Practical Tips For "Personal Style" Or, Why Not To Listen To Women's Magazines

I was thumbing through the July issue of InStyle the other day and ran across one of those ubiquitous "find your personal style" pieces that then, of course, gives you a narrow range of "personal styles" by which to define oneself, and then, this being InStyle, tells you what celebrity you should look like. (The suspiciously Cosmo-esque quiz, by the by, seemed perhaps to be part of the mag's new push to compete more in the gossip mag marketplace.) Naturally I took the quiz - lots of stuff like,"which one of these is your ideal white shirt?' - and discovered I am somewhere between "The Naturalist" (Natalie Portman), 'The Romantic' (Penelope Cruz) and 'The Trendster' (I believe Sienna Miller.) (You could also be a Bombshell, and a Sophisticate. Nothing else.) Amazingly enough, I didn't feel InStyle had managed to capture my ethos.

I've never really understood the thinking behind this kind of piece. I mean, I do, people read them, but they're fundamentally idiotic. Would I like to look like Audrey Hepburn or Jackie O? Um, yeah. Do I? Six inches and an empty bank account say No. That said, I totally get the attraction to the idea of taking something really complicated, like self-expression, and breaking it down into a few simple rules.

A few people have written to ask if I have some tips along these lines. This has prompted me to dole out the one piece of practical fashion advice I will ever attempt to dole out, ever. If you don't want to read something kind of FashMag, avoid the bracketed portion below. Because, as it happens, I do have a tip. Wait for it.

Know your era. Learn this and you've done half the work.

If you go through the major fashion eras of the 20th C, you'll see that different silhouettes and body types were in vogue. Find the one that matches you. (I guess if you want to wear a toga or something that's your prerogative too, but I'm limiting this to the past century.) I'm not saying go around in costume; rather, modern fashion is so friggin' PoMo that every shape is referencing some era anyway, and it's possible to come across virtually any shape in the current marketplace. Skinny? 20s and 60s. Curves? Go for 50s, sexy 70s or 80s. It's not rocket surgery, as my beef would say, but it's foolproof.

I, for one, am a 1940s and a 1970s. The high-waisted trousers and fitted shapes of those eras just work for me. (And sure there are multiple styles within an era: I'm talking more Network than caftan.) I'm too short for the volume of the 50s and too curvy for mod or flapper. What's more, my curly hair and glasses works with these shapes. This is not to say this is the era to which I'm most attracted: if I could do some streamlined Jean Seberg thing, I'd do it in a second. But two little things called breasts have always gotten in my way. In any case, I like the limitation; it makes choices way easier. I'm not saying you can't experiment, but if you want a formula, that's the best I know. ]

I also think it's a pernicious myth that everyone needs to cultivate some earth-shattering 'personal style' look. You don't, any more than you need to excel at archery or confectionary. Very few people have the skill. Unlike these things, however, everyone does need to wear clothes, so you might as well find what works for you. It's hard nowadays because there are so many cut-rate versions of every absurd high-fash trend, each one presenting the appearance of fashion virtuosity in a mass-marketed $15 package. And ironically enough, this preoccupation with fashion icons, and modeling ourselves upon them, seems to have grown apace with the galloping low-end ready-to-wear market, that's done as much to homogenize our aesthetic as McDonald's has to ruin our diet. No wonder InStyle's lame quizzes sell. I remember being totally overwhelmed when I was younger not just by the pressure to look okay but to somehow express my interestingness and creativity via what I wore, and the best advice I can give anybody in my capacity as former horrible dresser, bespectacled woman and retail professional is to ignore what my mother calls 'the herd of independent minds' screaming at you to define yourself, choose an era and keep your head down. Fashion is not particularly accessible, but clothes are. So begins and ends my glorious career as service piece writer - but I do hope that helps!

Star Style Profiles [InStyle]

Related: Getting Back In Style [WWD]