Saw this the other day on xoJane. Love it. I don’t know who said it, and it’s a good place to start when it comes to understanding the difference between fashion and style. There are, though, a few more subtle ideas in the whole “fashion vs. style” distinction that a whole lot of us either don’t learn or have a hard time understanding. Here’s how I’ve come to understand the difference between the two….
Fashion is the mode of dress associated with particular time periods. The 20th century, the one most of us understand, had amazing fashion decades–not just fashion time periods that lasted oh, 20 or 50 years or so, but crazy 10 year increments. Hemlines were up, then down, then up, then bolstered by huge crinolines. Then way, way up where your underwear could be seen. Then down, then somewhere in between. But then shoulders got so big that one’s earrings could easily rest on them.
In the 60′s it was mini-skirts for all.
The funny thing, though, is that not much in fashion has changed since sometime in the late 1990′s. Oh, sure, young women aren’t walking around in Doc Martens, and I gave up my long, tiny floral print dresses for “body conscious” graphic prints, but our casual wear–or what most people wear on a daily basis–remains jeans and tee-shirts. As a friend recently said on Facebook, a picture from a bunch of people in a bar sometime in the 80′s looks pretty much like a picture of people in a bar today. Except maybe no mullets.
Perhaps the two things that will be remembered about the early days of the 20th century are monster high heels for women–the kind only strippers used to wear– and beards on men–the kind that only lumberjacks used to wear. If you’ve been a young adult person during this time, these are the two things that you’ll probably most remember, the same way you’ll remember how much Katy Perry annoyed a whole lot of people and why on earth you bought that Hot Chelle Ray CD (sorry Hot Chelle Ray…)
Steve Madden “Deeny” platform pumps, which you can buy right now at Macy’s.com (where you can’t buy health insurance in case you break an ankle with these.)
Fashion is essentially what ties our memories to a particular time in our lives. That “time” is mostly when we are young adults, when we can wear just about anything that anyone dishes up can be bought super-cheap in “fast fashion” stores like Forever 21 and Zara (they used to be called “knockoff shops.”)
This is also the period in our lives when we begin to form an image of ourselves and begin to understand who we are and who we might be in the adult world. Sometime, our identities get caught up in The Times, and when The Times move on–when Hippies are no longer hip, or New Wave becomes Grunge, or whatever–we essentially “lose” our style. What really happens is we have confused Fashion with Style.
So, what, then is style (and what , too, are those ways we used to dress?)
Style is the way in which you “mash up” fashion–be it past, present, jeans or dresses or suits–with your own personality and aesthetic (or artistic) sense. It’s where some women will wear A-line skirts because that cut is both “in” fashion right now, looks good on them, may be in a color they happen to like, and goes along with how they feel about themselves. It’s also how some women will wear very short skirts that barely cover their butts because the skirts are “in” fashion, and perhaps say something about how they feel about themselves. Same way a guy with a beer belly may walk around the beach in a Speedo….that’s just his style (much to the chagrin and visual horror to the rest of us.)
Ok, some folks don’t have an “artistic” sense–nor do they have a sense of what fits best on their bodies. And yes, we can see that in the way they dress. They may love their “style,” but it might not be much of a style. Most of us though have a sense of how we want others to see and perceive us, and we use our clothing to express that as much as we use clothes to express ourselves. Sometimes our “style” gets dictated by where we end up working, or the role we take in our family lives. There is a “mommy” style (most noted by “mom jeans” for a particular “mom” age group) as much as there’s a corporate “look” or a “look” associated with tech geeks, etc. People will wear a “look” because it lets others in the group know that they, too, belong in that group.
But sometimes one’s style sends the wrong message to a group. Here’s an example of my own bad style judgement: when I worked in social media, I had the opportunity to speak to groups of local business executives. I noticed that the men wore mostly charcoal or navy suits, white shirts, and a basic kind of tie. What distinguished some from others was the cost or tailoring of their suits. For the women, they wore either suits or dresses. Both clothing and shoes came from better stores, and outfits were also tailored. The first time I spoke to a group like this, I made a gigantic faux pas and wore a kitschy tee shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. I didn’t realize that, if one is going to speak to a group of business executives and business owners about something brand new in business, one would be best heard if he/she is dressed like the group.
Sure, the whole tee shirt and cowboy boots thing *was* my “style” at the time, but it wasn’t going to project the image I needed. Nor did it adequately project who I am. Thing is, that style at that time was a default–a choice because I didn’t quite know where I was, nor who the people in the group were and what they were about.
They say that clothes don’t mean anything–just be who you are and everything will go fine. Especially if you are wicked smart and on the “cutting edge.” They are totally wrong. Clothes mean a lot. Clothes can make or break you, and perhaps your reputation, if you are an unknown quantity in a group–which was a big lesson for me.
Clothing really does indeed make the man (or, in my case, NOT make the woman….)
Others, however, learn the lessons of clothing earlier. So, what happens is that we adapt what we see of fashion–of modern modes of dress–to fit the group that we are part of professionally or personally or both. This can lead to having more than one wardrobe: causal for “down time” and professional for “work.”
For some folks this is fine, and it all kind of meshes with who they are, their lifestyle, etc. It’s the guy who wears a suit all week, then doesn’t wash his hair and wears tie-dyed tees on the weekend. Or the woman who still wears “court shoes” with her business suits. But this way of being, can also lead to massive wardrobe dissatisfaction and a sense of loss of identity for some others Yeah, I know that’s a bit strong, that latter part there, but it happens. We settle for a “serious” job that pays well, and immediately follow The Rules for how to dress for that job. Or the “fashion” changes and we don’t quite know who we’ve become without that fashion. Or some other life circumstance changes us in some way–sometimes it’s just that our body changes–and we’re not quite sure what looks right, or what fits right, or we are really REALLY disappointed in what we see in stores that is offered to our particular age demographic. “That’s not ME,” we say. Yet we don’t quite know who is ME beyond that man or woman that we were back before whatever it was changed us.
So, this may seem a far-flung way to get back around to the idea of style–and it all comes down to this: Style starts not with fashion, but with YOU. If you are unhappy with how you are dressing at any time, if you are looking at yourself in a mirror and think “what happened to ME? where’s the ME in all these clothes?” you just might not know enough about who you are in your life, at any given time. Or, you might be wildly dissatisfied with how your life’s been going.
Style is a whole lot more than clothing, and while people can help you figure out what looks good on you as far as colors and cuts of clothing, no one can give you a style out of a box or book that you will ever feel completely comfortable wearing every day. All of that is up to you.
If you want to find out more about the whole fashion and style thing, I’d suggest reading 101 Things I learned in Fashion School. I love this little book and have learned so much from it. Have Fun!