Politics & Policy

Project Runway

The surprising virtues of style

It is a bromide to say that you can’t judge a book by its cover. The idea behind this statement is that appearances can be deceiving.

It is true that relying on someone’s clothing, exclusively, to determine his or her worth is absurd. But it is equally absurd to argue that style is meaningless. The way the world sees you is important. Whether you acknowledge it or not, your appearance is a statement. It says something about how you want to be regarded.

The young woman who wears oversized sweatshirts and Birkenstocks and has unkempt hair may not realize that her look can convey an air of indifference, or conversely, that she does not feel good about herself, that she wants to be invisible. Lady Gaga as an entertainer, on the other hand, intends to shock. Her attire is over the top, flamboyant. She is saying, unblushingly, “Notice me.”

Indeed, we do ourselves no favors when we pretend that appearances don’t matter, even if it seems like a principled stance. A woman I (Herb) am familiar with who graduated from Stanford Law School indicated she was unable to secure a position with a law firm. Looking at her, it was easy to understand why this was the case. She wore combat boots; her tops were at least two sizes too big. She hadn’t cut her hair in years, and no makeup adorned her face. By my dispassionate standard, she was a mess. With guidance — no, she wasn’t a guest on What Not to Wear she learned how to dress and groom herself. She was transformed from Ms. Sloppy into Ms. Professional and, mirablile dictu, she was offered three positions with White Shoe law firms.

Despite the fact there are rules for dressing properly — for example, a man’s jacket should be as long as his fingertips and a tie should hit his belt buckle — the key to proper dress is appropriateness. You don’t wear a Valentino dress to a rock concert, and you don’t go to a wedding in shorts.

Some are ignorant of these rules, but some simply flout them as an expression of individualism. Take the issue of “comfort” in clothing. Many people say they will only wear what makes them feel comfortable, even if it is entirely inappropriate. Leaving aside that even the most formal clothing can be comfortable if it fits correctly, this idea of placing comfort above all else is problematic: What you wear, how you manage your own image, tells the world how you want people to treat you. If you dress inappropriately, there is a high probability you won’t be treated appropriately, or in some cases, even fairly.

In some young people, style is an expression of sexual allure. So often we see young women with extreme décolletage, exposed midriff, or painted-on pants. Modesty may not mean the same thing for a 20- and a 50-year-old. Age, body type, situation, and circumstances are factors associated with appropriateness. But it’s pretty safe to say: The public should not be seeing “your girls.” Put them away. A little bit of décolletage is fine. Leave the rest for your significant other. An open collar is not the same thing as a revealed chest.

Kierkegaard tells the story of a circus troupe that is traveling the European countryside when one of the clowns notices a fire ripping through the fields, driven by fierce winds. Recognizing the danger to a local community, he rides his horse to warn local residents about the impending disaster. But when he gets to the town and explains what is about to happen, no one believes him because he is dressed as a clown.

It is instructive that style is very often associated with legitimacy. We didn’t have any idea of Cary Grant’s thoughts or opinions, yet we trusted the credibility of his characters on screen, partly due to his tasteful attire. He always looked the part. Being tasteful, of course, doesn’t mean that every man should dress like Cary Grant or every woman like Grace Kelly — though, come to think of it, that isn’t a bad place to begin.

If clothes convey a message, what should that be? Should fashion call attention to oneself? Should clothing be a manifestation of humility? Fashion, in its best form, is a function of who you are and who you would like to be. (The advice to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, is useful.) Some people have a flair for color that suggests something about their personality. Others may prefer subdued shades that reflect a more delicate sensibility.

Beauty matters. Style matters. It matters because it exalts the world and endows it with significance. But it also requires discipline. This is clear in The September Issue, a documentary about the creation of Vogue’s annual fall issue. In the film, cameras follow editor Anna Wintour and creative director Grace Coddington as they spar over the details of what will be the magazine’s largest issue. At times the stakes seem small, like when Wintour chastises an editor who picked an accessory on the grounds that it was “pretty.”

But at other times, as they wrangle over the location of particular shoots or the details of which photographer would best capture their cover model, the combined work of these two strong-willed women yields beautiful photo spreads that tell engaging stories.

Beauty and discipline can also be found in an exhibition of “Grace Kelly: Style Icon” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which shows Princess Grace at various stages of life, with Dior’s haute couture skills allowing her to keep a level of gracious glamour even as age intruded on her physical beauty.

Kelly offered a version of fashion as sweet harmony, whether she was in the Balenciaga embroidered jacket or slacks for casual wear. One photograph shows her taking her children to school in a Saint Laurent shirt dress that she made into a classic look. She was the embodiment of appropriateness. Whatever her inner circumstance, she illustrated outer evidence of taste.

Contrast that image with a mom of two who wears a skintight Lycra catsuit and stiletto heels to the playground. She may create the wrong impression, even with a great body, even if she’s young, even if she is putting a great deal of effort into her style, simply because the outfit is not appropriate to the circumstance. The outfit is shocking in terms of what it says about the person wearing it and may cause incorrect assumptions about that mother’s parenting skills. By the same token, the mom who never takes time for herself, who dresses in baggy sweatpants with stains and looks as if she never has time to wash her hair, is also giving off an impression of herself that may not square with her abilities as a parent. Individuals may perceive the women in the examples given here as “unfit” mothers simply because their outward appearance can, sometimes mistakenly, be translated into the virtue of their behavior.

While personal style cannot define who an individual is, it should, in the best circumstance, reflect who that individual is. What lies at the basis of that reflection has to be a healthy sense of oneself, an understanding of one’s place in society, and an acceptance of one’s own beauty — the beauty of one’s body as it is, not the idealized version of beauty we see on billboards and magazine covers. There is terrific pressure in our society to conform to almost impossible standards of beauty, of thinness, of youth. Those standards have worked against our ability to create our own style; instead they have forced us to be endlessly unhappy with our own uniqueness. And believing in our own accomplishments, being a good mother for example, should in the best-case scenario, directly relate to the style of the woman.

Style is a powerful tool in our arsenal to help us “say” what we want to about who we are and get what we want. If style or image is ignored or mismanaged, the consequences of judgment can be harsh and unfair. At its best, style can help individuals to be recognized for their real achievement and personality.

While Grace Kelly (or Jacqueline Onassis or Audrey Hepburn, for that matter) is often employed as a recognized “standard” of beauty and style, as we may have suggested, we would argue that these women are iconic because their individual styles were appropriate to them. They are examples of women whose style reflected more than just their physical aspects but reflected who they were as people. Grace Kelly dressed her body type well, but she dressed in a way appropriate to a movie star and a princess. We are not all movie stars and royalty.

The key to personal style is self-esteem. But this, too, is a widely misunderstood concept. Some people take self-esteem to mean that you don’t care what others think. Or that you don’t mind pushing the boundaries of society’s rules. One could argue about the underlying psychological issues here, but ultimately self-esteem doesn’t necessitate a disregard for others. Even people with a healthy sense of self-esteem understand that they are operating within a certain context. And they don’t need to throw all of our social boundaries overboard just to make a point.

Personal style must be based on a larger understanding and appreciation of ourselves as people including our kindness, passion, enthusiasm, curiosity, and so on. In other words, the more we like ourselves, the more we like what we do in the world, our style, quite naturally, becomes appropriate to who we are and where we are. It reflects our respect for ourselves as well as for our institutions and our community.

— Herb London is president of the Hudson Institute. Stacy London is co-host of TLC’s What Not to Wear and author of Dress Your Best. This essay is an excerpt from Acculturated.

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