Desperately Seeking My Personal Style

I have no idea how to define my wardrobe DNA. Why am I so bent out of shape about it?
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Photo: McKeown/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Photo: McKeown/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Two Novembers ago, I arrived home from what was an otherwise ordinary day at work when my boyfriend tossed the latest The New Yorker in my face.

"Look!" He was presenting the magazine as if it was an official document I had long been waiting to receive, like a renewed driver's license or a letter from a long-lost relative that had just been extracted from a glass bottle previously cast into the sea. "It's you."

The woman depicted on the cover, painted with sweeping strokes by artist Jenny Kroik, bore a passing resemblance to me in the sense that she was wearing clothes I too often wear. Jeans. A leather jacket. White sneakers. A T-shirt that looked like it had been plucked from a whiskey barrel in the back of a vintage store in 1984. My doppelgänger-en-oil was also wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat, a version of which I owned but had been too intimidated to wear outside the house.

I probably responded with something vaguely curious but not enormously invested, like, "Oh! That's cool." And then we went on about our evening.

But only vaguely curious I was not. I don't know what I've mulled over more in the years since: that he pinpointed my sense of style with such gusto, or that this inanimate portrait of a woman on a magazine was far more confident in her wardrobe than me — a living, breathing human woman — is in mine.

It's not that I'm altogether meek with my clothing choices. I don't think I am, and I have some more emphatic wardrobe staples that would likely agree with me. It's more that I fail to see the whole as it exists independently from the parts. And despite having worked at least adjacent to fashion since I was 22, I don't have a concrete grasp on what my style is or how to describe it in a way with which I'm comfortable.

Given my state of employment writing about the business of clothes-making, I really and reasonably should have a more distilled sense of what is, by proxy, my source of income. If I can't identify my own personal style, does that mean I have no sense of style, no sartorial eye of my own?

Only vaguely curious I was not, you see.

I love The Cut’s “We Like Your Style” series, so when Tyler was featured for it this February, I was delighted by how succinctly, how accurately, her "celebrity style DNA" was reported as "Blair Waldorf meets Elle Woods meets Judy Funny." If you know Tyler or even just follow her on Instagram, you recognize she hit the nail on the head(band) with that one.

As the franchise continued to roll out through New York Fashion Week, I began to imagine what my own version would be. Which, I don't know — Alexa Chung should slide in there somewhere. (Biiiiiig surprise.) Beyond that, the jury's still out.

That's the root of the issue, I think: that other people have it All Figured Out, at least from a nosy onlooker's perspective, and I do not.

Those of you reading this website are likely familiar with the daily Editors' Picks, in which Fashionista editors pick one fashion or beauty item and write about why they bought it, or why they'd like to. It became tradition for editors to send each other e-commerce links with suggestions from their respective internet spelunkings. Each grandpa sweater or flared trousers that chimed into my Gchats was a bit like that digital-age phenomenon of seeing a picture of yourself at an angle you don't often catch in the mirror. That "Fuck, is that what I look like?" moment. Apparently, we're always the last ones in on the secret.

Their suggestions were, of course, spot on: lots of denim, oversized suiting and a whole bunch of '60s- and '70-ish cuts and patterns — hence, our friend, the hat. Some floofier stuff, like tulle, but with a "bite," a descriptor I've overheard fashion people saying at showroom appointments while holding tiny white cups of espresso. Outer space insignia. Everything Rachel Antonoff makes. But a short paragraph outlining the contents of a hanging rack does not a style DNA make.

There's a contemporary and ubiquitous need to "brand" one's self, to not simply fling personal and professional morsels across the internet, but also to package those morsels in an airtight container free of single-use plastics. As a digital editor, "personal style" is a non-negotiable, particularly when a visual-based platform like Instagram is as crucial as it is to our professions.

To what extent is one's style inherent, and to what is it curated for a service like Instagram? My wardrobe is a mixed bag, with the most-worn items — a stack of gazillion-year-old Levi's, a drawer full of vintage tees dubiously "borrowed" from my dad — being what The New Yorker cover captured. Where I find I stray is that I also enjoy very different-looking things, like the aforementioned tulle or a collared gingham dress I bought from the Bloomingdale's juniors department my first year living in New York. This is what it means to be a multidimensional person with an accordingly multidimensional interest in clothing. It's where the "meets" comes from in that style DNA strand. But it's also where I seem to lose my way.

That I can't identify my own style nearly three decades into this thing is mostly curious when I consider the role that clothes have always played in my identity and likely in yours, too. Clothing is a storytelling tool and an art form, armor and vulnerability on the days we need it most. Miuccia Prada once told The Wall Street Journal that "fashion is instant language." If I can't translate what my closet — the hat, still unworn — is saying, with its many nuances and colloquialisms, I'm afraid I don't know much about myself at all. 

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