Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Style Imperative

Style is more character than clothes, more attitude than affluence. It's you making visible your inner self. So forget what you learned about appearance not counting; you can no longer afford to be without style.

"Do designers dictate hemlines?" the late style doyenne Diana Vreeland was once asked. "Only if you take dictation," she replied.

With that remark she exposed a rift the fashion world seldom flaunts. There is a vast gap between fashion and style. Fashion is about clothes and their relationship to the moment. Style is about you and your relationship to yourself. Fashion is in the clothes. Style is in the wearer. The distinction could not be more revealing.

Despite the proliferation of fashion, style has been out of style for decades. As the economy expanded, America embarked on a collective shopping spree. In place of style we have honored Merchandise. Clothes. Style, on the other hand, doesn't demand a credit card. It prospers on courage and creativity.

Style goes way beyond fashion; it is an individually distinctive way of putting ourselves together. It is a unique blend of spirit and substance—personal identity imposed on, and created through, the world of things. It is a way of capturing something vibrant, making a statement about ourselves in clothes. It is what people really want when they aspire to be fashionable (if they aren't just adorning themselves in status symbols).

In some quarters, it's fashionable, as it were, to trivialize style. It's true that style doesn't have life-or-death impact, but it isn't devoid of substance, either. "Clothes are separated from all other objects by being inseparable from the self," Anne Hollander writes in her classic Seeing Through Clothes. "They give a visual aspect to consciousness itself." Through clothes, we reinvent ourselves every time we get dressed. Our wardrobe is our visual vocabulary. Style is our distinctive pattern of speech, our individual poetry.

Fashion is the least of it. Style is, for starters, one part identity: self-awareness and self-knowledge. You can't have style until you have articulated a self. And style requires security—feeling at home in one's body, physically and mentally. Of course, like all knowledge, self-knowledge must be updated as you grow and evolve; style takes ongoing self-assessment.

Style is also one part personality: spirit, verve, attitude, wit, inventiveness. It demands the desire and confidence to express whatever mood one wishes. Such variability is not only necessary but a reflection of a person's unique complexity as a human being. People want to be themselves and to be seen as themselves. In order to work, style must reflect the real self, the character and personality of the individual; anything less appears to be a costume.

Lastly, style is one part fashion. It's possible to have lots of clothes and not an ounce of style. But it's also possible to have very few clothes and lots of style. Yes, fashion is the means through which we express style, but it takes less in the way of clothes to be stylish than you might imagine. That's why generations of women have coveted the little black dress, a garment so unassuming in line and perfect in proportion that it is the finest foil for excursions into self-expression.

It's tempting to think that style is a new invention, open to us only now because we particularly value self-expression, and an extraordinary range of possibilities for doing so is available to us. But Joan DeJean, a professor of French language and culture at the University of Pennsylvania, contends that style has its well-shod feet firmly planted in the seventeenth century; it was the deliberate creation of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King. He was, she says in The Essence of Style, history's greatest exemplar of it.

DeJean sums up the style that Louis created in a word—sparkle. Louis bedecked himself in diamonds for their sheer dazzling impact, his vision of power and prosperity reflecting on the state itself. He greeted visiting royalty and other heads of state in a black velvet suit encrusted with virtually every diamond in the possession of the crown.

Louis didn't just impose his grand sense of self on his clothes and his court. He transformed Versailles from a hunting lodge to the resplendent palace we recognize today. He made Paris glitter at night, literally creating the City of Light.

"Louis realized that style can be a country's mark on the world," says DeJean. So he used his power to create the fashion industry. From her study of Louis XIV, DeJean distills a definition of style as "something recognizable and yet at an unexpected angle, with a surprising twist that both reflects someone's personality and expresses that personality to the outside world."

For all his legitimate and illegitimate progeny, Louis had only one true aesthetic heir—Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. She revolutionized style, too, but in the opposite direction. She stripped it down to what we recognize today. In giving clothes simplicity, clarity of line, functionality, emotional directness—inventing sportswear and that blank slate known as the little black dress—she allowed clothes to be animated by the wearer.

Driving gloves. Sunglasses. Safari jackets. These are a few of the things that defy the laws of fashion. They seem to always be in style. All suggest movement, action, excitement, a life spent not standing still. They embody the essence of the modern. Coco Chanel didn't invent them, but she paved the way for them.

What she did invent was the "Chanel jacket," a fashion classic now nearing the century mark. It covers the body sparely, without encumbering it, so as to permit action. The "decoration" (contrast borders, gold buttons) is really an intrinsic part of the garment. The jacket exemplifies how much an ounce of invention—"finishing" an edge by letting the fabric unravel to a natural fringe—can electrify the most uncomplicated design. It represents the emergence of line over embellishment as the soul of attraction. And it has pockets—something Madame believed took the ultimate step into style by conferring confidence on a woman.

Style, of course, is not exclusive to women. Coco Chanel today breathes through Karl Lagerfeld, whose aristocratic attire, with its slightly sadistic starched collars, submits to a funky white ponytail and dark glasses. And that is the style of style—one bold and unexpected gesture against a perfectly proportioned backdrop.

Whatever else it is, style is optimism made visible. Style presumes that you are a person of interest, that the world is a place of interest, that life is worth making the effort for. True style, in addition to being irrevocably social, is even morally responsible. Consumption isn't promiscuous or random, at the whim of the marketplace or the urging of marketers. Rather, it is focused on what is personally suitable and expressive.

Style is psychologically subversive; it exposes the American ambivalence over good looks. It always demonstrates that appearances do count. Deep down we suspect this, since we ourselves make judgments about others from how they look.

No one should be penalized for not having style, of course, but those who have it are distinctive and thus more memorable.

In the end, style is fundamentally democratic. It assumes every person has the potential to create a unique identity and express it through grooming and a few well-chosen clothes. Yet style is also aristocratic. It sets apart those who have it from those whose dress is merely utilitarian. It announces to the world that the wearer has assumed command of herself.

As the speed of all our transactions increases, we need fast ways of transmitting information about ourselves without losing authenticity; we have less and less time to make our mark in other, more leisurely ways of knowing. Style, like a perfectly fitting book jacket, evokes the substance within by way of the surface. It makes an authentic visual impression, is a memorable mark of identity in a world that otherwise strips people of identity. There was a time when style was a luxury. Today it is a necessity.