The Working Closet

where life meets style

find your style truth (we’re not going to call them rules, ok?)

Wade took Charlie to get a haircut last week; he came home with a fauxhawk (Charlie, not Wade — Wade got his standard buzz cut). The barber put a little spray gel in Charlie’s hair, which held the spiky part completely upright and made Charlie crazy happy.

polka dots and print pantsI’m pretty sure he didn’t even put his head under the water when he showered that night because he wanted to keep the product in there as long as possible.

On Friday morning, Charlie got dressed and put his contacts in and re-spiked the (unwashed) hair. Wade said, “Is he going to school like that?”

I shrugged and said, “As far as I know, it’s not a uniform violation, and I don’t care what he does with his hair as long as he’s not shaving designs in the side.” Because that is my line in the sand: No designs, and no actual Mohawk.

The day before, the barber — an older gentleman who keeps Fox News on in his shop ALL THE TIME — asked Wade how I felt about his super short hair. Wade was a little baffled, because why did it matter? It was his hair. I laughed when he told me this; I have never once consulted Wade about my own hair, and I would fall over if he asked my opinion about his. (And for the record, I like his buzz cut. It’s sexy. And also? It’s his hair, not mine.)

Personal style is, fundamentally, a very personal thing — not to be redundant, but you know what I mean. What looks good — or feels good — on one person may not look or feel good on you. To define style as a set of generic of one-size-fits-all conventions developed by someone else (magazines, fashion bloggers, advertisers) misses the point. We’re all different sizes and shapes; we have different priorities and values and ideas about how the world works. All of those things influence our style, whether we realize it or not.

stripes and mini skirtLast week, Rachel wrote the first in what will be a series of posts about her personal style (to which I say, HOORAY!!! because she’s the bomb and she’s a total style inspiration to me, in so many ways). And she made an observation that really stuck with me: Personal style, she wrote, “boils down to this: what is absolutely essential for you?”

I love that idea, that style should be essential, that it is about both what you cannot live without and what you totally don’t need. Finding that balance — both in your closet and your life at large — is one of the hardest tasks of adulthood.

Also last week, Jenna Lyons talked with the Guardian newspaper about her personal style rules. In the days since I read this piece (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I love) I’ve come across a whole string of similar pieces, all written by various magazine editors and fashion insiders, explicating their personal style philosophy. They’re all fascinating to me, particularly the ones from women whose style is so opposite my own (Carine Roitfeld, for example, whose advice is fantastic even though there’s probably not one single thing in her closet that I would actually wear).

What I like about these women’s rules is that they are both specific and generic. Both Lyons and Roitfeld advise steering clear of trends, for example, even though their individual sartorial choices are completely different. Both women, though, are talking about identifying the essentials and manifesting them in a really personal way. Like Charlie and his fauxhawk.

Developing a personal style isn’t about following someone else’s rules; it’s about articulating your own, even if you don’t want to think of them as “rules.” Call them guidelines, commandments, truths, manifestos, whatever — what are the touchstones you use to guide the way you create a look?

Here are my five (mostly) unbreakable style truths. Because of course, truth number six is never say never.

Natural fibers are more luxurious than synthetics. I’m not a fan of polyester; I will always go with the natural fiber — cotton, wool, silk, cashmere — if possible. (Of course, my beloved Pixie pants are made primarily from petroleum products, so take that as you will. These are flexible rules. Of course.)

Flats are practical and pretty. I love a beautiful pair of heels — on someone else. In my world, heels are for sitting down, not doing things. But a smart loafer or slim ballet flat makes my heart pitter pat and doesn’t leave me limping. I don’t believe that pain and style are the same thing at all.

Don’t be afraid of repetition. Every once in a while, I’ll look at my Instagram photos and realize just how often I wear the exact same outfits. The irony, of course, is that repetition — of a specific piece or a specific look — is what defines personal style in the first place.

Accessories make an outfit. Accessories, to me, are like the sprinkles on the cupcake. No matter what else I’m wearing — basic pants and a plain tee, for example — a big blingy necklace or a pile of bracelets makes me feel pulled together and polished. And it’s so easy to do.

Spend more — even if it means having less. I have pieces in my closet that predate my children (yes, really!) — and that I will wear, on a regular basis. I hate to shop, so I would rather invest a little more money in a classic piece that I will wear forever than have to keep replacing things. (See also: Hand washing to minimize wear.)

Your turn: Let’s hear about your style truths. Do you have a look that you default to, or are you still searching for your personal groove?

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19 comments on “find your style truth (we’re not going to call them rules, ok?)

  1. Becky
    November 12, 2013

    I believe many of my tips I’ve learned from you. I keep it basic. In the winter it is Gap long sleeve t’s or oxfords layered with Gap or Lands’ End sweaters, then jazzed up with accessories (including shoes, I count patterned shoes as accessories). I pair it with casual pants to go do PTA “stuff”, or with sensible slacks (as my husband calls them) to diner. I tend to be cold all winter so this keeps me warm without a lot of bulk. I am comfortable and don’t feel I am always wearing the exact same thing.

    Agree 100% on the flats. Being 5’11 I don’t need anymore height, thank you very much. Heels hurt and make me look like a drunk giraffe.

    • Susan
      November 12, 2013

      I wholeheartedly agree with the shoes-as-accessories approach. In fact, I’m wearing gold glitter loafers today for that very reason.

      And “drunk giraffe” made me laugh. Because me too.

  2. Kelly H
    November 12, 2013

    I’m so glad you’re writing about this as it’s something I really struggle with. Having been 100 lbs overweight the majority of my adult life, my style used to be centered around what clothing was available in my size and what I was comfortable wearing at my heavy weight. Now that I’m a size 8, EVERYTHING has changed. I’ve been this size for more than a year and I still struggle with trying to figure out what exactly my style is. Is this outfit something *I think* a person my age and size should wear or is it something *I want* to wear?? Often I find myself saying “I can’t wear heels”. When really, I now can wear heels I’m just not used to wearing heels. But then I wear heels and think “Maybe I’m just not a heel wearing person??” Then you add in being 43 and reminding myself that just because I can fit into certain types of clothing (short skirts, plunging necklines) does not mean it’s appropriate for me to do so – perhaps in my personal life but certainly not in my professional life. So much to think about it! I have taken a lot of what you write here to heart in that I have invested in some really great “core” things for my wardrobe that include (1) the perfect pencil skirt (2) the perfect blazer (perfect for work and for casual wear with dressy jeans) and (3) the perfect wool fitted dress coat. I think I have my work style pinned down but my casual non-work style is a little more difficult. I used to spend my non-work time in shorts or “mom type jeans” with a tshirt. Now I try to “get dressed”. :) I’ve rambled enough. Thank you for your writing here. It’s so helpful to me!

    • Susan
      November 12, 2013

      Kelly, I hear you — I also have those moments where I think, “Ooh that’s cute, but maybe not on me. Or maybe???” I think being 40-something and a mom also makes it hard, because some of the things that seem fun to wear just aren’t functional for my actual life (like the sequin skirts I keep eyeballing — in theory, I could wear them for day with a tshirt and some flats, but WOULD I? Probably not).

      (And thanks for your nice words.)

  3. Claire @ My Devising
    November 12, 2013

    Good thought on repetition. That’s funny – sometimes I feel as if “I wear the same thing all the time” means “I have no style.” But you’re right – maybe that’s just MY style! Always love reading. :)

  4. I think you should do an entire series on accessories. Must have pieces, inexpensive places to shop for jewelry, how to mix and match…

  5. Lakshmi
    November 12, 2013

    I am halfway between sticking to a college-student-style (jeans, standard tops, standard shoes) and something a tad more stylish. Been rushing to work these mornings, so I fall back on the college-student look. The fact that my workplace is perfectly okay with this casual and laid back style makes it worse for me… :( Anyway, I am constantly looking to reinvent my wardrobe in a way that reflects me truly.

    I have some nice pieces; the trick (and the work) lies in putting them together. Seeing the same items in a new light, dreaming up unique combinations… the process is ongoing.

    My style? What it is NOT – glamorous, edgy, feminine, bohemian, sporty. Well, what remains? Youthful, laid back, comfortable, quirky, colorful, natural. I guess that about describes me as well.

  6. Lakshmi
    November 12, 2013

    Oh, the fact that I am fairly slender AND can wear a lot of cool styles BUT don’t (call it laziness, fear of looking unnatural, etc.) makes me feel worse.

    • Susan
      November 13, 2013

      Those transition points are always tough — student to professional, childless to mom, 30-something to 40-something, one size to another — because they compel you to rethink how you are presenting yourself to the world. The GOOD news is that you’re thinking about this and not just assuming that what you wore as a student will continue to work for you as you move into a more professional role, but I know that doesn’t make it any easier.

      In all of these transitional moments, I think Rachel’s shorthand of WHAT IS ESSENTIAL? is really useful. What is the most important to you — looking competent? being comfortable? sticking to a budget? all of the above? Once you identify those things, you can start to make decisions about how you present yourself in this new environment.

      But don’t feel bad — it’s a process, always. Just like life.

  7. Torry
    November 12, 2013

    I hate to admit that I had hit the “I’m too old and heavy to worry about how I dress” plateau; add in the fact that I had some very horrible foot surgeries and have a very hard time finding even tennis shoes that fit….Now, I use your writings to help me care. My style is scarves to liven up t-shirts and to stay warm. Getting compliments helps me take the time to select one and to tie it with a cute knot or a use a pin to secure it. My biggest strength is that I’m very good at color/ both matching and contrasting. So I can wear the same tops with a variety of accessories and have it look totally different.

  8. jasi
    November 12, 2013

    It’s all about fit. Maintain smooth, lovely lines with well fitting clothes, well fitting undergarments, shirts that hit the hip, cuffs that fall just right. I prefer a little heel always, it just makes me feel awake and engaged. Pressed, clean, no fuzzies. All of this makes the most out of any outfit.

    • Susan
      November 13, 2013

      AMEN. I know I said there were no universal rules, but I lied. EVERYTHING needs to fit, ALWAYS. And everything should be in good condition. After that, the rest is cake.

  9. Darci
    November 13, 2013

    Thanks for this…I am a repeater. As a teacher in high school, I need to be able to move – (i.e. reach above my head without exposing my belly) also I feel I need to stay somewhat professional – I will not wear flip flops to school. I love everything you wear and so wish I could wear the statement jewelry to finish off my outfits. Something I am eyeing and would love a series on it.

  10. Purdy Bird
    November 13, 2013

    Made well. Fit well. Make me feel good. For work this is tailored pants or nice skirt, button down or cardigan and heels. I’ll play with patterns and colors to make it more interesting and more “me.” Dressing up helps put me in a “work mood”- I almost feel like its my body armor. For casual this is cotton tops and jeans with converse or leggings and a long top with riding boots. I’ll spend money on a piece if I love it and fits the above criteria. I take care of my clothes so I see it as an investment in happiness. I sometimes want to spiff up my casual wardrobe but with 3 kids under 6 I think the nice jeans and a top are pretty ok for now.

  11. sunny
    November 13, 2013

    I’ve been more of a repeater since I read this in a recent book about French style – that perhaps Americans might look at a favorite outfit and think “I just wore that on Tuesday!” while a Frenchwoman might look at a favorite outfit and wear it again, thinking “That looked great on me on Tuesday!”. I had a mental shift and realized I won’t mind as much if I repeat outfits.

    My personal style is usually a dress topped with a cardigan worn with flats. Now that the weather is cooler, I’ll add a scarf and some over-the-knee socks or opaque tights. I wear this all week and through the weekend.

    I too am in my 40s but am single..so I keep in mind that I can’t dress too young…. or too old. I just dress to be me. :)

    • Susan
      November 13, 2013

      Sunny, was that the Ines de la Fresange book? LOVE that book. I keep it next to my bed and reread it when I’m feeling overwhelmed and uninspired. Such great advice.

      • sunny
        November 13, 2013

        Could be! I love Ines’ book!! But I think it was more recent. Probably in Tish’s book “Forever Chic”.

        http://amzn.com/0847841499

        • Susan
          November 14, 2013

          I hadn’t seen that one! Ordering today. Thank you!

  12. Marek Cornett
    December 5, 2013

    I struggle regularly with defining what I want my style to be. Do I want to be smart and a little preppy? Do I want to look like a total badass? Or do I want to go boho? One thing is for sure – my closet selections are crazier because of it.

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This entry was posted on November 12, 2013 by in style made simple.
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