Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An Editorial (warning: this is a long one)

A couple of posts ago i mentioned the book The triumph of Individual Style by Carla Mason Mathis and Helen Villa Connor.  The basic concept laid out in this book is that each individual person has a unique aesthetic. Certain colors, textures, shapes, lines, and proportions will flatter the inherent aesthetic of that individual's physical form, while most other colors, textures, etc. will not.  The authors truly focus on bringing out each individual's particular beauty - this isn't How To Not Look Old by any stretch. The authors draw upon all of art history to find hundreds of portraits which they use to illustrate these principles of shape, form, and color. As i recall, they don't address typical 'style' or personality concepts at all (ie. 'romantic' vs. 'professional' vs.'rocker' style).

The artistic and graphic design concepts which the Carla Mason Mathis and Helen Villa Connor teach the reader of this book are invaluable.  I cannot recommend it highly enough as the one resource which you can use to learn any concept of art, color, proportion, line, form, etc. that you will ever need to dress your form exquisitely.  But i was never convinced that their focus on an individual physical aesthetic got to the heart of personal style. Flattery is fine, beauty is even better. But what about the psychological, personality, historical, hobby, lifestyle, and other factors that come into and express themselves through people with amazing style? What does a person do when their body looks good in pale pinks and baby blue frothy lace, but they lead a rock band? Or, worse yet, a law firm?

Style blogging, particularly blogs which feature one person's outfits several times a week, is a radically new form of fashion/style media.  It provides the opportunity for your average jane to see what incredibly stylish people wear, on a day to day basis, for months or years on end.  Prior to style blogs, you either had the blessed good fortune to live near one of these stellar individuals, or you saw highlights culled from photo shoots or paparazzi by Anna Wintour. It was just a taste, and the people featured were so many times starlets who are styled by the really interesting style mavens behind the scenes, like the Beckerman family. Now we can see what Calli and Sam are wearing, not just *lithe blonde of moment*.  

I started to notice that color, texture, line, etc. really did make a huge difference in how people looked. Cynthia of Be Fabulous Daily just glows in berries, red, and blues. Erin at Work With What You Got uses every trick in the book to make her long long legs somehow look even longer. Sal of Already Pretty - she loves her newts and wears them well. But put her in a cobwebby-violet or a rusted out forest green with a medium grained pattern and her face and hair suddenly  incandesc on up to 11.  So i became convinced that there are certain elements which flatter people, which best frame and bring out their own unique features and coloring and shape, and others which do not. But this still seemed to only address part of the style picture. What about the person inside the body?

All this thinking and mulling around came to a head during Style Underdog's recent Color Explosion Birthday Week Extravaganza!  Of course Bev looked gorgeous and chic and perfect and the color combinations were so on the edge it made my teeth hurt, like strawberry gelato.  But it also let me see the wisdom in her love of neutrals.

I had no idea that Bev's facial features and complexion were so delicate, even though i've looked at her face hundreds of times over many months now.  Her choice of neutral colors and fine-grained textures allows space for her features and complexion to shine - i felt like those amazing colors shouted down her face a bit.  The neutrals also provide space for her to direct our attention to her elegant curation of accessories. Her accessory choices often appear quite bold, but put them next to a purple and black zebra print and you'd take a week to find them. Her precise color and texture palette also seems very in keeping with her dry, spare wit, her writing style of 'just enough. It's all of a piece - the physical, the personality, the creative choices.

And it's not just because i'm on 'Team Newt' that i love the 'Neutral Underdog'. Sheila of Ephemera rocks the newts, but her masterful use of color knocks your socks off and really makes her face and skin and hair glow.  Her eclectic and agile use of color, texture and pattern also tips you off to her incredibly wide ranging interests - nature, hiking, reading, travel, art and painting, even Weight Watchers! Not to mention her off-beat sense of humor. She uses tons of color, but the colors themselves are very unusual and the pairings extraordinarily sophisticated.  And it's always grounded in classic fit and traditionally feminine shapes - pencil skirts, fitted jackets, well-cut denim. Just by looking at how she presents yourself you can tell she's a very creative lady with interests all over the place - and she's got it all together.

Then it hit me - the graphic elements which flatter an individual's physical form will be limited. But they still are pretty numerous. It's the melding of a particular set of flattering elements with the 'style signifiers' of a person's choice that create true style - from the inside on out. Here's an example. One person's rocker chick could be all shiny black vinyl and red patent leather with one huge shiny stainless steel buckle on each platform boot.You can just picture this on an amazonian lady with straight black hair and strong facial features which stand up to all the stark textures and contrast.

 A smaller lady with curly medium brown hair and soft grey eyes could choose to project a rocker vibe in ripped gauzy tees, spiderweb grey-violet lace, bleached and torn denim belted in silver chain, and a cluster of brushed-steel buckles on her delicate wrists. These elements would let the world know who she is without overpowering her physical form. The high-contrast look of the first outfit would blast out her low-contrast coloring, the same way too much light destroys the detail in a photograph.  And the Amazon would look like she's trying to disguise herself in lace and little chains, as if she's wearing her baby sister's clothes. But when each lady chooses the elements from the 'rocker library of style' that flatter her particular form, she makes that style her own.

Finding which graphic elements flatter your particular form is half the work. The other is finding out how to weave these graphic elements in with the style elements that express who you are. Frankly, it's a lot to handle - no wonder true style seems rare!  But it can be learnt, with time and persistence. And this learning is a very interesting, creative, and rewarding process. We all need to get dressed every day, so the knowledge we gain will always be useful to us. 

I find that teasing this process apart and getting at some of the underlying concepts helps me to refine and make conscious my own style choices and ideas, which really streamlines shopping, designing, making outfits, etc. I hope that some of my ideas help you, the way all of your ideas and outfits and photographs have helped me.

First Look:  
Jacket: Issey Miyake for Vogue Patterns made by me
Pants, Scarf, Hat: gifts
Shoes: Clark's Passion

Second Look:
Poses: inspired by Beckerman Bite Plate
Top: gift
Petti: own design, inspired by Alisa Burke
Shoes: Maine Woods


  1. Thanks for the warning, but it was worth the read. I love both looks!


  2. Whew! glad it was worth it! thank you, steph

  3. The read was worth it and addresses some things that I have pondered as friends ask me to style them and shop with them. I think I want this book..your review makes it sound like a necessity! I know that personal style is developed through confidence. As we become more confident of who we are, then we are able to test and experiment and grow with the outside style! I really like the last dress in your post!

  4. Hi o50f40 - thank you! yes, confidence in who we are and confidence to experiment are both vital.

    "Triumph of Individual Style" can be expensive - on Amazon click on 'show more formats' to see the really cheap older paperback versions - the information is just as good. or if you can find it at your library you can review it to see if you want to get the pricier editions.

    happy turkey week!! steph

  5. This was a great read!! I am trying to be more confident. I still have that voice in my head saying, you can't wear that. You're too old, too heavy, too whatever....

    And is the print on that jacket palm trees?!! Cause the only thing I love more than red is palm trees!!! I even have a palm tree tat! I covet that jacket!!


  6. Thank you Joy! what's that expression - fake it til you make it? it's a paradox - the only way to actually become confident is to just brazen it out....

    yep, palm trees! btw, i love the pic of you on Sidewalk Chic - Mr. Ferguson looks a wee bit tired next to your thousand watt smile!! steph

  7. The jacket in the first look is lovely and so, "you." (more of that upper body/torso dressing). I still feel like I'm casting about for my style. I've kept it understated and simple for so many years. This book you recommend sounds like something I should seek out.

  8. Hi Terri! thank you : ) finding your own personal style takes time - TOIS is dense, but once you get a good grasp on these concepts it a) increases your confidence to experiment since you'll understand the why behind your choices and b) narrows those choices so the process feels much less overwhelming.

    learning at least the basics of art/graphic design theory is incredibly useful in developing your own style. and if you're at all visual, it's a blast too! steph

  9. Thanks Steph...although I've obviously got a couple of colors that work for me, I feel like I barely have a handle on the rest of the picture, i.e. shapes or what I want my clothes to be projecting. I will have to check out this book.

  10. Hi Cynthia! i don't know, i think you've got some great looks under your belt even in just the last couple of months! how you want to be seen and how to project that is just a whole can of worms - frankly this book doesn't really go into that as i recall. but it will really help in narrowing things down to a flattering, dependable 'palette' for you to work with. steph

  11. Steph, it reminds me of shopping with my mom as a stylist in training, and finding out first what colors looked best on you. Then graduating to what patterns..I learned well!
    Great post--lots of design principles I am familiar with, but will love to read the book~love reading about fashion!
    and your particular aesthetic goes so well with your complextion, hair, figure--you have chosen well my friend!

  12. Aha! now it makes sense! i've found many ladies with a strong style sense have/had artistic or style-interested moms. as you point out, it's a process of visual learning and you have to have a teacher. that sounds like a really nice way to bond with your mom.

    my mom couldn't care less about clothes. but we spent plenty of time in museums, art books in the house, art classes after school, etc. and thank you! steph

  13. There was a terrific fabric store in Berkeley (Poppy, now out of business, sob), and Steffi was going to a school event, I believe. We trekked to Poppy to get fabric for her dress (I was to sew it), and as I held up bolts of blues, greens, yellows, pinks, lilacs, I couldn't believe that they were so darn unflattering!!! Then in desperation (there was nothing left), I held up a beige and et voila! Perfection - Steffi's complexion glowed, her eyes sparkled, etc. I exclaimed in dumbfounded amazement 'neutrals'! This was in the early '70's and such a revelation to me (she probably already knew). And yes, Steffi is right, I have no interest in clothes or style for myself, but love looking at my daughter and what she creates - also, looking at Vogue with her. And commenting, oh yes, the commenting. Happy Thanksgiving!

  14. Thank you so much (again!), Steph, for your kind words! I wish I could say I put more thought into my outfits... ha!

  15. hi mom! i remember that day, and how happy i was during that time when i would find the occasional flattering 'color'. these days manufacturers are putting out more colors that i can wear, thank goodness!i'm doing my bet to stock up. and there's always RIT!

    Sheila, of course! there are only a few examples of people with a well-developed personal style on the web that i know of (esp. people with OOTD blogs). plenty of stylish people - but of those with a particular, individual, consistent style you are one of a handful, as far as i'm concerned. i try not to gush (but it's hard sometimes!)

    how lucky am i that you read this blog?!?!? very! steph

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