In a stressful and troubled world, it’s a fair question: Does style matter? And if it does, why?
For millions of us, style is important. Very important. And for a surprising number of reasons.
Doesn’t style serve a multitude of purposes? Don’t we enjoy style as a broad range of creative activities and businesses, as a means of self-expression, as a method for distinguishing or differentiating ourselves? Isn’t style a tool for reinforcing or encouraging a particular state of mind? Isn’t it critical to first impressions for dating, mating and substantiating profession and position?
For millions of men and women, we revel in our personal style as revealed in our homes, our cuisine, the way we speak and of course, the way we dress. Having just enjoyed fashion month — New York, London, Paris, Milan — how many of us have followed with interest, if not passion?
What does style say about us as people? About our priorities? About our pleasures? What might psychologists have to say about our need for the identity we find in expressing elements of personal style?
Passion for Fashion?
As children, some of us gravitate toward certain colors, patterns, textures and shapes, while others may pay little mind to the aesthetics of their surroundings or clothing. I cannot explain it, but I have certainly observed it, and by the time children become preteens, many have already experimented with if not established elements of their personal style.
I have always adored bottomless blues and rambunctious reds. No, non, and nyet to pastels! And might I add… Give me a Barcelona chair over Louis XV any day.
I also loved bold, graphic designs, and gravitated toward them even as a child — from wallpapers, fabrics and linens (stripes, dots, op art and Marimekko come to mind) to the clothing I preferred, which was not necessarily the prevailing pink, girly, ruffly kind.
When I finally left home to attend college, it was a relief to feel freed from the requirements of my mother’s taste, able to discover and express my own.
Color and Pattern to Soothe the Savage Beast
From the shirts on our backs to the interiors that enhance performance and attitude, style can soothe the weary spirit if not the savage beast. After a tough day? If you drop me into a space that sings to me in colors and line that I like, my heartbeat slows, my blood pressure drops, and my mood is immediately elevated.
Style also serves as motivation for some of us. For example, undertaking a DIY project or saving up for a piece of furniture or accessory for the home can encourage us to shed, clean, and organize, or to toil extra hours for the money to afford what we want.
The Carrot and the (Style) Stick
Recently, I’ve been using matters of style in two ways. How, exactly?
First, as alluded to above, I’m motivating myself toward healthy change. Specifically, this means good eating habits and when possible, a suitable walking routine. My fashion target: wearing some of my favorite items hanging in my closet that have been too long neglected. These tops, jackets and much loved skirts help me feel like my best self, which is something I’ve missed in the past 18 months.
Secondly, as one who doesn’t easily relax, the pleasures of design and style are a very satisfying distraction. They’re almost as contentment-inducing as a dose of Real Housewives or a Bette Davis movie marathon.
In case you’re wondering, Dictionary.com defines style as:
… the way in which something is done: good or bad style; the manner in which something is expressed or performed, considered as separate from its intrinsic content, meaning, etc.; a distinctive, formal, or characteristic manner of expression in words, music, painting, etc.; elegance or refinement of manners, dress, etc.
The Importance of Style to Sense of Self
To the extent that a certain type of wardrobe allows us to fit in — whether jeans and t-shirts in college or tailored suits as we step onto the speaking circuit ten years later — we are costuming ourselves to say “trust me in this role,” “here is where I belong,” or possibly, “here is where I would like to belong.”
Moreover, this act of dressing the part is a sign of respect. If you’re invited to the White House, do you attend in cut-offs, clunky shoes and an oversize sweater? Doesn’t what we wear affect how others perceive us? More importantly, doesn’t it affect how we see ourselves — and the resulting behavior?
I find this Sydney Morning Herald article on style psychology particularly interesting and relevant.
Examining issues of fashion and style, the article tackles the “influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.” Consider the way we stand up straighter in a well-tailored suit or the manner in which our sultrier side exudes that “je ne sais quoi” in something sexy slipped into for an evening cocktail with an attractive partner. And what about the uniforms we wear to our jobs — from a lab coat to overalls?
Social Psychology Tells Us…
Referencing a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the article describes the practice of fashion psychology as
… relatively new, with only a handful of people in the world claiming to be fashion psychologists… This niche group of professionals apply psychological theories to what we wear, understanding that our clothing choices impact not only our own thoughts and emotions, but also those of the people we come in contact with.
Dawn Karen, the expert cited in the article, is a New York-based fashion psychologist. Among her clients:
… CEOs, politicians, judges and entertainers. What she provides is more than a makeover, it’s a complete mind-body transformation.
What Our Wardrobes and Environments Say About Us
Reading between the lines in the article cited, many of us may be more psychologically driven to make certain style choices (or avoid others) than we realize. By way of example, I may gravitate to clean, sleek, albeit comfortable pieces in interiors because I am a small woman, and do not like to feel overwhelmed by my surroundings. My dislike for certain colors (in clothing or room design) is in sharp contrast to my mother’s… she adored yellow and green, neither of which I care for.
Might our choices in hair, wardrobe, and accessories be driven by fear of presenting ourselves in certain ways? Concern over the opinions of others? Could we be unaware of more natural or effective alternatives?
Ms. Karen’s specialized combination of fashion industry expertise and psychology can be very helpful.
She also notes:
… it’s not always a happy ending for Karen’s clients like the television makeover shows would have you believe. For many clients follow-up appointments are required so they don’t slip back into old habits and their old clothes.
“A suit is only a suit. Quite often clients don’t feel worthy of fulfilling the persona of an outfit. You have to tap into the underlying issues,” she says.
Why ARE We So Drawn to Fashion and Style?
As I return to my opening thoughts on how and why style is important, I conclude that style matters as a means to discover identity, to express ourselves, to fit in, to stand out, to attract others, to avoid others, to create mood, to compensate for insecurities, to adhere to necessary uniforms of professionalism and authority, to comfort ourselves, to aspire and to inspire.
Certainly, fashion and style also allow us to have fun!
Considering all these roles, surely we should take a moment to reconsider those women who abide by all sorts of unwritten rules concerning what they should and shouldn’t wear. They limit themselves to colors, patterns, shapes, and hemlines based on age, height, weight and more. I readily admit my own tendency to avoid certain fashion choices because I’m convinced they “make me look fat” — tapping into insecurities that go back to childhood.
And I greatly admire those women who march to their own fearless fashionable tune, all the while being appropriate in their work modes and accomplishing both with confidence and panache.
To those who knowingly restrict their choices, wouldn’t we wish them women a greater degree of freedom in their options? Wouldn’t we wish them — us — the pleasure of taking more risk?