I’m sure we all know what it feels like to be expected to look “appropriate” and to conform to our environment. The influence of our surroundings is so great that we often take our style cues from them, rather than ourselves. We allow the notions of what is expected to dictate our choices and to force us into unnecessary compromises. As a result, we end up looking just like everyone else, as opposed to the genuine, radiant versions of ourselves.
Of course, it’s absolutely natural and even necessary to adapt our style choices to our environment. Being occasion-appropriate is a mark of good taste. In fact, environment is a part of the balanced trinity of style, the other two components being inner essence and physical traits. But when we find ourselves adapting so much that our surroundings take over and rule our choices completely, it’s time to re-evaluate. As with many things in life, in this instance, balance is key.
Here are a few ideas to help you take control of your style choices, no matter what your environment.
1. I will never tire of saying this: honor your physicality. Study your body in a way that is both positive and objective. Learn what looks good on you: silhouettes, colors, proportions, fabrics, prints and textures. Let this knowledge inform every clothing and accessory selection you make. This will be your foundation and the framework for the future growth of your style.
2. Be proactive, not reactive. This requires a shift in thinking. Don’t let your style be something that is done to you. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by external pressures. Remember: you are in control. When you need to shop for a business outfit, don’t automatically head to Banana Republic in search of a suit. Start from the beginning. Is a suit something that looks good on you? If so, what kind of shape and fabric? If not, explore your alternatives. Christina Hendricks’ character on Mad Men is an excellent example of a woman who always looks office appropriate while honoring her natural curves. Joan Holloway adapts corporate clothing to herself, not the other way around, and never fails to look tasteful (it doesn’t hurt to have a personal tailor of course!). Similarly, casual doesn’t automatically imply sweats or capris. There are many clothing options out there these days that are incredibly comfortable and may be more in line with what looks and feels good on you. We are lucky to live in a time of many options.
3. Inject your personal essence (your signature) into everything you wear. If you know what looks good on you, you are already well on your way. But, there are more ways of making your style unmistakably your own, no matter what your circumstances. Here are a few tips:
- Listen to your inner voice to discover your style personality. The important thing to remember here is that we are complex creatures. We are rarely just one thing. Sometimes we are more expressive and dramatic; sometimes we feel like being more toned down and traditional; and sometimes we just want to relax and be casual and comfortable. The balance within us is never fixed; it is ever shifting. However, even if the balance doesn’t always look the same, the key components are often unchanged. So, try and identify what is important to you, personally. Brainstorm a list of words, like Jenny suggested here and here. Create a collage of things (not necessarily clothes) that feel right to you (feel like “you”). Don’t over-think and over-analyze; don’t let doubts and self-judgement take over (read more about this process here). Don’t solicit outside feedback, lest you become unduly influenced. Move quickly, just let ideas flow. You’ll be able to trace a few common threads, a certain vibration that will be uniquely yours. You will have a list of words, key ideas that will help open your vision and get your creative juices flowing. They will also contribute to the framework that will guide and simplify your choices. I suggest keeping this list of words to five or fewer: any more and they will overwhelm, instead of helping you.
- Identify your best clothing shapes and repeat them. Everyone has at least one item in their closet that looks sensational on them. It could be a wrap dress, a blazer, a skirt in a particular shape, or sharply tailored trousers. These items can be dressed up or down; alternatively, their shapes can be found in other fabrics that are appropriate for different occasions. A basic tailored blazer can become a luxurious dressy tuxedo jacket, for example. Or, a flattering one-color wrap dress can go from day to evening with the help of shoes and accessories. And speaking of accessories…
- Cultivate your signature items. This could be one item, like an heirloom watch that “goes with everything”, or a number of items unified by the same quality (a particular style or shape of earrings; a selection of equally dramatic cocktail rings; a collection of boots in a variety of styles). Your signature could also be a vibe from a certain era; it could be your makeup (lipsticks of varying reds, from “day” reds to dramatic “evening” reds), or hairstyle. When selecting your signature items, look for things that look stunning on you and highlight your best features: dramatic rings for your slender hands, rich pearls to echo the exquisite symmetry of your features, and so on. Find things that have particular meaning and carry the essence of who you are. Your signature should be a natural, harmonious extension of yourself, not an artificially imposed gimmick.
A few of the ideas above will take longer to develop and implement than others. This is natural, since things of value take time and thoughtful effort to create. The most important thing is to make a shift in your attitude from passive and reactive to proactive and in control. Know who you are, inside and out. The more knowledge and understanding you have about your inner essence and your physical body, the better you’ll be able to leverage the expectations and pressures of the outside world. You’ll be well on your way to creating a healthy balance in your life, along with a style that is uniquely yours and appropriate no matter the circumstances.