Your Style, Your Call

so not interested in your judgment

A few weeks ago, a lovely reader reached out to me over e-mail. She said many kind and supportive things, but one stood out in my mind and is still rattling around in there. She’d just finished my book, and said she was so grateful that I hadn’t forced her to donate the contents of her closet or make drastic changes to her dressing behaviors. She loves neutrals and muted colors, and had been toting around an inferiority complex for AGES, convinced that her disinterest in bold, bright colors constituted a shortcoming. It was such a relief to her to read that she could wear those neutrals and muted colors forever if she wanted. I was thrilled to hear that my book had been helpful to her on her personal style journey, but also dismayed to hear that she’d felt pressured to dress in ways that didn’t resonate with her personally.

We’ve talked about fashion and permission before, but allow me to repeat myself: Most style rules give you permission to wear some things and forbid you to wear others based on your shape, size, age, and other factors. But you should feel free to ignore those rules and make up your own. You will always feel best about your body and self if you dress in ways that make you happy. And that means you will always look your best if you dress in ways that make you happy, because happiness radiates outward. For some of you, that will mean abiding existing rules about figure flattery, proportion, color, scale, and such. For some of you, that will mean picking which rules to follow and which ones to bend or break. For some of you, that will mean pretending there are no “rules” at all. Ever.

DON’T wear color if you don’t want to. DON’T wear fitted clothes if you don’t want to. DON’T worry about “stumpy” legs or a balanced silhouette or elongating your neck if you don’t want to. You are the boss. You make the calls. Wearing clothing that aligns with your personality and aesthetic preferences and inner desires might not give you a socially sanctioned set of curves or proportions that align with the current beauty ideal. But wearing clothing that resonates with you as a unique individual will help you feel centered, confident, powerful, and real. And that has value.

Follow the rules that work for you, discard the others. And never let anyone convince you that you’re doing it wrong. There is no one right way to be stylish.

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12 Responses to “Your Style, Your Call”

  1. Grace McNamee Decker

    Sally, I think the one sentence that leaps out at me from this post is, “DON’T worry about stumpy legs or a balanced silhouette or elongating your neck if you don’t want to.”
    The thing is, “dressing for making oneself happy” and “dressing for being gazed at within a particular set of standards” are two different things. “Stumpy legs” is the giveaway.
    Had you said “DON’T worry about your body type or the particular length, width or prominence — or lack thereof– your particular features. OR about disguising or flattering any part of it, for that matter.” But no– it’s, “Don’t worry about your stumpy legs.”
    Yeah, stumpy. That’s your choice.

    • Sally McGraw

      Well, Grace, I chose that word because that is the kind of terminology that gets thrown at women in just about every figure-flattery piece that gets published in the traditional media. Those are the terms we hear and react to. They make us feel defensive and shamed, which is all the more reason to reject them! I’ll put the term in quotes, though, so perhaps that can be clearer.

  2. Cynthia

    I think it’s hard to read any amount of fashion journalism, even from authors who are fairly sensitive to body image issues, and not come away with the idea that There Are Rules For Ladies. And no matter how much you want to say one is free to break them, even if there are no personal/professional consequences to breaking them, we’re still in a place where There Are Rules and you are “free to break them” — but we’re not going to let you stop knowing that you’re breaking them. The language is weird that way. I have been getting back to my roots, style wise, lately, basically throwing out the whole last couple of years of wardrobe building, because so much of it was not true to myself. Not following rules is a fraught choice though, when there’s so much cultural weight on the other side of the question, it feels like an active rebellion to say “You know what? I don’t want to define my body that way!” or whatever.

    • Sally McGraw

      Good points, Cynthia, and well said. There’s push-back on both sides, too. Some people see adherence to style “rules” – at least to some extent – as being part of the social contract of dressing and essential to gaining professional respect, appearing adult, and other extremely subjective concepts. Others feel like all style rules are total crap and that offering options, guidelines, or suggestions for making certain proportions or garments work constitutes oppressing women with figure-flattery trickery – some participants in the Fuck Flattering movement feel this way: https://www.alreadypretty.com/2013/07/what-flattering-means-to-me.html I try my best to walk the line, but agree that it’s not cut-and-dried. I still want to nudge people in the direction of feeling empowered about making alternative style choices, though, because I’ve worked with SO many women who live in fear of dressing “wrong” after years of reading fashion mags and watching “What Not to Wear.”

      Also can’t resist including this link about mixed messages about style and body image: https://www.alreadypretty.com/2013/08/on-mixed-messages-about-style-and-body-image.html

      And kudos to you for undertaking a personal style overhaul. It can be frustrating to find that you’ve spent years and gobs of money building a wardrobe that doesn’t actually align with your inner self, but hopefully the rebuilding process will be fun and rewarding.

  3. 33

    I second this article re: your style your call. I used to read and save every one of those “rules” articles, from do’s, don’t’s, to trends. The classic white shirt, trench, and LBD are the ultimate staples, etc., etc.. However, the more such articles I read the more I dislike being told what i can’t or can’t do, should or shouldn’t do.
    I know my body, good bits and not so good bits. I dress to please my body and for comfort. I may or may not follow trends. I am adapting my styles to suit old age. At the end of the day, what I wear is purely window dressing. I have to wear something to go out into the public. What I want to present this window is up to me.
    Will go find your book to read. 🙂

  4. Shawna McComber

    I agree with you and appreciate this post very much. I have struggled with trying to find the place in between wearing what I like and wearing what suits my figure. The reason I do that is because if I wear the drapey and somewhat shapeless clothes I am attracted to, I see photos of myself and am horrified that I look 30 lbs heavier than I really am. I have figured out that that is basically because I am busty enough that it pushes the clothes away from my body so they hang down from the bust making me looks that size all the way down. My body shape doesn’t really fit the standard categories though so it has been a bit of an experiment trying to figure out what flatters and what doesn’t and match that up with my personal taste. I never worry about what colours are in or aren’t in, I know which ones suit me and which ones I like and I stick to those. It doesn’t always match up with the trends so some seasons there is more available to me and some seasons there isn’t. I think the “rules” that I can get tripped up by most are the ones that direct us towards a streamlined sort of wardrobe of all neutral base components. I think that I should be making do with less and getting simplified and neutral but I don’t really want to. I have no black trousers, white button down shirts or blazers in my wardrobe and I like it that way.

  5. belanus5

    Sally – Thank you for this reminder. Lately, I have been lamenting the loss of orange and lime green from my wardrobe since they are not the “right colors” for my complexion. I finally said “Screw it!” and am beginning to add those colors back to my spring and summer wardrobe. I really appreciate what you said about feeling good making you look good. I am going to wear these colors with again with great joy.

  6. pambamboo

    When I discovered ‘Black’ at around the age of 45 (!) I was sooo happy! I always feel good when I’m dressed in black – always. My friends say……..but are you always going to a funeral?! I only have to make sure I have a strong light in my closet so I don’t mix blacks that don’t mix! When I’m thinner I wear some color (my house is a blaze of color) but if I want to be sure of feeling confident and happy: black it is!

  7. Texas Aggie Mom

    Thanks to your reader for this inquiry, which sounds like I wrote it, and to you for your insightful and reassuring reply. Like her, I have read your book and am gradually incorporating what I learned into my day-to-day style. I keep trying to wear more color due to pressure from co-workers, but it’s just not “me.” I recently bought the same cute top in a black and white print, as well as a bright, springy floral. I love the style, the fit is impeccable, and I could envision wearing them dressed up or down. The first time I wore the floral one, I ended up stopping by my house mid-day to change into the black and white version, in spite of the numerous compliments I had received. Thank you for “permission” to be our most authentic selves when we get dressed every day. I understand that we don’t need permission, but the “rules girl” in me still craves it. One exercise I did while reading the book that helped a lot was to make a list with three columns. The first contained all the words that define my current style. The second was a list of what I felt was missing from my current style. The last took my top priorities from BOTH lists and became my working description of my aspirational style. I’m not there yet, but at least I have an idea of where I want to go!

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