What is Style?

Fashion communicates; style says something.

The way we look, the clothes we wear, they say something to the world. They can, and do, broadcast how we view ourselves, how we want others to view us, and so many other things.

Like it or not, we do judge each other based on our clothes. And I don’t think this has to be an entirely bad thing. The more we become aware of this judgment- how we judge others and how others judge us- the more we can control exactly how we are viewed by others. There is something powerful about being able to tell the world who you are; it is certainly better than the alternative of the world telling you who to be.

Take a look at the people in these pictures:

What did you immediately think about these people? Perhaps you made assumptions about the type of work they do, where they’re headed, or what their financial status is.

Now, what about these people? Maybe you assumed something about their political views, taste in music, or orientation.

I could go on with examples of people from every category of fashion and style but I think you understand my point. The point is, how we look communicates something to the viewer. Their assumptions may or may not be accurate and we may or may not care about the messages we are sending out or how those messages are received anyways.

However, an important question to ask ourselves is why does it have to mean anything at all? Why can’t our clothes and our style just be that? Why do we all have to go around making judgments and assumptions?

My theory is that the answer is rather simple. People notice differences. And people want to know “why.”

The first group of people in the pictures appear more similar to each other than they do to the people in the second group of pictures. Likewise, the people in the second group of pictures look more similar to each other than they do to the people in the first group. Imagine a person from the second group walking about the city with the people in the first group. Onlookers would be able to tell, “One of these is not like the others.” The same would be said if a person from the first group was walking about with the people in the second group.

Ok D, so they’re obviously different. So what? Why do differences have to mean anything other than the fact that they’re different?

Well Internet Friend, that brings me to my second point: people want to (and I would argue they have a need to) know why.

Why. It’s practically the first word we learn as children. And although we may stop the annoying repetition of the word aloud continuously, I think that we as people never truly grow out of the need to know why.

Why didn’t I get into my dream college? Why wasn’t I good enough?

Why did they break up with me? What went wrong?

Why can’t people just mind their own business?

Why did the Nazis feel the need to kill all of the Jews?

Why do people get so upset over their stupid coupons?

I could go on; it never ends. Humans have an innate desire, or need, to make sense out of things. If we understand things, then things make sense and if things make sense, we can carry on with our lives and we won’t be stuck wondering about the infinite possibilities. Trying to think about anything that’s infinite gets rather tedious. Being a human is hard enough without having to think about infinite possibilities for every occurrence; we’ve just got to make things easier on ourselves.

So, when we see people who are different, I believe the subconscious reaction is to try to figure out why. Those people look different. Why do they look different? Now here’s where things get interesting.

When we are each attempting to answer this “why?” question, we don’t always come up with the same answers. Answers are likely to be similar within cultures and age ranges but even still, there will always be a tiny minority of people who don’t reach the same conclusion as everyone else. However, this minority will likely be aware that their conclusions are the minority opinion and of what the majority opinion really is, whether it’s because they’ve been informed of the majority opinion through the media, comments made by a friend or family member, or some other means. So, how is it that a majority of people (within cultures and age groups) can generally come up with the same conclusions?

Answering this question requires an understanding of fashion throughout history and some of these things still hold true today.  I could go into all sorts of detail (and I will, another time) but here are three basics of the mechanisms behind the conclusions make about people’s style.

  1. Clothes can denote social class and financial status.
  2. Clothing can give people a glimpse of what you do.
  3. Clothing shows how much you know about current trends and styles of dress and how well you can make these styles and trends work for you.

In terms of social and financial status, a person will often possess both in equal measure. For example, the most socially prestigious jobs- doctor, lawyer, CEO, investment banker- are often the jobs with the highest pay. In addition to social and financial status, what all the people in these occupations possess is a similar style of dress. The men of such professions are likely to wear and suit and tie. (Doctors will usually replace their suit jacket for a white lab coat and the other most notable exceptions to this would be Silicon Valley tech executives ie. Mark Zuckerberg, who are literally too rich to give a shit and have actually turned their uniform wardrobe into a status symbol of its own.) The women of these professions will usually wear a women’s suit with a skirt or pants, or a nice, knee length dress with pumps or a similarly elegant style of footwear, and a high end handbag.

What both the men and women have in common is their affinity for neutral colors (black, white, navy, grey, khaki), simple and elegant jewelry, watches, tie clips, and cufflinks, and the high quality, conservative design of their clothing. A person may be wearing a suit but if it is ill-fitting, the threads are coming loose, and the material looks and feels cheap, no one will be mistaking him or her for a lawyer.

Another hallmark of financial and social status is the color of clothing that is chosen. Most people of the aforementioned professions don’t wear bright, neon colors. Whether that’s because quality manufacturers don’t make their clothing in bright colors or if it’s because people of a certain status don’t buy them is irrelevant; it’s a classic “chicken or the egg” question. My guess is that most people who have achieved a certain status don’t feel the need to draw excessive attention to themselves with bright or unusual clothing because ultimately, their achievements speak for them. And when was the last time you’ve ever seen a lawyer in a bright yellow suit or a hot pink dress?

No, Elle Woods doesn’t count; she is a mythical goddess who could make even a neon pink muumuu look polished. (And even so, most people would agree that open toed shoes in a courtroom is never appropriate.)

Now contrast all of this with someone who is not wealthy or who is “poor” or who does not have a high social status. What type of person comes into your head; what do they look like?

Most people would assume that these people do not have financial abundance or social prestige. These people very well could be the heirs to an oil fortune or an international holding company so why is it that those would be the last things we would assume about these people? What exactly makes them look “poor,” what makes a nice suit look “rich” and what makes these people-

– look decidedly “middle class”? (I might even call this family upper middle class in terms of their outfits.)

Clothing that makes the wearer appear poor or “low class” is clothing that would definitely not be allowed in a professional environment. Such clothing includes items that show a large amount of skin, graphic t shirts, denim, baseball hats, clothes with stains, rips, or holes, and even poorly styled, messy hair and unclean nails. The rationale behind this is that if someone does not appear to work in a professional environment, we assume that they do not in fact work in a professional environment. Therefore, if they do not work in a professional environment, then they must not have a well paying job and are probably poor.

“Middle class” clothing is a bit harder to define. We all know it when we see it, like in the picture above, but it what makes it harder to figure out it is that it combines elements from both “rich” and “poor” styles. A person with a “middle class” appearance will wear more casual clothes that wouldn’t be allowed in a professional environment such as denim, shorts, bright colors, or a baseball hat. However, they still do not reveal an excessive amount of skin, they do keep their hair styled well, and the quality of their clothing will be mid to high end with no excessive signs of wear such as stains, holes, or (unintentional) rips.

In addition to communicating social and financial status, clothing can also tell people what you do or what you like. People who are engaged in a sport will dress more sporty (although it can be hard to determine this with the rise of athleisure; nearly everybody is wearing those Three Stripe Adidas pants), people who enjoy hiking or mountain climbing will probably wear cargo shorts more so than those who don’t, people who enjoy surfing will most likely wear tropical patterned clothes or swimsuits. A sports fan will be more likely to wear their team’s hat, jersey or hoodie. People will wear what they like and what is conducive to the activities they like so, the activities they enjoy can be reflected in their outfits.

Clothing also shows whether or not you’re “with the times.” “Those low rise bootcut jeans are so 2002.” Being up to date with current fashion styles shows that you are not stuck in the past trying to relive your best years or that you believe that a matching velour tracksuit with bejeweled text on the backside really does make your butt look better.

In addition to this, wearing clothing appropriate for the occasion shows that you possess social awareness and that you respect the environment you are in, the event you are attending and the host of said event as well as the fact that you have made an effort. Furthermore, keeping up with modern styles of fashion (without feeling as if you need to chase down every trend) instead of staying in the past will keep you looking, and feeling, young. Staying with old styles out of a false belief that it looks good or just out of sheer stubbornness will age you; stubbornness is a trait largely associated with old people and trying to hard to cling to your youth is a *total* fashion faux pas. All of this, simply put, points to whether or not you have a modicum of self awareness about what truly looks good on you, how old you actually are, and what time you are living in.

Putting effort into your outfit is a way to show that you are not careless with yourself and your appearance. When people think you have been careless with your appearance, they are likely to assume you are a careless person all around, even though it may be the furthest thing from the truth.

I remember a time when I was younger (elementary school age) and my aunt and uncle and cousins were in from out of state. We were all in the living room and we kids were getting rowdy. God know why, but I had been watching the blur of the lights on the Christmas tree as I twirled around for what felt like an eternity before finally stopping. All the other children had disappeared and had left me and my uncle in the living room. “I am so obnoxious!” I slurred in my dizziness.

“You’re not obnoxious, you’re beautiful. Don’t let anyone tell you that.” my uncle said to me.

That really stuck with me, partly because it was so kind and unexpected but also because I was so confused. He was so serious about it too, I thought I was in a bit of trouble.

I had thought obnoxious meant “tired.” I bring this up to point out that although you may think you’re saying one thing, what you’re actually communicating is entirely different. We are constantly communicating without ever opening our mouths.

Our fashion speaks, so watch your mouth back.

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