If you put on an outfit that you feel is super cute, but absolutely no one gives you positive reinforcement on it, are you more likely to continue wearing that outfit/type of outfit or would you consider rethinking its composition? Even if we think we make bold personal fashion choices, do we actually inadvertently tailor our personal style based on environment and that we take cues from others – spoken or unspoken – as part of our style evolution?
I think that personal style is heavily influenced by peer, family, coworker, and stranger feedback. Few women who live in rural areas adore pencil skirts with heels, few women living in nursing homes shop at Hot Topic, and very few female corporate lawyers wear Birkenstocks to the office. Peer group feedback – in the form of compliments, questions, looks askance, and outright insults – creates a loop of response, whether we acknowledge it or not. Positive feedback and acceptance help keep group-approved clothing and styles in heavy rotation. Insults and disapproval may provoke initial rebellion and over-wear, but for most of us these doses of negativity eventually lead to the removal of group-shunned clothing and styles from rotation.
Of course we ALSO dress for ourselves, and the choices we make about what we wear reflect our personalities and identities. In fact, how we dress is the one aspect of physical appearance over which we have near-total control: Every outfit is a choice, every purchase an act of power. Even when we buy trendy items because of peer pressure or groupthink, we still STYLE those items in our own ways and wear them on our own, unique bodies. I am certainly not saying that personal style is entirely dictated by the preferences of others.
But I do believe that we cannot help feeling influenced by how the people we encounter react to our stylistic choices. And while a small group may truly not care, and another small group may embrace criticism as encouragement and wear the disdained with pride, most of us will eventually mold our styles to fit within the comfort levels of our peers.
And that is NOT a bad thing. There is nothing shameful about dressing experimentally to see what reactions you can draw, or dressing to accentuate your favorite body bits in hopes of stirring up some compliments, or dressing for mutual comfort depending upon your companions. Dressing is a fluid, creative, expressive activity and needn’t mean the same thing each time you do it. Now, if you feel like you are imprisoned by the expectations and tastes of your friends, family, lover, or coworkers, that is problematic. But there are always ways to dress around a problem and still express yourself, if you tap your latent creativity. Personal style is like a puzzle: You must work within constraints to solve it, but you can take your own path to your personal solution.
Image courtesy MR+G.