How to Have Style

Unlike fashion, a sense of style comes from within.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published November 20, 2003 - last reviewed on September 14, 2017

It’s clear to me from the many people I talk to that there is a great misunderstanding about style. Style is not a price. It is not an age. It is not a size. And it can be learned.

Style is one part self-knowledge and one part self-confidence. In other words, it’s an attitude. It is a life-affirming expression of your character and spirit, a conviction that you are worth knowing, worth looking at and can present yourself well. It is knowing your strengths and weaknesses so that you can accentuate your strengths, not hide real or imagined shortcomings. Feeling good about yourself is a sine qua non of looking good.

There is one more element of style, and that is clothes, but style should never be confused with fashion. Fashion is synonymous with clothes, but style is merely expressed through clothes. Fashion is IN the clothes. Style is IN the wearer.

Style is nothing if not a celebration of individuality, of individual variability. It glorifies the fact that we are all different. It exposes as preposterous the notion that there is an ideal body, an ideal woman—that there is only one perfect way to look, that any one way is perfect for all women. Style always delights because it is a revelation that the possibilities for originality are limitless.

Style rejects ideals. It goes its own way. In fact, style is nothing if not a triumph of the fresh and unusual.

Style is democratic. It assumes that every woman has the potential to create an identity that’s unique, and to express it through how she carries herself, how she grooms herself, what she puts on.

Yet style is aristocratic. It sets apart those who have it from those whose dress is merely functional, utilitarian. It announces to the world that the wearer has a sense of herself and has assumed command of herself.

Style is intelligent, because it requires self-knowledge. Style hugs the self closely, even though it never represents the whole self at one time. The self is too complex to be represented by any one way of dressing.

Style is optimistic. It 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.

There is no style without taking risk, without exploring new sides of the self, without saving what works and discarding the errors. Style, then, is a springboard for personal growth.

There are those who criticize style for its trendiness and materialistic consumption. But they are confusing style with fashion. Fashion is preoccupied with change merely for change’s sake, to stoke consumer purchases.

Style is in fact a way of avoiding the clutter of stuff. It is a way of sorting through the crowded marketplaces, a way of selecting, making choices influenced not so much by pressures such as advertising but by internal considerations. This kind of style no more requires change from season to season than does your character. But neither is it completely static. Ideally it should evolve over time, as character does.

Style is really self-knowledge applied selectively—selectivity is its essence—to the material world.