Personal Style: Knowing Who We Are And Dressing Accordingly

Thinking About: The Meaning Of Personal Style

personal style, Ines de la Fressange, Sophie FontanelWhen I posted the Instagram version of Monday’s outfit, the caption I added was “Every time I wear black and white, I wonder why I ever bother with anything else.” And it’s true. A few recent “signpost” moments like this have provided some very clear direction regarding my still-evolving style.

Style: It’s Personal.

Above, two very different takes on personal style, both French femmes d’un certain âge. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about personal style lately, especially as more and more of our cohort (the over-50 style bloggers) have been getting some nice recognition in the media. While the avant-garde, creative and splashy looks, as featured by Ari Seth Cohen in his Advanced Style books and on his blog, seem to garner the most attention, there are also those who are recognized for a personal style that’s a bit more mainstream. I’m cheering for all of us, and am always thrilled when someone I know (even if just online) gets a shout out from Big Media.

When I think of those people whose style I admire, the common denominator isn’t necessarily the particular aesthetic itself (though that may be part of it), but rather that their style seems an organic extension of who they are. They seem comfortable in their own skin (and clothes). These recent outfit posts from materfamilias and Bag and a Beret showcase two very different styles, yet the sense of “knowing who they are and dressing accordingly” comes through brilliantly in both. My path toward figuring that out has often curved and twisted, and at times has been obscured.

Inspiration or Distraction?

First, there are all of the guidelines about colors and shapes and what’s flattering or not to sort through. And figuring out how important all of that is to me. (Somewhat, it turns out.) While it’s helpful to do our style “due diligence” those objective factors alone aren’t the sum total of personal style. Who we are is more than just our shape and coloring and lifestyle. What expresses those intangibles?

I loved this quote from Sophie Fontanel (pictured at top on the right) in an interview posted on Vogue:

“If you want to be well dressed, you have to learn by watching old movies, by going to the museum, and by surfing on the Internet. Just have a walk on the Internet, and have a look at Marilyn Monroe. She was very well dressed, with simple pants. It is very important to see things other than magazine things. You have to read good books, to read poetry. It’s when you put nice things into your soul that you understand how to dress well.” [emphasis mine]

To me, style is about the inside as much as the outside. Developing an appreciation of art, literature, beauty, and culture hones our eye and our sensibilities. And understanding ourselves, our values and our place in the world is essential to developing a coherent personal style.

I’ve found that it helps to cultivate style muses, and examine both the details and the overall impression they present. Beyond the cut of a jacket or a color combination, what about their style speaks to me? What does it say about who they are? It’s not so much about copying another’s style as identifying what resonates and finding ways to express that myself.

At times I get inspired by those who take more risks, who bend the rules or drape themselves in color and pattern and exuberance. Inspired enough sometimes to try incorporating some of these elements in my outfits. Occasionally it works, but often it just feels a bit forced. I’m learning to listen to that feeling, and heed it.

“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly” — Epictetus

The truth is, I have a practical streak a mile wide. My style needs to acknowledge that. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of frippery, superfluous details, designs that hinder movement or materials that are wrecked just by breathing on them. My clothes have to make sense. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy adding a little whimsy or drama here and there, but I still require comfort, the ability to move, and a feeling of purpose to whatever I’m wearing.

When I hit that sweet spot where the inside and outside are aligned, I know it, and I think it comes through in my photos too. I’ll probably never be pegged for Instagram stardom, and I’m OK with that. I’m sure that many find my style boring as heck and I’m OK with that too. I’ve realized that the most important aspect of personal style is authenticity, and that’s something we each have to find for ourselves.

And once again it looks like Patti and I are on the same wavelength

Practical With Style…

Photo sources here and here.

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  1. Jeanne
    June 24, 2016 / 3:16 am

    Yes, and thank you for your generous posts and commentary. I tuned in this morning to take my mind off the Brexit (French citizen). It’s such fun to talk about style, and to see women like you making the world a prettier place. Your look is far from boring as you yourself are far from boring. Being a conservative (if not shy) dresser myself I appreciate your casual and understated polish, and your tactful use of color and accessory. You never appear to have studiously thought out your look, and you never wear too many silly jangly things. I look at your photos and think, “Judging by looks alone, this must be a kind, amusing and intelligent woman.”

  2. June 24, 2016 / 4:54 am

    Great post! I’m currently enjoying bikini style in France and beyond thrilled to see the women here over 60,70 and beyond rockin’ bikinis and less! I’m in my comfort zone!!!

  3. June 24, 2016 / 5:16 am

    Thank you so much for the lovely compliment, Sue. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been moving ever more steadily to a style that feels comfortable on, that pleases me aesthetically, and that I believe expresses me to the world with some integrity or authenticity. Turns out it’s a quieter style than what I thought I liked earlier, and I’m not sure how much of that has to do with age, how much with lifestyle changes — even, perhaps, how much has to do with adjusting to the barrage of social media over the last ten or so years, the richness of possibilities suddenly available for “women of a certain age.” Exploring those more colourful and dramatic choices was fun, especially in the (virtual) company of some many fellow bloggers, but what I’m wearing these days is more congruent with my personality. Yet there are many elements that demonstrate consistency, and I think it’s possible to “keep the lively alive” as it were, on this gentler scale.

    At least, looking at your outfit posts, I’m reassured that we do not have to be boring to be true to our sartorial personalities. Let me echo everything that Jeanne says so eloquently above (even to the distraction from the sad news of Brexit). . . .You give the appearance, instantly, through your dress and demeanour, of being ” a kind, amusing and intelligent woman.”

    And I’m so glad that you included Melanie’s style as another example of being true to one’s self. I love that we have these brilliant examples of dramatic, colourful, exuberant dressing in woman of a certain age. Inspiring in so many ways. Keeping the margins wide. . .

  4. Yvonne
    June 24, 2016 / 5:20 am

    A very insightful post Susan. My style is quite similar to yours and I went through a period when I was in my late 50’s thinking I needed to change my look due to age. I have now come full circle, back to my original style which I refer to as “classic with a twist” . My style icons are from the old movies watching Katherine Hepburn wearing wide trousers and Grace Kelly and Kim Novak in Rear Window, Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle. I look forward to reading your posts and seeing what you are wearing. Have a great day.

  5. June 24, 2016 / 5:35 am

    Very well put. The most important thing is “être bien dans sa peau” and clothes are the natural extension.

  6. June 24, 2016 / 5:56 am

    Wonderful read, Susan. I could live in black, ivory, navy and olive for a loooong time, it feels like me. xox


  7. bonnie
    June 24, 2016 / 5:59 am

    I am similar in style with you. And, I like a punch of a scarf or jewelry to lift the outfit to something above ho hum. That said, I like to follow those who push the edges of style while remaining true to themselves. A good example of that is the blog Accidental Icon. Check her out. She thinks of fashion and style in a philosophical way.

    • Susan B
      June 24, 2016 / 6:37 am

      Hi bonnie, yes Accidental Icon is fabulous and I love reading her thoughts on style as expression and a reflection of what’s going on in the world.

  8. Tracey Yasi
    June 24, 2016 / 6:06 am

    Susan, this post is brilliant and resonates with me to a t! Some trends I just fall in love with and when I try them on me (like a boho flutter top) I end up feeling so uncomfortable and a bit foolish. Never one to stick with just black and white or other neutrals, since my hair is now an oh so lovely shade of silver I am finding these classic basics just pull it all together and make me feel polished. As far as accessories and jewelry – if they make me gasp audibly (such as a chunky pearl and bead necklace on sale at Chicos) I’m buying it! At the age of 53 I am just discovering my style sweet spot.

  9. Hélenè
    June 24, 2016 / 6:59 am

    Susan, I have long promised myself some uninterrupted time with a cup of coffee and your blog. Today is the day!!

    Today’s post resonated within me especially when I read your words “I have a practical streak a mile wide. My style needs to acknowledge that. … I still require comfort, the ability to move, and a feeling of purpose to whatever I’m wearing.” Not having to worry about an ensemble with “frippery, superfluous details, designs that hinder movement or materials that are wrecked just by breathing on them” allows one to move through a day with purpose. There have been days where a well-planned outfit has been my armour as I dealt with the “slings and arrows of outragous fortune”.

    Your June 9 post “Thinking about: the good enough body” was inpsiring. It was odd to ready that you think yourself “short and “sturdy” too. Your photos do not show that.

    Your February 24 post “style: don’t overthink it…” was also inspiring.

    Unfortunately I’ve run out of time before I ran out of material to reread. I’d like you to know that there been many a time where I meditate on the contents of your blog while I go about my day. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Mumbai
    June 24, 2016 / 8:50 am

    I don’t agree to Sophie Fontanell…if you do so, you would copy….find your personal style is more exciting. Epictetus quote is what I follow

  11. June 24, 2016 / 9:31 am

    This was a great post.

    It is only through self knowledge and discovery that we can uncover the very best ways to represent who we are on the inside outwardly through our clothing choices.

    As a creative person it is important that I communicate my most valued personal trait via my wardrobe.

    Within the blogging community I think it is a perfect opportunity to try out new things. It may not resonate with us in the end, however how would we ever know if we never gave it a try?


  12. Kathleen
    June 24, 2016 / 9:42 am

    Thanks for an enlightening and validating post. What to wear, it turns out, for some of us, is a thoughtful endeavor and your words really express the dilemmas. By the way, I’ve been swooning over your black Givenchy bag for some time.

  13. June 24, 2016 / 9:53 am

    Ari Seth Cohen once wrote on his blog something about, which do you prefer–less is more, or more is more? Here we like both!
    I think what get the attention on his blog are the big personality outfits. Which are fun and I love. But I’m not a big personality and I wouldn’t wear them. I’m of the less is more camp. As Ari says, both are good.
    I also like black and white (and khaki, which I consider in the white group) because you can avoid the angst of whether it’s the right shade (such a hassle with reds, for example) and you don’t have laundry complications. I have four loads: not too dirty darks, dirty darks, not too dirty whites, dirty whites. The dirty stuff gets washed hotter and longer. Now that my daughter is out of the pink age, it takes an eternity to get up a load of red/pink. Which means I almost never wear it. Vicious (virtuous?) circle.
    Life is too short to worry about clothes and also too short not to spend it looking good. There’s a yin and yang there. Black and white are perfect for it.

  14. plutrell
    June 24, 2016 / 10:00 am

    We are similar in many ways, Susan. I would be perfectly happy to wear black, brown, grey, and white every day…and some weeks I do. I live in a colorful city…San Antonio…and the local women really convict me to wear more color. But, rarely does a lot of color feel like me I listen to the messages of what my clothing says and that is what I do most often. Your style always inspires me.

  15. Elisa
    June 24, 2016 / 7:09 pm

    I love your style–elegant and modern!

  16. bellsonme
    June 24, 2016 / 8:12 pm

    One of the things we have to remember, when we look at style blogs, magazines, paintings, or whatever, is that they’re two-dimensional. I am sure, sure that you are not boring in person. You likely convey another dimension of your personality when you move, or you talk, or laugh, or look. It’s all part of your style but most of us don’t get to see it.

    I’m still loving that light black jacket you wore over white last week, and plotting how I can make one for myself in a color to go over black or navy.

  17. Faux Fuchsia
    June 24, 2016 / 9:55 pm

    Love this post. I’m all for More is More. It’s all about finding a balance and being true to yourself.

    Keep up the good work. x

  18. June 25, 2016 / 2:33 am

    I love this article it is so true and refreshing to read! Its enough that women have to read condescending articles on what colours, shapes they where rather than looking at who they are and what makes them feel happy xx

  19. Duchesse
    June 25, 2016 / 5:30 am

    I jumped on that quote too, it will be on PdesP in a few days! And what she says in the same interview is that (paraphrasing here) she does not want to look like every “boring” upper-class Frenchwoman in the same skinny jeans, blazer , grey sweater, and ballerines- actually, exactly the look on the left. So, to each her own.

  20. Tatyana
    June 25, 2016 / 9:02 am

    Wonderful post. To have style like you have face. Thank you for interesting information.

  21. June 25, 2016 / 11:03 am

    What I find fascinating about personal style is how drawn I often am to people whose styles are so different from my own and the influence they have on my style decisions. Of course it’s the person I am drawn to with the style as a reflection of who they are.

    I find myself going through bouts of different style lately – I had a black and white interlude a while back – which I guess reflects the changes in my life as well. When I do settle on an outfit that really and truly SPEAKS to who I am at that particular moment, I feel like I can do anything. There’s so much power in our packaging.

    Thank you so much for the mention and the compliment, Susan.

  22. June 25, 2016 / 1:11 pm

    If we don’t dress our truth we are sending out the wrong messages. I am with you on wearing clothes with clean lines…I think that is why I gravitate to Eileen Fisher.
    I love seeing those fabulously dressed women that Ari Seth Cohen focuses on in his book and blog but their personalities are much more out there than I am.
    To each their own and thank you Sue for a thought provoking post.

  23. Colleen
    June 26, 2016 / 7:32 am

    YES! These sing my tune, too! At the risk of being too obvious, I guess this is why I follow your site.

  24. June 26, 2016 / 1:05 pm

    You had me with your opening paragraph. It is those “why do I even bother with….” moments that have really helped me clarify my own style and how it relates to who I am. Love where you went with this article.

  25. June 27, 2016 / 12:28 pm

    Awesome post! I came over here from A Bag and a Beret (I don’t seem to get your posts in my Google reader any more, aw), and was reminded to come visit more often!

    Style is such a changeable thing (har, it’s ephemeral!), and through my 8+ years of blogging my own style has changed so much. I’m currently really grooving on more neutrals and even have given in to matching up my clothes with my purple hair. I admire simple clean looks like yours and Patti’s, but my heart is more with the Melanie side of the spectrum. I’ll never stop loving oodles of colour!

    Thanks for the great post – I’ll be back more frequently!

  26. July 1, 2016 / 11:34 am

    “To me, style is about the inside as much as the outside. Developing an appreciation of art, literature, beauty, and culture hones our eye and our sensibilities. And understanding ourselves, our values and our place in the world is essential to developing a coherent personal style.” THIS! THIS! THIS! You must be literate in many ways to have a personal style that is acknowledged as such and which fits you like your own skin. I find so many, many things to love here that I had to comment.

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