Rethink Your Stance on Style
Always wear this. Never do that. Women are perpetually fed hard-and-fast rules about what they should or should not do when it comes to fashion. And it’s not just about appealing to our vanity: We are taught to think that acting outside the (often antiquated) lines will negatively affect our social and professional reputations.
But one glance around any room reveals that what works for one person may not apply to another. Bodies, contexts and personal preferences further complicate the rules of dress. Sometimes it pays to break the rules — particularly when it comes to personal appearance. So, which codes of visual conduct are worth rethinking? Here are five myths you can confidently question and stylishly subvert.
Myth: You should take off one accessory before leaving the house.
Truth: In the 1960s, a well-known fashion stylist who went by Mrs. William C. Wench (we know, how quaint) developed a point system for grading appearance. Under her system, every piece you wore was given a numeric value, with a goal of accumulating 10 points per outfit (or more, if you’re taller). You may have heard some version of this system when you were growing up. But it’s time to toss it aside.
Accessorizing is an art form, not a scientific formula. And don’t let that intimidate you. Develop your own system of accessorizing and work it into your work/play rotation. Stacking bracelets or wearing multiple chains would put the antiquated point system off the charts, but is a great way to add some flair to a more conservative work outfit. A loose scarf and some long earrings add bohemian style to a casual jeans and t-shirt uniform.
Myth: You should dress for your body type.
Truth: Most women’s magazines reduce your body to one shape — I’m a triangle! A circle! — when in fact, your body is a collection of multiple shapes and dimensions. Dressing for your “body type” should be less about restriction and more about emphasis and balance.
Have great legs? Some form-fitting leggings with a more voluminous top may be a flattering go-to silhouette. Pronounced collarbones? Work some wide-necked tops into your wardrobe. And no matter if you’re petite or voluptuous, trim-fitting, body-skimming styles are most favorable.
Overly loose clothing will make you look sloppy, not thinner. And if aesthetics alone don’t motivate you, take note that a study found that depressed women gravitate toward baggy clothes, while “happy” clothes are fitted and tailored. Not sure which areas to emphasize? One body part everyone has and should accentuate is the waist. Adding a wide belt adds shape and a layer of polish to every body type.
Myth: You should always match.
Truth: Gone are the days of sweater sets and pre-designed, matchy-matchy “outfits.” Instead, shift your thinking to coordinate in terms of complements, not exact matches. Your grandmother may have prided herself on matching her shoes with her bag, but continuing that tradition will project a matronly conservatism that undermines your attempts to look current and relevant.
Freshen up your look by mixing and matching — patterns, textures, high- and low-end, old and new. This also extends to metals (mixing gold and silver, particularly in multiples, looks intentional, not clueless) and colors (black/blue and brown/black are complementary and look chic punctuated with a pop color or mixed metals). And remember: status is not established by predictable conformity, but rather through clever reimagining.
Mixing is one of the best ways to stand out from your peers and ensure that you look thoughtfully put together, not artificially ready made. Even Emily Post, the grand dame of social rules, who called for matching your “dinner dress” with your stockings and slippers, understood the importance of setting yourself apart visually: “The woman who is chic is always a little different.”
Myth: You should always invest in special occasion pieces.
Truth: The average family spends over $1,000 on prom — which, incidentally, is also the average cost of a wedding dress. (And some dresses can cost several thousand.) From high school through marriage, we are taught that these events should be marked with excessive spending on items you will likely wear only once.
Meanwhile, people scrimp and save for items they wear on a daily basis, like handbags, shoes, and coats. Flip that logic and start doing the inverse: We’ve all heard of Rent The Runway, but don’t just think of it for dress rentals — the company also rents jewelry, bags and shoes, the purchase of which exponentially multiplies your special occasion spending.
Getting married? Little Borrowed Dress, the new bridesmaid dress rental service, is the best gift you can give your bridesmaids. Already have expensive, barely-worn items collecting dust in your closet? Sell them on Poshmark, a site that lets you shop other people’s closets — and sell your own. And when it comes to everyday staples, continue to strategically look for deals, but don’t be afraid to spend a little more on quality.
Myth: No white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.
Truth: Just when I think this antiquated rule has long been ignored, I’ll encounter styling clients who still believe they must follow it. So, let’s set it straight once and for all: Black absorbs light (and heat), while white reflects it. Hence, it makes sense that lighter colors are embraced in the warmer months. However, September — in many parts of the country — remains blistery hot. So why the impractical rule? Elitism.
Late 19th century upper classes visually marked their status with white clothing, which demonstrated their ability to take work-free summer holidays (with no risk of soiling their garments), then put them away after Labor Day. This tradition, unfortunately, trickled into the masses and stuck.
Shades of white in multiple textures, however, can and should make their way into your year-round wardrobe. Ivory corduroys, white cashmere sweaters and winter white dresses with tights look smart and sleek long after temperatures start to drop. Worried you’ll still receive disapproving sneers? Channel your inner Coco Chanel — if wearing white year-round worked for her, it should definitely work for you.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.