The work of style starts early, with all kinds of mistakes, and only rarely does one encounter native speakers. I knew a girl in college whose mother had been a model for Dior. The girl wore her mother’s old couture and mixed it with jeans and fishnet stockings and short kilts and leather jackets. She rode her bicycle to class in these gorgeous costumes, her hair a long golden rope down her back. She drove the boys wild—including, as I recall, my boyfriend at the time, who always lit up when he saw her. It was all right: Everyone did. No one else on campus could have worn those clothes and not looked like they were putting it on, but she wasn’t dressing for our approval—she was creating a self.
Real style is a bit of the snob, let’s face it. It’s choosing this but not that. It is deciding for one’s own purposes what is fine. What represents not just the head but also the soul. I’ve known scores of folks who dress beautifully but who lack style. The clothes are put on top; they don’t come from the root. There’s a difference. I once went out with a guy who dressed like an unmade bed. He didn’t have money, but he had terrific style. He’d camp in the woods for days, building huts, warbling with birds, and walk out looking like a movie star. When his belt broke, he took some brightly colored yarn, braided it, and somehow looked the height of chic. Once we went to a very fussy restaurant in Boston. For the occasion he combed his hair. The maître d’ treated him as if he was a visiting dignitary. And he was, that king of the woods.
For the rest of us, it’s trial and error. My two-year-old niece tries on a hat and studies her reflection. She tips her head, adjusting her face, already someone, already with a sense of who she wants to be. Strong characters—even toddlers—always do. I have three daughters, all with shared blood, history, and humor, yet each has a distinct style. The eldest takes her inspiration from hip hop and circus folk; our middle girl is the classicist, more in line with Blake Lively; and the youngest is a colorist, a poet; as early as five, having never been to Paris, she announced, “Paris is the place of my soul’s imaginings.”
Of course, a young person’s style is all about “Look at me.” It’s a declaration. I watch my daughters try it on, the business of becoming. They stand before the mirror, and the first face they show the glass is the real feeling the garment gives them; the second face is the person they want to be while wearing it. The pose they strike for the mirror is an imprint from someone who has shaped them.