There is a distinction in my mind between “fashion” and “style”. Fashion has always described, for me, the necessarily ephemeral creations of fashionistas and impresarios, and the acquisitive, novelty-seeking drive of the public that subscribes to them; it is contrived, dalliant, capricious, insecure. Style in turn, is that which emerges consistently in the tastes and choices of individuals even as fashions change; it’s not completely static, but it is slow moving, nostalgic, celebratory, confident.
In this sense, I think many people have a sense of fashion. The most fashionable are mavens at catching and acting on cues in the dizzying currents of popular culture, and have the access and means to pull this off regularly. They’re consumate consumers; they get the message on what they’re supposed to buy before everyone else, and we celebrate them for it.
Far fewer people, I think, have a sense of style. This is harder to measure, but one way of thinking of it might be to look back over the fashions you sported when you were 16 years old and see if there are coherent, purposeful, emergent strains that appear again in your wardrobe at 18 and 22 and 24 and 30. There are people out there I think, though I’m struggling for examples as I write this, who have a sort of consistent stylistic lexicon that comes into conversation, certainly, with the fashion of the day, and with factors such as age and weight, but isn’t dictated by it.
This crystallized for me recently when I took note of an impeccably well dressed colleague and thought at first “my, she is stylish”. Then, over the course of the next couple months, I realized that everyone was wearing what she was wearing, I just hadn’t been paying attention. She wore the fashion of the moment better than most and maybe got the “buy” message earlier. I had to wonder if her wardrobe would be 100% turned-over a year later, whether anything would remain to suggest a common thought or sensibility running through it all.
As for myself, I quit the exhausting exercise of fashion some years ago, realizing that most of us buy our aesthetic identities from one of several stores, and that those who put in a lot of effort have similar results to those who just grab some shirts off a shelf, within any given aesthetic niche (i.e. the difference between most stylish half and least stylish half of H&M shoppers is not huge as they’re drawing from a very limited possibility set). The only real differentiator in this game is spending power, but you can only buy a couple months of exclusivity.
It is also worth noting how some sub-cultures that pride themselves on individuality and difference in their aesthetic and other choices, and as a result seek out rare and/or novel forms, manage to look remarkably similar in general, even as they differ in the particulars (i.e. it doesn’t matter that yours is the only pair of those vintage turquoise skinny-jeans at the thrift-store, or maybe even in existence - I’m familiar with your look, my hipster friend).
It’s really frustrating when you go into a store where you’ve found things that fit your style in the past and there is a host of bizarre seasonal colors and cuts and designs sure to have the longevity of a Hollywood marriage. My reaction more often than not is, “Oh well, guess I won’t be buying clothes this year”. Better to go thread-bare than betray your style.
My favorite blazer is four years old, my choice dancing shoes the same, and I buy three of anything I love because I know that the sustained, engineered unsatisfaction and the consumption ethic it drives, will sweep the few that have style resonance aside. This same tide will bring these things back 20 or 15 or 10 or even 5 years later, pretending it’s new, or exalting its “vintage” quality - neither will be quite true, but I need some shirts to wear in the meantime.
Here are some hallmarks of my style that have re-emerged consistently since I was 16:
I like well cut jackets with high collars and buttons and square shoulders.
I like jeans that settle well at the tops of shoes and fit well at the waist, rather than sagging. I don’t like baggy jeans, nor particularly skinny ones.
I like wingtips, and slim, low-profile shoes.
I like crisp, tailored fit, long sleeve shirts, occasionally with subtle stripes.
I like earth tones and muted colors - brown, cream, tan, white, blue, black, grey, pink, with red as an occasional accent.
I like to layer.
I like fitted, long-necked sweaters, with button or zipper closure. And thermal shirts.
I like brimmed hats, especially fedoras, but rarely wear them because they compress my hair.
I like moderately sized sun glasses, preferably aviator style.
I like simple, mostly-natural fibres, especially soft, elastic cotton or coarse linen.
I like my facial hair short (no ironic mustache for me) and my head hair long and curly.