Monday, 28 March 2011

"Personal" in personal style

In the late 1990s I wasn't all that interested in fashion. I did like clothes, though, or more precisely, I knew what types of clothes I liked. For two years straight I wore nothing but flared second hand jeans, a tight tiger or dragon print t-shirt, gold-tone sneakers and a denim jacket with a multicoloured stripe detail and the name "McQueen" (that would be Steve, not Alexander) printed on the back. My accessories included a huge bird skull ring and a cowboy hat. As far as I can remember, nothing in particular influenced the way I dressed. I didn't admire anyone else's style, I didn't read fashion magazines. I bought clothes only if I saw something I really loved (and if I happened to have the money).

I remember the moment when things started changing for me, and shockingly, it wasn't all that long ago. I lived in London at the time, and needed a new pair of jeans. I found nothing but skinny ones. I remember thinking that skinny jeans seemed profoundly unflattering to me and that I thought I looked ridiculous in them. I bought a pair anyway. It might have been the first time I bought (into) something because I knew it was trendy. I don't really know what had changed. Perhaps it was my exposure to intense, all-over, cheap high street fashion in a big metropolitan city. Maybe I felt insecure, like I didn't fit in. Maybe I just needed a change. I think that particular purchase (the skinny jeans) was the first link in my long, turbulent chain of compulsive shopping, the one that eventually led to the launch of No Signposts in the Sea a couple of years later. I shopped, I shopped and I shopped, and I lost my personal style in the process. Buying new things was like a drug. Essentially, I forgot what it was like to have a favourite pair of jeans, or what it felt like to want to wear the same jacket day after day.

I am writing about this today because I got to thinking about the meaning of personal style the other day. I was channel-surfing and came across some indie band performing on the Jay Leno show. It hit me that the young men in the band wore the typical indie/electronica gear that all the other bands in their genre wear: slightly oversized retro glasses, neat haircuts, button-up shirts and skinny trousers. They all looked the same. The band's style looked so over-referenced that I didn't even know what to think. It occurred to me that as much talk as there is about personal style today, there seems to be an awful lot of style but very little personality.

Read any fashion or style blog, and you'll encounter elaborate statements of self-expression through personal style. Many blogs feature inspiration boards and images of "style icons". We are inspired (and influenced) by 1960s French cinema one day, the new Topshop catalogue the next day, and the day after that, Alexa Chung. One could argue that all style is referenced from somewhere else. Whether we realize it or not, we filter our clothing choices through an intricate maze of the things we see: a cool girl in a street style blog, the selection of clothing at the store we visited the week before, the old picture of our mother we stumbled upon in our family photo album. Some of us might be open to influences and directly copy what we see and like, and confess to doing so. The process can also be more indirect: we might not even notice where our ideas come from. In this sense, nothing in our style is organic. It all comes from somewhere. So where does the word "personal" fit in?

For me, it comes down to love. I loved my McQueen jacket so passionately that I wanted to wear it every single day for many years. (I still have it, of course, and I still love it.) There are clothes in my wardrobe that are practical and easy, there are mistakes, and then there are the clothes I love. They are not what fashion magazines would call "cornerstones" of my style, because there is no logic in the way I operate them. They are not a "foundation" for the rest of my clothes either. They don't belong to one particular clothing genre, nor do I feel like I wear them to express my personality. I just love them, and I want to wear them. The love is natural, instinctive. There is nothing forced about it. I don't try to do anything with those clothes. The less I think about what kind of style they result in, the better.

The short time that I was on the Great American Apparel Diet was very useful. It allowed me to see my wardrobe in a different light. I realized that I had bought a lot of clothes I had never loved. I saw very little of that late 1990s passionate love, the one that I used to have for my clothes. At some point some years ago I just started to think too much about what I wore. Maybe I tried to be someone else for a while, and got lost. Working in clothing retail certainly didn't help. That moment when I chose to wear skinny jeans without loving them - I will try to keep that in mind for the rest of my life. I want to wear what I love. And there is nothing more personal than the love we feel.

Long-sleeved tee & denim shirt: Salvation Army

Cardigan: Urban Outfitters

Jeans: Gap

boots: Vialis

Vintage necklace and bracelet: presents from Lynn


Eline said...

Okay, so can I just say that this is the best, most personal write up about personal style, the love for clothes and consumerism?

That's all I have to say really!

Camelia Crinoline said...

You said it better than I ever could. Over the last year I have really tried to buy or make clothes that I love. It's so tempting to think that if you buy that pair of jeans or that jacket then you will be a different, cooler person, just like the one you saw in the ad or on the tv. Unfortunately, it never works.

Teeny said...

Waves, you are so so right. i was nodding along with you about clothes that you love...and just feel right. I agree that the best purchases i've made would be those that are instinctive and without alot of consideration as to trendiness or style. Sadly, I also have a whole heap of stuff that I don't wear enough. I really have to do a major cull and fight the urge to replace the non-wearables. yikes.

elle s'ennuie said...

Interesting post (but then so yours always are!), I've also experienced similar phases with my dressing habits, albeit perhaps in a slightly different order. I'm nowadays in a place where I wear certain loved items over and over again, and ignore the rest of my closet (which really needs some culling badly...). The main problem for me is that when buying something, I can't tell for sure whether, once I own it, it will become a loved item or just a wardrobe filler.

Jane W. said...

Fantastic post. I culled my closet down to those items that I really *love*, and there aren't a lot of garments that fit that description...and as I've shopped around for potential replacements I've come across very few garments that truly inspire me.

This means that I'll be "violating" several style "rules"--wearing the same, neutral-hued things over and over.

mirattes said...

Wow great jeans!
I like your posts very much it always are very ineteresting. Almost everytime I find pieace of myself in your words. Thank you for posting and keep going ;)

Anonymous said...

Gorgeous post, Waves, I enjoyed reading it immensely.
Weirdly enough, I have always connected in my mind loving some particular item of clothing with being childish. But that may be because I have always associated adulthood with working and working requires special type of clothes (especially if you're a 21-year-old teacher dying to look at least slightly more serious than the students). I still remember the somehow bitter realisation during some first days of my work that I needed to buy me a new blouse-- for most of my old ones were torn, in pieces or they were band t-shirts- and that I'd have to buy something "appropriate". My choice were two shirts, with starched cuffs and collars which I wore to work only. And threw them away out of pure hatred the day I quit that job.
I still excercise this double-think when it comes to clothes: a lot of practical, elegant clothes for work and from time to time- something purely for pleasure, like a vintage Nirvana t-shirt or a black shirt dress, something that feels me with inner joy. Because, agreed, the inner joy is what clothes are all about.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how one knows when they've crossed the line about thinking too much about what they wear. I had been pondering on doing a post about my ugly Mrs. Rodgers sweaters, which I wear all winter long. I'm wearing one as I type--a good quality black and camel checked Pendleton. I also have a long grey acrylic sweater. And the third is a brown hoodie in cotton yarn. They keep my skinny body warm and feel so much more essential than any of the outfits I've worn on my blog.

Shey said...

Well I can certainly relate to your post, I can still remember the good old days when I shared a small closet with my sister and still had room left in there, when I had only 3 or 4 pairs of shoes at most so I didn't have to break my head trying to decide which to wear. As of now I was feeling guilty that my Spring wardrobe doesn't make any sense, but I love each piece that's oin there (got rid of the non-loved stuff). I was doing just fine and then today I had the urge to go to the thrift store again (went yesterday too, I'm PMSing) and I spent $5 bucks and when I got home I realized I shouldn't have purchased none of them because I don't love them. Too late to regret, well at least is wasn't a crazy amount but it stings the pride to know I had no self control, hopefully tomorrow will be a different story.

Sheila said...

Great post. I need to think more about what I buy and why I buy...and even more, about what I want to be when I wear it.

Marie said...

I recently had an epiphany about this exact thing. I was reading too many style blogs, experimenting with looks that I knew weren't me, and just trying too hard. I'm getting back to the outfits and pieces that I really love, and it feels great.