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When Ladybud first pitched me the idea of writing an article on my personal style, I admit I was a little dubious. While I pride myself on knowing how to dress, I would hardly call myself fashionable. After some hemming and hawing I asked myself, and one very put-upon male friend (sorry, Graham), some hard questions about what it means to be stylish.
What is personal style? How do we make fashion personal? And in doing so—by making fashion choices that are unique to ourselves—can we actually be, by definition, stylish?
Because the question posed to me in the first place was about my own personal style, I also wanted to know if I actually have a personal fashion sense and evaluated whether it’s any good. Tough questions better left unanswered if in the negative, I know. Nevertheless, I’ll use my own style as a template to explore the concept. Let’s start at the beginning…
In high school I was the odd duck who preferred wearing pencil skirts and heels every day to the more common and probably more appropriate attire of black Northface jackets and juicy pants (okay, juicy suits appropriate? maybe not).
I liked highlighting my femininity, and at a time when I was just asking myself “who am I”, I wanted people to know that I took myself and my look seriously. But was I viewed as fashionable? Hardly. There’s a reason I chose the term “odd duck.” Take it from me that going all “dress for success” every day at 16 is not the way to gain popularity. While I can look back and say that, yes, I managed to look both nice/pretty and unique (no one else in their right mind wears kitten heels to tenth grade geometry), I was by no means a fashion icon at my inner-city high school.
By college something began to shift. While the overall concept of my style remained largely the same—still clean lines and color block—the way that it was interpreted changed.
I remember rushing my sorority and having several young women comment on how “classy” and “really beautiful” I looked in my chosen outfits each day.
A few years later, one of my best friends even confided that when she saw me going through the rush process alongside her she was intimidated (in a decidedly good way) by the way that I was dressed.
I still stood out, but the overall impression was now positive. It fit in with what other women that age thought was fashionable. And sure enough, a handful of my collegiate female peers to this day comment on my good fashion sense. So weird.
As a (sort-of?) adult, again, my personal style has remained pretty consistent. While I don’t wear skirt sets, heels, and pearl earrings every day to my classes (honestly, because I can’t afford it #gradschool), I largely choose attire that manages to make my small frame look curvy and gives off an impression of professionalism. I wish I could say I’m more innovative than that. I wear what the majority of people would look at and think looks good on me. And yet, it isn’t uncommon for me to be told that I’m stylish.
Most humbling, the bulk of my knowledge on “what looks good” comes from what I’ve seen on others. The minimalist, streamline concept is far from novel, and my choices of which specific pieces to choose are usually not my own. The two places I predominantly shop are 1.) Nordstrom, where they have free personal shoppers (unfortunately, my adventures here are becoming necessarily fewer and fewer), and 2.) out of my girlfriend Leslie’s closet.
And while my generous friend does have spectacular fashion sense and a breadth of options for me to choose from, it means that every article that I borrow has been preselected and deemed already acceptable. So is that really personal style?
When I posed to my male friend (who I’m sure wants to kill me for this little shout out in a fashion article) the question “what is good personal style?” I was given an interesting theory. He cited Aristotle’s idea of phronesis, the man of practical wisdom.
Aristotle’s idea was that simple knowledge of a specific virtue was not sufficient to be virtuous. Instead, a different kind of wisdom was necessary. Practical wisdom, sometimes interpreted as “prudence,” is necessary to understand the spectrum of what constitutes too much or too little of a given virtuous act. It’s the idea that extremes of a good thing (too much/too little) are not always good, and practical wisdom is the understanding of where those boundaries lie.
Okay, so how does this apply to fashion? According to Aristotle, for something to be good—in this case good fashion sense—you can deviate from expectations a little, but successful deviation requires an understanding of how much leeway the situation affords.
My early attempt to be fashionable in secondary school failed in large part because there was less wiggle room to be different within that context. That, or I just looked really uptight. While I might have understood that tailored knee lengths are more aesthetically pleasing than velour jumpsuits, my peers did not. I had knowledge of the virtue, but lacked the practical wisdom to know how much classic fashion was appropriate to push.
The psychological literature also supports the idea that having a personal style and interest in fashion, like most things, can be virtuous, but only when engaged in within limits.
Research suggests that “uniqueness” in an individual’s personal style (within the context of their subculture) is correlated with positive self-expression and a host of psychological benefits. Meanwhile, when style becomes too unique, where it is no longer following other peoples’ preconceived notions of what “style,” “fashion,” or even “clothing” should look like then expression in personal style seems to have detrimental effects.
It looks as if “personal style” does exist, to the extent that variations are associated with actual psychological functioning. And yet, while having a fashion sense is deemed “good” when it demonstrates unique expression, paradoxically, it is only beneficial within a context of conformity. If you think about it, pants all look like pants, shirts all look like shirts. For the most part, an individual’s personal style can never really be all that unique, can it? If someone tried to walk around in a dress made of meat and called it fashion, their style would no longer be virtuous (at least so says a dead Greek philosopher).
The idea that good fashion sense would be bound within conformity is also related to another psychological principle, Edwin Hollander’s notion of idiosyncrasy credits.
His idea was that the degree an individual can successfully deviate from the common norms of the group is dependent on how many “idiosyncrasy credits” the person has earned.
These credits are earned through conformity, increasing each time the person does something consistent with group expectations. Most work on idiosyncrasy credits investigates leadership behavior. Leaders must be accepted by a group as “one of their own,” and therefore, act in ways that gain them many idiosyncrasy credits. They can then use those credits to suggest unique changes, which are accepted because the leader had built up a kind of credence capital. The leader is then seen as unique and innovative. But how unique were they really if they gained their post by conforming?
We can easily see how this might pertain to fashion. A vintage accessory is viewed as adventurous and fun when worn with an outfit consistent with traditional norms. Whereas, if you “vintage-out” and theme entire outfits to a specific era it’s usually considered dated and odd. In the former example, the person would have enough idiosyncrasy credit from their other articles of clothing to pull off the piece, whereas the second would not. A bit of “personal” style is acceptable when it’s in a context of conformity.
“A bit of ‘personal’ style is acceptable when it’s in a context of conformity.”
Even regarding my own fashion history we can see how idiosyncrasy credits might explain why my similar fashion sense was received differently as I moved from high school into college. In both settings most girls wore sweat pants to class; my look was always contextually unconventional. But picture the second scenario. I was a thin, blonde young lady rushing a sorority, the very embodiment of conformity among individuals’ appearance (sorry sisters—I do love you, but come on…). I looked the part, gaining me credits to deviate, so the deviation was viewed as acceptable.
Now up to present day and back to my conundrum. I’m too broke to do anything but shop out of my girlfriend’s closet. So do I really have personal style? And, is it any good?
Well, her wardrobe is HUGE, meaning that I have quite the selection to choose from. I select those items that seem to follow the same pattern they always have (fitting, minimalist, professional), that make me feel like the best version of me.
It’s personal in the sense that all of the pieces resemble something I always choose, but it’s conformist because they’re drawn straight from a pile of clothes I already know my friends approve of. Is it unique? Probably not. Is it good? Maybe.