[Guys and Girls] starter guide to finding a signature style
I used to be a little style atheist, scorning anything that smacked of self-maintenance. This was aided by a solid German upbringing and a disastrous encounter with self-tanner at around 10-years-old.
My mother despaired over the blah outfits I choose.
There was a surprising amount of olive green and brown.
Dark colors and monochromatic color schemes have appealed to me for the last 16 years and will probably continue to appeal.
However, thanks to the influence of guy and girlfriends and better body image, eventually I gave myself permission to be a tad more “high-maintenance,” at least to start visiting the salon or spa a few times a year, and to start exploring the style identity of genders, maintenance, body image, and actually dressing pleasingly, instead of to please.
Generally culture drives our dress standards, though religion (usually again culture playing our spiritual strings), weather, and sub cultures within that definitely play into it as well. It often makes some of the more restless among us ask questions, which said questions are a good indication of movement and life within culture. Questions there will always be. If there aren’t, it’s because a culture is suppressed or asleep, and that means clothing questions are only one symptom.
For instance, gender identity in style. I’ve been thinking more and more why we stuff men into certain boxes, and women into others. We’ve become so paranoid of losing our biological and spiritual identity, that we draw even tighter lines. Culture around us is so confused on this question that we can’t afford to be, and trying to make that distinction merely in dress is a mistake. It’s like using a bandage to fix the heart. There’s deeper ills afoot, but that isn’t the main point of this post.
There is a way we can all care about how we present our uniqueness to the world without being too vain or effeminate. Without being afraid of handing in a man card or losing our ability to be attractive.
“Look back at me.”
How? How do we find our style amidst gender confusion, or our own bogus ideas and skewed beliefs we have about ourselves and the world? I find a good place to start is to ask what you think about yourself. Not in a modern pop psychology “love yourself” way, but in a, “have I cared enough to find my own identity? To identify my likes and dislikes?” “Do I have trouble accepting affirmation or compliments?” “Do I have trouble only feeling good when I receive affirmations or compliments.”
Mine that identity
Esteem is respect or admiration, usually for a person. These things are tricky because many of us have a horror of becoming too self-focused, but the truth is part of the difficulty of life is reckoning with ourselves as much as others. If we don’t spend time thinking about our place in the world and heaven, it’s likely we’re going to be quite miserable to be around, either for others or ourselves.
Ask yourself, “who am I?”
What this means in style: people who have worked hard to mine their identity tend to get confused less quickly. This clarity helps in being decisive about your own personal style, especially for supportive personalities.
As a kid we find ourselves in the perceived worth and identity of those around us; within relationships. It’s inevitable to have some bad experiences along the way, and people mostly have one of two responses: one to develop a devil-may-care attitude and care too little, the other to people-please and care too much. Both are in effort to find a sense of identity. Both disrespect the value systems and thoughts of ourselves or someone else.
Who we are does not hinge on what someone thinks - identities that are true and strong will never rise and fall on opinions of other people.
Who we are gives meaning to the people around us. Who others are give meaning to us. Of what use would be an identity if you were the only person in the world?
See the tension here? We’ll talk more about that actual principle later on, but it’s worth noting here that two opposite realities can come together to form a truth. Our identity is individual, but it is only individual because we are part of groups of people.
What this means in finding personal style: think of trying to arrest someone without authority - it just wouldn’t go over very well. It would be an empty action. So it is in personal style, clothing is simply the supporting action or message to a very real person. The person gives meaning to the clothing, not the clothing to give meaning to the person. What about your self-esteem, what is backing you up? What is your authority in your self-worth and blueprint?
Honor is hard to give to yourself, but real self-esteem is going to be non-existent without it. Going without understanding of what backs up your personal worth is like having a currency with no backing. Learning to honor other people is only as good as the honor you give yourself, and overall is only as good as your understanding true worth. Sound like a broken record yet?
It is simply put, trying to bring out the best in people. It is simply put, bringing out your best. It is a light, not to expose, but to illuminate.
Bringing out the best in other people or yourself will only be truly authentic when you have separated human value from human appearance. That means you can keenly appreciate their beautiful style, but that when it comes to the clutch: the dirtiest, meanest person will still be treated the exact same way by you. Whether it’s you or someone else. That is honor.
Clothes are either a barrier to the world or a way of interacting with it. It’s another language, if you will. You can either speak it badly, or well. Plainly, or with ornament. With joy, or with sorrow. Sometimes, in all those ways. Just as you wouldn’t cram every word you know into every sentence but choose them to communicate, so it is when deciding what to wear. Sometimes there’s place for description, for action, for work, for love…
This expression of us is what is super, super fun. For myself I love elegant statements, whimsical femininity, and down-home clothes. It doesn’t bother me to wear satin and pearls one day, and denim cut-offs and jacket the next. A gauzy dress with tiny print roses, and ribbons in my hair one day, jeans and a blazer the next. Finding personal style doesn’t mean you only ever wear one style at one time for the rest of your life. You are a complex person. Honor that with grace.
viva la vida! Honor given unconditionally has this magic effect of making people, including ourselves, want to do better. Be better. Love better. Dress better. Not because then they will be loved or respected, but because they are already loved and respected, and now the outside begins to match the inside.
What makes me come alive?
I look for clothes that give me that quickening inside, that flash that I recognize as life. Is it the beautiful texture of the fabric? Is it the color? Is it the cut? The shine? Can I see how to style this? If there’s vision, there’s hope for that piece of clothing or accessory.
The quote by Maya Angelou about “people forget what you say, but they won’t forget how you made them feel” holds a great deal of common sense for clothes. A dress just too tight, or in a fabric that makes your skin crawl or sweat like crazy may make the statement you want, but if you feel miserable and unable to breathe while wearing it for the next 8 hours, was it really worth it? That jacket may be something everyone is wearing, but if the length or cut makes you feel in the last stages of consumption, it’s hardly worth spending the next few hours thinking vaguely something is wrong with your life.
What this means in style: if it makes you come alive, it’s likely something worth trying. Even if it’s not, there’s freedom to fail as you learn what you truly like. This is how people find out that they genuinely love and rock bold tropical prints, or calm monochromatic outfits. Floral ties or coral pants. The sea is as much alive on calm days as the wind-whipped ones, and our clothing can reflect a wide variety of life, character, and our own unique personality.
Learn beauty i.e. a few good design principles
Beauty is never the only question at hand when choosing what to wear, but it is integral if we can break down what we mean by it. Let’s go back to our questioning state: “is it beautiful to me? Does it work for what I’m doing day-by-day? Is it balanced - does it have tension?” This last one particularly guides me as a way of breaking down what is beautiful to me. Beauty is at all times subjective, but good design generally isn’t so there is where we can all unite.
Take a break
Balance and tension in clothing is key (tension means working around pieces and cuts to make sure they’re not all trying to be stars), but the other element I frequently think of while getting dressed is punctuating my clothing. You see that in both photos below as well: both ladies create interruption in their styles, causing them to have balanced structure. I once wrote this sentence which I still refer to constantly.
“Balance. I love this word as much as I like delicate silk blouses tucked into a well-fitted skirt or pair of jeans. The way I think of this is providing the necessary punctuation for your figure.
Fancy a sentence that just runs on and on and up and out billowing and curtaining and sailing in the breeze with no mainstay for boundaries and after awhile you just wish to goodness someone would use a comma or period to hem things in a bit and give it some structure but no those sails stay full.”
That’s how I feel about clothing that never makes me stop and pause, and consider why I like it.
Tension in balance
Over half the style questions I have are answered in the concept of balance. Sure, It seems to be a no-no to wear a billowy blouse and skirt together, but this first photo, posted by the Sartorialist, pulls off two tricky looks. Both the skirt and top are fulsome and the girl mixed plaids. That’s tricky, but she did it by tucking in the shirt with a nice belt, staying in the same color family, and making sure that there was only one “boldest” element in the statement. You’ll notice she kept her jewelry and accessories simple? You can let one accessory or piece be the showstopper, but combine a bunch of those and it’s a clashing symphony. Let one thing steal the show, and have all the other pieces serve it. In this case, it pulled together into one statement look, instead of a statement piece.
In the second photo she mixed a massive blouse with a structured skirt. Her secret? The half tuck. So many problems can be solved in the feminine world by adding a half or full tuck. Her heels do help elongate the look, but one could pull that back by wearing heels half that size and still lengthen everything.
Balance and tension in men’s style
With the current way that men’s styles are compressed and boxed it’s harder to illustrate what these principles mean in such a limited sphere, I hope this will change! However, until it does when I think of tension in men’s style I go more to being daring, edgy. Wear that floral tie, printed shirt, or bright pants. Mix colors, dare to wear scarves! Trench coats! It will not detract from your manhood to have nice fingernails and moisturize your skin.
A man who is fully confident that he is a man does not have to prove it by going around beating his chest and fighting bears. He will likely need to fight and protect those he loves, but that looks different at different times. Sometimes it might be a bear, but then it might also, <oh gasp> be seen wearing a trench and carrying flowers to demonstrate affection. It could be him digging into housework. A man’s style is as much defined by the things he does that are quietly heroic as the clothes that burst off of him when he flexes. Perhaps his strong point is streamlining someone’s network or computer. Perhaps to build a strong house. Perhaps to grow vegetables, or run a restaurant. Perhaps he is amazing with kids, and teaches, or stays at home with them. Manhood comes in so many different forms, and so can his styles.
The point? Being a man doesn’t always look the same. If you do the same work of identity and self-esteem, you will have the authority to take charge of your life - whatever it looks like, or in whatever form you choose. Callouses, massages, and all. If you prefer the formal corporate lifestyle, have at it. Prefer birdsong and dirt? Be a farmer. Don’t let society define you, you define it. As a man and human the leadership of your own life will determine your qualification to lead others.
I always think a man’s ability to grow a beard is already worth 3 accessories. I’m personally a fan of moderation in that topic, but that last photo is too amusing not to post.
Sorry, not sorry.
All of us
Tension exists all around us. We see it in the physical and spiritual, mental and emotional. We give credence to feeling, but recognize that feelings aren’t facts. We walk with gravity. We sleep and wake. Even the very contractions that deliver us into the world are a study of how tension pushes us out to become more, do more. There’s this constant balancing act for us to figure out the tensions of life, and style is no different. Keep a little tension there, it will be easier to stay up. Like I mentioned earlier don’t be afraid to be paradoxical in your tastes, but then pull it all together with that one lipstick, or signature accessory or color.
In the end, if you have done the hard work of knowing and honoring yourself and those around you, and have actually tuned in to the style and clothes that make you come alive, it becomes easier and easier to know what to buy. Once you’ve discovered, for example, that perfect lipstick it will be the 5 second quick fix that can take that day’s look from meh to glam. When you know colors and styles and fabrics that help you to express and live life more fully, or that a monthly facial make all the difference in shaving and ingrown hairs for guys, you can feel more fully confident to schedule in time to make it happen.
If you know who you are at your core, your masculinity will not be detracted by a little soft living, or femininity by being the girl who loves a good mud run. Choosing what to wear then becomes a thing of living truly and freely. Secure in the fact that no matter the bends life takes, that nothing can take away the unique experience of your life and language.
We all speak the same language, but we all speak it differently. The same piece of clothing will look completely different on a thousand people. Revel in the fact that this life is both individual and community. Ourselves in the world, that is true personal style.
As always, build yourself from the inside out, and all these things will be added unto you. What we wear is constantly speaking for us, so taking the time to educate ourselves and speak this language intentionally is a beautiful way of communicating and giving back. Let your clothing match your mind and heart, and truly, the world will become a better place.
P.s. Photo up top by Matthew Henry