What is style? Is it the same as being fashionable and how do you know if you have it? Luke Leitch examines the most elusive of art of being 'in style'.
Style? It’s complicated. For which we should give thanks. Because if having personal style was simple, then everybody would have it – which means nobody would. True style is the opposite of simple: it is a malleable commodity that shifts and twists and constantly changes. As Jean Cocteau observed: “Style is a way of saying complicated things.” Style’s meaning is more elusive and layered than its single-syllable outfit can ever relay.
Style is contrarian: the more you want it, the less you are likely to actually have it – and vice versa. The reason for this is that style is entirely dependent on attitude, which is in turn powerfully prefigured by the manner in which we choose to wear what we wear. The things with which we garland ourselves – clothes, watches, pieces of jewellery, shoes, perfumes – are never entirely original. A handmade couture dress or a bespoke pocket watch might be unique items in themselves, but they are the products of centuries of convention and consensus. As the great beard-stroking style philosophers would have it, they are signifiers which, when worn, provide punctuation marks in the message of you – they are the visual hieroglyphs that enable any onlooker to read you, and which also to an extent reveal how you choose to write yourself.
So that’s why attitude is so important. When you choose what to wear and how to accessorise you are shaping not just a look, but a message – and the meaning of this message is the image of you. For it to be true, you must choose it with absolute conviction. And the most convincing reason to choose anything in life is because you love it.
Why would you pair, say, a diamond choker with a Barbour, or a Richard Mille Tourbillon with a pair of Nike Huaraches? These are questions only you can answer – and you have to answer them truly. The point is that when, for whatever reason, you go about the business of acquiring new things to wear you should focus as much on yourself as on the objects. Always try them on, then take a look in the mirror. Not only to assess the physical details of size and fit – which are very important, of course – but also to ask yourself “Does this look good on me and do I look good in it?” As you answer this question, keep looking in that mirror. To determine whether you are compatible with the object you must look mercilessly at yourself until you know, for sure, that that image of you is one you are happy with. Feeling even the tiniest doubt or the slightest niggle is your red flag: don’t buy it. Because that doubt will always sabotage your ability to wear it well. If however, you are utterly sure that the person in the reflection looks just as you would wish, then head straight for the cash tills.
Style is not a science because it has no empirical rules. Yet neither is it an art, mastery of which you either have or you don’t. Personal style is more a barometer of self-knowledge whose accuracy can be refined by practice.
Which is where fashion comes into play. And the key word here is play. When Oscar Wilde, who had great personal style, wrote that “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”, he was being, as usual, a rhetorical agent provocateur – after all, he also observed that “looking good and dressing well is a necessity. Having a purpose in life is not”. Yet his first observation is true in that fashion is indeed a force in perpetual motion.
Those who choose to dismiss fashion – an especially Anglo Saxon position – will loudly maintain that this churn of change is solely driven by the consuming impulse of industry. They will then smugly infer that fashion is simply little more than a glossy game designed to part the impressionable with their hard-earned money. While that is to some extent true, it is not the entire truth. Fashion is indeed a game, and it also a conversation – a dialogue between the desires of our fellows and the designers, craftspeople and companies that wish to monetise those desires by producing garments and goods that fire them.
Which, if you are relaxed enough to enjoy it, is what makes fashion such a fun and useful adjunct to the development of your personal style. There are armies of professionals out there whose sole purpose it is to create items which you love enough to buy with conviction. Listening to the conversation of fashion can inform, entertain and sometimes outrage. And just occasionally it will lead you to discover an item which compels you to purchase, possess and inhabit it: a life-enhancer.
As you grow into yourself, and the progress of your life shapes your identity, your taste will change to reflect it. Clothes, watches and jewellery that give you “personal style” are lightning rods between your interior life and your exterior being – they transmit how you feel into how you are, and how you appear to others.
That’s why, once you have made your choice, the easiest piece in the equation of personal style is the wearing of it. As with so many things, the French have the prettiest words for the attitude required: insouciance or nonchalance. You know that you love what you have acquired, and that you feel good in it. So now, don’t think about it. Wear what you love with easy conviction. Wear it as if you don’t know you are wearing it. Be careless. Your style is a reflection of your substance – once you’ve found it, don’t spare it another thought.