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Dressed for Success: Style vs. Trends

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There's a reason Emily Post wrote the book on manners. She said, "The woman who is chic is always a little different, Not different in being behind fashion, but always slightly apart from it."

Of the over one hundred etiquette subjects I have taught, dress and etiquette are always in the top ten. Dressing is not like setting the table, where rules rule. Are there rules for dress? You bet, but there's a lot more freedom of style.

It all comes down to style vs. trends. If you have your own style, then you know what you like when you walk into a boutique or department store. If you use a personal shopper, they should also know your style, which can be a great time saver.

Do you consider yourself a trendsetter or follower? Elizabeth Varnell, style editor of San Francisco magazine, says, "Following trends is a monetary preoccupation; cultivating style is a lifelong process."

Rules That Matter
Casual Friday means dressing casually, not dressing sloppily. This means no shorts, no jeans (torn or otherwise), or T-shirts. For men, it means khakis and polo shirts. For women, it means casual skirts, slacks and dresses, polo shirts or blouses.

Cocktail Attire is a confusing term that sends many people into wardrobe frenzy. For men, it means a dark suit with a tie, or slacks and a sports coat with a tie. For women, a dressy skirt and blouse, a cocktail dress, or a pants suit.

Black Tie is the dress for formal evening events. For men, this means a tuxedo; for women, it means a long or short evening dress (yes, short is okay).

For the most formal evening events, men should wear a white tie and tails, while women should wear a full-length gown.

General Rules of Dress
It's important to wear clothes that are appropriate to the occasion. It's a great insult to appear casually dressed when a host has made a great effort to put on an elegant party for you and other guests. Plus, it can be embarrassing for you both.

If an invitation does not specify dress, you have every right to ask what is expected when you respond to the invitation.

The Golden Rule is that it's better to be overdressed than underdressed.

Why then is dressing for success difficult for many? Let's apply my favorite rule: less is definitely more. Less means you wear a strapless dress with chandelier earrings and skip the necklace. More means leaving the necklace on. Do you or your jewelry wish to be noticed? If the answer is the latter, then by all means wear what you wish, but remember: The way a woman wears a certain something makes the fashion, not the opposite.

Style is something you're born with. Personal shoppers may be able to make someone stop wearing black socks with tennis shoes and teach them that loafers must always be worn sockless, even in the dead of winter. But developing an attractive personal style is another matter. If you are one to follow color trends, then this spring we will see you in yellow (a tough color by all accounts, for both clothes and home décor) and fingerless gloves, which allow you to use your iPad. Note to reader: I would rather wear Kelly green leather gloves and take them off to send a text. It's my own style, not somebody else's.

Take the comment on fashion vs. style from style icon Joy Venturini Bianchi of San Francisco's Helpers House of Couture, which benefits the developmentally disabled: "Currently, we are inundated by images in magazines, television programs, and events that are devoted to fashion. Most of the images are advertisements for 'Who you might become,' 'Who you should become,' or 'Who you will never be.' The fashion industry promises to help you find an "instant" identity that you can display to the world. This is fashion as image. Style is a different thing altogether. To develop it, you have to give up the idea that you will find yourself in images of other people. You have to engage in the process of finding out who you really are--from the inside out. When you do this, you begin to discover that certain fashions allow "the best of you" to be seen, while expressing your own taste, not that of others. The more you discover your own real self, the more you will find the fashions that suit you, and the more you will develop your own style."

Susan Graf of Susan Graf Limited in Healdsburg, California (www.susangraf.com) adds that clothes must flatter at any age. Her exclusive Bogner Techno Pant (better known as the Little Black Dress of Trousers) both fit and flatter. "They are sleek and modern with a minimalist presence, an iconic trouser and staple around which every wardrobe revolves."

Emily Post's words echo those of my fashion idol, Coco Chanel: "Fashions fade; style is eternal."

Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, on-air contributor, and the author of A Traveler's Passport to Etiquette. She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (www.AMLGroup.com), certified etiquette and protocol consultants. Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast Traveler, InStyle magazine and the Los Angeles Times. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on www.Twitter.com/LisaGrotts and www.Facebook.com/LisaGrotts.