In my teens I believed fashion was about following herds, and style about rising above them. As that superannuated teenager, Quentin Crisp, put it, ‘Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.’ My ‘look’ was lots of black, the odd army surplus shirt, and eye make-up like Zorro’s mask. I thought it individual, until I went to the Glastonbury Music Festival and met an army of identikit indie snobs.
Few dress with huge originality, and it would be exhausting if we did. Clothes are visual autobiographies, their job not only to keep us warm but to tell the world how to handle us. Hence many societies had sumptuary laws, restricting certain clothes to certain persons, ensuring everybody knew their place. But fashion’s haters shouldn’t imagine that Vogue took over where laws left off. Fashion is not style’s enemy or arbiter, but a resource. Style is what we do with it.
Coco Chanel said, ‘Fashion fades, only style remains the same.’ Certainly, many women stick to the same hairstyle – often from their happiest period – as if by Elnett alone, they can halt time. Take Pauline Prescott’s crash-helmet (circa 1986 or whenever John began his rise to power). But style must evolve, with our needs and ageing bodies. The one transcendent element in all successful styles is they suit their creator’s purpose.
What does style look like? Nobody would hesitate to call Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue, chic, but her chief stylist, frizzy Grace Coddington, could be taken for a cleaner. Yet Wintour admits she has none of Coddington’s style ‘genius’. Yes, her baggy black attire is light years from her stunning images, but it’s as effective as a cloak of invisibility, freeing her to feast her eyes on the world and decide how it could look prettier, and sparing long hours that Wintour spends under hairdryers. So both women’s style works for them. Both are stylish.
To find your style, look not to Vogue but yourself. An eye for image helps, and a feel for the signals that clothes send. For a distinctive style, the message should seem consistent – the quality that makes a novelist’s voice or Van Gogh’s convulsive colours so recognisable. But your look can change daily and be stylish. However hard you work it, the key is to be happy in it. As Epictetus advised , ‘Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.’