“Fashion is what you’re offered four times a year by designers. And style is what you choose.”
Style icon Lauren Hutton’s famous quote rings true except that we average women don’t get designer offerings any time of the year and we have the added challenge of hacking through the jungle of over-stocked fashion outlets to find the most basic of items. Whoever has time to find their style?
Take it from me, a just-turned-40-year-old who finally found her style midway through that last decade. My interest in fashion pre-dated this by 30 years (according to Mum) and I’d worked at Vogue in my early to mid-30s, always careful not to let the big-deal fashion team see me mentally deconstructing their outfits (mostly Prada LBDs). I knew what I liked on others: my favourite fashion editor there eschewed the black, had candy pink hair before it was a thing and did high-low, clashing prints and mad vintage as well as Prada.
“Fashion you can buy, but style you possess.” Another famous quote, this time by a woman who didn’t do pared back like Hutton. Iris Apfel found her (beyond fabulous) style years before she became famous for it in her 90s. She recently told Vanity Fair she still wears the dress she wore on her first date with her husband 68 years ago. We are to bow before her at the altar of sartorial self-expression and her style advice amounts to “attitude, attitude, attitude”.
“The key to style,” she says, “is learning who you are, which takes years. There’s no how-to roadmap to style.”
This may be true, but self-awareness (as opposed to self-consciousness) is key and hence real style often evolves once we stop caring what others think and start carefully considering what we feel great in and why. For me, it started with colour. I used to wear every shade of the spectrum until I realised they didn’t all flatter my skin tone. I worked out I’m an autumn girl by assessing which outfits I returned to most often. I disciplined myself from then to steer clear of cold colours. Next, I finally accepted my Pear shape and deciphered which styles in my wardrobe flattered me. I’m self-conscious of my bare legs so admitted defeat on the short shorts, despite being a fan. I stuck to midi and went shorter in winter with wool tights. I made the most of my shrunken postpartum boobs with blousy, retro ruffles and pussy bows, the likes of which busty women might avoid. It wasn’t just about flattering and hiding though – I threw caution to the wind in high-waisted skinnies because my post-35 self could no longer dis the derriere (praise be!).
Jane Birkin, who earned her style icon badge in jeans and tees, once said: “I think women only start to really look like themselves after they turn 30. That’s when a girl first dares to be her own age, show her bare face, and not just dress for boyfriends or husbands.”
Fashion – and the idea of a unique personal style – took on a renewed importance for many women in the 1990s as they pored over episodes of Sex and the City. Carrie Bradshaw – or rather the show’s costume designer Patricia Field – represented the ultimate meeting between fashion and style. Field encouraged women to have fun with fashion – embrace fantasy and break rules – but mostly revealed in Carrie the power of confidence, of owning your style.
Most of you might not feel comfortable tottering down a busy city street in a tutu, but we can all find our own take on the pink tulle of SATC’s opening credits. Decide what items in your current wardrobe feel good (not activewear or PJs), break their qualities down to a formula of colour, style and fit, then make it your mission to duplicate that formula. That will probably mean searching for quite specific items, which is easy now we have our online platforms, and it might mean a little more time and money invested. It might even mean finding a good tailor to adjust clothes to your newly exacting standards. Over time you will build on that basic formula and develop a uniform of sorts, a go-to look that never fails. Your confidence will evolve and your personality (and attitude) will be revealed through your clothes. One day, you’ll walk into a room and have no idea you’re being admired.