No, I Don’t Have Style
And that’s ok. Better than ok, actually.
Literally as I typed this a woman in this cafe looked twice at me and when our eyes caught, she said “You have such great style to you.” Literally.
But maybe equally I should start with this anecdote. I worked at Rue La La once upon a time, and I had to interview someone to be, I think a head of styling. I was wearing jeans. And DURING THE INTERVIEW she leaned over and cuffed my jeans. And it was … a relief! She was so right. Her instincts for style were so strong she just couldn’t take my lack of a cuff. Even if it meant risking decorum in an interview.
Recently, when I posted something on instagram introducing myself, I said, as I sometimes do: “I don’t have innate style, but I like to learn.” And people wrote saying “You have great style!”
That’s so nice, right? And I am flattered. And I certainly shouldn’t try and prove them wrong. Right? Except I must!
When I say I have no natural style instincts it’s not a knock on myself. It’s just a recognition that, as with anything you love or admire I feel, there are two ways to do it well (or pretty well). There is natural talent. And there is exploration, trial and error, practice and study. (I mean to a point. No amount of practice could make me a baseball player. Or a singer.)
In some things, I do have natural talent. Like writing. That’s a struggle for a lot of people and I find it easy. Words assemble themselves, it feels like. And quickly. I can look at what you write and instantly understand what’s needed. I will reach over and cuff that jean. One year my business, Honor Code Creative, gifted our clients with custom notebooks and pens. I had the notebook say “Joy is a blank page.” And some of the giftees joked to me, “Are you kidding? Nothing’s more nerve wracking than a blank page!” But to me that’s joy.
There were things in high school or college that I discovered I wasn’t good at but could master by sheer will. And other things that no matter how much I applied myself I just couldn’t even understand. Balancing equations in chemistry. I remember just staring at one and thinking: “My brain, as a physical body part, is actually incapable of making this leap.”
OK so style. Here’s the struggle.
If you want to look current and like you’re part of what’s happening right now that’s easy enough to do through study and resources (or copies!). There are formulaic aspects. Like I could buy a Bottega Veneta Jodie. Or a Chanel boy bag. A baseball cap. Maybe a legging short. White sporty sock. Whatever the shoe of the moment is right now as a pendulum swings from Chanel dad sandal to the Row whatever. I could take a dark moody picture and post it on IG. You might look at me and think that I have style. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
The kind of style that interests me is having a clear sense of self that is reflected in what you wear. Having an alignment between the person you are and want to be, and what you project on the outside.
It’s a really amorphous thing! For me, I just know when I know! And it feels so good! And it’s hard. And I most often don’t know. If I had innate style, I’d just know.
Let me give you an example. I’ve been contemplating the tunic below.
And I was pondering its versatility. I wondered, could I use this casually? Could I put, say a thin turtleneck under it? Or is that just ruining it? Is that silly? Is not everything meant to be worn multiple ways? I. don’t. know. And then I saw it in an ad, with a turtleneck under it and I was like — oh yes, it’s ok. Yay! I needed that rulebook, that allowance, that knowing. To know.
And why do I care if you know how hard this is for me? A few reasons:
- The biggest: I don’t want to feel like a phony! Every time I wear something, even as I try to express myself in style, it’s inspired, the result of study versus an original idea. It’s an insult to true breakthrough creatives in styleland trying things, putting themselves out there, people with actual skill. to act like even for a moment I’m one of them. I respect people with this gift very much.
- It is such a good feeling when I feel I get it — I want to share it and share how doable it is, how fun it is to learn something. Sharing the aha feels even better than the aha for me.
3. Related to the above. There’s something comforting about knowing style is democratic. There are all these quotes about how style can’t be learned. Innate style instincts can’t be learned. But you can learn what makes you feel good if it matters to you. You can learn things that give you the feelings you crave — even when that feeling is modernity or “fashion.” Like school — you can read, watch, practice.
4. And hanging over all of it — this isn’t just clothes! Or you would never have read this far. It’s about our fundamental desire to spend more days feeling how we want to feel. The power to impact the way we walk through the world. Inside out, outside in.
So what to do?
I’m going to tell you what works for me. (See, a person with innate style probably could’t tell you that because they just know.)
- Try. Set aside an hour, put some music on, and just try. But most importantly, what you need to do is try things you think will be weird and bad. The idea is to fight your instincts. What slips on naturally is a rut; you’re not pushing. The style that feels the best, at least for me — it’s very personal! — has some inherent “wrong” to it. The friction! The damn, impossible, beautiful friction. Even if what you try out is still not “it,” the act of pushing unlocks the it.
- Marinate. Take photos of things you try, even when you’re not pleased. Friction isn’t something your brain accepts right away that’s why it’s friction. It upbraids with “wrongness,” and that’s where the good lies. So take photos, let some time pass, and scroll through them. See how they are with a new eye, apart from the heat of the moment.
- Play low stakes. Force yourself to leave the house in something you’re not quite comfortable with, something new for you. but keep it low-stakes. A coffee date with a friend. You can always go home and change after.
4. Even when it’s “too late” — think of what might make you feel better in this look. Here’s the thing — I am only starting to learn if something feels good or not. Let alone what to do about it. I sometimes only figure it out much later: oh that wasn’t good. On the plus side, these days the time it takes me to solve the puzzle is shortening. It’s still hard in front of the mirror. But on my way somewhere I’ll be like shit — there’s no friction. Why do I have this thing with this logo? This skirt is so long and I needed a more open shoe. It feels great, solving it. Every one is a little aha for next time. And you’re always going to get dressed again. The look above — I wore this out without socks and didn’t feel right. So I gave it a little thought and when I went home, I tried the socks and snapped it and realized in the morning I liked that much better.
This (above, A, with the blue shoe) I put on right before a meeting b/c I knew it would work, b/c I had done a variation before with a navy skirt. The length of the camp shirt, buttoned (an important detail I only understood later), makes it quite lean even though it’s boxy. It doesn’t “show my figure” (which I’m not into), rather it feels proportional and the boxiness has a vibe that de-prisses the skirt. Like you wake up after a semi formal and throw your s/o’s shirt over the top of your dress and have breakfast. Now everything is closed and covered so you want an open shoe. This is not my own finding; it’s an Amy Smilovic for Tibi style principle, Big, Slim, Skin.
But then I had to switch to a comfy shoe from the very narrow and open one (that original one is a miracle, BTW and is on sale). And all hell (ok mild sartorial confusion) broke loose.
I started with one thing I liked about the first outfit the “ton” of color — (another Amy-ism; find more about it here); Amy says it lets the eye rest. I think it makes outfits feel non-self conscious and interesting.
So when I lost the blue shoe for a neutral shoe, I thought it was smart to add another color that kept the overall combo a ton and kind of “wrong” — the yellow. And I kept the shirt open for practicality in the heat. And almost left the house. But some thing felt off. Like I was out the door but itchy.
So I went to a trick I often try — a dark brown suede belt — it was my dad’s — with no rhyme or reason. Matches nothing. Skirt has no belt loops. Tucked some of the tee, belted it randomly threw the pink back on and it was so much better.
Comparing the two: The proportions are better. As when the shirt was all buttoned up, the belting gets you the lean-but-boxy. The colors suddenly look more sophisticated and less juvenile with the random brown in it. There are differences in shape — my wide foot in the wide square shoe with the wide square proportion of the shirts and the squareness of the body when it gets cut off in a straight line by those shirts. I didn’t lose just the color, it turned out, I lost the leanness of the top shirt being buttoned, so the belt returned the leanness, the “slim” in the “big, slim skin” equation.
So that overwrought analysis is the little gunner in me, looking for rules to replicate. Versus an inherently stylish person gets it on instinct. You still up?
When you need a look to work and it’s not working, here are 4 things you can try that seem to work for me right now. Note that “right now” is key. they will change when our collective eye adjusts; that’s the thing about modernity. The very reason you crave it makes it hard. And all 4 come from watching those Tibi Style Classes; they’re just my distilled tried and trues.
- Add a dark brown men’s belt. (See Fig C, above.) Pull it tight, and loop the excess though and under. And then sort of yank/adjust until it settles down. Use the brown no matter what else is happening color wise. Unless the rest of your outfit is brown, then use black or white or navy or textured burgundy. Use the belt no matter if you shirt’s half tucked, no matter if there are belt loops. Wrong is right.
- Tie a thin sweater around your waist but to the side. What you need is often one more textured element. This generally does it. Or it could go around your neck.
- Show more skin/idea of skin. Switch covered sneaker/pump for your barest wrap sandal, shove your sleeves up.
- Add a sock. You will have to play around for what works, and you will have to allow what feels so wrong. And you will realize it feels so right.
And all of this is just to say: If you struggle, I’m right there with you. And also: This is the joy of it, too. This struggle. Finding our style. Finding us. Learning. Unlearning. Relearning.