The Joys and Hazards of Late-Blooming Style

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.

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A version of this post first appeared on Huffington Post.

Originally posted 2013-10-28 06:52:18.

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24 Responses to “The Joys and Hazards of Late-Blooming Style”

  1. bubu

    I absolutely love this, Sal. Yours was the first fashion blog I ever started reading, and the thing that jumped my own latent interest in personal style and clothing. I have had such incredible fun and emotional reward over the last 5 or so years in playing with and working out my own personal style. I have discovered more blogs and options along the way too — but yours will always be the first and I owe you a huge debt for jumpstarting me on this journey. Thank you thank you thank you!
    (I too am finding some stuff weird in my closet now – once I decided o try color, holy hell, I went for COLOR and that stuff is a bit eye-searing to me now…)

    • Sally

      Oh bubu, I’m so glad you’ve stuck around! You’re such a great contributor to the conversations here, and I love your insights. I’m honored to hear that my blog has been so instrumental in your personal style journey, and hope you continue to play and experiment!

  2. jb

    my daughter was accessorizing before she could talk. Seriously. She can put together an amazing outfit (at 5) and can scan her closet and pull pieces that work. She will also look at other women’s outfits and say things like “She really shouldn’t wear green Mommy”. Its amazing. I have gone in and out of dressing phases — and am currently trying to be more conscious of my choices. But her eye is the impressive one.

  3. Lisa

    To say nothing of the fact that you now have the killer haircut of the universe:).

    And I completely agree. I was interested early, but too overwhelmed to have a coherent style. Experimentation is our friend.

  4. Anna

    Another late bloomer here, enhancing my usual conservative “uniform” with more various and colorful garments and accessories. I’ll never make the catwalk—nor do I wish to—but I’m having a lot more fun with my clothes. Sally, I owe at least 95% of this (admittedly modest) change to you. Thanks!

  5. shebolt

    I love this! I am also a late bloomer, and only started dressing myself stylishly about the age of 30.

    My lack of style came from a complete lack of confidence, not in my body but in my social status. I was ostracized in elementary school because of my wardrobe (chosen by my father – who had no idea how to dress a little girl so he dressed me like a little boy). I also liked all the wrong things. I was the only girl who wanted to play Star Wars at recess. When I started selecting my own clothing, I tried really hard to blend in but it was too late and the damage was done. It didn’t help that, like Sally, I had no innate ability to style myself.

    In college I was poor and too busy with my studies to care what I wore. Jeans and t-shirts, both poorly fitted, were staples. I owned a single pair of shoes. same with grad school, only then I was poorer and busier.

    My chosen field is wildlife biologist, so the wardrobe must be practical. I made sporadic attempts to dress myself better when going to parties or nice events, but I mostly failed.

    When I landed my current job, I decided it was time to change how I presented myself to the world. I didn’t want to get asked “do you have a job interview?” or “are you behind on laundry” when I wore a skirt to work. So I went shopping with a friend before I started, and she helped me find some basics. From there, I floundered my way through until I developed a style, and am now known as the best dressed in my office. It’s hard to believe that the little girl who was teased for wearing boy clothes, and the young adult who had no idea how clothing was supposed to fit, turned out stylish.

    I found that style can be learned, just like anything else. I might be missing the innate style gene that some women have, but I was able to teach myself the basics using fashion magazines and now blogs.

  6. Osprey

    Thanks for this post! Yours was the first style blog that I started reading and the only one I still follow. I went through a super geeky phase where I researched every little thing about clothing, grooming and style. I appraoched it like a postgraduate degree! Being a late bloomer meant I learned it in a systematic and thorough way, and that is a real benefit.

  7. Sheila

    It is so reassuring to see someone so polished (now) and how they learned how to dress their body over time (I do love that leather half-body wrap – swoon). You’ve been an inspiration for so many years, Sal – glad you are still around!

  8. Alex

    I have enjoyed watching your style shift over the years, and endlessly appreciate the ideas I’ve gleaned from your blog!

    This post made me curious: what are some of the things (type of garment, silhouette, color pairing, anything!) you have moved away from that you never would have thought you’d factor out of your wardrobe? If you felt so inclined to structure a post around a few of them and perhaps some of your reasoning why–although I imagine a lot of the explanation would boil down to “my style evolved and I found myself more interested in x, y, and z instead of a, b, and c”–I know I would be fascinated!

    • Sally

      Thanks, Alex! And I’ll give your request some thought. It’s funny, but the things that come to mind are items I never thought I’d wear at all, and not items that I never thought I’d part with/stop wearing … but I’m sure there are some!

  9. jentine

    Ha, I would lie to claim I was born with it (and I probably always thought I was…) but picture evidence would prove otherwise. Man, I’ve worn some terrible crap.

  10. Dee

    Very interesting post Sally. I have to say that although my style has evolved over the years, I really can’t remember when I was not interested in clothes, fashion and style. I certainly didn’t always have the money to buy what I would have liked, but I had a mother who sewed 50% of my clothes and when I was a young as 14 or 15 I would draw pictures of things I wanted her to make for me! ( I dont think I was ever like that 5 year old that was mentioned – wow!).

  11. Lisa

    Oof, I’m pretty sure there are quite a few style bloggers with awkward photos lurking in their past (me included). Funds and consciously developing one’s taste definitely play a part.

  12. Anne

    I have always been interested in fashion and style. I have a great innate sense of color. But as I approached my late 50s, I began to feel frumpy and dumpy. Sally, your blog inspired me to examine by body (which had changed a lot) and to consider how to highlight those parts I love. Fit became the most important thing. Now jackets are fitted, necklines are mostly scooped, skirts are flat through the hips and knee length, and the bra supports what I thought had fallen forever! Thanks for allowing me to share your journey as I have made my own!

  13. Lynn

    I have to say that my style has to keep evolving because my body keeps changing. I was always short and rather slender, then the babies came, and while I was still short and slender things were in different places. Then came menopause and parts moved again, then a weight gain and a weight loss. The bottom line is that my short and slender, even though I am approximately the same height and weight, has necessitated rethinking my wardrobe and what looks good periodically.

  14. Zabby

    Really wonderful to read you are “new” at this. At 60, I’m just starting down the road. I have a stick figure (always have) and am challenged by what is available in tiny sizes (0) that are designed for someone my age! Bravo to you!

  15. LIz

    Sally,
    I hope you realize that what we see in both the before and after pictures is a young woman with a sweet, lovely face and a fabulous smile.
    You-the real you–were there the whole time.
    I’m only sorry that the younger you seemed to be so distressed about how she appeared.
    Cheers!

  16. LaChina

    I came to fashion late as well. My mom always dressed me when I was a kid and teen, very conservative, no make up. As a young adult I was too preoccupied with life events and didn’t give fashion much thought. Now I enjoy it!! I don’t spend a lot on clothes because like Sally, my taste keeps changing. I don’t like shirts with collars too much, and find pants too much of a hassle. I come to the Already Pretty blog for a dose of inspiration, I love Sally’s use if color!

  17. Tracey

    Dear Sal, firstly HOW BRAVE to reveal your Journey in photos, secondly, Absolutely. There weren’t any guides to direct us back then, and only the bombardment of what we were ‘supposed to wear’ offered by the mags and stores. I’m in my forties now, and am just now getting a handle on my body shape in the last couple of years. I began to realise that it’s “ok if the current ‘fashion’ doesn’t suit me”. No magic style gene here, not like these amazing creatures for example; Ines de la Fressange or Garance Dore or that matter, Audrey Hepburn. Not one tiny bit. Just short legs, large rib cage, strawberry blonde hair, white skin and a truck load of envy. Now, however, I am glad to say, that my sense of style is fairly well developed, albeit as a continuously evolving thing; I enjoy recreating myself with every new season – it’s my hobby. Love your work Sal, you’re real and authentic and that’s exactly what we women need more of from each other xxxx.