That Word Called Style

Sonya Glyn NICHOLSON

That Word Called Style

One of the most overused words other than chic and fashion, has to be the word style (within the realm of how we dress).

We glorify the word.

Yves Saint Laurent called it eternal.
Rachel Zoe said it’s a way to say who your are without having to speak.
Yevgeny Zamyatin said it is where beauty lies.
Alan Flusser said it endures.
Coco Chanel said that when everything else fades, it remains.
Audrey Hepburn said everyone has his own.
Charles Bukowski called it “everything”, saying that Joan of Arc had style, John the Baptist, Jesus, Socrates, Ceasar, Garcia Lorca…

A common perception is that one must put a lot of thought and effort into displaying style. In the song “Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night”, Tom Waits croons : “You comb your hair and you shave your face, trying to wipe out every trace of all the other days in the week. You know this will be the Saturday you’re reaching your peak.”

Orson Welles looked at style a different way, telling us it is “knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn”.

Criss Jami described style as a personality trait, saying “a cynic takes an insult as a compliment, since opposition is already his style”.

Oscar Wilde said it is the passion of a man’s soul which lies behind the perfection of a man’s style, while Bobby Orr tells us to “forget about style, worry about results”.

Toba Beta alludes to incorporating style into whatever you do, explaining “even if all you can do is a bad thing, well at least do it with your style.”

To add more of a twist, in order for you to describe in your own words, what “style” means, your explanation itself will be dependent upon your own style.

In this brief essay, I would like to offer two techniques to try in developing your own style, beginning with a method called heuristics, and ending with a revelation specific to finding your style by E.B. White (discussed in his 1959 enlarged and revised work by William Strunk, Jr. in his dissertation, “The Elements of Style” from 1918).

1. THE HEURISTIC TECHNIQUE

Referred to as heuristic, this technique is any approach to discovery, problem solving or learning using a method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect–but sufficient for immediate goals.

Whenever finding an optimal solution is not practical or possible (as in finding your personal style), then a  heuristic approach is “a mental shortcut to ease the cognitive load of making a decision”.  Guesstimates,  rules of thumb, common sense, and relying on one’s intuition based on past experiences are examples of an heuristic approach.

I’ve used heuristics for years in writing. For example, my first drafts can be rough, and after a few go-rounds of editing, I will choose to publish  before falling prey to “over-working an article” (which means accepting that the published work is not-yet-perfected). Thankfully, the internet allows me to continue to edit if necessary.

When developing a personal style, we should not hesitate to produce results because we are afraid of making mistakes. Instead we have the freedom to sift through the wrangling of our minds  like a prospector rotating a pan of water full of gravel and sand, in search of specks of gold. Don’t be afraid to show the gravel and sand of your self-expression…refinement will come after you’ve relaxed enough to be willing to make some mistakes.

As a side note, a sister technique to heuristics is called the “stream of consciousness” technique– a narrative approach in which we can depict multitudinous feelings and thoughts passing through the mind…expressing whatever thoughts are flowing, without filtering or thinking too much.

The above represents a great approach to finding  your personal style.

The idea is to avoid becoming an “over-guarded dresser”, as a result of fear. Fear to venture outside your own parameters. Fear of the judgment of others. Fear of regretting deviations from doing things the way most everyone else does them.

Whether you prefer sobriety in dressing or creative expression, when you eliminate the emotion of fear from your wardrobe equation, you begin seeing the world of style with fresh eyes. Sometimes it’s OK to let the answers come to you, instead of always being in pursuit of the answers.

As a small example, during this period of free expression, your eyes are opened to try things like a bow tie or a tie pin (but won’t that harm the fabric?), and you start learning what pleases you, instead of becoming locked into a shrunken universe. Before you know it, you’ll  find yourself honing in on a wardrobe that really suits you—buying less once you understand what pleases you more.

A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Years ago, when attending my first Pitti Uomo, I blindly used the heuristic technique to dress for the event. I deciding not to be too stressed about what to wear and to avoid overthinking and fearing the opinions of others.

Looking back, it’s funny to see myself wearing a fuchsia suit in 2012, with a large yellow striped tie, tied as I was taught when I was 11 years old. The tail of the tie was too long, but I decided not to retie it. I had no experience with a pocket square so I intuitively stuck the square inside my chest pocket, and was ready to go. If I had overthought the process, I doubt I would have stepped out of my hotel room that day.

Six years have passed and I now know that I prefer tone on tone dressing…shade on shade, pattern on pattern, an embroidery of the like upon the like. I find the monotone approach soothing yet deep in expression, asking others to look closer to see more. Being a monochromatic dresser is a thought that would have never occurred to me before I stopped overthinking the process of finding my own style and began paying attention to how I felt in my clothes. To compare the above to now, below is the most recent photo of my style evolution, after six years of learning:

Making the effort to express yourself as you are, without filters, overthinking, or too many revisions may result in looking error-ridden at first. But with practice, you’ll find yourself running through the refiner’s fire—with each pass through the fire giving a better result, as you become an intuitive dresser with a unique, individual, one-of-a-kind style.

2: TO ACHIEVE STYLE, BEGIN BY AFFECTING NONE

We now arrive at a more advanced revelation about style, taken from a book which was required reading before I could earn my Journalism degree.

In the book “Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr., the revisionist for the book, E.B. White, addresses style from the viewpoint of writing composition.

White tells us : “To achieve style, begin by affecting none.”

Take a look at the full definition of “affectation” :

— — —

AFFECTATION :

1. Behavior, speech or writing that is pretentious and designed to impress. “The affectation of a man who measures every word for effort”.

Synonyms: pretension, pretentiousness, affectedness, artificiality, insincerity, posturing, posing, pretence, ostentation, grandiosity, snobbery, superciliousness; airs, airs and graces, pretensions; informal snootiness, uppishness, humbug; “she has no affectation”.

2. A studied display of real or pretended feeling. “An affectation of calm”.

Synonyms: facade, front, show, appearance, false display, pretence, simulation, posture, pose, sham, fake, act, masquerade, charade, mask, cloak, veil, veneer, guise; make-believe, play-acting, feigning, shamming; “nothing would shake his affectation of calm”.

Antonym: naturalness

— — —

Mr. White liked to sip a vermouth cassis before lunch. “It’s a French taxi-driver’s drink,” he said. In six words, he encapsulated a thought that could take a full paragraph to describe.

In dressing with style, it’s no different. You can express that you like vintage with one item or with six items, but many times, one item is enough to get the message across without wearing paragraphs.

It is this truth in dressing that unveils a secret to expressing style: avoid affectations.

Unless you are dressing for a reenactment of the French Belle Epoque era or the Civil War Movement, if it doesn’t feel honest when you wear it, then evolve to wearing what feels authentic to you.

On the opposite spectrum, fashion (not style) is a total embrace of affectations and trying to make a statement with affectations. You can be fashionable alongside thousands of others simply by knowing trends. You can make a “fashion statement” by wearing something the status quo deems slightly outlandish. If fashion is your passion, then the pursuit of true style (as G. Bruce Boyer calls it) may not be your forte.

But if the pursuit of true style is what you’re after, then hone in on cracking the mask you may be wearing in order to express a specific style, unique to who you are, and…begin by affecting none.

If anyone in the field has understood the power of avoiding affections, it must be Coco Channel who tells us, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory”, and “less is more”.

Finally, if you picked up on the word “begin” in White’s edict above, then you have been astute in your observations. With the beginning of a new year, if you agree, what better time to begin to see things anew, by steering clear of affections in all parts of life, clear of pretentious attitudes or the intent to impress, no longer pretending, but rather expressing yourself exactly as you are.

Something no one else can do better than you.