THE BLOG

The Joys and Hazards of Late-Blooming Style

08/23/2013 07:18 pm ET | Updated Oct 23, 2013
  • Sally McGraw Freelance writer, blogger and communications professional; Already Pretty creator and blogger

I truly believe that some women are born stylish. Eventually scientists will isolate the gene that bestows the innate ability to accessorize effortlessly, pinpoint the base pair that allows certain women to spot real cashmere at 50 paces. Although some of these women grow up in style-centric homes that add nurture to nature, others saunter through their uninterested households, copies of Vogue in hand, making the berber-carpeted hallways their very own catwalks. Some women set trends in middle school. Some women bypass the sweats-and-UGGs phase in college, embracing prep or vintage with dazzling panache. Some women make every day in the Cube Farm look like a Grace Coddington editorial. Some women are just born stylish.

I am not one of them.

I can't produce proof from childhood or high school, but this is what I looked like during college and for several years afterward.

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Like most women I understood that what I wore affected my social status, and as a younger woman my social priorities were to be liked and accepted. So I looked around at what my peers were wearing and mirrored their choices. It literally never occurred to me to consider fit, figure or flattery when I dressed. Not once. I did not contemplate how my clothes interacted with my body because I considered these peer-sanctioned garments to be my only choices. Since I was grappling with some pretty intense body shame at the time, the loose, formless '90s styles felt doubly comfortable, but I'm fairly certain I would've mimicked just about anything I saw my friends doing. During this period, clothing was simply a way of broadcasting my bland acceptability.

About two years after graduation, I woke up. I realized that clothes were tools and that -- using them strategically -- I could change how my body looked to the observing world. For the first time, I understood that wide-legged trousers might look fabulous on my friends, but looked considerably less fabulous on me. AND, more importantly, that I could make other choices. I could opt for skirts or dresses or whatever the hell I wanted to wear, using my own taste and judgment. So I began experimenting. Enthusiastically. I think of these years as my "transitional period."

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I started wearing skirts and dresses, branched out from black, and played with accessories. I began to understand which garments could be used to enhance my natural features and which ones could be used to downplay them. But "began" is the operative word, here. I did all of this on the fly. No mentor, no style guides, no magazines and relatively few fashion blogs. I was feeling my way through style slowly, choosing to trust myself and make my own way. I did this partly out of sheer pigheadedness and partly because I feared the body shame that consulting fashion rags might rekindle. I knew I wanted to be arty, eclectic, a little bit retro, but also kinda punk and occasionally cowgirlish. I tried to dabble in all of these looks and created a bit of a morass. I was so excited by my newfound freedom that I often went a bit overboard, stocking up on embellished pieces instead of classics, playing with proportion in odd and awkward ways, piling too many colors or textures into a single outfit. I hesitate to say that my choices during this period make me cringe because I was doing some vital and groundbreaking exploration and experimentation. But I definitely wore some weird crap.

And, being a late-blooming clotheshorse, I am quite certain I will continue to wear some weird crap now and again. Because I just started this process about 10 years ago. My interest in style, my understanding of my figure, and my taste in clothing have had only a decade to incubate. Any woman who played in her mother's closet or went shopping with her older sister or subscribed to Elle as a teen had a considerable jump start on me. Many of those women did the bulk of their exploration and experimentation much earlier in life, and have a much better idea of how they want to dress now that they are adults.

But I'm grateful to be a late-bloomer. And here's why:

I am a thorough student. Earlier in life, I had absolutely no patience for or interest in finding the absolute perfect pair of jeans for my exact figure. I bought what fit passably, and assumed it was fine. Now, I am fascinated by the process of sussing out my own preferences. For instance, once I determined that pants challenge me, I explored every skirt style imaginable in order to find the shapes that work best for my body. The lessons I'm learning may involve some awkward missteps, but the learning process is fascinating and enlightening.

I make bold choices. As a young woman, I played it incredibly safe by dressing as a clone of my peers. Once I moved beyond that phase, choosing artistic, unusual, and quirky pieces for my outfits felt positively refreshing. I've reined in the weird since then, but I still take chances when I shop and dress. Because blazers and heels are grand, but sometimes I just want to throw on my asymmetric hem, tie-dye maxi dress and let my freak flag fly.

I have abundant resources. In high school and college, I had scarce money, no interest in style, and only what my local malls and thrift shops could offer me. Now I'm financially independent, fascinated by style, living in a town with amazing thrift and consignment shops, and have the entire mind-blowing world of Internet shopping at my fingertips. A mixed blessing, of course, as experimentation leads to missteps and those missteps can be costly. But access to resources has made this process more fun, more rewarding, and considerably more comprehensive.

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I am quite sure that I'll be dressing in an entirely different way three or four years from now because my style -- like all personal styles -- is in a constant state of flux and refinement. Even those lucky women born with the elusive style gene will change and shift as they age and as their tastes evolve. Whether you've been drawn to style since birth or are a late bloomer like me, what you love and want to wear will change as you change.

And that is a very, very good thing.