Playing with Sartorial Personae

style persona

I’m a big proponent of continuity of style. Experimenting with wildly different looks is a fabulous way to explore your figure and taste, but I believe that the end goal should generally be to create a wardrobe that has a few beloved common threads running throughout. To be clear, I am NOT saying that you should dress in similar outfits every day of you life, or force yourself to be consistent merely for the sake of consistency. I’m saying that understanding your own aesthetic preferences will help you craft outfits that broadcast information about yourself to the observing world, and that by attempting to cultivate some consistent elements you’ll be able to do so more precisely. In my experience, those who dress in extremely different styles every day draw more attention to their clothing choices than to themselves. And that’s a valid path, too, of course. But having worked with dozens of style consult clients, my impression is that the majority would prefer to have style support and reinforce who they are instead of becoming the primary point of interest and conversation.

Now, all that said, I am also a big proponent of playing with sartorial personae. The photos above are from a single summer, but illustrate some of my own mini personae quite well: The Retro Gal, the Cowgirl, the Aspiring Punk. All three of these outfits felt a bit like playing dress-up to me, but in the best possible way. I adore vintage clothing, and although I generally mix my vintage pieces in with modern ones, sometimes I can’t resist unleashing my inner Retro Gal. Western-inspired pieces make up a big chunk of my summer wardrobe, and I find myself drawn to cowgirlish ensembles nearly every warm weekend. And I’ve been told for several seasons that pyramid studs are “out,” and couldn’t care less. Punk-tinged looks – especially ones balanced with less edgy elements – are among my favorites.

Although they show very different dressing styles and tap very different facets of my personality, they also have some common threads:

  • Heels
  • Knee-length or slightly above-the-knee hemlines
  • Flared skirt silhouettes
  • Minimal jewelry

And all of those elements are present in the vast majority of my outfits. My taste and figure flattery preferences inform my purchasing and styling choices, and help me create some continuity even as I tinker with my diverse sartorial personae. I still look like me and I still look how I want to look, even though my outfits couldn’t be more different.

And with some strategic sartorial choices, you, too can visually unite a variety of dressing personae. And look great doing it!

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  • ki.

    I’m not sure what my style persona is yet, but I like adding jewellery and colour to every outfit I wear, something which I link to the fact that I am Indian! Flat shoes are also common to every outfit I wear.

    I think that with time and with some experimentation, I will be able to give a better answer, but thanks for writing this post – it’s got me thinking! 🙂

  • I completely agree. I believe the way to develop a personal style is to develop the messages you want to communicate and then stick to them. That is why I came up with a formula that I have called the Foundational Five. It helps me to make certain my messages and, thus, my style is consistent with who I am!

  • Great topic, Sal – I may write more about it in a future post too, if you don’t mind : > I know I have certain elements of continuity (skirts rather than trousers, low heels, muted colors, defined waist) but I like to vary my dramatis personae too. Some days I am all “medical professional” and others “whoa, she might have been a hippie”. : >

  • Kat

    I think that if I enjoy wearing an outfit, it’s me, even if it seems discontinuous; I like playing with self-presentation. I don’t consider consistency a goal, but I think it naturally comes about based on what I do and don’t like anyhow. (There are probably a few things I could name as common threads–preferring skirts, black as a base color, few neutrals other than black, not too current, at least one textured or patterned item, heeled boots but few other heels.)

  • I think my style is very continuous, perhaps boringly so. When I step too far out of my style “box”, I am likely to not feel physically comfortable in my clothes. So I just try to embiggen my style box gradually every now and then, while also acknowledging that I actually like my current style quite a lot and don’t feel that much internal pressure to change it.

  • Anonymous

    That’s an excellent article one that hits home for me.I’m working on my style and thought too much about consistency. I was a bit too consistent for a while and then I changed all that and played another persona each day for a while. I stopped that ,too only to find out that somewhere between those 2 extremes is where my true style lies. I’m drawn to classic basic pieces with a tomboyish twist and …something else I haven’t pinned down yet.

  • Bubu

    I do like to play around, in particular with trending more ladylike vs more boyish, and more playful/young vs more old/professional. I thought my look was all over the place, but a couple times recently I’ve been shopping with friends and pick something up and they say “that’s so YOU” which makes me think there must be some consistencies going on. As I think about it, chunky or wedge shoes, skirts or jeans, long scarves and earrings are almost always present in my outfits.

  • Molly

    I play around a little, but I think it’s all in the service of trying to figure out a singular style, and I believe I’m almost there. But then, that’s a totally personal thing–I’d love to have a medium-sized closet of only things that feel like me and all work together for any occasion, while I totally get that others might want something bursting at the seams with lots of styles and options.

  • Miss T

    I method I use to keep on track with continuity is to remind myself that the articles of clothing are the “what” and the styling of the outfit — the way I wear it — is the “how”.

  • I definitely have signature looks/continuity in the shapes that I like, but I also enjoy playing with pieces or ensembles that are a little bit different. It’s funny to have a blog with pictures of what I wear, because I can see what’s changed and what’s stayed continuous, and I can also see that I tend to gravitate toward what people (and I) seem to like on myself. Blogging has been a kind of editing of my style, which is sort of cool.
    Anyway, I think as much as you seem to play around, there are always signature Sal touches (the matching-ness, funky jewelry or shoes, etc.).

  • Becky

    I love your point about continuity allowing people to see *you* instead of your clothes.

    For me, continuity is practical; I aim to live very frugally. I also have a ridiculously small house and thus, a ridiculously small closet. Having a consistent style means that I need fewer articles of clothing, since they all look pretty good with each other. I can go ahead and own just one pair of boots, because all my winter pants are hemmed at the right length and they all look good with black shoes. This may make a style artist cry, but it works for me.

    I’ve always built my wardrobes around my shoes, since in shoes more than any other garment, you tend to get what you pay for. Also they take up a lot of storage space. So if there’s a continuous thread in my wardrobe, it’s “Becky’s footwear and its friends”

    • Anneesha

      I have a teeny tiny house and almost no storage as well – Becky, do you have any great storage tips? I hate to use the basement because of the mildewy odor but maybe there are creative ways around that as well? I’m finding that I can use existing items in creative ways – for example, several cute vintage purses that don’t function well (too small) as handbags, but they’re flat-bottomed and make a great makeup caddy and hairbrush holder on the toilet tank top.

      • Becky

        Aneesha, I wish I did! My little closet and bedroom are actually *in* a half-basement, and every fall I have to wipe the mildew off everything leather that I didn’t wear over the summer. I am saving up for a dehumidifier.

        Mostly, I get rid of nearly everything I don’t wear much, and do laundry a lot so I can wear the same garments often. Rotating frequently-cleaned clothes through most of the closet seems to keep the less-frequently-worn stuff (party dresses, for example) from getting as fusty.

      • Aya

        I don’t have a basement, but I live in a small apartment in the SF Bay Area, where things are so damp that knives/swords rust in their scabbards. I use silica packets that are both sold by themselves and come in a lot of Asian food products to keep food crisp. They are great at keeping a finite area like the inside of a drawer, suitcase, or box dry. You know when they’re “used up” because they’ll swell and get sort of puffy/squishy.

        My bed is raised off the ground, so I store my boots in boxes under there, and boxes of unseasonal clothes that aren’t getting much rotation due to the weather.

        Leather products are supposed to breathe, so I don’t store them in plastic bags, but I put one silica packet in each boot before storing it in its box, and I keep silica packets in the pockets of some of my coats in my closet.

  • Leah

    I’ve never seen the point in creating any kind of purposeful consistency between outfits. Within outfits, definitely, but from day to day? Never. I figure that one might show through my preferences and through re-wearing of certain awesome items, but I don’t see the benefit to showing any kind of persona through clothing. The outside world as a whole doesn’t notice if I have a common thread, it doesn’t have a memory and it won’t be confused if I change it up completely. Consistency for your personal gratification is a different and very useful thing, though I don’t really do that either.

  • I’m glad you made a post about this. I’ve actually been struggling with this for a while. I started a blog recently and after having a couple outfits of the day it seems to bother me even more that I lack the consistency I wish I would have. To me it feels more like my inner cowgirl, hippie, tomboy, glamorista and retro personae are fighting to get the upper hand (the hippie seems to be winning as of late :p).

    I’ve been reworking my wardrobe a lot (out with the old, in with the new eh?) but I don’t want to just get rid of everything as there are things with very opposing styles and I can hardly choose to keep one and chuck the other, because I just love both. So one of the main things I’ve been working on is to get them to unite, by using similar shapes and colours and having my (mostly colourful, ethnic, chunky but also whimsical) accessories to bridge between the looks. The problem is that I don’t quite know which direction to go in because of my ‘split style personality’. I’d love to hear some tips from you!

  • Mel

    As usual, a thought-provoking post! Once again, a good lunch time conversation.

    You didn’t mention that all three outfits have a V neckline…or that two of them have a chunky bracelet. Often I see lots of bracelet space in your outfits, either chunky or lots of them. Must be part of the balance thing?

    Hmm…what are the elements that tie my ensembles together anyway? Good question! I hadn’t thought about it before!

    Well, let’s see.
    Capris of some sort…for as long long as I can get by with into the fall, and first thing in the spring. I look great in capris, but for some reason I don’t look good in pants, even if they’re the exact same fabric/style. Capris are best, a skirt second, pants not at all, jeans rarely.
    A skirt is flowy, mid-calf length….I look horrible in pencil skirts
    Colors are always clear
    Often a scarf of some sort…this is where I add texture or shine
    Always earrings-usually dangly, generally a roundish shape, not too big, not too sparkly or shiny
    Frequently a brooch or pin from my HUGE collection…thanks Mom & daughter!
    Heels
    Make it a point to add something feminine, without being too girly; i.e. a small ruffle, not a large one, one ruffle, not layers of them. Nothing dainty.

    I recently realized that I was dressing too plainly. Far too boring. Not reflecting my fun, playful personality in the least.

    Now I look for colorful clothes with fun design details, quirky shoes, a funky scarf. I read someplace that 2/3 of your clothing budget should be accessories, so I’m working on adding more shoes, scarves, jewelry, belts. What a wonderful difference that has made in being able to create more fun outfits with the same clothes!

    My latest interest is boots…having just discovered that I can walk reasonably well in 2″ heels. I’m thinking of exploring how booties might work for me….what kinds of outfits would work with them and still complement my short, heavier frame. They come in such fun styles and colors….they gotta work for me somehow!

  • This post truly explains why we never wear certain items in our closets. They looked so much fun in the store, a bit out there and the hidden eclectic Carrie Bradshaw persona within us convinced us they would be sooooo much fun And the “fun” items keep piling up in the dreaded section of the closet, while the available space keeps shrinking and wearable outfits are scarce.

  • This is something I struggle with too. I think continuity is important, and the three outfits you’ve pictured above, while different, do look cohesive.
    I am all over the place, as far as style is concerned. Yesterday I was preppy, with J. Crew chinos, a pink blouse, one of those ties-turned-into-a-belt and a cardigan. Today I’m in a purple, full-skirted anthropologie shirt dress with a red silk scarf. Two completely different personalities, but I like both looks.

  • Great post! I shift between my several style personae (the Feminine Vintage, the Menswear, the Edgy) without too much trouble, but there are times when I feel like it’s all a bit too much. But I guess even within the lack of continuity, there are some common elements – blue and gray, interesting textures, mixing of prints – that I am drawn to, no matter which persona comes out of my wardrobe on a given day.

  • Sonja

    My satorial personae:
    -the office girl (I don’t work in an office, by the way)
    -the hippie
    -the feminine 50s skirt lady
    -the jeans and sneakers-tomboy
    -the 70s college student
    Actually it worries me a bit that these are so diverse. I would like to have more uniformity, especially colour-wise. But then I think there ARE some points that all of them have in common: clear, warm, saturated colours, practically no prints, all items are figure-hugging and emphasize my waist, I always wear very low necklines or turtlenecks, usually repeat at least one colour in my outfit and I like to add one piece of statement jewelry (mostly earrings or a necklace).
    Wow, I though this was more much inconsistent, but writing it down now I think I really might begin to outline my personal style more clearly.

  • Very interesting post. I think I’m still trying to figure out what works for my body. No, wait. I know what works for my body, but I am always trying to figure out ways to make other things work for my body as well. There are trends that I like that I don’t originally think will work for my particular body type, but I like to keep trying different variations until I get it right or just give up.

    At the same time, there are trends that I have no desire to try either because they don’t work for my body or they don’t appeal to my aesthetic – and that’s with admitting that my aesthetic is all over the place. What I actually wear changes from day to day (yesterday’s look was far more hard-edged than today’s) but I like most of what I wear because like you say, they have elements in common. Full skirts, bright colors, softer silhouettes instead of structured ones, and things like that.

    Wow. Totally just rambled. For which you are welcome. 😉

  • Mar

    I don’t strive for continuity of style, I don’t even really think about it – I like what I like. The only “consistency” that I probably do think about is trying to not purchase special items that wouldn’t go with anything that I have, provided it’s not a direction in my wardrobe I want to go and invest in.
    I also personally don’t think most clothing style conveys any deep personal information to anyone – like an earlier commenter said, I too don’t think the outside world really cares. Unless we are talking about special cases, like wearing ethnic clothing on a regular basis, or other kinds of clothes that have a very special (sub)cultural meaning in the society, or specifically ignoring a dress code in the office or at an occasion. At least from the comments I get on my own style choices from friends and co-workers, the message I project seems to be that I quite like clothes and shoes, I like colors, while I wear unusual combinations, it’s at most only mildly eyebrow-raising for a conservative crowd, and I seem to put quite a bit of effort into making elaborate outfits, and it appears that not all of it is super cheap. That’s the extent of it. That’s far more of a common thread and consistency than wearing cowboy boots one day and pumps the other in my opinion as far as the outside world is concerned. But that opinion is of course influenced by who makes up my outside world.

  • Oh, I definitely have style personae. There’s my “tough look,” where I like to wear a lot of military-ish, menswear-inspired, and grunge. I tend towards that stylistic mood when I feel like cutting off from the world, or when I feel like I need a layer of insulation between me and other people. Which means I wear it a lot. 😛 I feel vulnerable in anything too feminine.

    I also have a “retro girl” look, which I think comes out most when I have to pick out dresses for formal events. I like classic silhouettes, the flared skirt, the sweetheart neckline, the defined waist. I like a lowish heel, because high heels make me feel like I’m about to fall over. I wear a lot of Mary Janes when it’s time to break out the heels.

    There’s a third style that’s kind of elusive, because I’d like to wear it all the time, but circumstances mean I rarely do. I can’t afford the pieces I really want, or I don’t feel like being quirky at work, or I’m too depressed/sleepy/rushed to play around with fashion on a particular day. But if I could, I would have kind of a mix between the two styles: retro/feminine shapes, with modern/masculine fabrics and colors, or vice versa. It’s hard to explain–maybe I should start a fashion blog to demonstrate it 🙂

    Things I always like: menswear-ish prints like pinstripe and plaid, natural fabrics, soft fabrics like flannel and sweatshirt material, “rough” fabrics like canvas and denim and corduroy, short necklaces, small but dangly (non-post) earrings, full skirts, anything with a hood, chambray, seersucker, wide-leg pants, round-toed shoes, v-necks, dark or old-looking (non-shiny) metals like oxidized silver, oversized buttons. I’m also immediately attracted to anything involving voluminous amounts of fabric, like a super-full skirt or a frock coat or a long, oversized sweater. And anything with unique or unexpected construction, like that All Saints dress a couple of posts ago, I covet. (Such things are usually expensive, alas.)

    Things I hardly ever like: pointy-toed shoes, really high heels, tapered pants, high necks, narrow/tight skirts, mini skirts, bracelets (nothing against them, just feel like they get in the way), shiny fabrics, super-bright/neon colors (except as detail).

  • I love Love LOVE the dress in the first picture Sally! Its so elegant!

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  • Sal,

    To me, you have a Meta Persona – Style Experimenter:).

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