Thinking About: The Why Of Style

Detail: Stuart Weitzman black patent kitten heel pumps. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

Getting right to the point. (Ha!) Pointy-toed black patent kitten heel pumps. I’m suddenly enamored of this style again, and am so glad I kept these shoes which are a few years old.

Style And Psychology

Last week I had lunch with my friend Tracey Cleantis. She’s a psychotherapist and has written two wonderful books (The Next Happy, and An Invitation To Self Care.) Tracey is passionate about her work, and since I’ve known her has always been passionate about style and fashion. It had been too long since we’d seen each other, and we had a marvelous time catching up. I’ve been very excited to hear about her next project: a book about the psychology of style and clothing. She’s really on fire with this one!

Tracey’s been sharing some thoughts and snippets of ideas for the book on her Facebook page. Between those and our conversations, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about style as an outward reflection of our inner selves.

Why do we like what we like? Why do certain clothes make us feel more confident, regardless of whether they are conventionally flattering? Why does a simple, neutral outfit thrill me, while a friend needs color and pattern to feel completely dressed? After our conversation, my brain was buzzing for days.

Decoding Style Preferences

Something that Tracey had posted a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about my love of black. Even though I’m adding a little more navy and grey to my neutrals, black is still my True North. I’ve been asked whether I wear black to hide; on the contrary I feel much more visible in black than in bright colors or patterns. Wearing something black makes me feel solid and grounded. To some black is boring; to me it’s a distillation down to what’s elemental. It’s never felt like a mournful color to me.

I’ve learned that I go on sensory overload in situations where there’s a lot of stimulation, and that goes for my clothing too. Too much pattern, color or detail overwhelms me, and not just physically. It can actually be emotionally draining.

I was raised to value logic and reason, and tend to be a very practical person. So that plays out in my style as well…I tend to avoid clothing that feels impractical (like those big crazy sleeves that I can’t look at without imagining dragging them through my salad). And my mother was extremely critical, so I absorbed a lot of those “you-can’t-wear-x” beliefs and am still trying to separate my judgement from hers.

It’s Complicated…

Style is rarely just as simple as “wear what you like.” We all have cultural references, old associations, and current inputs that shape what we value and what appeals to us. That doesn’t mean that our style can’t evolve and change, but I do think it’s important to listen to and honor that inner voice that will tell you if something feels right or not.

Anyhow, Tracey’s also going to begin consulting with people individually on the psychology of their closets. Wouldn’t that be cool??

Have you uncovered any psychological factors that influence your clothing choices?

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  1. Found this post very interesting. I too have a passion for wearing black. I feel strong, confident, classy and good when I wear this color. I like wearing it from head to toe! I’m anxious to see what the book tells us regarding our fashion choices/likes…..Love all your posts, but this one really intrigued me, for some reason.

  2. When I was much younger I used to wear the highest heels I could stand up in – and some of that was in the platform era ! Gradually I went for lower heels and marvelled that I had put up with so much pain before – not to attract men but to be taller and look more people in the eye . I only wear structured flats now and think it is because the decades have given me enough confidence to choose comfort even at this petite level !

  3. Cultural references absolutely influence taste! Movies and TV, of course. Family, teachers…. And when I started working, as a high school junior, I rode the bus with some extremely chic women who worked at a nearby law firm and who had a huge influence on me. Probably why I never got into the bohemian/hippie look and have always loved suits.

  4. This is a really interesting post and has got me thinking about my wardrobe choices over the last couple of years. I’ve found myself adopting a more uniform style of dressing – pants in various styles, classic shirts in soft, good quality fabrics and loafers. Maybe I’m following my school days where uniforms were worn every day!

  5. What jeans do you have on today? I’m about your height and they seem to hit perfectly w/out having to roll them . Love the shoes!

  6. Ah, the voices of our mothers! I too am still untangling that. My mom considered herself very practical (which she often was, but he exceptions were quite the exception!) Like you, I prefer uncluttered, unstimulating looks. Thanks to Imogen Lamport’s program, I know that I look best in neutral plus one color, and when I started applying that, I felt the same sense of calm.

  7. I am most comfortable in neutrals and solid colors, too. I always thought that meant I was too conservative or lacked enough self-confidence to wear brighter, splashier clothing, but maybe that’s just how my brain works! I wish I could wear prettier shoes, but I have arthritis in my feet and am only truly comfortable in supportive shoes with room for my custom orthotics. I save the more fashionable heels and sandals for occasional wear. Would you please address the problem (for me, anyway) of pantyhose versus bare legs? Bare legs just don’t seem “finished” enough with a nice suit or dress. And my feet blister easily without hose or socks. What to do?

      1. Perhaps it’s not as simple for Deb. I’ve found, as I’ve grown a bit thicker around the waist, that it’s very hard to find comfortable pantyhose. Otherwise, I’d wear them more. I do have a few pairs of very expensive Falke pantyhose that I wear for special occasions. Also, in the summer, the last thing I want to wear is pantyhose, so I use a self tanner a few days before an event.

    1. Regarding pretty shoes, my knees rebel if l wear high heels, so if lm going somewhere nice, l put my pretty shoes on when l get out of the car…. and stagger elegantly into the restaurant.

  8. Me too Catherine! However my uniform was all navy and that’s what I have reverted to in recent years. I’m also most comfortable in strong simple outlines whether it’s denim or an evening dress. Oh dear that’s a bit like a nuns habit isn’t it……..

    1. Hmmmm. Perhaps the habits of the nuns (and two of my aunts were nuns–and one cousin) is one reason that I love a crisp, starched shirt too! I’m telling you, once you wear a uniform to school–there is no turning back!

  9. I loved wearing my Catholic school uniform for 12 years. And, yes, I too feel it has influenced my style to this day. Simple, unfussy, easy to wear and an answered prayer on mornings when I hit the snooze button too often. I feel confident when I reach for that black turtleneck and those black pants. I know it works and I have a base for accessories that can dress up or down. Black, navy, camel, gray and cream. Makes shopping a whole lot easier. I enjoyed this post and will be on the lookout for that book.

  10. It is interesting about your choice of black being your true north. I feel the same way and have a lot of black in my wardrobe, as well. I feel really good in the color. A few years back we were invited to a baptism in Sicily. All the women were wearing black. I asked if it was because they had lost the patriarch of the family a few months ago. Our quest said, “Oh no, we wear black for special occasions because it is elegant.”

  11. Hi! Tracey’s fb post brought me to your awesome blog. We’re on the same page on black, navy and grey

    Those are some mean heels. Sexy in the front, sweet in the back. Love!

  12. Your blog is the first thing I read in the morning, although I don’t comment very often. It’s always a pleasure to read. I think my style has been influenced by modern architecture, the Japanese aesthetic of simplicity, and an appreciation for quality and craftsmanship in both clothing and our interior furnishings. I also love black but it has to be a good crisp black, not dull or faded. We were in NM in August and took a special tour of Georgia O’Keefe’s home. Both her style of dress and her art were consistent in their simplicity. After our visit, I found an article about an exhibit (not current) in NY about her style of dress, an image she created with intention. The other women whose style I’ve admired have that same quality of simplicity along with fine materials.

  13. I think I wrote myself right through 80% (and will probably never get to the last 20%;)) of understanding my clothing choices vis-a-vis my wardrobe! That’s really what got me going on style, on my blog. First I wrote my family, in that High WASP voice that I borrowed from various aunts and cousins, then I started posting outfits, and voilà! You’ve always been so good at analyzing your own feelings about your wardrobe, I think Tracey will be too – and she adds that extra fillip of psychological training.

  14. I certainly get you on the critical mother thing! I don’t think my mother ever complimented me on a single outfit I ever wore. She wanted a very feminine daughter with curly hair who dressed in ruffles and pastel colors. My hair is fine and straight and I’m basically a tomboy. Pastels make me feel like the Easter bunny.
    Fortunately my mother had many good qualities aside from her taste in her daughter’s clothes, and I’ve developed confidence in my own taste.
    Susan, your blog has been a great help to me. Thanks for all the hard work it must take!

  15. Hi Susan, You may want to Google Dressing Your Truth. I’ve been using this style of dressing for 3+ years. On the surface, it may sound “new age-ish”. It bases styles, colors, patterns, clothing details on everyone’s personal energy type. It resonates so well with me (and my four daughters as too!). I’m a Type 3 which means I have a faster movement. If I wear black, the color is too still. Two of my daughters are Type 4s (more still) and black is perfect for them. As a result, I feel great in my clothing all of the time and my entire closet is coordinated. It’s much easier and faster to shop, too. I hope you can take some time to investigate the program, as you may really enjoy it. God bless!

    1. Hi Kim, thanks! I actually reviewed the program on here on the blog many years ago…at that point I identified with Type 4.

  16. I have a saturation point with black. Black pants all day every day (for so many reasons) but near the face only once in a while or else I feel washed out of color. It must have been difficult for the women of the 40’s & 50’s to accept the radical shift to unstructured ‘style’ when their kids grew up in the 60’s & 70’s (speaking from experience). Mom took pride in well-made and stylish clothes and made her own when she was single (including coats and hats!). By the time I came of age I wanted Levi cords and plaid shirts (in style then, I promise). I got her when I started working and she seem pleased with my office attire, albeit a tad melancholy that she was past enjoying that wardrobe for herself. I have kitten heels in many colors and styles, including leopard and snake skin. I love them. However, when I wore the black patent ones to an office party in a small alpine town here they felt so out of place among the sensible shoes. Women looked nice, aside from the jeans and flannel shirts. It was the first time I felt sad about being incongruent with my wardrobe and where I live. Not sure whether fitting in a little better with the norm is a surrender or being the magpie in the crowd and wearing what I love is more .. sensible. I know I will still wear what I love; it’s a must.

  17. Sue, so much truth is echoing here in my head from your post. No time to write about it or even think about it much this morning. But I’m promising myself that this weekend I’ll come back to your post and explore for myself what my current Very Different Stylings mean about my current phase of life. Obviously, something’s going on here. 🙂

    And, Kim, I’ll check out “Dressing Your Truth” as well. Thanks for that tip.

  18. Over the decades I have found that my confidence comes from the comfort of the clothes that I’m wearing, and this has determined my go-to style, so I choose comfort and style simultaneously. If I am the slightest bit physically uncomfortable, I fidget with my clothes or jewelry which makes me feel socially uncomfortable. I have learned that I like to wear things that are tailored but not constricting, and my standard ensemble is a neutral pair of cotton/blend trousers with either a cotton sweater set or a shell and an unstructured blazer. I will wear a simple pattern on the trousers and sometimes like color/pattern in my tops. I now shy away from any fabrics that have too much feel to them. Unfortunately that means I no longer wear silk or wool, so I pass by many beautiful things in the stores, but I’ve learned that I have wasted my money if I give in and purchase something that I know I will be uncomfortable when wearing. This also applies to accessories such as scarves, shoes, and jewelry.

  19. My mother dressed me beautifully when I was a child, and I couldn’t have cared less. When I got older she gently insisted that I was made for classic dressing. This was fine by me. Then came the hippie era and she bought me a jersey granny dress, midi length. I was amazed. What happened to classic? The fact is my mother had style, she knew exactly how and when to break her own rules. Me, I inherited my (lack of) style sense from the other side of the family. Years later, I found myself wearing all the wrong things – prints, raspberry-colored blouses, ‘fashions,’. . . Eventually I realized that I was now buying clothes for my late mother, who didn’t resemble me at all. Her coloring, her shape was totally different. Now over sixty I’ve got the picture (duh): Classic. Black, white and gray. Straight lines, no prints, the rare ethnic jacket or top to remember my mother’s sense of fun. She had me sized up from the start.

    Thanks, Susan, for starting this discussion.

  20. “…solid and grounded.” This is how I feel in black, also, Susan. And calm. And visible. Strong color and pattern in clothing overwhelm me and kind of jump out in front of me, somehow diminishing the *me* inside them. Then I feel out of proportion and out of whack. I really enjoyed this post and am enjoying everyone’s feedback, too!

  21. Very interesting, Susan. I adore black and wear a LOT of it. I also love colour though… the brighter the better. And of course sparkle. The only thing I almost refuse to wear is pattern. And white. A repeating pattern makes me crazy, whereas something like leopard print or Missoni where I can’t see the repeat works fine. I probably DO need a psychologist to help me work through the whys of that! xx

  22. Black, greys and blues….my mother is quite classic and tailored, but also very practical. I’m also practical, but much more inclined to boho/artsy.

    The psychology of how we dress is really interesting. There have been periods where I’ve dressed to hide because it felt safer, where there has been no sense of deserving to look good. With chronic illness, it can be difficult to find the energy to do more than put on something that is comfortable, particularly as I’m still working (albeit from home).

  23. My wardrobe is at least 85% full of black clothes. I feel like me in black. My mother never wore black but was fairly relaxed about what we worn. We always had appropriate clothes for church and other events but the choice of what was bought, within the budget, was ours.

  24. This is the basis for my journey into a reinvention and then into a blog and reinvented career. Style is transformative and when I turned 50 my lack of self care reflected I was depressed and had given up on life. Once I realized and understood this, I was able to turn things around. The new me began to evolve with a new vibrant, positive attitude about life. I am very aware every morning that what I put on will be a reflection of me and speak volumes about who I am that day. I look forward to reading more from Tracey and I highly recommend Stacy London’s book, The Truth About Style. I am living proof that once I began to work on my outside, the inside became new as well.

  25. Fascinating topic. I’d love more posts like this. I remember falling in love with a pair of red patent kitten heels. But I never wore them, they just weren’t ‘me’.

  26. Loved talking about the Psychology of Clothing with you and I am delighted to read how our chat got you thinking. I left our lunch loaded with more ideas that I look forward to sharing with you. Clothing is a huge psychological subject, so much more than skin deep. I am having a hoot writing this book and so far I haven’t found any books that are comparable to my take on the sartorial psyche. I am definitely NOT telling readers how to dress, rather I am unpacking why we dress, shop and consume as we do and what our closets may be saying about us that we aren’t aware of. It is delightful to bring depth to clothing and clothing to the realm of the depths. Thanks for your support, interest and wealth of wisdom on this super fun topic!! xoxo

  27. I apologize in advance if my comments offend anyone: they’re not meant to, but the topic of psychology of clothing has brought me out of lurker/enjoyer mode because the following is a huge mystery to me.

    I don’t get why women will wear shoes that will ultimately result in foot damage. I believe we need to examine our definitions of pretty so that the concept of good for our bodies is included. Feet are supposed to be widest right where most shoes constrict. Our toes are meant to be splayed and when they’re forced into pointy shoes, many of us will develop deformities in the shape of bunions. Some will get plantar fasciitis. Heels give us shortened achilles’ tendons, and the list goes on

    To me, most “fashionable” footwear is reminiscent of foot-binding and I find that profoundly sad.

    1. Hi Cara, no offense taken here. I can only speak for myself, but I find that if sized correctly, a pointy-toed shoe does not squish my toes. The heel is low which minimizes pressure on the front of the foot. And I also don’t wear these every day, or for long periods on my feet. Everyone’s feet are different, and I encourage everyone to do what works best for comfort and lifestyle.

  28. Sue,
    Thank you for not taking umbrage at my remarks. Any time your toes are not in their natural position, which is splayed so that they are the widest part of your foot, they’re being squished, unfortunately, even if it doesn’t hurt. Not every one will have pain, but it doesn’t mean we’re doing the best for our feet.

    Anyway, I’ve written enough so will stop.

    Thank you for taking the time to give us this blog.

  29. So I have used Fashion Feng Shui to answer those particular questions. We all have an inner essence that needs to be honored first, then an intention to set for what we want to show to the world, and finally our personal coloring and shape to fit as well. By blending different elements of water, wood, fire, earth, and metal I can balance and put my best most comfortable foot forward. Each element has colors, fabrics, textures, and shapes associated with them.

  30. The process of becoming comfortable in one’s own skin is highly under-rated! It took me many years to begin to be comfortable with the fact that my clothing choices always have been a form of self-expression. Most of the clothes that I packed in a carry on for my latest trip were black simply because I have a lot of black clothing. It’s easy to grab things that are compatible. I think I always have been comfortable in black. When I was 12, one of my aunts objected to my mother allowing a child to wear black because it’s somber, a color worn for mourning, and she thought I was ‘too young’ for black. But to me, black is dramatic. While I abhor drama in my personal life, I do like it in my clothes! When I was in high school, I got my hands on a cashmere coat. I carefully deconstructed it, made a blazer & a Dress Stuart tartan skirt (white background) & won a Make It With Wool contest…. in part because I broke the rules by wearing a black jacket with a light colored skirt. Every once in awhile, my mother’s extremely critical voice haunts my ‘rebellious’ style choices. I find myself thinking ‘I’m an adult, a grandmother, even, you’d think my clothes could simply be my own by now?!!’ What I wore home was not at all what she’d choose or approve of – and I was surprised that she didn’t say a word. She may have been so busy with my dad’s final illness & related details that other things weren’t on her radar. I’m not asking, I’m just grateful for the cessation of those particular hostilities. One of the courses I actually enjoyed in college was ‘The Social & Psychological Aspects of Clothing’. Learning that some people see style as function, others view it as fun was a ‘light bulb moment’ for me. The reasons that class ‘clicked’ with me is that the foremost governing question of who I am is ‘why?’. I was able to realize that my mother’s viewpoint is function; nothing is allowed but classics & neutrals. Function is all well & good; I’m not into gardening & working with livestock in my dressy clothes; but there is nothing at all ‘wrong’ with me that I can & do have fun with functionality. I know so much more about my own psychological make up now than I did back then. I am introspective by nature. One aunt disapproved when I was a child, but in adulthood, I’ve appreciated discussing with another aunt the need to honor oneself in all sorts of ways… which includes why I choose the clothing I do. It’s time to put away summer clothes & get out the winter ones. I find myself with empty drawers & bare closet because I kept setting things aside; asking myself ‘WHY do I have this when I know I don’t like it?’ I do know why. The more important questions are ‘What can I do about this?’ and ‘Do I have time?’.

  31. Of course, this totally makes sense to me. I was even talking about it to my husband a couple of years ago. Because in my first marriage, I had very little bright clothing or anything fun. It was a sea of muted colors and basic pieces. Needless to say, it was an abusive relationship, and luckily ended.
    Now that I’m with my soul mate, I find myself reaching for those crazy sleeved tops, and bright colors!! Every time! Every day! In fact, sometimes, I feel like I need to put the brakes on, so I don’t shock others—ha ha!
    But I said to my hubby, how not only has he made me feel good about myself, but he’s changed my entire closet. Gotta love that!!

  32. I don’t know that I’ve ever posted, but this topic is very interesting, and it is something I think about often. I have always expressed myself with clothing–from that first school dress to start kindergarten to this mid-60’s point of life. I have never done anything wild, exotic, or overtly sexy because that is just not me. I have always enjoyed fashion as an art form and always edited what was available out there by accepting some things and flat out refusing others. Anything hippie/bohemian, lumberjack, athletic, or too loose and unstructured did not attract me. Although I have always been slender, and people think I could wear anything, I have definite ideas about what is not flattering on me (e.g. low rise pants). I like neutrals and color, and I have about an equal mix of both in my closet. Oh, and shoes and bags of every imaginable color! I only have a few prints, and I get my pattern from scarves, which I adore. I have been influenced by the various places I’ve lived in order to adapt to different weather and lifestyles, but the real me was always there to edit, edit, and edit. Getting dressed is a joy. I love putting things together in new ways, shopping my closet, reorganizing things, and I consider it a form of play. I will go to my grave rejecting and not participating in the slobification of society. There are plenty of comfortable things to wear besides pajamas, sweats, and “athleisure.” Those things may have their proper place, so no offense to anyone, but in order for me to feel comfortable, I also need to feel that what I have chosen is appropriate within a certain context. It makes it more enjoyable for me, and often I see it as a sign of respect for others.

    1. Julia,
      We must be related , at least in spirit ! Your sentiments reflect my feelings exactly ! Every time I see the distressed pants look I wonder why that fad is still hanging around ! I have a 93 year old mother who still takes great pride and joy in how she dresses , and her sense of pride in dressing to feel good has rubbed off on me, though I prefer a more classic style than hers. Over time I have returned to the colors that I adore wearing, along with the most flattering neutrals for me . I am a bit of a scarf-aholic , though I have recently done a major edit of those as well as of excess costume jewelry. Shopping my own closet is great fun! I struggle sometimes to find prints in the color combinations and scales that I want, and sometimes I have to wait years for my colors to come back on the market — I have soft, warm , medium light personal coloring, and I refuse to purchase anything that is unflattering in color choice or styling for my body shape.

      1. Sherry,

        I have a 91-year-old mother who is still very interested in style, clothing, and putting herself together. I think that is very healthy for women of that age…well, any age. Her problem is that she is so petite and slender that it is difficult to find things small enough these days with all of the vanity sizing. That’s another subject that really gets me going. Back in the day, I wore a size 6, and now without any weight change, I am now a size 0. Insane. My mother has slipped off the charts. Like you and your mother, I am more classic and tailored in my clothing choices than she is. I still look fondly upon the style of Jackie, Audrey, and a little bit of Katherine. I’m not too impressed with the so-called style icons of today, although I think Kate Middleton is lovely.

        Coco Chanel said, “Elegance is refusal,” and I think that is very wise advice when it comes to selecting styles and colors that are best for oneself and rejecting the rest.

        1. Julia,
          Yes, Kate Middleton reflects the simple, though not plain, classic and classy style that I admire . Small world, huh ?

  33. Susan,
    “Solid and grounded” for me has come from the knowledge of what my personal coloring looks best in and the styles that resonate the right feelings when I wear them. Black makes me look like death warmed over, and I have found that a sliding scale of browns are my true ” black ” . I used to wear black because it was the sophisticated color and oh so easy to find in the marketplace , but it did nothing for my appearance or sense of color true North ! So the black garments have long ago left my closet and are blessing someone else. The other area of comfort for me is the need of having a collar on a garment, except on a knit in the hottest of Summer days ! I grew up in the era when Preppy was the style of choice and perhaps it’s a throw back to those days, but I feel that I look underdressed if I wear a collarless top with a collarless topper over it. Just not flattering on me somehow.

  34. I love the idea of “psychology of style”. I’ve loved a palette of simple black and white since my childhood. The first book I purchased on my own was a decorating book called, “White on White”. One of my finest moments as a child was convincing my parents to put solid white carpet in my bedroom, I felt like I finally had my own sanctuary, it was beautiful. My parents thought this was a little strange but they let me be myself and I greatly appreciate that to this day.
    My clothing, when I picked it out myself, was always white with black or navy and yes I did experience the questions, “are you mourning?”, “depressed?”. I found myself explaining that I loved simple, pure white and black, they made me happy.
    For me the psychology of style stems from our innate knowledge of ourselves. If we’re allowed to be that person, we’re content. Chasing trends and a sense of belonging through our style seems like lying to ourselves. We all want to fit in, but wouldn’t it be great if we could “fit in” while expressing who we really are.
    My home is simple and classic with very muted colors and to this day I find myself explaining to friends who visit our home that “yes, we like a simple, we like calm, uncluttered space”. I’m very fortunate that I married a man who also loves a minimal aesthetic. Rule number 1? Find a kindred spirit. : )
    Recently I find myself revisiting my style and focusing more on health and what makes me happy. We as women forget ourselves in the midst of careers and family and “finding” ourselves in our 50’s can be an amazing time. Cheers to your friend for delving into the psychology of style, hopefully it will open minds and hearts and allow more women to “be who they trully are”.

  35. I make a lot of neutral safe choices because I don’t have a great sense of color. If I’m wearing a bright color, it is invariably paired with a neutral black, navy, gray, etc because I know it’s safe. I love the combination of fuschia with other bright colors like orange or red, for instance, but am not likely to wear it as I would worry that I’ve picked two colors that appear complimentary to me but not to anyone else. And denim on denim? I’ll never go there. Pretty sure I would get that totally wrong no matter how simple it seems in theory.

  36. I loved this topic. So much of what I’ve worn has been directed by my current life situations…nothing new for a serious college student, office to out-in-the-field wear for my occupation, suits for my political job, and casual for community work. When I retired, I kept drifting to racks of suits and lovely low-heeled pumps (I still miss them). Now I’m a grandmother of 7 and I’m helping with car pools and going to swim meets and soccer games. My closet has never been bigger or brighter! My only frustration is that when I was skinnier, so was my wallet…and now its vice versa! I really appreciate that this post and the comments has helped me see the difference in style for my granddaughters. I love to buy them clothes, but I need to help them recognize their own style and comfort and not try to teach them mine!