How to focus your style with this 3-word formula

Have you read or heard about the “3 style words” formula to help define personal style? It’s a concept that’s been around for a few years, but has been getting a lot of buzz in recent months.

Having a fine-tuned personal style can help us build a cohesive wardrobe, get dressed with greater ease, and avoid costly shopping mistakes. Some people are able to do this almost intuitively from the get-go. But for the rest of us, some tools and guidelines can help us pull our style into focus. The “3 style words” formula is one tool I’ve been playing with recently, and find quite helpful.

The 3-word formula to bring your style into focus

Influencers like Allison Bornstein (@allisonbornstein6) and Amy Smilovic (founder of clothing brand Tibi) have both embraced and used this 3 style word concept. And some of my blogger friends have been doing deep dives as well. (Jennifer at A Well Styled Life, and Sue at High Heels in the Wilderness are two that immediately come to mind.)

I love the idea of a style mantra, and have used versions of them periodically. Early on in writing this blog, I came up with “would I wear it in Paris?” That eventually morphed into “L.A. meets Left Bank.” I’m one of those analytical types, and like to be able to define and categorize in order to understand and replicate good results. But sometimes we can get bogged down in too many words, so a simple catchphrase that evokes (for us) something specific can be helpful.

So what is the concept behind 3 style words? The idea is to create a simple, easy-to-remember formula that both describes and directs personal style from the inside out. It can help us to find (or re-discover) our style “voice” among a myriad of choices and influences. It’s another tool that can make getting dressed easier, and help us steer around potential shopping mistakes.

If you’ve flailed around and have a closet full of clothes that aren’t quite IT, or don’t feel that you fit neatly into any style categories, this formula may help you sift through the noise and bring your best, authentic personal style into focus.

I’ve seen various methods suggested for choosing your three words, but here’s how I came up with mine:

  • the first word describes the current go-to’s in my wardrobe. What do I reach for and wear most often, and feel most comfortable in?
  • I’ve used the second word as a modifier for the first, to refine and distill a bit more
  • and the third word is more aspirational: how do I want to feel? What do I want to project?

Here are the 3 style words I’m currently using:


Not to be confused with the Classic style personality, (small-c) classic best describes my go-to pieces. I’m not looking to re-invent the wheel, style-wise. I feel most at home in jeans, sweaters, tees, jackets, trousers. These neat, functional, timeless pieces are the backbone of my wardrobe. Anything that’s overly complicated or gimmicky gets a pass.


I’ve often shared that I want to look current, rather than trendy. (That doesn’t mean I eschew all trends, just that I add them selectively.) I periodically update cuts, silhouettes, and details to keep my style looking current. “Modern” to me incorporates that concept, but additionally evokes a more clean, streamlined aesthetic. For example, ruffled and tiered dresses are trendy and current, but I don’t think of them as “modern.”

(Other modifiers for classic you might consider: Preppy, elegant, tailored, relaxed, structured, feminine)


“Cool” might mean different things to different people. When applied to style, it can incorporate any or all of the following: effortless, quirky, un-fussy, laid-back, understated, androgynous, strong, relaxed, confident. Maybe even a little edgy at times. It’s like the seasoning that makes the dish.

These 3 style words are helpful when putting outfits together or considering new purchases. (Especially when I’m trying something new or stepping outside my comfort zone.) They help to refine and further personalize my “Natural Gamine” style personality profile.

Choosing your 3 style words

Another way to find your style words is to take a look at your own style icons. What words do you use to describe their style? What words do they have in common? (Linda Rodin @linkdaandwinks is one of my style icons. She manages to combine classic with modern, quirky, and cool.)

It doesn’t matter if the words you choose don’t have the same meaning for someone else. What’s important is what they mean to you, and that they evoke a clear image that you can use as a guideline.

It’s OK if your style words seem contradictory…that’s where you can build some interesting tension or juxtaposition in your outfits that makes your look unique.

And yes, your style words can change from time to time. We all evolve and our style should as well.

Have you used this 3-word concept? What words “clicked” for you?

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  1. I’ve enjoyed reading about the three word concept too. My three are: minimal, classic and current, but I’d have to add effortless no way I can reduce it to three. Another way to figure out your style is to ask other person. Yesterday I was talking to my daughter about an event we are going to and the dress code is “casual”. We discussed what exactly that meant. She said “Mom don’t worry you always look crisp” so I guess that’s a good word too. Except I generally feel rumpled.

  2. I love square toe shoes. For me, I think the question is, would I wear this to church? However I need non-church clothes too. Right now I am lookign at my colors and I think I am an Autumn or Soft autumn but I love the darker colors, probably because they are more forgiving of figure flaws. I also kind of hate brown but perhaps I have not tried the best shades of brown and tan yet. Love burgundy. Love, love, love navy. Today I am wearing a royal blue top and I think it looks great.

  3. Love your three words Susan! My favorite style is what I refer to as California, because it encompasses so much, as long as it’s comfortable. Though I now live in Atlanta, I return to SoCal every summer and after 15 years away, my favorite piece of clothing is still a Citron of Santa Monica silk shirt (that I have in 3 sizes ) is short, mandarin collar, 3/4 sleeves, washes/dries instantly.

  4. A fun exercise…
    Natural – love natural, sustainable fabrics combined with fluid, ease and not too contrived or busy style
    Textural – the subtle appeal, look and feel of varying texture in fabric
    Playful -usually clothing colour or shape that makes me smile, feel free and happy, sometimes a piece of jewellery with good memories

  5. Hi Susan,
    My style has definitely evolved over the years. I do love classic, elegant, and feminine. I really have loved blazers over the years and have over the last couple of years love a tailored look. I bought some great trousers for Fall, but now have a nerve condition ( recently diagnosed) that does not allow me to wear pants or jeans. They will be waiting though for when I am better. The 3 words idea is interesting and I love those loafers you are wearing in the first pic.

  6. I too have been toying with this concept of three words. I also follow Sue of High Heels in the Wilderness, and first heard of this concept from her.
    It has been surprisingly difficult to define my words. I first thought Classic was one word, but that’s too formal for my casual style. Still it’s fun to play with this idea. I am also trying to shop my closet. Having moved and downsized two years ago, and since then ‘decluttered’ my closet twice more, I have come to realize I buy too many clothes that I rarely wear. I am trying to stop this, so defining my style better will help.

  7. Thanks for the mention, Sue. I’m finding using my three words and Amy Smilovic’s idea of antonyms is making getting dressed way more fun. And the need for shopping kind of fades into the background. Which is good for my wallet and for the planet. Win, win.

  8. I would go with, classic, current, edgy but are those contradictory? Hope not. My problem is proportion. When I put on things that SHOULD work together, they just don’t. Any thoughts on that?

  9. I love this idea. My 3 would be – classic, casual and comfortable! Easy to remember when out shopping – the 3 c’s.

  10. How does this align with the style analysis of romantic or huntswoman or gamine, etc.? Does it? This seems more helpful to me – a better set of guardrails when shopping.

    1. Hi Christina, it definitely can work in conjunction with the Style Personality Profiles, which provide guidelines regarding cuts, fabrics, textures, and details. I’ll be exploring this in a bit more detail in future posts.

  11. Very good post, Susan! I love your look with the Cinq a Sept blazer and I’m thinking about it in black. Some of the reviewers had negative comments about the fabric. I think it would be perfect for winter here in southwest Florida. What size did you purchase in the blazer?
    I think my style would be modern, classic, edgy. I wear dresses a lot in summer because of the heat. I want a couple of new ones for fall/winter. I’ve ordered a lightweight denim shirt dress and I have a Eileen Fisher long sleeve black midi dress that I love. What do you consider a modern dress silhouette(s)?

    1. Not Susan, but I own two Cinq et Sept blazers and have not experienced the same problem with wrinkling described in some reviews. One of mine is the polyester version. The other is mostly cotton with some polyester. I really like the style of the ruched sleeves–it’s casual yet a nice third piece that finishes an outfit. Works well in my business casual office. I did have a button break shortly after buying one blazer and I suspect the workmanship is not the greatest, but I didn’t return it because I like it too much. Sizing was true to size for me. I got size 4 and I’m generally close to Susan’s size.

    2. Hi Kathy, I haven’t had any issues with the polyester blend fabric. It’s lightweight and has a nice drape, and does not seem prone to wrinkling. I bought size 6, which is a perfect fit. (I’m really tempted to get a second color, probably navy.)

  12. Thank you Susan. That’s good to know that you are tempted to buy another and Laura (above) has more than one. It seems like a good blazer for the weather here.

  13. I’ve done this a couple of times and if I dig into the drawers of my desk, I will find them again. But that is what happens to them. I put them away and don’t live by them. Bad. As I sometimes make bad choices which I wouldn’t, if I stick to them.
    Perhaps I should dig them up again and live by them.

  14. I’ve been using 5 words for the past few years and they’ve really helped me hone my style. The fact that they all start with C was unintentional, but it helps me remember them! Classy, Comfortable, Casual, Confident, and Creative.

    1. I’m going to steal your description. I already had casual, and there’s no need for me to reinvent the wheel 🙂

      Confident is a great one — no heels to teeter around on or hurt my feet!

  15. I think I need to use this for things other than style for myself. In my relationships, teaching, and style. Where do they intersect? Where are they different? Are they different?