Fashion as Rhetoric: Cultivating a Personal Style

ImageTo those of you who follow my blog for thoughtful and substantive content: please check back next week for a post-colonial and psychoanalytic critique of the concept of “civilization” in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Because today I’m writing about fashion.  I not only enjoy fashion as form of artistic self-expression, but I also consider it an important facet of my ethos as a teacher.  The way I dress says something to my students about how seriously I take myself and my content.  It’s a subtle part of the cue to pay attention, so looking professional and put-together is critical for me.

I’m always amazed by how closely students analyze what teachers wear.  I can recall the scrutiny with which I evaluated my college professors’ outfits, especially when I would get bored in class and my mind would start to wander.  There is one professor whom I will always remember because I could tell that he hung his cardigan on a hook (there was a big bump on the back).  Another professor I remember for her accessories: she never came to class without earrings dangling to her shoulders, a heavy necklace, and stacks of bracelets.

That said, I have not always had the best taste in clothing.  It’s only in the past few years that I’ve been trying to up my game in how I dress and be intentional about the contents of my wardrobe.  My introduction to the fashion world has been piecemeal, and that is reflected in my patchwork closet.  In the past, I have been too easily swayed by other people’s opinions of what I ought to wear, so I’ve accumulated a silk scarf here or a patterned skirt there, and after years of frustrated mixing and re-mixing, would come to the conclusion that the item ‘does not play well with others.’  I distinctly remember, many years ago, when a friend told me that the silhouette of all my clothes was too straight, and I needed fun, swing-y dresses.  Dutifully, I went out a bought the swing-iest dress I could find the next time I went shopping.  Do you know how I felt in that dress?  Like a frumpy cheerleader.  That was the hemline that worked best on her, not me.

I came to realize that it’s not so much a question of fashion, but a question of personal style.  Having personal style does not equal being stuck in a rut and always looking the same.  Nor does mean a refusal to try new things.  There are ways to be contextual and current while maintaining fidelity to a tried-and-true aesthetic.  I will never be truly “fashionable” in the sense of wearing items straight off the runways of Paris.  As expensive as it is, runway fashion is disposable.  Most couture items are only meant to be worn once and then discarded because they are almost instantly outmoded.  So what is style?  Here are a few conclusions to which I’ve come in recent years.

1. Style is personal and expressive.  I shouldn’t look like I’m trying to imitate someone else.  I should be reminded of no one but myself when I look in the mirror. As an English teacher, I also think of style as narrative because it is so closely tied to identity.  My identity is the story of who I am; style helps tell that story more articulately.

2. Style is mindful of context.  The rhetorical triangle of audience, purpose, and occasion can be applied nicely to clothing choices.

First, who is my audience?  At school, it’s my students, bosses, and coworkers.  I need to dress with all three in mind.  At church, it’s friends of many ages.   On a date, it’s my husband, and of course the other people at the restaurant or theater.

Second, what is my purpose?  There are many practical concerns to consider in the purpose of style, and many women don’t give enough thought to whether or not clothing meets some of these basic requirements.  Being relatively comfortable (it’s never going to be t-shirt-and-yoga-pants-comfortable, of course), staying sufficiently warm or cool, and being appropriate are all important considerations.  Then there are the higher-order purposes of encouraging people to take me seriously, looking attractive, and communicating a part of my identity to the world.

Finally, there is the all-important “occasion.”  If you’re not sure what I mean by occasion, try wearing all white at a wedding or bright yellow at a funeral and see how people respond! Most people know how to dress for the big occasions; however, there are more subtle distinctions of occasion that I also don’t want to miss.  Nothing zaps my confidence like feeling even slightly too formal or too casual.  For me, cultivating personal style means having instant go-to’s when it’s time for a night out with the girls, a dinner party with one of Tim’s seminary professors, a parent-teacher conference, or Saturday morning brunch with a close friend.  The great thing is that little tweaks can quickly elevate or scale back an outfit.  Consider a little black dress with heels and dramatic earrings.  Upscale date night, right?  Pair the same LBD with flats and a colored blazer, and it’s totally work-appropriate.

3. Style is having a cohesive closet and therefore a cohesive look.  This requires 1) knowing my shape so that I stick closely to the two or three most flattering silhouettes for my body type, and 2) knowing my color palette so that I choose the shades that best flatter my hair and skin.  No color is off-limits to any woman; she just has to know which shade works best for her.  For example, I look weird in royal purple, but eggplant suits me nicely.  Consistency doesn’t have to mean boring and repetitive; it just means variations on a theme.  My students, co-workers, and friends see me day after day, so my outfits ought to make sense with each other.

4. Style demands that the trends fit me, not the other way around.  I’m learning to be more picky about which cuts and colors make their way into my closet.  I like to get a few new items each season to freshen up my wardrobe, but I have to be careful to choose pieces that will integrate seamlessly with what I already have.  Remember when tangerine was a big thing?  It make my skin look blotchy and my hair look muddy, and thankfully I had enough sense to steer clear of it.  This year, it’s shades of green: mint and emerald.  As a pale, semi-redhead, that I can do.

As a side-note, I really dislike those lists of “wardrobe basics.”   I have read many such lists over the years in an attempt to steer clear of trendy items and stick to more timeless pieces.  But I’m slowly realizing that “the basics” are slightly different for every woman, which again relates to audience, purpose, and occasion.  My list of basics will never, ever include a flannel shirt (mainly because I look like a hobo with the flu when I wear flannel), and I always see at least one flannel shirt on those lists.  Although I work outside the home, a high school is not a law firm, so my list of basics doesn’t include wool pantsuits.  In short, I  now view other people’s lists of “basics” with the same slightly suspicious eye as I view trends: I pick out what works for my rhetorical situation and my body type, and I leave the rest alone.  I know, it seems like a no-brainer, but it was fairly revelatory for me.

So, to what conclusions have I come about my own personal style?  I’ve learned that my best silhouette is “long and lean,” emphasizing the waist and de-emphasizing the hips.  That means skinny pants or pencil skirts.  Tunic or peplum tops.  Buttoned blazers.  Belted sweaters.  Wrap dresses.  My best colors are more muted than saturated, and tend more towards the “fall” palette.  If I wear red, it needs to be brick.  If I wear yellow, it should be gold or mustard.  I’m not a big fan of jewelry; gold or silver hoops are usually sufficient to complete my look.  Shoes are the only “wild card” in my style.  I am willing to try all sorts of fun colors and styles with shoes.

I expect my clothes and accessories to work hard on my behalf and to be an effective element of my non-verbal communication.  I’m 30 now; I don’t want to look like my 15-year-old students or like my over-50 colleagues.  I mostly want to be intentional about assembling my wardrobe so that I can avoid the last-minute stress and crisis of trying to assemble a put-together look at 6:30 on a Monday morning.

I want to cultivate a style that personal and expressive; that’s mindful of audience, purpose, and occasion; that gives me a cohesive look; and that’s stylish without being trendy.  That’s not asking too much of my clothing, is it?

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2 thoughts on “Fashion as Rhetoric: Cultivating a Personal Style

  1. LOVE IT. Love it. While you have most likely disappointed your target blog audience of various English PhD’s and geeks, you have made your sister extremely proud!! *sniff*

    • Thank you, Ames! My goal was to write about fashion in an intelligent and thought-provoking way, but I am sure that I still disappointed the teachers and scholars who follow my blog. But I am SO glad that I pleased my lil sis. 🙂

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