Style as Story

The title of today’s post comes from a line in a blog post by Justine Musk called “How to Be a Genius (Or Just Look Like One)“:

“Style is the story you tell about yourself to the world.”

In it, she talks about the style of Coco Chanel, and I’ve written about Chanel before myself. She had extraordinary style. If you are a woman, look into your closet: you will find any number of items influenced by Chanel. As I type this, I am wearing a black knit cardigan over a black knit shirt. Chanel. (Also jeans and Keds, which I’m sure she would never have worn, but she did give us women who dressed like boys – and that’s how I’m dressed today, by late nineteenth-century standards. Like a boy ready for sports. A late nineteenth-century woman would never have worn what I’m wearing.  It was Chanel who gave us sportswear for women.)

Why did that line catch my attention so much? I suppose because I like to watch people, and so often I find that how they present themselves tells a story – the story of what they think of themselves. Where they see themselves in the world. People tend to place themselves, and style tells you about that place – where it is, what it’s like.

I think of style as having three components. First, there is how you look. Then, there is how your surroundings look. And finally, there is something more complicated – the style of your art.

I was thinking of the second today because I recently met a person who told me that he had installed a flat-screen television in his bedroom so he could watch sports. And in the same conversation he told me that his family used paper napkins at dinner. And I realized that was the opposite of how I had grown up – we had no television, because my mother was convinced that it would ruin us intellectually, but we ate with the family silver. And always had cloth napkins. Those are both choices, and the universe won’t end if you choose not to have a television (although if I didn’t have one now, I’d miss watching Once Upon a Time, or Being Human on DVDs – the BBC version, of course) or use paper napkins. But your choices do reveal your priorities.

I bought two things recently that I thought were very much in my style. The first is an old bowl, probably late nineteenth or early twentieth century, with red transferware and hand- painted details.

I think it’s rather pretty. The second is a set of silver plate with a flower pattern on the handle.

These are both things I saw and fell in love with, in one of the antiques stores in Concord. I think style is like that: it’s organic, made up of the things you love, the things that are important to you. But it’s also something you can think about and develop. Because style is a story we tell about ourselves to the world, and that story is always changing. In a way, if you change your style, you can change your story. So if you want to change that story, if you want the world to perceive you differently, or you simply want to feel differently about yourself, you can do it by changing the way you look, the way you put together your surroundings.

Style is something fun, individual. Or is should be. (Shouldn’t the story you tell about yourself to the world, and to yourself, be fun, individual?) And style is also a process of self-discovery.

What I’ve been thinking about recently is how I want the three aspects of my style to work together. To express who I am, or think I am. I spent a lot of time being confused about that, trying to be who I thought I should be – who people seemed to want me to be. But at some point in your life you have to discover, or perhaps decide, who you are. And that’s when you find your personal style. That’s when you realized the story you want to tell the world about yourself.

And I think that’s important – thinking about that story, because we do all have our stories, and we’re always telling them, whether we’re aware of it or not.

As for my personal style, well, you can see it all over this blog, can’t you? And strangely enough, you can see it all over my books as well. I’m not quite sure how, because I haven’t always had a say in how they looked, but they have that modern pre-Raphaelite look I love.

I know this isn’t a particularly coherent post: I’m trying to talk about something I’m just beginning to think about, and that makes for some incoherence. But the idea of style as story is a powerful one – and one I want to explore further, because I’m a storyteller, and because I think stories are how we come to know ourselves.

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4 Responses to Style as Story

  1. emily says:

    I’ve been thinking something similar lately. I have always said that I haven’t changed as a person. But walking the mall on Black Friday – a very interesting people watching opportunity – has left me thinking otherwise. I found myself not wanting anything the mall had to offer, except a mind bender puzzle at a temporary kiosk. And years prior, if I could, I would have bought multiple things. I felt rather empty, not knowing what I liked anymore. And it got me thinking how much a person is defined by their likes. And that I am in fact a different person than I was.

  2. Evelyn says:

    I like the idea of using style as a way to tell the world your story. On Friday, I walked into the mall telling myself that I wouldn’t buy anything that wasn’t something I’d actually wear, that didn’t fall into my identity, just because it was pretty. I’ve done that before and it always felt like wearing a lie. At the moment I don’t feel settled in my “identity”, but using personal style as a way to figure out what works and what doesn’t, not only with physical reality (corpus, house) but also with mind/personality/(there’s got to be a better word to express what I mean) sounds like a good way to get closer to finding out who you are.

  3. This might be a bit much to put here, but I’ll give it a go.
    I’ve always been fascinated by symbolism. Mythology, ritual magic, self help books, and so on – it’s all about symbolism. First impressions, dress to impress, dress for the job you want not the job you have, etc etc etc etc.
    I think you CAN tell a book by its cover. By the car someone drives, their hair style, the people they bring into their lives, the home they live in and the way its decorated, by the job they have, by the music and other media that they enjoy – in fact, everything is a clue (except when it’s not).
    I first became really aware of all this when I played music in Los Angeles and I would get ready for a gig.
    It was very akin to ritual magic, or any other sort of event where preparation, garments and other trappings invoke a mindset and create an icon or personae. When I was done, I wasn’t exactly the same person that went to their 9-5 job, not with the makeup, the clothes, the hair. I was someone else, and I felt it in my bones.
    Just this last year I took a class in cognitive brain function and the Arts, it was basicly a class on how being creative works. And I took away from it the idea that everything in our experience creates a schema. Think of it like like a library of books. A lexicon of symbolism through which we filter input. So much like we have letters and phonetics and words and grammar, which sums into language, each experience is rich with the building blocks of symbolism, creating schema atop schema.
    I’d like to think that much of it has origins in archetypes, some Jungian Collective Unconsciousness or Joseph Campbell monomyth, but who knows?
    I also think, with a nod to ancient Greek Philosophers, that what we surround ourselves with, impacts who and what we are. This is where we get to the Tony Robbins sorts of things. I think that you can fundamentally change who you are by changing your narrative. It begins with each symbol that you’ve incorporated and surrounded yourself with.

    Anyways, my point is, I think you’re absolutely right.

  4. Emily, I’m sure you’re a different person. And that empty feeling is strange, I know — but in a way it’s good too, because it means you’re ready to fill yourself up with new things, with where you are going instead of where you’ve been. It’s a state of readiness . . .

    Evelyn and Debra, I think you’re right that creating the external can also help you figure out and create the internal. Symbolism is important — it’s a sort of magic, as Debra says. (Even on the level of, if I wear a long swishy skirt today, I’ll feel romantic. And you usually do.) I should write more about creating your narrative, your own story. About how to do that. Debra’s post has given me some ideas. (Debra, your class sounds fascinating. If you write about this at any point, on a blog etc., could you send me a link? I’d be interested in reading about it.)

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