From Vera Wang to Iris Apfel
What are you known for? Perhaps it’s your cleverness or your precision. Or maybe your sense of humor. Whatever it is that sets you apart, it pays to align those noteworthy qualities with the look you’re projecting. Your personal image has the power to be far more than a superficial facade: Cultivating a consistent, signature appearance boosts your confidence, as well as how you’re perceived and treated by colleagues and clients.
And while your look should be your own, that doesn’t mean you can’t take some style cues from other successful women. Fashion faux pas often garner the most attention, but it’s worth examining the savvy choices of those who are most under fire and subject to scrutiny. Here’s a guide to borrowing the signature styles of six women who’ve developed a winning personal fashion formula to stand out from the crowd.
The couture bridalwear designer favors sleek minimalism in her everyday life — a marked contrast to the wedding gowns that have made her famous. Her personal style is a mix of architectural lines and luxe fabrics, with a commitment to comfort. Drape is as important to her own look as it is to her designs, and a bit of extra fabric can make all the difference when it comes to how something hangs on the body — so she will occasionally buy a piece that is a size or two larger than necessary, to achieve the desired drape (note: only use that tactic if you have a keen eye for proportions and fit — otherwise you will just look like you’re wearing something that is too big for you!).
Her color palette is narrow, sticking primarily to neutrals like black, grey, tan and cream. And her famously makeup-free fresh face keeps her entire look unfussy, yet consistently elegant. But despite her minimalist aesthetic, Wang is hardly a Plain Jane. She infuses her look with a bit of punk rock influence, so you’ll often see some edgier accessories or details subtly peeking out. Layers allow her to further complicate these otherwise simple stylings by adding texture and changing up proportions.
Borrow her look: Streamline your appearance by creating a minimalist, stand-out look with neutral colors and soft, draping layers. Find unique points of interest in carefully curated accessories. This sleek uniform is worthy of daily wear and promises to retain ageless appeal.
Ellen has a certain universal appeal and her sense of style is no exception. While she started her career in oversized blazers and suits, she’s gradually refined her style into an enviably chic look. Her general theme is menswear-inspired tailored clothing with the androgynous foundation as the springboard for many of her own personal touches — from striped belts and suspenders to polka dot scarves and loosely rolled pants. Ellen’s attention to detail offers style inspiration for both women and men.
Tailoring is a key component of what makes Ellen’s wardrobe work for her, but she’s a prime example of how tailoring need not equate with stiffness. The clothing fits trim, yet retains a SoCal-inspired quality, making her the perfect balance of laid back and polished — which is perhaps best exemplified by her sneaker/suit combos.
Borrow her look: Start with a foundation of tailored separates — blazers, slacks, button downs — and soften them by mixing in cashmere v-neck sweaters and boldly-colored, skinny pants. Keep it clean and classic with a slightly preppy slant, but don’t forget the playful details.
Female politicians are amongst the most heavily scrutinized public figures. Every aesthetic choice they make — from their glasses to their pantsuits — becomes fodder for criticism that often overshadows the more pressing issues they’d prefer to highlight. Therefore many women in politics try to visually hide behind a neutral sartorial shield, hoping to minimize their role as an aesthetic object — which makes Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s commitment to stand-out style all the more impressive.
In a sea of men awash in dark shades of grey and navy, Pelosi’s commitment to colorful suits reminds them she’s not there to blend in. Her rainbow-hued assortment of tailored, designer suits is attention-grabbing, for all the right reasons. She tempers the boldness of her color selection by keeping her jewelry more conservative, often wearing a simple beaded necklace that hits right at the collarbone. She’s even been known to pop her collar on her blazer to reveal a contrast color underneath. This woman is not afraid of being noticed, and she uses her high visibility as a pulpit for being heard.
Borrow her look: If you work in a male-dominated field, don’t feel like you have to look like “one of the guys” to be effective. Let Congresswoman Pelosi’s colorful-yet-sophisticated aesthetic inspire you. Consider adding an eye-catching suit to your collection of blacks and greys — perhaps it’s in a bold color, or maybe a classic pattern or fabric, like a houndstooth or a tweed. And when in doubt: pop your collar.
The tech industry does not generally conjure images of designer labels and high-fashion, but Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is resetting the standard for style in Silicon Valley. This coding whiz has developed her own winning formula for her personal aesthetic: bright, patterned dresses and full skirts, paired with her signature cashmere bolero sweaters — she adds a new color to the collection each season.
She favors high-end designers like Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera (which, when you’re worth $300 million, is not out of reach). She embraces florals and all things feminine, further differentiating her from her male counterparts, most of whom favor a jeans and t-shirt dress code. Despite her love of fashion and “clothes horse” reputation, this glamour geek’s intelligence is never put into question.
Borrow her look: Mayer proves it pays to be over-dressed. Even if you work in a more casual environment, set a personal goal to step up your style game. Looking sharp signals to co-workers that your work will be equally impressive. Dresses are a particularly great way to elevate your look, as they’re both visually striking and fuss-free.
First Ladies are neither elected nor paid, and yet their jobs come with an enormous amount of pressure. By most standards and critics, Michelle Obama has not only embodied her role with elegance and grace, but also set a new standard for fashion amongst First Ladies and First Families. Ever the pragmatist, Obama’s look is perhaps most widely known and appreciated for expertly mixing high and low-end designers, proving that even less expensive items can flourish in high-visibility contexts.
She purchases items off the rack, just like the average person, then blends them with often-donated custom pieces from designers (many of whom are smaller and previously lesser-known, or hail from her hometown of Chicago). She’s also been known to do the impossible and re-wear items, despite the high-profile photo splash each outfit receives (a testament to her ability to reimagine and transform each piece). Hardly the typical pearl-wearing FLOTUS, Obama favors fashion-forward pieces that accentuate her healthy body and have a hint of edginess.
Borrow her look: Invest in striking, high-quality basics, then strategically mix in less expensive items that don’t diminish the overall polish of your outfit. And if you adapt just one fashion tip from the First Lady of Style: embrace belts. Obama is often seen with a statement waist belt, cinching and accentuating her midsection over everything from dresses to sweaters to blouses.
This nonagenarian designer and trendsetter continues to be an enviable fashion icon and perpetual source of aesthetic — and life — inspiration. Renowned for her irreverent style sensibility, Apfel was celebrated in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, aptly called “Rara Avis.”
Her signature oversized glasses are the cornerstone of the wild outfits she constructs. The self-proclaimed “geriatric starlet” favors big accessories worn in multiples, stacked on layers of colors and patterns. A consummate rule-breaker, Apfel professes to only buy what makes her happy, not what’s currently trending. “You don’t find out who you are unless you work at it,” she told Elle magazine when reflecting on the path to discovering one’s own uniqueness. Her love of accessories has led to a Home Shopping Network line of jewelry, handbags, and shoes and her own line of Eyebobs sunglasses.
Borrow her look: Becoming your own version of the “rara avis” may seem contradictory to your quest to establish authority and maintain professionalism, but strategic rule-breaking can actually distinguish you. And sometimes we need a little reminder to have fun and wear the unexpected.
Apfel’s irreverent style feels like the personification of Jenny Joseph’s poem, “Warning,” which famously proclaims, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat which doesn't go.” With age often comes a license to take risks — but challenge yourself to wear your version of “purple” far before you self-describe as “old.”
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.