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Style Vs Fashion | Manolo for the Big Girl

Style Vs Fashion

You know, I’ve got a confession to make in light of Plumcake’s article of yesterday: I don’t spend a lot of money on my clothes. Why? Because for far too much of my adult life I have teetered on the brink of utter financial ruin. If I need to choose between feeding myself, Mr. Twistie, and the cat for half the month and a pair of great shoes, I’m going with feeding the family. And yes, sometimes that really and truly is the choice.

In the course of my adult life, I have spent more than $100.00 on precisely five wearable items. One of them was my wedding gown. One was a pair of handmade tapestry boots I’ve been wearing the hell out of for the past ten years and change. They’re starting to reach the end of their road, sadly, but they have been my good and sturdy friends for years. One is a silver ring shaped like a bat that I’ve been wearing every single day for some twelve years, now. One is a velvet dress that I worked a weekend for the designer to afford. I even got something like eight bucks in cash in addition to my beautiful velvet dress that makes me feel like a muse and a warrior queen at the same time, yet can be tossed in the washer and dryer without thought after I do housework in it. The last was a really great heather grey wool coat that I wore from 1983 – 1990 when I could no longer fit in it. I wouldn’t change any of those purchases. And if I scrape the cash together again, yes, I would definitely be open to more of these sorts of items.

And yet, despite my budget, I’ve managed to own some amazing clothes in my life. Some of them have gotten just as much wear and given just as much  delight as those five (excellent) purchases. Last year I bought a fabulous chocolate brown silk velvet blouse from Zaftique on sale for twenty-two bucks. I expect to wear it for years to come. Whatever their occasional oddities of design, I have to say that their construction cannot be faulted, and their size chart is accurate.

There is, however, a trick to being a diva on a dime store budget. Funnily enough, it’s the same one to being truly superfantastic on a champagne and caviar budget: you have to have a good eye. This eye needs to know quality when it appears on the horizon and  it needs to quickly spot a good deal in price. Perhaps most of all, though, it needs to know what fits.

I’m not talking about fitting your body. That’s what dressing rooms and size charts (for what they’re worth) and mirrors are for. What I’m talking about is knowing what is your style, as opposed to what happens to be fashionable at the moment.

One season, fashion says that pink is the best color in the world, tweed is king, and nobody should be without Madras plaid  shorts and skinny silver chain jewelry. The next, everything is black, op-art prints, linen, pencil skirts, and chunky enamel jewelry. Change is the point of fashion. If everyone keeps up, then it can’t be used to laugh behind hands at lesser beings who don’t know what’s ‘being done’ this season.

What you want is style.

Style is aware of fashion, but doesn’t really give a fig about it. Style is perfectly content to use the bits of fashion that happen to belong, but discards the rest ruthlessly. Fashion is a whim that must change sharply every few months. Style is slower to morph, and does so at its own pace for its own reasons. Fashion is by its very nature needy. Style is self-sufficient. Fashion requires others to join, whether they will or no. Style is a rugged individualist.

So how do you develop style? You can start with that great inspiration board project Plummy gave us a while back. Find what calls you. What are the colors, shapes, patterns, and textures that you are drawn to. After a short time, you’ll discover what they are.

Once you know what you like in theory, you have to see how it works in reality. This is far more difficult. It means you have to put on your critic’s hat and wear that puppy for all it’s worth and then some. You need to find out for yourself whether that delicious shade of green you keep putting on your inspiration board makes you glow when you put it on your body, or whether it makes you look as though you’re in the final stages of a dread, wasting disease. You need to honestly decide whether those swirly patterns you find so delightful make you look more like the free spirit you see in your head or the deranged escapee from a Grateful Dead revival concert you fear being mistaken for.

While you’re at it, be sure to try on a couple of things that wouldn’t quite make your inspiration board. Play with the scale of the patterns, the shading of the colors, the softness of the textures. Sometimes it’s the thing that isn’t on your board that actually winds up making you feel like you do when you look at the board.

This is the hardest part of developing a personal style. Why? Because you’re going to need to take some of your dreams at this point and stomp them flat. You’re going to need to accept that there are things you love that you will never, ever look good in.

This is also the most exhilarating  step in the process, because this is where you find all the surprises. This is where you learn something fun about yourself. This is where some of your dreams are fulfilled in ways you’d never dreamed they could be. This is where you dare to learn that your favorite color really does look amazingly good on you, or that a look you’d always been told you were ‘too fat’ to carry off is really the most flattering line in the world on you.

Once you know your style, build it slowly. It’s tempting to just dive in and get everything – particularly if you happen to be lucky enough to have the budget to do so – but that’s not as good an idea as it sounds. In a buying frenzy, it’s easy to get so caught up in the excitement that you grab any old thing that might fit into your new style. It’s easy to forget the importance of construction and proper fit. Check the seams and hems, no matter whether you’re buying designer duds or budget blouses. If the construction is no good, it’s not a smart purchase, no matter how inexpensive. If the fit is constrictive or otherwise uncomfortable, you’ll never pull it out of the closet, no matter how pretty it looks on you.

Consider where you will wear the piece/outfit. Do you have an activity or destination for which this piece will be appropriate? Are you making any changes in your life that will allow this previously unusable look to function in your wardrobe? Are you making changes that make this one-time staple an impractical addition? Do you have the accessories you need for the look? Can you get them?

Style is harder than fashion.  Fashion sets out a whole rulebook every few months that tells us precisely how to dress. Style, being more personal takes a great deal more effort. We have to choose what fits, what is our own essence.

Style is freer than fashion. We are not bound by the rules. We create our own.

Whether your budget allows for boutiques or is restricted to thrift stores, though, there’s a way to develop and live in your own style. After all, style is not a price tag. It’s a way of life.

13 Responses to “Style Vs Fashion”

  1. KES June 20, 2009 at 12:15 pm #

    I agree — I am definitely in a feed the husband vs. buy the superfantastic clothes situation… sometimes almost a feed the husband vs. pay the electricity situation! One thing that I will ALWAYS recommend for finding wonderful clothing is finding a really nice thrift/consignment store and scouring them for gently used, well-made, classic pieces. I worked at a thrift store in high school, and while we were definitely thrift, we had a whole section worth of designer/higher end items. The trick here, in addition to avoiding the trendy/not good on you pieces, is not being sucked into the “This is [Big Name Designer] for $10!! Must have!!” when it’s not worth it. I have a gorgeous Ann Taylor silk shift dress in my closet… it is the exact same color as my skin and I look like a sausage every time I wear it. But I got it for $12. ;)

  2. Leah June 20, 2009 at 12:20 pm #

    Sing it, sister.

    Yes, it is MUCH easier to find quality clothing when you are willing to pay for it, and when you can’t, there are some cuts in quality that come with it. And in general, it’s better to save for one thing of quality that will be a pillar in your parthenon of style than to waste money on something that doesn’t fit quite right, doesn’t quite flatter you, and will wear out quickly, even if it is what everyone else is wearing or is what fat-unfriendly designers tell you you should shut up and be satisfied with. But doing the best you can with what you have for who you are right exactly now is what style is all about–being true to what you are today and honoring how great that person is, even if it’s not who you were ten years ago or who you could be ten years from now. Yes, those are important people to honor, too (they were and will be awesome, too) but your style should be about YOU, in the truest moment we know: now. Timeless pieces are great because they appeal to the deepest, truest parts of our sense of style that change least with time, and because they enable us to build upon those foundational statements to express the way our truth changes faster than you can tie that scarf in a way you’ve never worn before. Clothes are a way to tell the story of ourselves to others, to show them who we are–they are a medium, not the message itself.

  3. No Average Days June 20, 2009 at 1:46 pm #

    And That is a little Friday Fierceness for all of us :)

  4. Margo June 21, 2009 at 4:37 am #

    Brilliant post, Twistie. Especially this:
    “Style is harder than fashion. Fashion sets out a whole rulebook every few months that tells us precisely how to dress. Style, being more personal takes a great deal more effort. We have to choose what fits, what is our own essence.”
    Word.

    My little suggestion is, listen to sincere compliments on what you wear (& really, you can feel if a comment is sincere or mean-spirited – your gut will tell you). That’s how I worked out that emerald green was superfantastic on me, that I shouldn’t fear wearing dark colours on my top half – how much did us pears get that drilled ito us? – and that square necklines are the go.

    KES – this may seem nutty, but can the dress be dyed?

  5. Patia June 21, 2009 at 6:33 am #

    Excellent post! I totally agree.

    However, my style strategy is to wear inexpensive cotton knit basics in cuts and colors that flatter me (i.e., lots of black with splashes of my favorite colors). These serve as a simple, comfortable backdrop for my face, hair, shoes and jewelry, which are far more interesting, anyway.

  6. TeleriB June 21, 2009 at 9:36 am #

    I’m not talking about fitting your body. That’s what dressing rooms and size charts (for what they’re worth) and mirrors are for.

    Although this is not exactly a trivial skill, either…

    For me, delusion is easy. If I really like one aspect of a garment, I’m a pro at talking myself out of its drawbacks. It doesn’t button? I’ll just wear it open. The poofy shoulders aren’t really so bad, are they? It binds, but only a little

    One of the best things I’ve learned in the Manolosphere (aside from princess seams as applied to Apples) is the concept of superfantasticness. If I’m contemplating a purchase and I don’t totally and entirely love it, it goes back. (Usually. I’m human, and I err.)

    But it wasn’t easy to learn, and I still fall off that wagon if there’s some detail/fabric/drape/concept that I want to be able to wish into working for me. So I guess it does tie back into style, at that point where you’re making it reality.

  7. Twistie June 21, 2009 at 10:57 am #

    @KES: Oh lordy, but I’ve had a few sausage dresses in my day, too! Inexpensive is not always a deal, even if it’s got a designer label on it.

    @Leah: Absolutely! The medium is not the message when it comes to clothes, hair, and makeup.

    @NoAverageDays: Friday Fierceness is always more dangerous on a saturday.

    @Margo: Audience reaction is every bit as useful when starting out in creating a style as a clear eye and a good mirror. That’s an excellent suggestion!

    @Patia: You’re right. Clothes, hair, etc. should be the backdrop to show you off. The best way to think of it is like a painting. If you put the right painting in the right frame, the frame disappears at first, whether that frame is elaborate or minimal. The same painting in the wrong frame will always look bad, even if the painting and the frame are both great, simply because they do not go together. If you look your best in a very simple ‘frame’ then that’s what works best for you, and you should definitely rock your signature look. Me? I disappear in a minimalist frame. Bright colors and a bit of the Baroque are what make me look like me, both body and soul. Neither is better than the other. Both are valid. In fact, both have every chance to be superfantastic…so long as they go on the right person.

    @ TeleriB: Oh, I never meant to suggest that mirror-gazing wasn’t an important and sometimes tricky skill set to learn! Mostly I wanted to note that it wasn’t the primary focus at that moment. Yes, good mirror skills are vital to good style. And believe me, there are still times when I catch myself thinking that something is gorgeous, and really, I could get the sleeves taken up and the buttons changed and that chances are that I can wear it without gapping if I just hold my breath a little when I sit, and…it ain’t gonna happen. The good news is that most of the time I can stop the crazy talk in my head and put the piece back on the hanger.

    There was a really cute blouse I saw yesterday in an outlet store. It was just my sort of style, and there was even a size that I knew in my heart of hearts would fit me correctly. Alas! It came in only two colors and both of them were far too pink for me. One was trying to be purple and the other was trying to be terra cotta, but they both ran too pink. I’ve tried those shades in the past, and I know they make me look sickly. It tore my heart out, but I put them back and went with a really gorgeous teal knit top (and I tried on three different sizes in three different colors to make sure I got the one that was most ‘me’) that is the perfect top to go with a skirt I love to wear all the time.

    What’s more, I got out of the store for fourteen bucks and change, and that top is beautifully made. It’s going to last a long, long time.

  8. CanadianChick June 21, 2009 at 1:41 pm #

    excellent advice – especially the part about knowing whether or not your dream style actually suits you…

    I would LOVE to be able to wear long floaty crinkly cotton and rayon, embroidered and layered and ethereal…all mother earthy and stuff. I put it on, and it’s horrific on my short waisted, short-heighted, “super eight” figure.

    *sigh*

    So, I try to gather the elements of that style I like (such as fantastic neckline embroidery that highlights my face and decolletage) and put it into something I can wear (a figure skimming tunic and bootcut slacks).

    Ah, but I still dream of the layered, floaty, earth mothery clothes…

  9. La Petite Acadiene June 21, 2009 at 10:44 pm #

    My general rule when thrift store shopping (as I too, am seriously poor), is that if I wouldn’t pay full price for it, I’m not going to pay ANY price for it. It’s quite hilarious, because I often go to the local thrift store with my coworker, who buys tons of cheap trendy crap, whereas I’ll often walk out empty-handed, or maybe with one item. However, I’ve found some real gems. My best find thus far was a Land’s End gray cashmere crewneck sweater, with the TAGS STILL ON! For $2!!! To my mind, style is about being very selective — it’s as much about what you don’t buy as what you do buy.

  10. Patti June 22, 2009 at 8:22 am #

    I guess my problem is that I have a hard time translating styles I love into things I can wear. I have been making look books(instead of boards) for years and I currently have an up to date one, but I can’t translate it into clothes that are flattering for me. I have learned over the years that I like classic, feminine clothes, but the nearest I come to actually being stylish is wearing loads of classic cut clothing, but still that old elusive thing called ‘style’ escapes me. I mean there is such a difference, and I think I understand that, but for me when I shop I’m missing that personal flair that makes a statement about me instead of a statement about what’s in style. I needs some pointers on translating the ideals to real I guess. And also what are plus size girl staples?(you know the things we should all have in our closets)

  11. Twistie June 22, 2009 at 11:27 am #

    @Canadian Chick: And right there you have perfectly hit the essence of dressing for you. You know what speaks to you, and you know how to use it on you, even though there’s another way you’d rather be able to wear it. Congratulations!

    @La Petite Acadiene: Best. Rule. Of. Bargain. Shopping. EVER.

    @ Patti: Okay, you’ve got the basics. You’ve found a general look you love, and you’re getting pieces in that style, and you look good in them, right? If your personal style still isn’t coming together at that point, it’s time to take a hard look at the details. Are the colors the most flattering to you? Could the proportions be improved? How are you accessorizing? Try a few pieces that are almost – but not quite – classic and see if they are really the things that make you shine. Try something utterly outrageous that you normally wouldn’t think of. It may turn out that classic just isn’t what makes you look your best, no matter how much you’re drawn to it. Play with it until you catch yourself feeling really excited by an outfit. Don’t get discouraged. It takes effort and practice, but this should be fun. Go into it with a positive attitude and a sense of humor. Don’t even try on days when you can’t get in the mood. It might not com together for a while, but if you keep trying you’ll find it, and it will be worth the effort.

    As for wardrobe staples, I don’t deal in specific pieces. Every life is different and every woman is different. After all, what use is the perfect cocktail dress to a woman who never goes to cocktail parties?

    Some women can’t imagine life without at least four pairs of jeans, while others make it a point of honor never to own a single pair. And you know what? They’re both right. It’s just they’re right for themselves.

    To find your own staples, you need to think about the life you are living. How do you spend your time? Where do you go? What do you do when you get there? Where do you live? What clothes are practical for your life? How much money/effort do you want to put into their care?

    Ultimately, the clothes should serve you, not the other way around. Don’t concern yourself with x style of pants or x number of skirts in x length. Concern yourself with what clothes will make you feel both comfortable and attractive while walking the dog or going grocery shopping or making a presentation in the big meeting that’s coming up.

    When you know how you’re living, it’s easier to find the clothes that serve that life and still make you feel superfantastic. Then get them in the best quality you can find and afford, and rock your personal signature look.

  12. La BellaDonna June 23, 2009 at 6:34 pm #

    What Twistie Said. (On a red pillow. With black lace.) There really isn’t such a creature as a “staple”, IMO. I dearly love Tim Gunn, and Lloyd Boston is a darling (and not just because he said flattering things about how I looked, either) … but I can spend the rest of my life, happily, without most of their “staples”. Trench coats, CLASSIC trench coats, are vilely unflattering to Pears and Hourglasses, who need both more fit and more flare to be flatterd; slingback shoes on me a re a joke, as they slide off my heels and I noisily clomp to my death; a classic white shirt is not going to flatter the woman who needs cream (although I can wear it, not everyone can); and what on EARTH would I do with a pair of classic black trousers, which are Terra Incognita to me? And jeans. That All-American, heck, Pan-World favorite: I could spend my life and never buy a pair of jeans. Or sneakers.

    But there are women who would be happy with some or all of those garments. There are also women like me who could happily do without them. Part of it is figuring out what your life requires, as well as what you like. And that’s a very tricky figuring: what I like is apparently Christmas-Season Formal Wear. What I require, at this point in my life, is clothes for the office, and clothes for lying on the couch while the cat sheds on me. This is an Important Distinction, so that you don’t spend ALL your money on Art Pieces which you cannot wear (it is OK to spend SOME money on them, though – IF you have the money to spare. Not everyone does, and some of those who do, feel guilty. It is OK to buy a Valentino suit on sale at the consignment shop just because it’s beautifully made – as long as you have SOME clothes to wear).

    Canadian Chick, I TOTALLY understand! There ARE workarounds for the hourglass figure. Keep a sharp eye peeled for skirt SHAPES: no, you cannot wear a straight gathered Indian skirt and look good in it. HOWEVER: keep a sharp eye peeled for those Indian skirts which are cut as either a CIRCLE or a HALF-CIRCLE, because these are shapes which WILL flatter an hourglass or a pear shape (small waist, wide hips). In fact, if you stitch at all, start experimenting: the shape that will look graceful on you is a half-circle skirt, with the seam up the back. Start with cheap fabrics (including circular table cloths!), and find out where you like your hems. You can put a ruffle, or a series of ruffles, on a half-circle skirt; you can buy yards of Indian or peasant embroidered trim to stitch along the hemline. You can wear a peasant blouse under a fitted princess-line jumper, and have sleeves as full as you like – frilled with lace, if you like.

    It’s important to know, not just what you CAN do, but what you WILL do, to alter a garment from “maybe” to MINE! I CAN do virtually anything … but will I? I will be the first to admit that I suffer from Lydia Bennett Syndrome: I WILL buy that new bonnet – and take it home, and rip it apart, and make it up new, with prettier-coloured satin ribbon… some day. But clothes can be taken in, or pieced together, or have sleeves removed – I have a couple of dresses with short sleeves that don’t work with my upper arms. They work just fine after they’ve been slit open all the way up the arm and neatly turned under, though. (And trimmed with a narrow lace, but YMMV.) Trims and lace can be added; non-polyester clothes can be dyed with the appropriate fiber dye. A couple of fabulous jackets that fit everywhere BUT the front (a small gap at the waist, and a BIG gap at the bust) are going to have false waistcoat fronts (aka stomachers) made for them.

    You do have to figure out what it is that you like, though. Figure that out FIRST, regardless of your size. Once you have an idea, you can figure out ways to apply it to your own figure, and your own requirements for the life you lead. And don’t beat yourself up for the occasional mistake; heaven knows I’ll still buy something that’s a beautiful colour … but not for me. Or beautifully made, if I can afford it … even if I’m unlikely to wear it. (This is NOT the same thing as buying something for an occasion that may come up some time in your future, even if you don’t need it next week; that’s Planning Ahead.)

    I found, really, that for me, the greatest Secret To Style was learning to look in the mirror and say “No”. Just because a dress was beautiful, and in a colour I loved, but looked VILE on me …. No. Not going to bring it home. The time for me to stop deluding myself was in front of the mirror – but I also found that it was worth it to at least TRY things on first.

    Oh, and the fact that something’s cheap? Worst POSSIBLE reason to buy it. (Or to wear it, once you’ve bought it.) Do you want the keynote of your personal style to be cheapness? No, I didn’t think so. (N.B.: Do not conflate “cheap” with “bargain”; they are two very, very different things.) Buy the things that you love – or you will be forced to love the things that you buy. It’s better to have a small handful of things that you love, than a wardrobe full of nothing you like.