Against “Personal Style”

April 3, 2014 • Fashion


I must have been in middle school when I first heard the saying, “Fashion fades, style is eternal.” It has been attributed to both Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel, both of whom were formative in my early introduction to fashion. If you were like me as a teenager, you might’ve been taken by that phrase, its simplicity and elegance. To me, there remains no chicer a distinction in the long, unending catalogue of fashion quotes you can research on Google.

In addition to being chic, the phrase was also wildly popular. In hindsight, what was most important about the quote was not its content but the books and websites that mobilized it. I saw the quote everywhere, floating in the margins of every style guide I owned and popping up across the pages of Vogue. The quote was emblematic of the cult of “personal style” that began to dominate fashion towards the end of the last decade. Rachel Zoe’s Style A to Zoe was a step-by-step guide on how to develop a unique look; Influence by the Olsen twins was littered with suggestions of “style” over fashion; Nina Garcia’s The One Hundred: A Guide to the Pieces Every Stylish Woman Must Own spelled out exactly what the title suggests. All of these books were published in 2008, on the doorstep of my move to high school, and I proudly owned each.

Each book provided its own spin on a central message that pivoted on the inescapable YSL adage. Each valued “personal” style. The logic of personal style gives us faith in the idea that clothes provide the individualized tools with which we can realize our fullest selves. The look you create with your set of “classic” dark blue jeans, “classic” black pumps, and “classic” camel sweater presents the best you. There’s an air of maturity associated with this narrative. “Personal style” makes the promise of fashion one in which we consistently evolve and improve; all of the less-is-more clothing described in Stacy London’s The Truth about Style allows us to grow up.

I don’t intend to launch a war against the personal style. (Hey, I brought my copy of Style A to Zoe with me for my first semester of college). In any case, clothes are tools for self-presentation. But what else can clothes do and how is that being left out of our discussion? What has happened while we’ve been getting dressed?

As theorist Kaja Silverman puts it, “Clothing and other kinds of ornamentation make the human body culturally visible.” Our relationship with clothing is a deeply personal connection. But it is personal because it goes to the heart of our desire to participate in a broader social sphere. To be “visible” is to be seen. Getting dressed to assert a personal style is recognition of fashion’s broader social and cultural dimension. Fashion’s existence in a social sphere often seems forgotten. Rather, it is suppressed by the insistence on personal style.

At worst, “personal style” invests too heavily in the individual and not nearly enough in considering participation in fashion as a public act. Yet worse, it may try to conceal its origins in clearly defined rules. Such is the work of ideology. It’s important to mention that all the books I’ve mentioned so far prescriptive in nature; they articulate how style should be defined. The TV show What Not to Wear is a related enterprise. What’s notable here is the way in which clearly doctrinaire cultural texts are allowed to pass as self-help, self-realization, or, at the extreme, emancipation. But it’s cultural production does the helping and realizing behind the cult of “personal style.”

Theorists in politics and media studies have thought of our era as one in which “internalized surveillance” is culture’s principle tool of ideological maintenance. Katherine Sender has written extensively on this subject. Sender explains how Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—a precursor to the late-aughts style guide rise—uses shaming techniques in order to get its makeover subjects to internalize messages about “good” taste and style. Viewers internalize these messages, too. As a result, we modify behavior as if a surveillance camera were pointed in on life, making sure to adhere to the messages filtered through books, TV shows, magazines, etc.

At the core of “personal style,” I read an assertion that is at odds with fashion’s reality, which resides in both its social determination and social function. Within the intensely close bond established between clothes and self, there’s little space for others. Fashion doesn’t exist to be thought of as the one-to-one expression of our identity, even if it does certainly play a large role in communicating it. Instead, it expresses and indexes the world around us, while ensuring that we have a place in that world. It is in the world that were are born and defined. And it is to the world that notions of style and individuality must pay their due.

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