On my first trip to Florence, I saw her. It was a brisk autumn day, my junior semester abroad. She was crossing the street ahead of me, her olive cashmere cape flowing behind her. She had a handsome but not beautiful face; it was a face that had seen a few of life’s turns—the lovers and the heartaches, the pull of time—and understood them. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was stunning, composed yet mysterious, as she clipped along in her smart boots, hair slightly tousled, very little makeup, gold earrings hanging like bobs. Others on the sidewalk turned to look at her because they couldn’t help themselves, and all of us wondered if she was famous. She didn’t notice me, of course; she wouldn’t. As quickly as she appeared she vanished, even as I longed to run after her, saying, “Tell me everything you know.”
When I returned to Paris, I bought myself a cape. In fact, I bought two. The first was a mistake; it scratched. The second was perfect, lined with silk. I spent money I didn’t have. Those capes are gone now: I gave the halfhearted one away, and wore the good one until it tattered. What remains is an appreciation from which I’ve never fully recovered. I hope I never do.
What my Florentine beacon had, of course, was style—that certain something, that seamless interface between the self and the outside world. When it’s all of a piece, you notice. But what is style if it’s not only skin-deep? The dictionary defines style as “a manner of doing something,” and that something, let’s agree, is living.
Style begins with the people passing through one’s life, the harbingers we push against and the stylemakers we want to clone. Some are famous, some not. Style grows from admiration, from longing, from discrimination—and, yes, from love. It’s all the places you’ve been to and the people and the moments you’ve known: the parts you’ve adopted, to keep forever, and transformed. We wear our history in our hearts and on our backs.
My first time abroad some 30 years ago turned out not to be about what I learned in books. The study was about living. How to eat, to dress, to discern, to move in unknown places, to see, to know. I studied the paintings in the Louvre, but I also studied the people looking at the paintings. In France I had a teacher who wore only five impeccable outfits, one for each day of the workweek. I learned very little French from Joelle Blot, but I can tell you, all these years later, that Tuesday was the wool camel skirt, the form-hugging ivory sweater, the silk scarf with the birds, the cordovan pumps, the garnet ring. It was a certain level of organization I’d never seen before. Her five good pairs of shoes had been resoled with rubber to make them last and last. She wasn’t a style maven, but she taught my hungry eye something of European bourgeois classics. And just as with writing, you must study the classics before you can knowingly add your own funk.