Posts Categorized: style

Versions of You

I’m still co-chairing the advisory board for Leaders of Today and Tomorrow, and let me tell you, friends, the program blows my mind on a regular basis. Our dedicated board members, talented mentors, and passionate fellows make every program year inspiring in its own unique way.

One of the things we always say about the program is that everyone learns. The fellows may be there to soak up knowledge, but our speakers and panelists and mentors and facilitators all learn about themselves each year, too. Here’s a great example: I give a presentation on dressing for interviews, networking, and office life every year. In years past, I’ve always gotten questions from the fellows about how to dress professionally while simultaneously expressing their personalities. So I touch on that topic each year now. But a young woman in last year’s cohort responded to my caveats and tips for being unique while also conforming with this tidbit of wisdom: There’s nothing natural about an interview. Interviews are a construct for everyone involved, so why get hung up on self-expression?

Take this a step further: In the vast majority of cases, the person conducting the interview will be on her/his/their best behavior and fall short of showing true colors fully. The interviewer may wear a typical office outfit if interviewing someone she/he/they will be supervising, but if it’s an HR rep screening managerial or executive candidates, or VPs group-interviewing potential CEOs, outfits are likely to be more formal than usual. So although the interviewer may be more at ease overall, the situation is far from natural. It makes some sense that interview candidates would want to dress in ways that aren’t completely contrary to their personalities and personal styles, but focusing on the importance of authenticity is somewhat counter-productive. Because most interviews are unusual, rigid, inauthentic experiences by definition.

Many will disagree with this declaration, and it’s certainly not without exception. If you have visible tattoos, specific shoe or garment needs, unusual hair color, or any non-negotiable element to your style or appearance, it may be essential that you allow your potential employer to see and react to you as you are. But the underlying idea here is that the person going into the interview needn’t be wholly representative of Everyday You. The person going into the interview will be Interview You, a version of yourself that might look different from Everyday You, but is just as valid and real.

Another step further: Authenticity is such a buzzword these days, but how it’s used can be confusing and contrary. Even though people get laughed at and scolded when they leave their homes in raggedy sweatpants or say things that make them seem out-of-touch, they’re also censured if they appear at all forced, fake, or like they’re screening out the grit from their lives. Instagram streams are brimming with perfectly lit images of perfectly staged living rooms and people love them. No one’s posting snaps of their stacked-up dirty dishes even though that’s likely a more common sight. So what is authenticity in a person anyway? Do you think, talk, and behave the exact same way at the gym and the bar and your grandma’s house? If you don’t, does that mean you’re not being true to yourself? Do you worry about being true to yourself when you’re talking with your grandma, or do you avoid all curse words and steer clear of topics like social media and sex? I feel like authenticity is sometimes conflated with inflexibility: The expectation is that you are the exact same, unfiltered person at all times and in all situations. Even though there naturally will be many versions of yourself making up the whole.

One more step: If you’re willing to go along with the idea that there are different but connected versions of you, consider that there may also be different versions of your style. It’s true that someone who wears a dirndl and combat boots on Monday and a skirt suit and slingbacks on Tuesday may seem – at first glance – to have a disjointed personal style. But what if that person took Monday off to be with friends and had to attend board meetings all day Tuesday? Would you feel comfortable wearing the exact same outfit to the gym and the bar and your grandma’s house? Or would you create visually distinct outfits for each destination from items that you selected based on your own tastes and preferences?

People who have developed visually consistent personal styles are often admired and lauded, and focusing on a single aesthetic works beautifully for some. But even those people are likely to wear variations for the gym and the bar and grandma’s house, because all styles have variations and versions. Even the finely honed ones.

Lying, never expressing your opinions, and dressing solely to please others are behaviors that fall into one camp. Tailoring conversation to audiences, picking your battles, and dressing differently depending on the environment fall into another. We all have versions of ourselves, and versions of our styles. Those variations are just part of being a messy, unique, varied, flexible human being.

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Reader Request: How Does Your Hairstyle Interact With Your Outfit?

how hairstyle impacts outfit

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Reader Andrea had this request:

I would be interested in a post on how different hairstyles interact with outfits. How much does wearing hair down vs. in a bun affect the formality of an outfit? How much can the hairstyle you wear with an outfit change the overall look? I always seem to wear my hair the same way with the same pieces, and I’m not sure why I only ever visualize those things with those hairstyles. (I’m also contemplating a major hair change right now, so hair is on my mind a lot recently.)

When my hair was longer, I had the same experience: Certain outfits definitely called out for an updo, while others looked better with hair worn down. And even now with supershort locks, I occasionally wear something that looks slightly off with messy waves and much better blown dry.

I asked Wendy Nguyen of Wendy’s Lookbook to let me use some of her photos to illustrate how hairstyle impacts outfits. As you’ll see balance, formality, structure, and genre all play in. Let’s take a peek:

hairstyle volume outfit

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Here are two outfits in which hairstyle is a factor in enhancing or balancing volume within the outfit. On the left, the volume within Wendy’s outfit is all toward the top, mostly from the waist up. Her hair, worn down, adds yet more volume but also works organically with the loose layers. On the left, the orange sweater is the only voluminous piece. With her hair in a high bun, she avoids adding more volume to her top half.

hairstyle formal casual

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Here are two decidedly formal looks. Some updos and buns can read as casual, but paired with outfits that already give off a dressy vibe, they generally add yet more formality. Definitely the case with the bun Wendy did with her black dress, although the addition of the headband keeps her hairstyle from being formal to the point of stuffiness. The green dress outfit has a much more relaxed vibe. Although the dress itself and structured clutch are quite fancy, the open-toed shoes and loose wavy hairstyle overtake them to create a dressy but not formal look. Switch the hairstyles and the black dress outfit would be more “night on the town” and the green dress outfit would be more “black-tie affair.”

hairstyle structure

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Structure within the outfit is at play in nearly all of these examples. You can see how updos often align with structured looks, and hair worn down aligns with unstructured ones. But here are two more great outfits that show how you can juxtapose structure and looseness using your hairstyle. Wendy’s cropped trench and pencil skirt are decidedly structured, but wearing her hair down adds some soft, flowy lines. Her white trapeeze top is loose and breezy, but her headband and bun balance it out.

hairstyle genre

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Finally certain hairstyles lend themselves to certain genres. At left, Wendy has on a preppy/classic look that could’ve come direct from the J.Crew catalog, and has chosen a bun/headband combo to match. The middle outfit has both Boho and preppy elements to it, and the loose ponytail complements them both. For the beachy outfit on the right, Wendy wore her hair down and loose to match.

Hope this was helpful! And thanks again to Wendy for use of her gorgeous photos.

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Seeing Your Body Through the Lens of Style

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Before I became interested in dressing and style, I avoided thinking about my body. At all costs. I didn’t look in the mirror if I didn’t have to, didn’t focus much energy or attention on how my outfits interacted with my figure, and did my utmost to think about anything besides my own physicality. Because of this choice, the information I was given about my body came almost exclusively from external sources. And none of it was good news: I was chubby, disproportionate, my breasts were too small and my hips were too big, my arms were flabby and so was my stomach. Virtually all of this information was comparative: I was flabby compared to Gwyneth Paltrow, my breasts were too small compared to Victoria’s Secret models … you know the drill. I studiously ignored my body, hoping its perceived inadequacies would diminish if I pretended I was a brain in a jar. And yet this comparative information still crept in and made me feel inadequate.

I’ve struggled with anxiety for over a decade, but only recently learned something important about the power of my own fears: Like most people, I avoid the things that make me feel anxious and afraid. This avoidance brings temporary relief, which amounts to a reward response. And the longer this cycle continues, the more likely I am to avoid these anxiety-producing things and the more powerful their fear factors become. When I allow myself to consider and face the things that cause me to feel anxious – generally with a “what’s the worst that can happen?” attitude in tow – I can diffuse some of their power over me. This is not to say that I’ve decided to immediately and aggressively confront every last one of my triggers. But it means that I now understand something essential about my body image struggles: I may have been making myself feel worse about my body by pretending it didn’t exist. Because during those years of avoidance, I was occasionally forced to deal with and contemplate my body. And when I was forced to look at it, “evaluate” it, address it in some way, that experience became extremely loaded, difficult, and sometimes painful.

I know many women who, like me, spent years studiously ignoring their bodies before finally deciding to make a change. Some chose to begin the conversation through fitness or food. Some chose meditation or yoga. Some found motherhood to be an awakening into discussion with their physical forms. For reasons I didn’t quite grasp at the time, I began to examine my body through the lens of clothing.

The world of fashion provides fertile ground for self-loathing. There are infinite messages about what women “can” and “cannot” wear based on their figures, beliefs about superior body sizes and shapes, and bizarre hierarchies of beauty reinforced by the fashion machine. But instead of focusing on those things, I reached for the information that clothing offered to me about my body. It said, “Skirts won’t constrict your hips or squeeze your midsection,” and “Your small bust makes it possible for you to wear a huge variety of shirts.” It said, “Belts draw the eye to your waist,” and “Boots make you feel invincible.” Instead of learning about my body through it’s weight or size, its response to food or exercise, I learned about my body through its relationship to the clothing I chose to wear. I learned how it is shaped by experimenting with clothes, and I learned what felt good to wear and what felt like a struggle.

And I learned all of those things about my specific body. Not my body on a spectrum, not my body compared to an ideal body but instead my body in relative isolation. Although I certainly had my moments of cursing skinny jeans and feeling frustrated that they didn’t look or feel “right” to me, I was mostly able to glean information about my body that felt fairly factual and scientific. I have broad hips and a small waist for my build. I have small breasts and wrists and ankles for my build. I have a high waistline and full upper arms for my build. It was all about me, and that made it feel less loaded.

Definitely an imperfect system for learning. After all, there was still comparison at play: Someone designed those clothes and made decisions about how big and small and proportioned they would be. And that someone was using those same beauty-body blueprints to guide their design decisions. Because I am privileged enough to fall somewhere within that socially-sanctioned spectrum, I was able to try on and contemplate a huge variety of styles and have them fit me. (More or less.) This is not possible for every woman, and for many there may be layers of implied judgment in that not-fitting that would make this approach far too painful to be beneficial.

But it worked for me and it might work for others. Depending on how you’re wired, considering your figure in terms of how it works with and against clothes can feel more constructive and informative than considering your figure as it compares to BMI charts or the bodies of other women. “Too small for that dress” or “too tall for those pants” are informative and specific, and lack the stinging judgment of “too small” or “too tall” period. Your body is naked sometimes, and naked is its natural state. But you go about most of your life clothed, so learning about your body through dressing it can be both enlightening and beneficial.

As a person who loves and explores style, I understand my body now in ways I never did before. I don’t fear it, I don’t avoid it, and I feel like I can converse with it through dressing and clothing. And I’m much happier now that we’re on speaking terms again.

This is a refreshed and revived post from the archive.

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