find it difficult to actually find the items that I’m looking for. I’m slowly figuring out, what is right for me and my body – its’ just really difficult to find :(.

  4. “When I looked at my list, I realized they were relatively minor celebrities, and more than half of them were British. A few clicks through Google images and Getty showed me that I seem to favor a kind of tweedy look that is exactly as nerdy as it sounds. But it was a start!”

    Isaac Mizrahi recommended something similar in his book — cut out pictures that inspire you and post them on a corkboard. I did the digital equivalent of that and just collected bunch of pictures I liked, or styles I’d like to incorporate into my own wardrobe and I ended up with lots of menswear-inspired looks (or just plain menswear). I guess you could call it grown-up tomboy, since I’ve always been a jeans and tees girl.

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