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Lesley M. M. Blume


The Substance of Style

Posted: 09/06/07 02:27 PM ET

It's fashion week in New York, and I'm not supposed to care.

I'm supposed to read the front page of The New York Times and save Women's Wear Daily for later.

After all, I'm an educated woman, and I shouldn't be concerned with fashion.

There's a war going on in Iraq. So I shouldn't be interested in what's going on in Vogue.

But I am interested; I can't help it.

Rationally I know that in this sense I can have my cake and eat it, too. I can be interested in foreign policy and stock market fluctuations and Chekhov and also maintain an interest in appearance and style. I tell myself over and over again that the interests are not mutually exclusive.

But I often feel guilty about admitting to my love of style, for fear that the admission will somehow render more serious achievements and concerns void.

As Susan Sontag pointed out: "To be concerned with one's own beauty is to risk the charge of narcissism and frivolity."

And who wants to have those poison-tipped arrows shot at them?

I know that I'm not alone in this uneasiness. Most of us work hard for recognition, for credibility, and no one wants those achievements to be undermined by accusations of vapidity at best -- or stupidity at worst.

For every woman who thinks that style is a commonsense component of a professional persona, I know another who fears that a concern with style distracts from their credentials and makes them look superficial.

Coming from a hard news background, where workplace fashion was certainly not a priority, I am particularly susceptible to such ponderings and guilty feelings. Hell, in Washington, D.C., where I was based for four years, to dress fashionably is akin to wearing a placard proclaiming "show-off" or "lightweight"...or a school-kiddish sign on your back that says "dismiss me."

Yet despite my own susceptibilities in this respect, I maintain that there is something amiss in this fearful way of thinking. For I genuinely believe that those who snub style are missing an opportunity.

Bear with me for a moment while I explain.

Appearances count, and let's never fool ourselves about that. No one in any position of power -- be it financial, governmental, or social power -- will ever argue that one's appearance is irrelevant. Like it or not, a haircut is a presidential campaign issue these days. This may be an unhappy state of affairs, but that's the way it is.

Our physical appearances are our outermost frontiers of identity. And they shape more of our character traits and attitudes than we'd like to admit -- or than we probably know. Our façades enormously inform others' first, second and tenth impressions of us, and in turn, affect how people treat us. These superficial reactions are a fact of daily life.

And anything on this level of importance deserves to be intellectualized and strategically used to our advantage.

When we take the time to cultivate a particular style, we assume greater control of the sort of impression we make. And managing the impressions of others is a vastly effective skill in all aspects of one's life, as any podunk politician can tell you.

Within this context, therefore, being concerned with style is simply an assertive approach to creating and projecting a successfully articulated persona, of which physicality is a crucial part.

Whether we think about it in these terms or not, we still make these 'persona' decisions every day. We shell out money for everything in our closets and our bathroom cabinets; we give directions to our hairdressers; we use specific verbal and physical vocabularies. Even if most these decisions are lazy, default ones (of the "must wear clothes, or get arrested" variety), they are decisions regardless -- and ones that make each of us distinct from others.

If such decisions are inevitable for each and every one of us, why not move from a defensive to an offensive position?

You might as well, for there's a nasty little Catch-22: as a woman, if you're not noted for your sense of style, you'll inevitably be noted for your lack of it.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

So assume control of the situation. After all, an intelligently-conceived style can be an integral physical hint about one's interior life. Style reassembles itself as an outward display of personality, a form of visual articulation. It is not surprising that some women want to make stronger statements than others. But nobody makes no statement; it simply isn't an option.

It is when you chose to take control of the statement you're making that style becomes empowering, not discrediting.

I'm sure that all of you have heard the grandmotherly advice to "dress for who you want to be" -- words usually dispensed before an aspirational event, such as a first date or job interview. I dare say that there's truth in this adage. Because often the first step in convincing others is convincing yourself, and psychologically speaking, dressing for a role goes a long way in both respects.

By taking the time to cultivate a specific style for yourself -- whether intentionally demure or outlandish or somewhere in between -- you are conveying that you are strong enough to be introspective, which is no small task. It means that you have assessed your attributes and flaws and are choosing to portray yourself accordingly.

You are showing that you are confident and able to weather detraction, since no particular style will be everyone's cup of tea. Along the same lines, you are showing that you are decisive, that out of a sea of options, you've chosen to 'illustrate' yourself in this very specific manner.

Decisiveness, confidence, introspection: these are all highly worthy qualities, wouldn't you say? Not exactly things about which one should feel ashamed.

Please note: I am certainly not agitating for a disproportionate attentiveness to one's appearance, especially at the expense of enhancing one's intellect or morals. Everyone knows that these entities are the ultimate barometers of anyone's character.

Nor am I equating style with beauty. In my eyes, the pursuit of beauty is a far less noble occupation than the pursuit of style -- for the former often subscribes to popular, trendy notions of appeal, whereas style can be and should be a unique expression of self.

In fact, I am a huge fan of the French concept of jolie-laide, which roughly translates as "ugly-pretty." I.e. a creature or object that is not considered classically beautiful but is still undeniably compelling.

There exists boldness, thoughtfulness, and substance behind that sort of style.

Let's reassess our guilty relationship with style. Disapproval abounds on this planet. If we can't do away with disapproval, we may as quietly manage those who dispense it -- and feel secure that we're operating from a position of strength.

We should just remember to approach style like we do everything else of importance: that is, mindfully.


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