For Your Own Sanity, Answer These 4 Questions Before You Read Vogue’s September Issue

On September 6th, 2009, I walked to a bookstore and bought 6 fashion magazines. Yes. Six. Because this is a town of old hippies, and I am conscious of my milieu, I felt compelled to tell the cashier that I was doing research on the difficulties of developing a viable personal style. I don’t know if he believed me. The magazines were very heavy. I walked home anyway.

The weight of the magazines was not the only potential hazard.

In my 20’s I read fashion magazines religiously. I swam through Vogue as though it were a deep lake and I a doomed maiden drowning in tweed, gold thread, and slouchy boots. Fashion magazines have come and gone since then, the Internet has arrived. From {frolic} and nitro:licious to The Sartorialist and To say nothing of J. Crew, Anthropologie, and Chie At this very moment, even if you don’t have 6 fashion magazines on the floor next to your sofa, you have access to more pictures and commentary on clothing than any one person could ever absorb. Unless it’s what you do for a living and still I have my doubts.

How then do you deal with the issue of personal style? How do you shop for and wear clothes so that at least 80% of the time you like what you wear and achieve what you want in the wearing? I can only shake my head at how much less anxiety, how much more fun life would have held had I figured this out earlier in life .

What do I know now that I did not know then? The answers to these questions.

  1. What do I want to say with my clothes?
  2. How do I want to feel in my clothes?
  3. What do I like the look of?
  4. What are the categories of activities requiring clothes in which I engage?

Notice that none of these questions are, “How do I look good?”. There are 800 different ways to look good, 8000 different opinions about what looking good means, and 250 million people in the US with 250 million different faces and coloring and bodies that look good in different things. You can “look good” by choosing colors that are harmonious with your hair and face and shapes that help your body proportions align with the ideals of your culture. But you most likely won’t be all the way to feeling comfortable in your skin. Social context is complicated.

Notice also I say nothing at all about “style profiles”. I read, somewhere in my 624 lbs of fashion magazines, that one of Vogue’s editors is releasing a new book called I Love Your Style. She lists style profiles, Classic, Street, Trashy Tart, all the usual balderdash. OK, maybe she doesn’t say Trashy Tart. It’s still balderdash. We don’t get up in the morning, and think, “Do I want to be a Russian princess today? Audrey Hepburn? A biker chick on the edge of the Apocalypse?” We do not walk into clothing stores organized into Style Profiles. We live lives. We buy clothes. We engage in social and aesthetic and emotional behaviors. That’s the reality.


So ask yourself, first, what do you want to say with your clothes? “Wait,” you may protest, “I don’t want to say anything in particular. I want to simply be me.” I know. I sympathize. And I’m sorry. You can’t shut them up. Your clothes talk. So humor me here. What do you want to say?

  • Creative?
  • Fashionable?
  • Conservative?
  • Lawyer?
  • Republican?
  • Rebellious?
  • Religious?
  • 14?
  • 30?
  • Available?
  • Dignified?
  • Responsible + Creative + Progressive + Authoritative?

I myself want to say that I am a person of substance. That I have a decent aesthetic and good taste according to the High WASP canon. That I’m not trying too hard. Even though of course I always try at everything. I want to say that I am competent. That I will behave appropriately for the circumstances in which I find myself. Whether or not it’s true. That’s mine to know.


Next, ask yourself, how do I want to feel in my clothes? (Notice whether what you want your clothes to say and how you want to feel overlap. If they do not, we’re in “Who Am I And What Do I Want To Do With My Life?”, not “What Do I Want To Wear?” Let’s pretend your life is in alignment. I do it all the time.)

  • Comfortable?
  • Safe?
  • Sexy?
  • Superior?
  • Invisible?
  • The center of attention?

I have found that I want to feel comfortable, confident, and attractive enough. Always appropriate. Priorities change depending on the situation. I would expect your priorities might be different than mine. Unless of course you too are 52, live in Northern California, tend to vote Democratic, and wanted to be an actress when you were young.


Now, what do you like the looks of? After all, you are going to have to see your clothes in the closet. In the mirror. In windows lining the street as you pass. But this is easy. The flicker of yes is a good sign. I usually suck air through my teeth at the sight of something I covet. We all have our gestures of desire. Desire should be given its due and no more.

No matter how much I like white cashmere.


Because finally you have to ask yourself, what do you actually do day in and day out?

  • Take mass transit and walk to work?
  • Sit in chairs?
  • Talk face to face with people on whom you depend for money?
  • Munge on a sofa typing on a laptop?
  • Shepherd small children from breakfast to school to ballet to homework and finally, gloriously, to bed?
  • Speak to large hostile groups of Northeast women wearing suits?
  • Hang out with colleagues in Chicago bars?
  • Have dinner parties for friends outdoors on warm Southern nights?
  • Attend large formal parties which may result in your photo showing up in a magazine?
  • Walk down a narrow, raised, well-lit walkway while excruciatingly thin women with resources write notes on what you are wearing?

Optimize for your real life. Sal, of Already Pretty, wrote a wonderful post on buying clothes for the imaginary you. I figure my imaginary life is worth one or two pieces of clothing. A pink cashmere sweater with Hello Kitty picked out in rhinestones at the waist. 50th birthday present from my sisters. I wear it for family gatherings because my family doesn’t mind when imaginary me shows up. An entire wardrobe of similar pieces would be problematic. Given the executive thing and all.

Dress for your real life.

So you say what you want to say and feel how you want to feel in the life you really lead. I have made the mistake of forgetting that occasionally. Left scurrying through my wardrobe. Usually when an outing with trophy wives is involved. Which reminds me. I may need a Confidence Amongst Trophy Wives outfit. But I digress.

You are now ready to open Vogue. The September issue, in particular, has caused me terrible dizziness in years past. No longer. Enjoy. You are guaranteed not to come home with the items below in your hot and poorer little hands. At least by accident. What you do on purpose is another matter, and even if it involves Prada’s leather hip waders, should be celebrated.

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  • I keep having trouble commenting on your site; but I will persist…
    So much to think about with this post. My daytime endeavors historically interfered with what I wished to, wanted to, wear. First nursing, then motherhood. Now, living on this island, I could get away with LL Bean neutrals year round. Thankfully, I am not even tempted. I try for creative/sophisticated/not-trying-too-hard. Whether I achieve it or not is anyone's guess. Fun post.

  • If anyone else has infrastructure troubles like this, will they let me know somehow? Infrastructure is supposed to support human endeavors…

  • I think this is why most of us could use stylists. Or fashionable therapists. To tell us who we really want to be, grown up or otherwise.

  • You make some wonderful points. But "munge"? What an excellent word.

    (PS No trouble commenting for me. Infrastructure is doing its job!)

  • I wake up and depending what mood I'm in, is what kind of "dress up" I feel like doing. Be it Trashy Tart to Trophy Wife LOL!

    Enjoyed this one :)

  • For the trophy wives gathering – I'd be hail fellow well met and be the appreciative audience for them all. Non-compete and cheerful. They'd love me and the fellas would find me refreshing.

    It's funny because my answer to #1 included
    showmanship. But part of what I show off is my cheerfulness and resilience and that I'm game.
    But sometimes the game is hide and seek.

  • BTW, really liked your point about #1 and #2
    overlapping. Have never seen those connected before.

  • Vildy, very sophisticated symbolic representation:). Julia, I'm glad to act as therapy stylist. Stylish therapist? If it gets tough I will call my brother the real therapist. Sher – you don't need therapy. You are actualized, as they say. Munge – hmmm, don't even know where the word came from. The subconscious, probably, where all good fashion input comes from.

  • This is great to think about! I feel like I have been sort of thrashing about in the realm of personal style, rather than proceeding in an orderly and deliberate fashion. I would like to be doing the latter and I think if I can answer your questions, I will at least get started off in the right direction.

  • Great post – this is what I work though with my clients before we get to what neckline shape to wear – this to me is the most important stuff, understanding your personal style.

  • Very thought provoking post!

  • Love love LOVE this post!! I usually try to go for a clean and timeless look with a splash of "I'm so sexy I cannot stand myself". Not easy to pull off with a child on your hip. But this is probably the best post I've seen all day.

  • Very interesting post! I agree, one cannot simply be stuck into a style category, it really is all about what we want to say on a specific day. September really is the best month for fashion magazines! I can't wait to see the movie!

  • Oh, this is so appropriate. I struggle to send the right message with my clothing. I'm learning more about reflecting what I wish through clothing. Very good post.

  • I am so very unstylish. But found this very interesting. Here are my answers.

    1. Approachable
    2. Comfortable
    3. I love Kahki pants and white t-shirts
    4. I work in an office where I interact with clients yet also sit my ass at a desk.

  • Let's pretend your life is in alignment. I do it all the time.

    Just about to start my first full-time job since 1995, and nodding vigorously. Excellent post!

  • This is easy for me…I've had the same style my whole life. My friends forward emails featuring clothing they have seem that screams Jill. Sometimes I wonder if I've become a parody. But, I don't care. I enjoy everything I wear. It's very me. So the answers:
    1. I'm comfortable with my sexuality. I enjoy being a woman.
    2. A comfortable peacock…I like attention. I wear a lot of color.
    3. Well traveled Bohemian
    4. I need to express my creativity as I am a designer. I do a lot of fundraising…primarily wooing men to open their checkbooks for worthy, cultural causes. So there needs to be a litte bit of sex appeal. I throw many dinner parties and I end up in the newspaper often. El Paso is a small town…so that's not tooting my horn. There aren't many people out and about as much as we are. Clothing is so exciting…an extension of who we are. I don't want to play it safe.

  • This is really awesome…, I'm going to go through this! I've been wanting to weed through my wardrobe and only have clothes that truly represent me.

  • L, I have an overwhelming feeling of irritation mixed with disgust, when I open Vogue. Am I an anorexic Russian heiress?

    Really like your 4 Questions, kind of a condensed version of book "Style Statement" by Danielle Laporte and Carrie McCarthy. Since I distilled my Style Statement (two words) do not make mistakes- at least according to me and who else counts? Not Anna Wintour!

    Vildy! That's wise and so right on for me as well. Ease is the greatest accessory.

  • I really enjoy hearing everyone's answers. It does wind up being about ease, even if you get there in 5 inch heels, I suppose.

  • love your post! love, love, love it. and i have about 5 fashion magazines by my couch–must be missing one :)

  • We adore this Miss LPC, it is so thought-provoking, conjuring up all manner of images of our closet and what we pull out of it!

    Sending you a smile,

  • What a great post. Thanks for writing this! Also, thanks for letting me know you "stopped by" my site. I'm looking forward to reading more from you.

  • Thanks for the shout-out, lady! I'm honored to be cited in such a fascinating and in-depth musing on developing and honing personal style.

  • A very , very good post LPC. Now this is something everyone should acknowledge before entering a shop/online. Including myself. I have made mistakes, am doing it all the time. I´ll just have to read your post for a second time!

  • This post is so brilliant I would like to nominate it for reposting. Thank you.

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  1. […] Pins and Noodles recommended that I repost my reaction to Vogue’s 2009 September issue, about how to build a personal style by answering 4 questions. So let’s pretend. I thought I’d also add a link to a 2011 […]