“Create your own style… let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others.”
― Anna Wintour
In a really fundamental way, style is a tool to present yourself and certain messages to the world. I don’t mean to say that fashion and beauty are only cold blooded and utilitarian (they are, and are supposed to be, fun), but I do believe that the women (and men) who have been able to develop and capitalize on their style sense have a leg up on those who don’t. From drag queens poking holes in traditional gender expectations, to black dandies dressing flamboyantly in defiance of a historical narrative where sticking out might get you oppressed or killed, kids in puberty trying to take control of their budding sexuality, to CEOs looking to hold a room with messages of wealth and authority…
Presentation is powerful. And personal style is a way of being in command of your own identity and message.
Let’s look at politics and history quickly for some examples. Jackie Kennedy was First Lady for only a few years, but her fashion choices were instrumental in defining her husband’s administration both historically and mythologically. Further back in time, Louis XIV created an even grander mythological role for himself, that of the Sun King, and developed elaborate fashion and lifestyle trends to make the court literally revolve around him as a method of controlling his nobles. Secretary Clinton was ridiculed in the early days of both her husband’s and her own political careers for being “insufficiently feminine” in her appearance. In the 1990s you can see concessions she made to these sexist criticisms (I certainly don’t judge or begrudge those choices), but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the pantsuit later became her signature look. Elizabeth I of England also created a fantasy role for herself as Glorianna, the Virgin Queen, and invested heavily in a wardrobe meant to convey her authority over her country, as well as her wealth from exploration and trade. Towards the end of her life, her Golden Age was starting to collapse on itself, but the propaganda she fostered with her image has lasted right up until today. More recently, Michelle Obama made a lot of deliberate decisions to support American designers as First Lady, often from less well known houses, and also was noted for wearing fashions by designers from guest nations on state visits. Is wearing a gown the equivalent of signing a treaty? Of course not. It can still send a diplomatic message of solidarity…or a quiet note of defiant national pride.
Less grandly for most of us, our day to day style choices are less about playing on the world stage and instead having a sense of command in smaller ways. Consider the workplace. Think of the messages sent by Mark Zuckerburg’s famous jeans, t-shirt, and hoodie combo (“I’m a young company, for young people, and we aren’t going to run ourselves the way companies are run by men who wear suits”). Or how about how Steve Job’s iconic uniform of black turtleneck and jeans became a symbol of his business’s design focus (“I keep my personal life contained and streamlined to pour my energy into my work”). Neither of these men made particularly fashionable choices, but I’d argue pretty strenuously that they made style choices, even though the results were uniform and monochromatic.
Beauty is no different. Singer Alicia Keys has recently chosen to eschew most makeup because she believes there are too many pressures on women to look perfect or sexy, and less acceptance for bodies they way the simply are. Her decision to not wear make up is her personal way of opting out of that narrative, and is as much a style choice as Dita Von Teese’s decision to present herself in a highly stylized, deliberately artificial, and ultra feminine way.
Speaking personally, I enjoy beautiful things and clothes and the way I present myself to the world is important to me, but that isn’t to say I don’t sometimes fall victim to the siren song of marketing and consumerism, or try to fit someone else’s idea of fashionable at the expense of my own comfort or taste. However I think that these days I feel in command of my presentation more than at any other point in my life, which means that my sense of style (by my own definitions at least) is probably better than it’s every been. But it’s still a work in progress.
From dating, to board meetings, I think most of us have had the experience of trying to craft a message with our clothing. I’d argue, though, that this isn’t something that only happens for special occasions, it’s something we do every day. I’m most conscious of this in the workplace, but I’m trying to bring this same awareness to my casual or off duty style. I want to be better about using the things I already own, avoiding defaulting to sloppy/casual looks out of ease, and putting more effort into my clothing messaging. I also want to just have more fun with my clothing and accessories. What is the point of owning things if you don’t enjoy them?
Your turn, what do you think your wardrobe says about you? What do you want it to say? Are you trying to cultivate a certain image, and if so, what is it and why?