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Thou Shalt Know Thy Style


Everyone talks about style. What is it? It is not fashion, which comes and goes, changing fundamentally between generations and eras, influenced by social mores and pervading attitudes; it is not in the successive polar opposite trends that sweep through the seasons as though designers deliberately wish to confound us; or in the week to week harassment of chain stores and online purveyors of goods and eager bloggers that bombard us with newsletters, urging us to enter the lists and race the clock with ever increasing speed, to be more fashionable and up-to-the-minute than anyone else. Fashion is driven by mass consumerism touting a desperate theology of looking younger, cooler, thinner, sexier, faster – and, inevitably, just like anyone else.

Checks of all sizes are chic, eye-catching and elegant. Four models at Roosevelt Raceway, USA, 1958. To make such a suit modern, I would wear a pair of fierce heels and definitely NO pearls.

Style, though, is innate. It is an instinctive and discriminating response to fashion, and sometimes it is in fact against it. Style embodies the spirit within, and encompasses elegance, grace, and wit. It is far more than simple obedience to fashion rules, for a stylish woman knows which can be broken and when - she is not moulded after a pattern card of classic chic, for that would be too easy. She is confident in her sartorial choices, she knows who she is, and sometimes she must be more than one woman in a single day. But whether she is athlete, professional or mother, her clothing will always possess a certain sense of style, unique to herself. It cannot be entirely quantified, for it is as individual as her own personality.

Style is confidence in your choice. It is the ability to carry off the outré or the merely witty with panache.

A Parisian dress of black tulle with a cape of black lace is worn with a cloche hat. Here’s a more elegant way to wear sheer, and uneven hemlines, than today’s inelegant mullet dresses. No visible bra spoils the plunging line of this backless dress either: take note!A stylish woman will draw attention and admiration not only by her attire, but in her bearing or posture – and the way she carries herself, walks, stands, gestures, speaks – and certainly also in her grooming.

This sense of style takes time to develop – years, sometimes – and some never quite find their footing, puzzled by and rendered indecisive by the myriad of options clamouring for their attention.

In the simplest of terms, personal style is about what you like, rather than what arbiters of fashion say that you should like. It is knowing your figure and what suits you, in taking pleasure in dressing to please yourself, rather than others. Style is confidence in your choice. It is the ability to carry off the outré or the merely witty with panache. Equally, style can be dazzling by its sheer exuberance, or it can possess a quiet force in minimal elegance.

Anna Wohlin, girlfriend of Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones wears a spotted blazer and wide white loons with big shades and a floppy hat in 1969. Elegant, chic and oh, so cool. A different take on trousers in 1976: Charlotte Rampling dons mannish tailoring on a film set, with accessories that look just so.Style cannot be taught however, and it is not necessarily inborn, it is rather developed over time through self-awareness and conscious choice, which eventually becomes unconscious habit and even instinct.

This probably sounds daunting and a lot of work for something so apparently frivolous (although I would present the argument that feeling one looks one's best is an enormous boost to the self-esteem, impacting on every aspect of life), though it is an evolution that usually begins in the teens, developing fully in adulthood.

But for the fully-fledged adults that believe themselves entirely lacking in style, beginning may be an entirely pragmatic and truncated step, rather than the wild experimentation of teenagerhood that is gradually honed over the years. So in an entirely practical vein, what is required to achieve a stylish appearance with the quickest results?

The first commandment states: Thou shalt know thy sartorial identity, understand thy figure and garb thyself accordingly.

So where to begin?

Golfers don beach pyjamas in spots and stripes, at the Stanley Park course, Blackpool, UK, 1935.

Assess Your Shape

The first step is to honestly assess your figure – the shape you are now, not the shape you would ideally like to be in six months from now at the completion of your strict diet and exercise regime.

It’s demoralising to hang on to your ‘thin’ or ‘fat’ clothes in the hope (or the glum possibility) that you may be wearing them some time in the nebulous future. By all means hold onto a few choice pieces in a size up for those days when you need them, but you want to look stylish and feel good at the size you are now. So make some time to spring-clean your wardrobe and get rid of those unflattering garments (more on this subject with Commandment No. 6) – it’s very liberating.

In the book The Pocket Stylist by Kendall Farr (Gotham Books, 2004; ISBN 1592400418) there is a great description of three types of figures: types A, B and C. The author includes the additional types D, E and F, which are fuller or plus-size representations of the first three bodies. Here is how to determine your body type:

Image from The Pocket Stylist

  • ‘Is the width of your shoulders and torso smaller than the width of your hips? You are a Type A.
  • ‘Are your shoulders and your hips roughly the same width, with a defined waist? You are a Type B.
  • ‘Is the width of your shoulders the same or wider than the width of your hips, with little definition at your waist? You are a Type C.

‘Remember that body types D, E, and F represent women who are fuller variations on A, B and C. Body type D is a voluptuous, ‘full-fashion’ version of body type A, E of B, and F of C. Your body type as defined by your torso silhouette is the very best initial determination of your most flattering shapes and body line, at any size. You can be a size 8 body type B or a size 14W body type E, and many of the clothing shapes, focal points, and balance recommendations will be the same for both and the best route to finding your most flattering looks.’ [The Pocket Stylist]

So take a deep breath, strip off and have a good look in the mirror, taking in the shape of your body, and how each body part relates to the other – or as Farr phrases it, ‘take in a spatial impression of your whole body’.

At this point in Farr’s book, she discusses each of the body types and describes garment shapes and styles that will fit, including tips and things to avoid. I cannot recommend this book highly enough as a handy reference guide, and a goldmine of information if you feel you really need help. It is available to purchase new on Amazon for around US$15, and for more or less the same price on (Farr has also written Style Evolution, a book for women in their forties and beyond, although I have not read this one.)

American collegiates wearing trousers, men’s shirts, bobby socks and even loafers shock the local ladies in Heidelberg, Germany in 1947. I love this photo – these girls just look so darn cute!Without going into minutiae, proportion is the most important consideration when choosing clothing to flatter your figure. For example, if you have short legs, Capri pants will not be the best length for you – they will cut you off at the ankle and make your legs look even shorter; a long trouser length and at least a little kitten heel is more flattering. Or for the long-waisted (where the torso looks disproportionately long in comparison with the length of the legs), long-line tops will simply shorten the legs even more, and the same effect is created with very low-rise trousers; a top that sits at the natural waist is more flattering, as are trousers or jeans with a higher rise.

If you are unsure about making these assessments yourself, enlist the help of an honest (but kind!) stylish friend, and spend half a day trying on the clothes in your closet, or even in the shopping mall if your wardrobe doesn’t hold enough options.

Determine your Fashion Personality

There is no more uncomfortable feeling than dressing in the morning in a hurry, only to realise throughout the day that you do not at all feel like yourself. Or you catch sight of your reflection in a shop window and wonder who is that badly dressed woman? … Only to be dismayed to realise it is yourself!

Another style trap is fashion schizophrenia – that is, jumping day to day from bohemian to preppy to minimalist looks. Yes, sometimes our look changes slightly from one day to the next – how often have we read of the fashionista who decides ‘who she’s going to be that day’ before dressing in the morning? Some women can carry that off with style and a saucy wink, others just look like a mess. The former are still wearing the clothes – their personality never goes MIA – while the latter are swallowed alive and spat out bedraggled at the other end.

… how often have we read of the fashionista who decides ‘who she’s going to be that day’ before dressing in the morning?

Cute and playful beachwear in 1923One’s sense of style usually informs every part of life, from clothing to interior design to the choice of career. A minimalist dresser is unlikely to reside in a house styled like Barbara Cartland’s boudoir, and preppy princess probably won’t live in a gothic wonderland. Other likely fashion personas include bohemian, romantic, hippy or hipster, sporty and strong or fierce urban warrior, punk (or steampunk for that matter), tailored and corporate, vintage queen or society princess, bombshell or vamp, nerd or geek, Lolita or schoolgirl, glam or rockabilly.

Elegant beachwear in 1930, stripes are still in but this suit is worn with a relaxed wrap.If you’re not sure where you fit in on the fashion landscape, here are some things to consider: do you have any fashion icons? It could be one of the usual suspects – Audrey Hepburn or Jackie O, or Dita von Teese or Josephine Baker – or it could be an archetype such as a 1920s flapper or a 1940s swing kid. Ask yourself what it is about them that you particularly admire, and is it a realistic option for you to emulate their style? Not only is your figure of consideration, but if you are climbing the ladder in a top law firm, it’s possibly not the best career move to gad about dressed like Lolita.

However, an inspirational icon should not be slavishly copied – you are a unique individual, not a carbon copy – so always add your own twist to a look. Become your own icon. (But stay real – it’s no fun to be worshipped, really – you are a real woman.)

Black and white will always by elegant and stylish: Greta Garbo pairs a classic black beret with a white mohair coat in 1930. This minimalist style will always look timeless.Alternatively, think about which outfits of your own reap the most compliments: take note of shapes and colours. Also, which are the items in your closet that you return to over and over? Many of us have wardrobes jammed with clothes but find that we reach for a choice few time and again.

… wear what works for your figure, flatters your colouring and truly fits in your life.

Look through fashion magazines for what appeals, to find out the season’s latest trends, and ideas for any new purchases that will fit in with your life and style. That is the aim – not to slavishly copy what models are wearing in magazines and on the runways, but to wear what works for your figure, flatters your colouring and truly fits in your life.

A headscarf is a more risky option than a beret, but when it’s printed in a fabric designed by artists and is tied loosely at the nape of the neck, it lifts a peasant look into a stylish stratosphere.

Picture Notes

All these black and white images come from Style Book, Fashionable Inspirations by Elizabeth Walker (Flammarion, 2011). I have deliberately selected images of ordinary women (for the most part) rather than models, performers or celebrities who have been styled by a professional or are wearing a costume. In addition, there were very few images to choose from beyond the 1970s, and my choice obviously is affected by my own aesthetic, although I would rarely dress mannishly and I never don a suit. With little text apart from a foreword and the captions, this book is a great resource for inspiration, and is available to purchase on Amazon.

Further Inspirations

Check out these galleries for some further style inspiration:

Top 20 Style Icons
African-American Style Icons’s Top 10 icons from 2010


Come back next week for the Second Fashion Commandment. If you’ve just tuned in, or would like to refresh your memory, click here to review all the Fashion Commandments. 

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