Style: Nature Or Nurture?

Simplicity, drama, movement. The red dress from "The Collection" on Amazon. Love this iconic style.

One of those quips that has always bugged me is, “you’re either born with style or you’re not.” It bugs because there’s a kernel of truth to it, but even more so because it’s often used dismissively. And it’s not the last word.

Sure, we’ve all known that person who seems to have the “style gene.” They’ve just always had a good eye, and perhaps a healthy disregard for rules or what anyone else thinks. They know what they like, they can visualize how two (or more) colors or patterns or pieces will work together. I’ve always been in awe of those  people.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us are doomed to flounder. Style can be learned, at least to a certain degree. And style is subjective. One person’s sublime is another’s horror show. Style has become more democratic and inclusive over the last decade or so. It’s no longer dictated from On High by magazine editors and fashion columnists. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t make our own judgements about what styles appeal to us. In fact, discernment is key to finding our own style voice.

I also believe style can and should evolve over time as our bodies, tastes and lifestyles change. It’s key to keeping one’s style authentic, workable, and relevant.

Building Blocks of Style

It’s a wild world out there, with so many competing voices and visions. If you feel as though you’re still developing or evolving your style, here are a few elements of good style that I would argue are universal.

Fit, fit, fit. Regardless of your size and shape, getting the fit right will go a long way toward a more stylish appearance. Alter whatever you can to get a good fit. Even just adjusting a sleeve length can make a huge difference. (I plead guilty to not doing this as much as I should.) I’m not saying everything has to be tailored to the nth degree, just that your clothes should follow the lines of your body rather than fight with them. Even more unstructured or oversized pieces might benefit from a tweak here and there.

Educate your eye (and your hand). Shop above your budget from time to time. You don’t have to buy, just look, feel and maybe try on. Get a sense of quality fabrics and construction details that make a difference. Give fabrics the crunch test. See how the garment drapes.

Know yourself. Get familiar with your shape and coloring, yes, but also with your temperament and sense of aesthetics. Do you crave ease and simplicity? Or lots of color, splashy prints, interesting details? If you aren’t sure, I’ve found that looking at art, or even just scrolling through Pinterest is a great way to get some direction. Pay attention to what you respond to viscerally. Trust your taste. Don’t succumb to anyone else’s “must have” lists.

And I’ve come to believe that ultimately much of what we consider “style” comes from confidence. Feel good in what you’re wearing, and people will pick up on that.

What tips have helped you to develop your style?

Just My Style

little black pants | tweed jacket | espadrille sandals | the tee | the satchel

Image from “The Collection” from Amazon. Can’t wait for Season 2!!

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37 Comments

  1. Val
    May 7, 2018 / 3:01 am

    I loved the Collection, but I don’t think there is going to be a season 2.

    • Joy Johnson
      May 7, 2018 / 4:14 am

      Susan..I liked your suggestion about “shopping up” from time to time to appreciate the fit and feel of well made clothing and quality materials.(I also enjoyed the PBS series “The Collection”…not always the plot line but certainly for a look at Paris during the tumultuous period following WWII and the changing fashion industry…)

    • Susan B
      Author
      May 7, 2018 / 6:35 am

      I’d heard there was but now can’t find anything online about it. 🙁 Dommage!

    • Donna Oliphint
      May 7, 2018 / 7:36 am

      Is it on Netflix?

      • Susan B
        Author
        May 7, 2018 / 8:44 am

        Amazon.

  2. Ellen
    May 7, 2018 / 3:13 am

    Thank you for this post Susan! I totally agree with you!

  3. May 7, 2018 / 3:31 am

    You are so right. Style is learned, whether from our parents or from other observations. Those who are considered stylish have found what looks good on them, and they project confidence from that. People who are considered not stylish either don’t make it a priority (fine) or they gravitate toward things that don’t flatter them. My mom struggled with that–she wanted to be tall and thin but was short and curvy. She inevitably picked outfits that worked on her dream body instead of her real body, and then was disappointed in how she looked.
    That red dress pictured is gorgeous!

  4. susie
    May 7, 2018 / 4:55 am

    I think you are born with a sense of style, but it can be taught/learned as well. My mother, born in the 1920’s, grew up poor and was born into a family of tailors, sewers, seamstresses, etc. She could take a feed sack and wear it to church, as they say. No matter what she wore she looked great. She also had (a born) talent to stand in front of a store window and look at the latest fashion, go home and dig up some leftover fabric, and be wearing the exact same outfit 2 days later. Now that is talent!!
    But the point is, I can’t sew two tablecloths together, but I can SEE it. I do not have the same skill my mom did, but I just feel what works and what wont – what is a silly trend and what is classic. I try to keep it simple.

  5. Ainsivalavie
    May 7, 2018 / 5:18 am

    I read a lot of fashion blogs and find the comments reveal a great deal about a person’s sense of style. I appreciate when a ready likes a look but asks for suggestions on finding something that works better for them. What I find odd ( and a bit weird) are the readers ( not necessarily yours:) who comment that they have styled themselves exactly like the blogger! Slavishly purchasing a whole outfit..I am never sure if that’s flattery or lack of imagination.
    Style is, as you have pointed out, a mix of many things but it has never depended on money. I do think a sense of style can be cultivated by observing what works for others who have a ‘look’ you admire BUT you have to be able to adapt to your lifestyle, figure and budget. I would like to add comfort( not in the physical sense) …but cultivating style is moving out of one’s comfort zone just a bit or else one risks a same old, same old look which might be ‘comfy’ but ultimately lacks imagination and style.
    Your essay was very interesting, I like the way you bring these questions to your readers to consider.

  6. Judith Dempsey
    May 7, 2018 / 6:42 am

    Hear! Hear! Luv your article.

  7. May 7, 2018 / 6:53 am

    Absolutely it can be learned, or if you have an innate eye, augmented! Learning the right language for silhouette, color, and type of pattern, really helped me. Color particularly.

  8. Lyn
    May 7, 2018 / 7:10 am

    I think it all boils down to your last paragraph — confidence is everything! The rest is “dressing well”, but it’s not “style.” You can dress two women identically, and one will have style and one won’t. It all comes from within. There’s a certain willingness to follow your own light without worrying about what others will think. (Take it from someone who was raised to believe that the prime “style” objective was to blend in as invisibly as possible.)

  9. Susan
    May 7, 2018 / 9:34 am

    Ah, another opportunity, in keeping with point No. 1, to ask you what you would look for in finding the right tailor; how to go about it; and how much (percentage-wise) you should pay for alterations. As I said before, I used to rely on Nordstrom’s, but that is no longer possible. If you live in L.A., you have many choices, but outside of the big city, I have found very unreliable service. Please help!

    • Susan B
      Author
      May 7, 2018 / 11:20 am

      Hi Susan, I wish I had an easy answer for you. Even in LA, good tailors have been a vanishing breed. I use the alterations people at our local cleaners for simple jobs like hemming. Le Monsieur recently found a decent tailor to take in sleeves on a jacket through a referral from a co-worker.

      • Gretchen Kubacky, Psy.D.
        May 7, 2018 / 11:50 am

        That’s been a challenge in LA since my old dry cleaner’s disappeared, the tailor a friend referred me to was absurdly rude and overpriced, and I am still looking…

    • Melissa
      May 9, 2018 / 7:17 am

      Have you tried wedding dress shops? I am in Northern Canada, and there is just no tailor in our small town. BUT the ladies at the wedding dress shop are top notch seamstresses, and obviously know how to tailor items to fit a body. If your local wedding dress shop has a staff of seamstresses, they are usually willing to take any clothing items.

    • Nicole in CA
      May 11, 2018 / 7:02 pm

      Not sure if it was mentioned here, but there are wonderful, talented people in some dry cleaners who do alterations and will shorten sleeves and pant/dress lengths. Did Nordstrom stop offering tailoring? I always carried a credit for it but never used it. My life is just too casual .

  10. Caroline
    May 7, 2018 / 10:53 am

    Thank you for such an interesting and helpful blog. Some time ago, Susan, you talked in detail about packing cubes. I have not been able to find the article. Can you direct me to month and year? Many thanks.

  11. risa Wolfson
    May 7, 2018 / 11:04 am

    I am loving the Eileen Fisher Organic Cotton Tees!!!!!!!!! Thank you so much for sending me shopping in their direction! My skin is super sensitive and these tees are so comfortable! I have been watching when they go on sale, but I just splurged and bought one from Nordstrom’s (with a gift card that discounted the price)! Comfort never felt so good!

    • Susan B
      Author
      May 7, 2018 / 11:21 am

      Glad you like them! I’m actually wearing mine now. 🙂

  12. sophia
    May 7, 2018 / 12:38 pm

    You are so right. Accept your body type and dress for that. And fit is everything. Hold tight to your seamstress as you would your barber. Would love to have you review Schiaparelli’s rules for women in the future!

    • Susan B
      Author
      May 7, 2018 / 12:40 pm

      I haven’t seen those (a book?). Will check it out.

      • sophia
        May 7, 2018 / 1:24 pm

        Elsa Schiaparelli’s “12 Commandments for Women”

        • Susan B
          Author
          May 7, 2018 / 4:58 pm

          Well, having now looked up and read, I’ll say this: it’s of its time. Some things I wouldn’t quibble with (know yourself), others are downright retrograde. One also gets the impression she didn’t think too highly of other women.

          • sophia
            May 8, 2018 / 11:43 am

            But she dressed them beautifully!! She went through a lot during the war and was a most tenacious businesswoman. Thanks so much for the follow up, it’s appreciated.

          • Susan B
            Author
            May 8, 2018 / 12:38 pm

            Yes she did, indeed. A very talented designer!

  13. May 7, 2018 / 1:21 pm

    It can absolutely be learned! Training our eye and trusting our intuition goes a long way.

    • May 7, 2018 / 6:07 pm

      I couldn’t agree more!! My granny was a painter and had the BEST eye for color pairings and always looked fabulous!

  14. Cathy D.
    May 7, 2018 / 9:52 pm

    Have you ever noticed how many women in important positions in fashion have commented on how much they admired and learned from their mother’s style? Well, some of us just have to learn it on our own, and it can take years. It’s like learning how to decorate your home… difficult and full of trial and error. It also requires a lot of energy. Some of us just give up and try to fit in “well enough” with our environment. It’s so sad when a woman worries what everyone is going to think of her outfit instead of striding out the door with confidence. And it’s so worth it when you work hard at having style and succeed.

  15. Eileen
    May 7, 2018 / 11:04 pm

    Sometimes I wish there was a study program on individual style. Trial and error takes alot longer. Only my grandmother had style in my family, and she passed away before I could learn from her. I have been fascinated by clothes design from a early age. I would add, a three way mirror to the list. Just this year I found a tailor and a shoe repair person, I decided, it’s time to get help, even though I can sew. Thanks for this topic.

    • Jill Ann
      May 8, 2018 / 7:27 am

      One of the very best things in my house is a full length three way mirror! I struggle when I’m at a hotel and have no earthly idea what the back of my hair looks like, not to mention whether or not I have panty lines! I see so many people out & about who would greatly benefit from a check of their rear view. I’ve vowed that I’ll never live in a place without a three way mirror.

  16. Angela Barron
    May 7, 2018 / 11:52 pm

    I love the picture of the lady in the red dress, is there a print of it available anywhere.
    Always enjoy your blog

  17. Tori Owen
    May 8, 2018 / 7:15 am

    I would like to thank you for making me rethink and upgrade my travel wardrobe. I now pack less and look better! We bought a home in Amsterdam so now split time between there and California. You’ve been a real inspiration,
    merci beaucoup:)

  18. Sandra
    May 8, 2018 / 11:02 am

    I found Alois Guinut’s recent book on Parisian style really helpful. It was much more detailed than I expected.

    I continue to livl the blog Susan!

  19. Sandra
    May 8, 2018 / 11:02 am

    Love the blog even. Sorry Susan!

  20. Daniella
    May 9, 2018 / 2:37 pm

    STYLE!! Ingrained since birth! Your mother, your father, your grandmother, ants, etc.. I was born and grew up in Europe where you had to dress up to cross the street to buy your daily bread! It was expected as a courtesy to the passers-by by not offending their sense of aesthetics! Such was the time. You learned quickly how to best groom and dress yourself by observing those around you. It was required and “ de rigeur”. Also, you learned quickly what worked and how to restructure the outfits with the everchanging fashions. Nothing was discarded at will, all was given another life. It worked and it still does. FIT and ATTITUDE WAS ESSENTIAL!

  21. Nicole in CA
    May 11, 2018 / 7:19 pm

    Having a mother who was a seamstress and who also tailored her own coats and hats in her young years in the 40’s, shopping with her were lessons in finding the best. She pointed out well-made seams vs. not so well-made ones, delighted in Pendleton wool (the bolt fabric) which she bought for me for my high school sewing class and helped me at home, teaching me how to match plaids and create points on the collar of my blazer. I asked her many times to show me how to sew but she was such an expert at putting clothes together she no longer could read a pattern – and I needed to learn, so I took a class. She showed me the nap of fabric and how it should behave. Because of her I love to feel fabric and imagine what it could be. It was easier for both her and I to find the style that suited us best in our younger/thinner years, but then became a challenge with age and changing shapes. That’s a real challenge but it’s doable, often by not trying too hard and wearing well-made things with accessories and jewelry I love.

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