Like any great love, an infatuation with fashion is complicated. For many women, it's difficult to translate an avid love of the runway and high fashion editorials to their real lives. Aspirational culture, money, body type, geographic location, lifestyle … there can be a lot of obstacles to achieving the style you lust after. Add into this to the myriad "fashion rules" we're fed from childhood on a daily basis and it's no wonder we stand in front of our full closets with "nothing to wear."
Many women combat this by establishing a few mid-priced go-to designers from high end department stores and stick to well-made basics. They stick to "classic" style rather than risk the confusion of choosing a big fashion statement. This can be great for building a wardrobe of basics, but where's the joy? Flipping through your closet should give you the same excitement as flipping through your favorite fashion magazine, at least some of the time. (We all get bored with what we have once in a while.)
Any A-list designer, editor or stylist worth their fashion credentials tells us fashion should be fun. Yes, for many of us it's serious too, but it shouldn't be stressful and shouldn't give you anxiety. Here we'll list some advice for defining your personal style and strategies for achieving it.
Make Your Own Rules
There are a few sets of rules that used to trip me up when it came to defining my personal style. First of all, I was a big fan of What Not To Wear. I'm still a big fan of hosts Clinton Kelly and Stacy London, but they threw down a lot of rules, especially for larger women. The idea that you need to follow a certain rule to achieve a certain aesthetic in order to be acceptable in society is damaging. Not just to larger women, but to every woman with insecurity about some aspect of her body. It's your choice whether you want to flaunt or camouflage parts of your body that could be considered "flaws." I'm short and thick in the middle, so when skinny jeans came around, they were seriously the bane of my existence. Because of obsessively following Stacy and Clinton's rule that your pants should fall from the widest part of your hip straight to the ground, I wasn't able to wear pants tucked into knee-high boots for all the years it was what most girls my age wore. Then I got tired of my cool shoes getting hidden by my hem and ventured into a pair of sort-of-skinny straight leg pants. I didn't think I looked like a troll. Now I wear skinny jeans with knee-high boots all the time. I choose a "skinny" that's not too tight and makes me feel comfortable in my body. I adapted a trend that some stylists would ban because of my body type, and it's worked out fine. But if I decided the silhouette made me too self-conscious about my shape, that would be fine too.
Another thing that can be limiting is the idea that you have to stick to one style. There's this notion that you can be classic or you can be rock 'n' roll or you can be preppy and if you mix the different styles together you're a fashion disaster. I blame Sweet Valley Twins: you had to be an Elizabeth or a Jessica, right? Admittedly, choosing one style can be an easier way to dress. It's also a lazy technique of fashion writers around the globe. I'm sure even I have fallen into the safety of recommending styles for "the fashionista," "the downtown diva," etc. We're taught to label and categorize people from an early age and it's most vicious during the teen years when we're exploring our style. I've really liked punk rock and studded belts and dying my hair fun colors since I was in high school, so I don't think it's a phase that's going to go away. But I also have a mean preppy streak. Blair Waldorf's wardrobe makes me swoon. Again, countless articles give advice on dressing like a Blair or a Serena, but you know those two would raid each other's closets. And make the fabulous item in question their own. I finally decided I could add a studded belt to a preppy dress or wear pearls with a skull print. And the quirky style that ensued became part of my signature.
That's the takeaway here. There's more than one way to wear everything. Create your own style. You can love flowy hippie sundresses and still heart an equestrian detail. Conversely, if polo shirts and primary colors make your world go round, don't feel pressure to vary from your favorite look. You don't have to mix it up just for the sake of mixing it up.
Yes, it helps to have an eye for what works together, and that can take practice. Don't be afraid of wearing something you might later decide just didn't work. That's how you learn. Since having some sort of guideline to follow is helpful when shopping, make up your own rules. If you prefer skirts, wear a skirt even when everyone else is in jeans. If you hate skirts you can find a stylish pant for any formal occasion, don't be bullied by gender norms. If you've got great legs, show them off past 30 or 40 or 50 or whatever the latest cutoff is.
Most importantly, allow your rules to change over time. Otherwise, you're just creating another self-made style prison.
Find Your Fashion Icons and Copy, Copy, Copy
Finding your fashion icons can go a long way towards helping you find your personal style. Whose outfits do you consistently like in the media? Figure out which pieces make you love the outfit and start the search for something similar. It helps to not rely too heavily on red carpets, since not too many of us need a constant rotation of cocktail dresses and black tie gowns. Look at street style shots or more casual event photos. As we touched on with Gossip Girl, it can even be a character and not a real person. Instagram, personal style and fashion blogs, and Pinterest are great resources for this. Follow, read and pin people whose style you admire and it can become more second nature to put together a similar outfit.
At least one of your icons should have a similar body type to yours. If you're super tall, having very petite style icons could prove frustrating and vice versa. If you're constantly trying to copy someone with a very different body, the clothes may not be flattering and you might find yourself feeling uncomfortable in them. That said, a great way to emulate a celebrity with a very different body type is to steal her accessories game. Not everyone can pull off Kate Moss' head-to-toe looks, but everyone can wear a fringy, studded, oversized rocker chic bag.
Be very specific about what you like about an outfit. The colors? The silhouette? It might be better to call this section "adapt, adapt, adapt," because you want to find what works for you about the style you love and incorporate it in a way that fits your lifestyle. For instance, if you loved Taylor Swift's Carolina Herrera gown at the Golden Globes, but realize it's not the most practical source of inspiration, try mixing black with cherry red in a work outfit, or finding a strapless dress with colorblocking.
Buy What You Love
This seems like such simple advice. But I'd often found so many excuses not to buy something I really loved. Where would I wear it? It would blow my budget. I never wear that color. But many of your own protestations are just your insecurities telling you you couldn't wear that. Can a jeans and T-shirts jock wear a sequin dress? Can a girlie girl find a place in her wardrobe for that sporty watch? Yes, yes! If you love it, you'll build an outfit around it and you'll find a place to wear it. When you're trying to cut down on shopping or reduce your wardrobe, the rule is to only buy something that will go with two other things in your closet. When you're trying to incorporate a new style or explore your personal style, that rule isn't applicable. You're going to buy a few things that you don't have anything to wear with. But you're going to get home and experiment and find that you actually do. Just this act of trying combinations you didn't automatically think of exercises your creativity. Or, you'll wait until you find the perfect item to go with it that you also love.
Of course, I don't advise buying things you can't afford. But I've found that when I really love something, I'm willing to spend my whole shopping budget on one piece or ask for it as one big gift for a special occasion instead of holding out for several smaller gifts. Yes, you want to get a lot of use out of the things you buy, but if you get a lot of joy out of an item, you'll surprise yourself how many ways you find to wear it.
It's really a simple, liberating philosophy: wear what makes you happy. That can mean following trends or not. Don't fear the judgment of the fash pack. Most truly fashionable people always say they'd rather see someone with a strong style they don't prefer themselves than someone with bland style. Honestly, if going to Fashion Week has taught me anything it's that there's always going to be someone who looks more freaky than you, and people will be falling all over complimenting them. There's always going to be someone who you think looks better and someone who you think looks worse. And if that's true in the Fashion World, it's true in the real world. So go ahead and take some chances.