I am turning 33 in August, which means two things to me. One, birthday presents!!! I love birthday presents, and will never be too old to get excited about them (even if I’m buying them for myself). Two, I am getting another year closer to my official “mid-thirties”, which is kind of disconcerting. Not distressing, mind you. Just … disconcerting. In my mind’s eye, I am perpetually on the brink of 19 – kind of an adult, but not really. To think that there will soon enough be two generations of 19 year olds born during my lifetime is … like, trippy!

The upcoming anniversary made me think back to the previous decade, and my personal style as a 23-year old. If I had to describe it in one word it would be: non-existent. Which is not to say that I dressed terribly … not all of the time, anyway. But I had little or no sense of a style identity and, hence, no “personal style” to speak of. Here is a little trip down memory lane.

2003 was not a particularly great time in my life. I was under tremendous stress in school, and not in a great frame of mind. My body was at its (unhealthy) skinniest point; as a result, a lot of my clothing choices were dictated by the desire to finally wear things I considered “thin clothes” – tight jeans, body-con dresses and skirts, etc. If something was a size “0” and fit, I bought it. Few things were memorable or particularly stylish. In fact, I wouldn’t be caught dead today wearing 99% of it, and not only because of the atrocious trends involved.

style flashback
These jeans should have been burned for crimes against style

Two further factors contributed to the overall “blahness” of my early-twenties wardrobe. First, I was a student, and so I didn’t have much occasion for “dressing up”; jeans and a T-shirt was a perfectly acceptable daily uniform. My idea of accessorizing involved picking between black or brown shoes.

style flashback
A rare attempt at glamour (when in Monaco …)

Second, I didn’t have a lot of money. As a result, I shopped at the cheaper mall chains, where the selection, fit, and quality were not great. This was in the days before local H&M and Zara stores – which, for all their other faults, at least offer access to current runway trends. Back then, I didn’t shop much second-hand. I had shopped at thrift stores for most of my adolescence, by necessity. As soon as I started working and had some disposable income, all I wanted was to “upgrade” to mall shopping. I was under the (mistaken as it turns out) belief that higher prices equaled better clothes. It took me years to figure out that isn’t necessarily true, style-wise or quality-wise.

Comparing my 23-year old self’s style to my current style is like looking at two different people (inside and out, for that matter). I actually have something that can be called “personal style” now – for better or worse. And I learned a few important lessons along the way.

1. Accept and love your body. This was a hard lesson to embrace and live, and it took years to get there. Ironically, in many ways, I was most critical of my body when it was thinnest, even though I considered that a goal. When I finally reached acceptance was also when I first started to enjoy clothes and fashion. For the first time, I began dressing for myself, not for what I assumed others would find acceptable or pleasing. The reason I love clothes so much now is because they represent another way in which I can express myself. They are as much my “voice” as is my writing. Accept and love your body, because it means that you are celebrating you.
2. Follow your own drum beat. Just because something is sold in a fancy store for a lot of money, doesn’t mean it’s right for you. There is a difference between fashion and style, and being a slave to the former makes you a victim of the latter. [Also, you’ll probably end up bankrupt if you shop like you’re a latter day Carrie Bradshaw.] The most important information about a piece of clothing is not found on the label tag; it’s found in the mirror. It’s not so much about how it looks. Does it make it you feel amazing? It’s perfect.
3. You can eat your cake and have it too. You can be savvy with your money and still enjoy buying pretty new things. You just need to learn how to spot true value. If your shopping experience revolves around malls exclusively, this can be hard because retailers spend millions implementing strategies whose sole aim is to separate you from your money. [I recommend reading Priceless by William Poundstone, which explains why our conceptions of value and pricing are largely arbitrary, and easily manipulated.] But it’s never too late to learn.

4. Less is more. Not when it comes to sparkle, or colour, or fun patterns – more is more, as far as I’m concerned. But less is more when it comes to buying quality. We may not be able to emulate those effortlessly stylish French women, but learning the tricks of a carefully edited, classic, well-made, perfectly fitting, perfectly you wardrobe is worth a try, at the very least.

I don’t regret my early twenties; after all, they helped to make me the person I am today (someone I happen to like). I do wish I had been easier on myself all those years ago, and spent less time fretting about things that, in the scheme of things, weren’t so very important. The best I can do for the girl I was back then is to remember the lessons I’ve learned from her experiences.

What style lessons have you learned in the last decade?

7 Comments on Style Flashback: 23 & 33

  1. First of all, I must say that I found this piece very touching. I had never seen these pics of you before and I got all mushy over them (I know, it’s crazy: You are pregnant and I suffer the hormonal consequences!!?? )
    This “The most important information about a piece of clothing is not found on the label tag; it’s found in the mirror.” is one of those things that make You, You and make me happy to be your friend, my friend (easy to follow, no).
    Now to answer your question:
    When I watch old movies, or old music videos or visit the 70’s, the 80s or the 90s in whichever way, I find that these decades are instantly recognizable; the styles were very much “decade specific”.
    Then the distinct “cookie cutter approach to fashion” started changing, somehow, in the 2000s: You could see a Coco Chanel looking business woman in the lineup at Sunterra, right behind a Sheila Franklin (Milos Forman’s Hair) looking business woman.
    Personally, I love the new “trendless (or rather, the less trendy) trend”. I think that it has left more to a person to find their own style. And yes, I believe with all of my heart (and wallet) that style is not dependent on budget and that a large budget is far from the assumed style. As a matter of fact I’m noticing that “style insecurities” are often wrapped up in the “expensive latest-fashion items” and when that’s the case, true style is nowhere to be seen.
    On the other hand, with the lack of distinct style in the 2000s, it’s harder to fake any style. The life span of any given “trend of the day” is equal to a life span of a butterfly. That alone must be exhausting on anyone’s budget with a very hectic impact on the wardrobe. But like I said, not such a bad thing if you ask me.

    • I got a little mushy reading your comment too <3

      I think the thing that's happening now is not so much trendless as trend-overload. The cycles of fashion are on hyper-speed (the better to sell things to insecure people) so trends are recycled over and over, with multitudes of them being "hot" at any given moment. It leads to style schizophrenia for anyone who doesn't have their own sense of style and is unable to pick and choose only what works for them. In the past, trend-chasers could still look somewhat cohesive in their style because there weren't as many trends to choose from - there was, as you pointed out, a certain "look" to every decade. Nowadays ... you're on your own. And it's made more difficult by the proliferation of fashion magazines and bloggers who can make anything (or almost anything) look desirable and cool; people see "x" outfit over here and want it, and then "y" outfit over there and ditto - not thinking about whether "x" and "y" share any kind of style DNA or would both suit that one individual.

      I'm not immune from this, by any means. Sometimes I think that my wardrobe is just all over the place, made up too much of individual pieces rather than a "theme". Other times, though, I feel like I'm just buying the same things over and over again. I guess it will only be with the benefit of hindsight - in 20 or 30 years - that I will hopefully be able to say "yes, I did have a personal style all my own". It's one reason why I blog - to document my trials and tribulations, LOL!

  2. Great post! I can totally relate to your point about body acceptance being the most important thing. I was at my heaviest in my early 20s, and it took me until I was… well, also 33 to accept what I was born with. What a shame to have wasted so much of my youth on self-loathing.

    • The funny thing is, in my experience, body acceptance has little to do with what your body looks like objectively. I used to beat myself up when I was a size 0, and I used to do it when I was a size 10-12 too. It’s not so much about your body at all – if you accept YOU, accepting your body is just an extension of that.
      But hey – being over that nonsense is a great reason to love and enjoy your 30s!

  3. You look beautiful, baby bump and all! I still believe beauty in the eyes of the beholder. I am still a size 12, went down to 10 and still bouncing at 12. Doesn’t matter if your style is all over the place, it’s interesting and I get to pick and choose what I like and then I adapt it to my own clothes, now that is passing the good thing on and on and on.

  4. I learned not to buy cheap clothes, because they will end up in the garbage or disappointing me. Learned the hard way of course, but now I am in a much better place when I shop and buy clothing that fits, looks great and in some cases are one of a kind because they’re now vintage.

    As for body and self-image issues, I didn’t really have any.. except that I thought I was hideous up until the age of 19 when I turned into a swan when I removed my braces and got contacts (in my eyes).

    • You’re lucky – I don’t remember when I stopped thinking I was hideous, but it was DEF after the age of 19 (more like mid-20s). Never really had a “ta-da!” swan moment, but I found that with age I just stopped caring about it or waiting for it to happen. Funnily, I just read somewhere that, on average, women tend to stop with the self-(body)shaming around age 34. So I was a few years ahead of the curve, go me! LOL!