I still enjoy reading books about style, even now after all these years of blogging (tens of thousands of words on every conceivable topic related to clothes) and reading, well, countless other books about style. I was wondering about why that is as I was perusing the latest acquisition in my collection, How to Get Dressed – which, thankfully, is not your typical style book.* The answer came to me with a side of irony. I like reading style books because I am still struggling to define my own style, and forever hoping that a book will hold the key that will magically unlock that mystery. The irony came from the fact that How to Get Dressed spends little time on the topic, and yet, paradoxically, it actually nudged me closer to the answer I’d been seeking all along. Perhaps all the way there, in fact.

Before I go on, let me acknowledge the obvious: “struggling” to define one’s personal style is the very definition of a first world problem. Even within the context of a personal style blog, it’s a bit of a navel-gazer. The truth is, not having a ready handle on my style – that neat, two-word summary that perfectly encapsulates the sartorial “me” – has never stopped me from getting dressed, and doing it in an acceptable manner. But it’s nagged at me. My life is over-flowing (with many good things, and also plenty of stress, and worry, and endless activity), so I really shouldn’t be wasting any time or mental energy on it, but good luck telling my brain that. It’s like a dog with a bone – it just won’t let go. Maybe, it tells itself, if I just figure this one thing out, every actual, legitimate problem I’m procrastinating on tackling will magically disappear. Yes, that’s the ticket. And that is how I find myself pondering style adjectives at 10 o’clock at night. Sigh.

Having stepped way into TL;DR territory, let’s just plunge on, shall we? Because I have to tell you how How to Get Dressed helped me get a handle (finally!) on my pesky style dilemma.

As I mentioned, How to Get Dressed doesn’t delve in great detail into the issue of how one ought to go about defining one’s style. The author (Alison Freer) does recommend using a thesaurus to brainstorm words if you’re feeling stuck. And that is precisely what got me moving down a new and interesting path.

My “struggle” (hah!) has always been to reconcile some pretty disparate style tendencies into one cohesive (or at least, clearly dualistic) persona. So, for example, I like some looks that might be classified as minimalist, some that are more quirky, some that veer towards menswear-inspired, some that are quite the opposite (feminine, I guess?). I like monochromatic looks, but I also love colour. I like black. I like texture and patterns. On top of that, somewhere at the back of my head, there lurked the seemingly invincible conviction that the epitome of style was a sort of modern day, French Audrey Hepburn. It was all very confusing, you see.

Encouraged by the book to “think outside the box” in terms of adjectives, one of the first things that came to mind was architectural. I don’t know why that popped into my head, really. I do love a nice, clean line paired with interesting shape and texture – which is the look that “architectural” brings to my mind – but that’s only a small fraction of my style persona. The word got me thinking, though. What do I love in architecture – or, more specifically, interior design? This answer I knew. I love mid-century modern and neoclassical design. The first was a non-starter; I appreciate the (early seasons) Mad Men look, but it’s not really my thing. But neoclassical … that had potential. To give you a sense of what I mean, here are some pictures:

neoclassical interior
neoclassical interior
neoclassical interior
neoclassical interior
neoclassical interior
neoclassical interior
neoclassical interior
neoclassical interior

[Note: all of the above photos come from Influential Styles by Judith Miller, which is one of my favourite books on interior design. The photos, as you can see, are stunning and the text provides a good primer on some of the more iconic styles. I re-read this (and daydream) at least once a year.]

I find these interiors very calming, for lack of a better word. They simply look right to me … the way that a well-chosen outfit makes me feel. They have elements that speak to me: clean lines; interesting details but no clutter; neutrals paired with pops of colour; beautiful patterns. Imagine black instead of white as the dominant colour, and you begin to see the outline of my style persona.

So I liked the sound of “neoclassical” a lot. But neoclassical what? Boho? Eclectic? My style is not always as, hmm, formal and elegant as those beautiful interiors. Especially on weekends. Sometimes, it’s a little quirkier. Sometimes, it’s a little more badass (I do love my leather jacket). “Eclectic” might cover a multitude of deviations from the purely neoclassical, but in a way, that’s its biggest drawback; it tells you almost nothing, except that I have a tendency towards being somewhat all over the place.

Mulling on this topic, I came to another realization: as much as I admire French chic, my true “spirit animal” resides on the other side of the Channel. “Slightly madcap English aristocrat” is probably far closer to it than Audrey Hepburn or any of her modern-day sisters-in-style. Mind you, my style persona is not much of a horse-, hunt-, outdoors-lover (although I love me some knee-high boots and tweed), so perhaps I should amend that to “bookish, slightly madcap English aristocrat”. Depending on the location (town versus country) and the circumstances (swanky bar versus village fair), she might wear anything from a ball-gown to, yes, a leather jacket. Good tailoring, quality materials, timeless silhouettes … with a dash of quirkiness, because she can. There are probably examples out there (Amanda Harlech? Daphne Guinness?) but it’s their spirit, not their specific style, that’s the key here.

And that brings me back full circle. My style persona is never going to be reduced to two neat words; I’m just not good enough of a wordsmith. But it has both form (neoclassical) and spirit (the aforementioned madcap English aristocrat), and that is a pretty good start. After all, style is ever-evolving, right? Right. So, get your thesaurus out and have some fun with it! That’s my advice anyway … what’s yours?

* How to Get Dressed focuses more on practical tips that transcend individual tastes and styles, like proper fit, alterations, methods for cleaning and caring for clothes, etc. Some of these were pretty obvious/well-trod ground, but a surprising number were both new to me and very helpful.

3 Comments on The Never-Ending Style Quest

  1. What an interesting and thought-provoking read! I often feel as though I am in a constant style evolution and that if I can just figure out what exactly my style is then I am set for life with shopping – does this piece match the esthetic of, say, “classic prepster”? If not, then I don’t buy it.

    On the other hand, while wanting to define and limit my style, I am also open to the winds of change – as in, going to the store without a plan and seeing what is thrown up on the shore, so to speak. So it’s an endless dichotomy between the very planned wardrobe and the lucky piece, all while having some sort of style all my own.

    I may never get to my own signature style, but as I get older I think I’m getting a better sense of what I like and don’t like. And stability is an illusion – as a person I am in Flux and my wardrobe should reflect that. Perhaps it’s time for me to end this novel of a comment and do some thesaurus-scanning of my own. 🙂

  2. It wasn’t quite what you were originally getting at but I like the idea of thinking of personal style the way you would dress a room, rather than just one body. When you decorate a space you have a lot more room (ha) to play with a theme and for some reason it feels like it can be more complex and allow for more nuance than when trying to articulate an all-encompassing sartorial theme. In room design, there can be funky elements or parts that don’t quite fit with everything else (like a crazy couch or whimsical knick-knacks) because it will still be cohesive when you take a step back and look at the room as a whole. Does that make any sense?

    • Totally! I think this is actually a really brilliant way of looking at it. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on it (hint, hint … if you feel like writing a post) 😉