Clothes are an important part of one’s identity. They serve as an outward expression of your innermost self. Want to tell people who you are? Dress appropriately.
But if you want to stand out in a way that gets you attention that you want? Then you want to develop your sense of style.
The difference between fashion and style is that fashion changes. It follows trends and everyone else follows two or three steps behind it, trying to come up with their own version. This is how you end up with silkscreened t-shirts with rivets and overly-embroidered jeans and embarrassing photos you’ll never be able to fully erase from social media.
Style, on the other hand, is personal. Sometimes it aligns with trends, other times it stands athwart them but it’s always uniquely yours. But if you know only clothes as “that which keeps my pasty meatsack covered in social situations,” style can feel as eldritch and unknowable as the Elder Gods. So how do you develop your own sense of style?
Start By Stealing From Others
The first step in developing a sense of style is simple: you’re going to steal it from someone else.
Not entirely, mind you. You’re not trying to copy somebody, lock, sock and Birkenstock; they’re not you and it’s not going to be a great fit. When you just straight up copy Pharrell Williams you look less like someone pushing the fashion envelope and more like what would happen if STRIPES were about Bill Murray and Harold Ramis joining the Mounties.
Instead, you’re using somebody else as a jumping off point. The goal isn’t to be Beau Brummell, it’s to find a style that best works for you and the version of you that you want to present to the world. Figuring out the semiotics of clothing is tricky… which is why you’re going to let someone else do the work for you. Similarly, if you’ve never put too much thought into what colors look best on you or what cuts most flatter your body, you can get overwhelmed quickly. But hey: stylists and costume designers have done the heavy lifting so that you don’t have to.
Here’s what you do.
First you want to find your archetype. That provides the base that you’re going to build upon. The thing to keep in mind is that there’s a lot of room within any particular archetype for variation and finding the version that fits you best. Rock stars, for example, vary from the low-fi punk aesthetic of the Ramones to the bespoke suits of the Jam to the Tom of Finland look of Judas Priest and everything in between. Writers vary between Alan Ginsberg and Ernest Hemingway. Bikers range from Harley-riding outlaw MCs to cafe racers. Even among science geeks you can go from Sheldon Cooper to Neil DeGrasse Tyson to Howard Stark.
Your second step is to find a fashion avatar: someone famous who has skin tone, eye and hair coloring that’s close to your own. This helps you narrow down colors and patterns that work best on you. Color can be a perplexing beast when it comes to fashion and style. Some people look great in jewel tones, while others get washed out. Some people have the coloration for earth tones or softer colors while others just look sickly or jaundiced. Celebrities and models have the benefit of stylists to help determine which colors help show off their eyes, accentuate the warmth of their skin tone or dial back their natural ruddiness. You may not have a personal stylist, but you can certainly use their work to your own benefit and avoid a long, tedious process of hit-or-miss experimentation.
This gives you a solid base that you can use to start customizing into a style that’s all your own.
Which leads us to the next step:
Do Your Research
Part of what’s tricky about developing your style is figuring out just what works. If you’ve been mostly a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy and you’re wanting a more dapper style, then where do you start? Can you make a vest work with jeans1? What about ties? What about accessories? For that matter, what if you want to stay a jeans and t-shirt guy but still be stylish? What if you don’t have a typical body type? How do you develop a look when you have no idea what’s out there?
Simple: you do your research. When I first started to put more thought into how I looked, most of my resources were magazines like Details and GQ. But while these can make a decent starting place, they sell a look that’s that’s less achievable and more aspirational porn.
If you’re more of a conservative bent, this can work, but if you want your inspiration a little more varied and fashion-forward (and also: free) then you want to turn to your computer. The Internet has put the collective wisdom of mankind at your fingertips and you’re going to use it to dress better instead of arguing with film critics in YouTube comments about whether Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s physics make sense.
One of the first things to do is hit up Tumblr. Despite its reputation for social justice activism, fan fic and porn gifs, Tumblr has a wealth of fashion blogs and galleries. Street fashion, vintage style, punk, prep… it’s all a hashtag search away. Tumblr also is a wellspring of fashion options for people who don’t have model-perfect bodies. And because of Tumblr’s reblog system, following a couple strategic blogs like Put This On or The Silentist can help you find other blogs that would be of interest to you.
The other site that will be your style inspiration bonanza? Pinterest.
Yes, when you think Pinterest you tend to think artful food arrangements, self-aggrandizing craft photos and wedding planning, but it also has a deep well of fashion and style inspiration. Looking for specific tags like “cool biker” “vintage menswear” “unique men’s accessories” and the like will bring up dozens upon dozens of galleries.
The other big benefit to Pinterest is that it’s set up to be a digital scrapbook, keeping all of your inspiration in one place. Create a number of different boards – one for accessories, one for different looks, hair cuts, what-have-you for a one-stop shop of style inspiration. Use a browser plugin for serendipitous finds and you won’t have to rack your brain to figure out just where you saw that one particular leather coat that you loved so much. Pinterest also suggests other boards or images that might be relevant to your interests, which means that you may find inspiration that you would never have thought to look for.
The thing to keep in mind is that you don’t just want to mine your sources for looks. You want to engage with them. What is it about that shirt/tie combo that speaks to you? Why do you like that particular color or pattern? What is a way that you could take that look and personalize it? What if you took one part and changed it slightly: what would you change and how? The point isn’t just to slavishly copy somebody else’s style, it’s to start with a base and experiment, allowing you to pick up the rules that’ll make it work for you.
Now to be fair: some looks and fashion choices are going to be more popular than others, so the more mainstream your taste, the more you’re going to find. Similarly, there’s going to be an inevitable tendency towards the trendy which, while tempting, can cause problems in the future when trends change. That’s why you want to…
Keep Your Style Simple (At First)
When you’re first starting out, there’s a natural tendency to want to look as cool as possible. The tricky part of that cool is more attitude than clothing. In fashion, what’s considered “cool” changes fairly quickly and often without warning. Following what’s trendy is akin to pop-culture jokes in a Dreamworks movie: it seems like a good idea at the time, but it instantly becomes dated and stupid when the moment’s passed. What once was cool can quickly become embarrassing as hell. Take it from a man who had to clean out a closet full of Affliction knock-offs: just because it’s the new hotness doesn’t mean that you’re not going to try to pretend that you never wore it in the first place.
Remember what I said about Beau Brummell earlier? This is one area where you actually do want to follow his example. Part of what made him a fashion icon – someone who singlehandedly changed the direction of clothing in Europe, in fact – is that he was actually understated, especially when compared to the incredibly ornate outfits that were in favor at the time. His personal style was to focus on quality and fit rather than glitz. This gave him a look that was both elegant and timeless and one that has continued to influence menswear today.
When you’re starting to develop your style, it’s better to err towards the side of simple rather than elaborate or decorated. The simpler the clothes, the more timeless they remain. It’s hard, for example, to go wrong with plain, dark wash jeans rather than ones that are artfully distressed, oddly cut or are otherwise of the moment. Remember bell-bottoms? Remember acid-wash jeans?
There’s a reason why people keep coming back to the classics: they have the widest and most lasting appeal and provide a stronger foundation for personalization.
So as you develop your style, focus on fit, color and quality rather than design or decoration. The simpler the outfit, the longer it will keep its place of pride in your closet instead of being relegated to the back. It also makes it much easier to coordinate; color to color is easier than pattern to pattern. The same with accessories; rock stars can pull off five dozen stacked bracelets and two fists full of rings because they’ve been at this for a while and are deep into their archetype. They know the rules and they know how to break them. Odds are that you’re not there yet.
Until you’re more confident in your grasp of your style, then keep it simple. Understated is easier and feels more natural, especially at first. As you get more experienced and your style evolves, then you’ll have more room to play around and take more risks.
Of course, understated doesn’t mean boring… in fact, keeping things simple lets you put the focus where you want it.
Find Your Signature
Part of what makes your style personal is to find something that’s your signature. Your icon. Something that stands out as uniquely you, even if it’s a little outre or unusual. Think of superheroes. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four… their costumes are relatively simple2 but timeless. But they have a specific aspect to them that makes them stand out – Batman’s cape and cowl, Superman’s S-shield, Spider-Man’s webs. Those are the symbols that let us know at a glance who we’re looking at.
Their signature, if you will.
Finding your personal signature piece – that thing that is uniquely yours – can elevate your outfit from simple to stylish. If a well-fitting button-down and dark jeans – to pull a random example – are the foundation of your outfit, then your signature piece is what makes it yours. This, more than anything else, is the place to let your personality shine. It might be a particularly unique set of glasses; you might borrow from the recent past and wear tinted sunglasses as regular eyewear for example. It might be a unique or stand-out coat or hoodie.
It could be an unexpected combination – a motorcycle jacket with a tie – your shoes – especially if you get something unusual like decorated Doc Martins or aggressive like New Rocks – or even something as simple as color choice. Being bold enough to rock an item of clothing in a vibrant color, especially one in contrast to the rest of your clothing, can be as much of a signature as any unusual outerwear you might find.
Even something simple can be a signature; Steve Jobs’ turtleneck-and-jeans look may be basic as hell but it’s also iconic and uniquely him.
Just make sure it’s something that flows naturally from your archetype; the more something resonates with who you are, the more natural it will feel and the less try-hard it will come across.
But the most important aspect of style is…
Have Fun With It
I realize that for a lot of people, style, fashion and personal branding is serious business, but for you, it should be something you enjoy. Part of the point of discovering your style is to appreciate and get a kick out of it. Trying to build a style that you don’t enjoy or that doesn’t give you that little spark of pleasure is counter-productive. Your dissatisfaction will radiate from you in waves and undo the work you’ve put into trying to make yourself stand out in the ways you want.
So as you get more in tune with your look, play around with it. Get creative. Throw a little bit of your flavor into it. If you’re into steampunk, say, then put some subtle elements of it in your day to day wear. If you’re a comic fan, then consider things like stealth cosplay and see who notices.
The more comfortable you get with your style, the more you should start playing with it. Try things you thought you’d never wear in a million years; you might be surprised just how well they work once you have the confidence and attitude to pull them off. Even things that seem pretentious can work if you’ve got the style to back it up. That pocket watch may seem like a weird affectation unless you’ve got the style and the guts to make it work with your vest. Once you know the rules, almost anything can be justified…
Bad puns aside: both Tim Olyphant’s Raylan Givens and Walton Goggin’s Boyd Crowder are examples of stylish men whose personalities make their clothing choices work. Raylan’s hat may be unusual, even in backwater Kentucky, but it’s so naturally part of his personality that you accept it without question.
That’s how style works. It’s part of who you are. So take the opportunity to let your identity shine through.
Hey, Las Vegas readers and surrounding areas! The NerdLove 2016 tour is starting! On Friday, March 11th, meet me as I sign copies of New Game +: The Geek’s Guide To Love, Sex and Dating at Alternate Reality Comics. And afterwards, join me and your fellow readers at the NerdLove meet-up at Millenium Fandom from 8:30 to whenever for some give-aways, drinks and fun times!
See you there!