CLASS IS IN SESSION! How to Find and Cultivate Your Signature Style (HERE’S LESSON #2)

In which we learn how to pinpoint exactly what your signature style actually is or what you want it to be. (There’s no homework this time, but there may be a pop quiz.)
Publish date:
September 26, 2012
clothes, Pinterest, polyvore, signature style

Why do you need to bother finding your signature style, anyways? It’s obviously not vital to our continued survival as a human race, but there is inherent value and power in knowing what you are projecting to the world every time you get dressed. That’s the main reason I have a job dressing people who are in the public eye -- clothes are instant visual cues as to who a person is, where they came from, and where they may be going. If they weren't, I wouldn't exist!

I always say that good clothes open all doors. That’s not to say that your clothes need to be fancy, expensive, or even any particular style! But they are the first thing people judge you on, and your clothes say a lot for you before you even open your mouth. So I believe it’s important to be your own PR person, the boss lady in charge of what your style is saying about you behind your back.

You babes are very good students -- the descriptions you gave last week of how you'd explain your signature style were hilarious for days. I am still laughing at some of them. A lot of you are already very clear on what your signature style is -- but if you couldn’t for the life of you figure out how to describe your style jam, don’t fret. It’s totally easy and fun to do -- and I'm about to teach you how.

There’s actually more to having a signature personal style than just the clothes you wear. I believe it’s actually a juxtaposition of the history, art, music, food and culture that moves you. Use anything that interests you as a jumping off point to delve into what your core style may be.

Here’s my personal style exploration as an example: I am a proud Texan. (There is no other kind of Texan, actually.) There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss and fondly think of my home state. So cowboy boots and country/rootsy/hippie style are always going to work their way into my look. (Even if only in my "accessories"!)

You can't see it very well in the photo, but here's the purse I was carrying when that picture was taken:

But I am also a die-hard high school new-waver. The first concerts I ever saw were Depeche Mode and Public Image, Limited. My entire high school career was spent wearing black knee high socks, suspenders and my grandfather’s castoff trousers that I chopped at the knee to show off my socks. I also sported a pretty sweet bi-level haircut in a town where cheerleaders with ribbons in their ponytails were the ideal of beauty.

As a result, black and edgy pieces will always find their way into my closet, no matter what I try to do. It’s practically genetic at this point. So I would describe my current style as sort of “Backwoods Nouvelle.” But your signature style can change -- mine is even as I type this! I’m feeling the need to “grow up” in my look a bit, and am inexplicably drawn more and more to very classic, tailored pieces. I’ve also started properly reading the books I only skimmed in high school -- Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, and Madame Bovary. I've even found myself suddenly wanting to listen to classical music in my office while I work.

Which is all terrifying, as I’ve always prided myself on being weird and different, edgy and against the grain. But I’ve decided to give in to my ladylike-loving side -- just being sure to always temper it with something slightly bizarre. Et voila -- as I said in our previous lesson -- my new signature style is “Genteel Bizarro”! (I got that from consulting my trusty thesaurus for synonyms for both “ladylike” and “weird”.) Try it, it’s fun, and it works. My thesaurus is the only reason I ever come off as even sort of intelligent.

Ann Klein belted dress, $119.00. Charles David spectator shoe, $169.99. Eyeball ring, about $46.00 U.S. Gold Kate Spade clutch, $498.00. Bebe studded gloves, $39.00.

Sites like Polyvore and Pinterest are not only GREAT TIME SUCKERS, they are also an excellent tool for exploration and inspiration. Say you like Italian films from the 1960’s, Ska music, and Mondrian art -- a quick web surf using those keywords will turn up things you never considered, but already like. Practically any keywords that you identify with can be melded into a style signature.

Mondrian style dress pattern, $5.40. "An American in Paris" vintage film poster, about $308.00 U.S. Paper replica Vespa, free download. Deborah Milano lipstick, $20.00. L.A.M.B. wedges, $335.00.

It may seem slightly ridiculous, but putting images together that set the mood for your style helps your brain wrap itself around what to keep your eyes peeled for when you are out shopping. It's just like lighting candles or playing music to set the tone for a romantic encounter! It also may lead you style places you wouldn't have thought of, which is what usually happens to me. (Like, who knew you could download paper models of random objects as a craft project?)

There is almost never anything I can actually afford to buy (or even readily find at the mall, my number one haunt!) on either Pinterest or Polyvore, but I love to look at stuff and be inspired. Doing so is what helps me spot pieces that are in my wheelhouse when I see them at Goodwill, the clearance rack at Wal-Mart, or my local 99-cent store. (I have pieces in my closet from all 3 of those spots.)

That’s the ultimate secret to having good personal style, if you ask me -- once you’ve established what you are looking for, be on the lookout for it everywhere, even in the most unlikely of places. (Including the grocery store, your friend’s closets, or on your co-worker’s backs!)

Don’t be afraid to ask girls on the street whose style you admire where they got something. Everyone likes to be complimented, and I find that a casual, “You look so great in what you’re wearing!” followed by, “Would you be so kind as to tell me where you got it?” always results in them giving up the goods. Be sure to have a stock response ready for the fancy babes who answer, “At Barney’s,” or, “Oh, on vacation in Paris,” so as not to feel like such an instant hick -- I always reply with something like “Nicely done!”

Then I walk away and stew in my own jealousy, at least until I manage to find a close approximation of what they likely shelled out big bucks for at pennies on the dollar. Life is a catwalk -- be open to the idea that everything is research. Become a student of fashion, and study up. Style isn't something that just a few are "born with" -- it can totally be learned. It's an ongoing creative process. (If you are anything like me, it's a constantly evolving process as well!)

Amanda Brooks' "I Heart Your Style: How to Define and Refine Your Personal Style" is an excellent read that breaks down what I am talking about here in beautiful detail. If you are at all unsure how to translate style into your everyday look, it's the best $13.25 you will ever spend!

Ok -- open book pop quiz: Using what we've discussed here, laser focus either your current or aspirational signature style down to just 2 or 3 words. USE A THESAURUS! I swear, it works. We want to get to the heart of who you are, what interests you, and what you really want to present to the world before we are allowed to go shopping!

Coming up next week: Learn to buy only what actually suits your shape, along with a quick primer on the value of proportion in a successful outfit. Plus: How to know what a tailor can actually fix and when to throw in the towel on a hopeless garment.

(I’m on Twitter: @IveyAlison)