How and why create your own personal style? An easy 5-step guide.
Sooner or later it has happened to everyone to meet someone with a really good style. People who seem to be blessed with an innate talent for choosing individual garments to wear, but even more capable of creating overall outfits that are absolutely right for them: in proportion, colour and, above all, character.
When this happens, we risk believing that it is some kind of natural gift, like being gifted at maths or drawing, and instead underestimate the process and discipline required to arrive at that result. Yes, because very often this is what it is all about: engaging in a journey that requires attention, a process of trial and error, and a certain amount of self-knowledge. The prize is not just good looks, but the ability to communicate one’s values, to create self-confidence, to best influence relationships with others.
Of course, in addition to image we need substance, but when both are there we really do have an edge. And often our image works in two directions: it communicates to the outside world in an almost immediate way a series of characteristics that we want to express about ourselves (elegance, reliability, simplicity, creativity, rebelliousness, professionalism…) and it communicates to ourselves that sense of security and self-confidence that is often the basis on which to build good interpersonal relationships, both at work and at an emotional level.
The guides and manuals on personal style commonly found online suggest a series of steps ranging from decluttering, getting to know one’s body shape and armour season, to style essences. These are all very useful things, but I think there is much more to consider.
Creating your own personal style, first step: getting to know your body
Clothes obviously interact differently with different real bodies: they can give structure where needed, create softness, draw or divert attention from specific points, emphasise or disguise certain personal characteristics. In recent years, a number of concepts and disciplines that were once the exclusive domain of professionals have entered the public domain. Now so many of us have heard of body shape, armour, style archetypes, etc., that for some such disciplines have become huge cages in which to enclose every human type.
While recognising common categories can be useful for orientation, the risk is to limit oneself to automatism, losing sight of the personal character and purpose of each of us. Disciplines such as armouring, for example, can relieve us from the chaos of juggling a thousand shades of colour, not all of which look equally good on us, nor are they equally pleasing in combination.
But harmony is only one of the possible effects one might desire. Sometimes it is precisely a good knowledge of these rules that can be the basis for deciding to break them, because perhaps one wants to have an impactful effect, evoking rather concepts such as transgression, strength, resourcefulness… But let’s see what are the main physical characteristics to take into account.
It is no secret that every person has a particular combination of complexion, hair colour and eye colour. There are professionals who have made a discipline out of studying which colours harmonise best with each person’s chromatic characteristics: armourists. As in all fields, there are very serious people who do their work with care and passion, and others who improvise on the wave of a certain media success. However, whether one has been analysed to the best of one’s ability, or is trying to orient oneself, it is important to understand at least some aspects:
- Temperature: do we have warm or cool undertones? Do cold colours and metals like silver suit us better, or warm colours and metals like gold?
- Tone: are our natural hair and eye colours predominantly light or dark? Or are they somewhere in between?
- Intensity: how much contrast is there in our colour characteristics? For example: do we have very dark hair and alabaster skin, or golden skin with medium brown hair?
Simplifying greatly, and referring everyone to delve deeper into the subject if they so wish, it can be said that anything that reproduces our characteristics by analogy gives a harmonious effect, anything that contradicts them gives a more strident effect.
I say jarring, but not necessarily wrong, because try to imagine a rock star with naturally light brown hair, with general colours that are not very intense and contrasting: he might, for example, consciously decide to increase the aggressiveness of his image by dyeing his hair dark, or by applying make-up and dressing in very strong colours, such as black, that clash with his natural colours, but align with the message he wants to convey.
There is no a priori ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, there is only what is consistent with a certain personal style and what is not.
The same can be said of the shape of the body, which is made up of both horizontal and vertical lines. Usually, when we talk about traditional body shapes, we use terms such as ‘triangle’, ‘hourglass’, ‘apple’… these are simplifications that are useful to understand each other, of course, and neither should they be made into stifling cages. However, this type of classification also suffers from another limitation: it is based exclusively on the proportions of the horizontal lines of the body, neglecting the vertical ones altogether.
Again, nothing obliges us to necessarily follow the indications for our body shape, but better to transgress consciously than to leave the effect to chance, i.e. better to be in control of what optically has the power to make us look taller or shorter, more or less robust, more or less proportionate…
We can be an artist, who relies entirely on creativity, or an actress who wants to emphasise her mysterious side, or even a career woman who wants to communicate competence and authority… it is up to us to choose the final effect we want to achieve, but we will never be able to do so without first knowing what our starting point is and the ‘base’ from which we are starting.
Essences of style
Here the discussion becomes more complex, because various methods of analysis have tried to add to the simple consideration of the horizontal proportions of the various bodies also elements that express a kind of “character,” which also takes into account the vertical lines and the shape of the face.
Thus were born the methods that take yin and yang into account (nothing spiritual or oriental, just a way of defining the predominantly masculine or feminine characteristics of various physical types), such as the Kibbe method, which identifies certain style ‘archetypes’, something more complex than a simple triangle or hourglass shape, which also takes into account the facial features, the bone structure, and even the way different people pose and move.
These three points (armour, body shape, essence of style), can be something we work on independently or the subject of specific consultations, the important thing, in the framework we are making, is that they are taken into consideration before moving on to the next stage of defining our personal style.
Creating your own personal style, step two: get to know your wardrobe
Once we have gathered ideas on the colours that suit us best, the shapes that enhance us, the fabrics that fall best on us, it is time to transpose all this data into the meticulous sifting of our wardrobe. Ideally, we should proceed in one step, as Marie Kondo also suggests in her method, to get an overview of everything we own.
Just in emptying all the cupboards, drawers, closets, boxes, in gathering all our clothes and accessories in one place, one can have the first surprises: we have three ski suits and the last time we were in the mountains in winter was twenty years ago? We have a dozen dresses worn once at as many weddings and then fallen into disuse? We are full of skirts, but we only wear trousers? We have about 20 blazers and no trousers to wear them with? Let’s make a mental note, we’ll get through all these problems.
Whether it is decided to tackle the whole wardrobe at once, or whether we proceed by seasons, or by categories, there comes a time when we have to sift through the individual garments one by one, having certain criteria in mind to decide which should stay and which should not. The most useful thing is to create three groups: 1. undoubtedly to be kept; 2. undoubtedly to be eliminated; 3. to be reassessed. Here are some questions to help you decide:
- Is it my size? If not: delete.
- Is it in good condition? If yes, go to question 4, if no, go to question 3.
- If it is not in good condition: can it be repaired? If not: delete.
- It is a garment I love, I wear it willingly, in a colour that suits me, it has no flaws? Does it fit my style, does it make me feel comfortable? If the answers to the previous questions are exclusively or predominantly yes: keep.
- Even if it is not a garment that I particularly love, is it useful to wear a garment that I love (for example: a simple t-shirt that I always wear under a particular jumper)? If yes, keep.
- All garments which are clearly not to be kept, but which you struggle to throw away, or on which you have indecisions, should be put in the ‘to be revalued’ category.
Decluttering is a periodic process, some people do it at every change of season, or once a year, or every two or three years, and there are those who have never done it and keep the clothes of 30, 40, 50 years of life all together: the T-shirt used in high school together with the clothes one uses daily for work, the rhinestone top once used to go clubbing together with maternity clothes and mementos from a few holidays in exotic countries.
My advice is to declutter repeatedly, increasingly refining one’s selection criteria. Each accumulation does not help in defining a personal style and it would be good to find a separate place for the clothes we do not wear but do not want to get rid of.
And what should be eliminated? Everyone is, of course, free to choose: the most worn-out and damaged garments can be disposed of in landfills, or used as tea towels, or reused in other creative ways: but, for goodness sake, take them out of the wardrobe and the places where you keep the clothes you wear regularly.
The same goes for mementos, items with sentimental value, those you keep for when your children are older… if you don’t want to get rid of them, that’s fine, but find a separate place, boxes, an attic, a closet to store them in, quite separate from your usual wardrobe.
Items in good condition can of course also be resold, especially if they are of good quality, or donated to someone in need: either way, they could make someone happy, instead of taking up space in your house.
Capsule wardrobe: an expanded concept
Once you have done a thorough decluttering, you are ideally in the situation of having identified only those garments that you love and wear with pleasure. Already this selection gives us indicators: do we tend to buy for eventual ‘bargains’ and have very little to put into everyday life? We know that delicate colours suit us and we find ourselves, out of laziness, with a string of black and blue garments? We are full of shoes and we only have one bag?
At this point, we must also understand another aspect: how to optimise every single item in our wardrobe? We are helped by the concept of the capsule wardrobe, which means a wardrobe composed of a relatively small number of garments, which are highly interchangeable and can be combined with each other in many different ways, with which we not only feel comfortable and represented, but with which we can cope with all the demands of our daily life.
Sometimes, to illustrate this concept, one sees images of wardrobes consisting of very few garments, all in neutral colours, basically very repetitive. But capsule wardrobe does not necessarily mean either a fixed number of garments or a fixed palette at the outset: a person who loves prints and colours will be able to create his or her own capsule wardrobe, carefully choosing the motifs and patterns that best match each other. Of course, it is more difficult than playing on shades of beige alone, but it is by no means impossible.
There are people who love variety, who play and experiment endlessly with clothes and accessories, who love the special and striking one-off piece. These people will probably need some basic garments, which allow them to wear their little treasures while providing them with a neutral background. The human eye in fact needs fullness and emptiness, to have one or two focal points, but also a background that relaxes vision and makes prominent elements stand out.
If your style is not quite that of an Iris Apfel (if it is, green light to more eccentric choices and the accumulation of unique pieces), the ideal would be to know which garments act as a neutral surface, which allow you to ‘lower’ the tone of overly exuberant outfits, to make them suitable for everyday life and specifically:
- Basics like the white, grey or black t-shirt
- Denim (jeans, skirts, shirts)
- The men’s cut shirt (white or blue striped)
- The white sneakers
- The ‘unisex’ shoes;
- Classic trousers (cigarette, flare or palazzo, with or without pence, but simple, plain, with a perfect fit)
- The timeless outerwear (the trench coat, the classic coat, the leather or denim jacket).
- A pair of smooth belts, without logos, of good leather.
Obviously, every basic garment exists in a thousand variations, for example, the white t-shirt may have a tighter or oversize cut, be made of a softer or more structured fabric, have a round, V or boat neckline, the sleeves may be more or less wide, with the seam at the shoulder or lowered, with a balloon or kimono shape, white may be optical, or cream… just to mention the most basic of basic garments.
On the contrary, if you are a lover of a more sober style, full of practical sense or of visual minimalism, it would be useful to know which garments can transform the most basic of combinations, such as a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, or a pencil skirt and a blouse, and make it more refined and suitable for special occasions:
- A structured bag, not necessarily branded, but made of real leather, not flabby and with quality details (stitching, metalwork…)
- More feminine shoes: e.g. ballet flats or pointed boots, Mary Jane shoes, sandals with thin laces, shoes with thin heels …
- A few elements with bright fabrics, such as shiny silk, smooth velvet, sequins, metallic finish…
- Jewellery of particular proportions, colour or design, one piece at a time, but eye-catching
- Simple clothes, but in bright colours: a red bag, yellow shoes, a magenta shirt…
- Other accessories such as scarves, eyeglasses or sunglasses, hats, special belts… better one or two details at a time, not all at once
I believe that the concept of capsule wardrobe and that of personal style, although not synonymous, are deeply intertwined.
Creating your own personal style, step three: getting to know your lifestyle
One of the main obstacles in the construction of a functioning personal style is the relationship we have with our imaginary lives, those sort of inspirational images that make us believe that to be elegant we would need an evening dress, which we never get a chance to wear, instead of a nice pair of classic trousers, which we could match with at least 20 blouses we already have.
The inspirational images we have of ourselves tell us something important: for example, I would like to be more elegant, or I would like to travel more, or I would like to have more social occasions… but they have to be crossed with real lives.
In reality how do I spend my time, how much of it is spent with my family, taking the children to the park, hiking in the mountains, or a particular sport, how many times a month do I go out to dinner at a restaurant (and is it usually a starred restaurant, or the neighbourhood beer garden?), go to the cinema, attend parish meetings, or the bridge club, etc.?
All the details of what we actually do are the starting point to understand what we really need and maybe even what we need to add to our wardrobe to give it that twist (more practical, elegant, professional, fun, festive, artistic…) that it lacks.
Even the frequency with which we do laundry influences what we need in our wardrobe: do we do laundry once a week, more or less? If we only have two t-shirts and a shirt, clearly the laundry will have to be almost daily, but if we know that we will do it once a week, it is better to have a few extra garments.
One of the activities that usually occupies most of our waking life is work (or study): how much time do I dedicate to work, do I have a strict professional dress code to follow, or more flexible guidelines? It can happen that the style required by professional conventions is very different from what we would spontaneously choose, for example in our free time we love to go on long motorbike rides and wear leather jackets and rock band t-shirts, but at work we are financial advisors and are forced to wear a suit and tie.
Is it better to divide the two wardrobes completely, or some contamination? And to what extent do we want or can we express ourselves within a pre-established code?
There are no absolute rules and certainly our society is moving towards the spread of casual even in more traditionally formal environments. Everyone is called upon to find their own balance, knowing, however, that clothes are not only for personal comfort, but are also powerful narratives, capable of appealing to the imagination and changing the perception others have of us: can we use this to our advantage at work?
Free time is obviously different for everyone, depending on possibilities, interests, passions, family status.
Many leisure activities simply require one to be comfortable and at ease, while others need real technical equipment, as is the case with certain sports, such as scuba diving or mountaineering, or certain forms of DIY, such as carpentry or tinkering with engines… even in this more relaxed version of our lives, however, I believe it is right to bring our personal touch, the thread of our style.
Creating your own personal style, step four: getting to know yourself
But what is it in the end, this personal style? How to define and create it? It is a question of putting all the pieces together. Having understood what suits us, what we actually have in the wardrobe, how we live, all that remains is to compose the picture into a whole that represents us to the full.
Photograph your outfits
The starting point is, as always, reality, so my suggestion is to start by photographing ourselves every morning when we are about to leave the house. A simple selfie in the mirror, preferably full-length and with good lighting. Day after day. It might be useful to create a dedicated album on the phone or on our computer and save all these pictures there.
Within a few weeks we will already have a good point of reference, and by reviewing the various photos we will be able to see at a glance what worked, what was out of place, where there was confusion and discordant details, where a pair of shoes didn’t quite match a certain length of trousers, where everything was a bit flat and boring…
We can then repeat the successful outfits and perhaps try to return to the problematic ones, adjusting a few details: add a belt, remove a too bright colour, change an off-the-shoulder garment. In the process, of course, we might discover that some piece is missing, a type of shoe, a scarf of a different colour, etc.
Find your outfit formulas
What will emerge over time, looking at your photos, but also feeling your feelings of well-being with certain combinations instead of others, will be the identification of certain formulas that work on you. There are many well-known personalities who have made the fixed formula their distinguishing feature: think of Steve Jobs’ turtleneck jeans, but also of the colourful dresses, tight at the top that open from the waist down, that distinguish Anna Wintour’s style, or Catherine Hepburn’s loose-fitting trouser suit… and we could find many more.
Each of us has more successful formulas, and replicating them is not a sign of a lack of imagination, but a way of reinforcing our distinctive traits and strengths.
The outfit formula will obviously be different for everyone and you can even have more than one in rotation, for example my summer formula is definitely maxi-dress, with waist belt, flat sandals and straw bag. In winter I prefer palazzo trousers, a soft shirt and cardigan, or tighter trousers with a t-shirt and a comfortable blazer… the colours, patterns, combinations may vary, but the structure remains the same.
And that’s good, because the formula allows us to vary the details, such as colour, patterns, accessories, fabric, finishes, while keeping the elements that work (proportions and structure). This allows us to own just a few types of trousers, a few types of shoes, a few types of garments, and yet still be at our best.
Creating a moodboard
Since creating one’s own personal style is a dynamic task and it is difficult to say that we have finished it once and for all (life changes, children grow up, jobs follow one another, hobbies alternate, fashions also change…), it is extremely useful to increasingly refine not only the art of making the best out of what we have, but also to visualise in what direction we want to evolve, what we want to communicate in a given season of our lives, what character traits we want to highlight. For this it can be very useful to create visual moodboards.
To begin with, it is not necessary to think of individual items, it is better to put together images that we find evocative, perhaps because of a colour, a place represented, because taken from a film we loved, or by an artist we admire… there really are no limits. We can use cut-outs and create a kind of visual board, or use a folder on our computer, or even use a tool like Pinterest. The important thing is that we put together a series of evocative stimuli and little by little try to grasp their common traits, their connecting lines, their underlying spirit.
Only at this point can we move on to declining the elements we have found in the context of our wardrobe: do we feel the need to add a splash of colour, or softer materials, or more avant-garde lines? We can then move on to look for a green jumper, or a silk blouse, or an asymmetrically cut blazer.
Creating your own personal style, step five: knowing the right tools to achieve the desired results
Having reached the last step, we can assume that we have developed a certain awareness of how to create our own personal style, but some practical steps and tools remain that would be good to know.
The power of basic leaders
As we have already seen when talking about capsule wardrobes, basics are the tools that allow us to wear even the boldest and most unusual garment: they lower the overall tone, create a background against which only certain details can stand out, they act as the glue for the highlighting elements of an outfit.
Not only does every basic garment exist in many variants from which to choose the one that suits us, but it is by no means necessary to have ALL the garments that are defined as basic according to various online lists and fashion newspaper articles. If you really don’t want to wear jeans, for example, move on.
However, a good balance of basics and special pieces is often the secret to the success of many outfits. What’s more: a quality white t-shirt makes even a not-so-great sequin skirt fit for daytime, but the reverse is not true. Even fabulous one-offs are greatly debased by an ugly loafer, or a slightly ruined t-shirt. This is why it is often said that it is necessary to invest in basics. This does not mean looking for jeans that cost many hundreds of euros, but paying attention to detail and expecting a good cut and fabric: they will enhance every garment they are worn with.
Accessories are the passion of some women, while others neglect them altogether. Shoes, bags, jewellery (and costume jewellery), belts, glasses, scarves, scarves and hats can totally change the tone of our clothing. What could be simpler than a white T-shirt with a pair of jeans?
Yet if you look at the images below, accessories can give infinite accents to an almost banal combination. The cuts and patterns of the various garments change, but above all the context told by the accessories changes.
Among the advantages of accessories is that they are practically unaffected by various changes in our bodies: we may gain weight or lose weight, old clothes may be tight or too loose, but a nice bag or a nice pair of glasses we can always wear. Green light, therefore, to use these allies as colour accents, as strategic allies to alter the fit of garments (belts!), as easy ways to switch from a day to an evening look.
Consider the photo of the girl in the black blazer below. Imagine replacing the boots with a jewelled sandal, adding a small, colourful clutch and a slightly shiny necklace. We went from day to evening without too much effort, and without doubling up on clothes in the wardrobe.
Fabrics are also part of the process of creating a personal style: together with colour, they are the most noticeable feature of any garment. The same garment, in the same colour, but in different fabrics, will give completely different results: think of a simple white shirt. White, OK, but what fabric? In denim it will be very sporty, in flannel perhaps even more casual, in linen it takes on an even different character, not to mention light cotton, more structured cotton, smooth velvet, corduroy, opaque silk, shiny but slippery silk, or shiny and stiff…
Even colours that seem the dullest, and somewhat dated, such as blue, which often gives garments a corporate connotation, when declined in particular fabrics, perhaps bright, or with an interesting texture, become something else entirely.
Of course, one’s economic resources constitute a limit to one’s choice, but in a way they are also a resource. Finding one’s personal style does not in fact mean having a lot of everything, but having just the right number of garments that are perfect for us. It is therefore a question of understanding how to invest one’s resources and above all to understand well what we do NOT need, is absolutely not for us, and is therefore useless to buy.
In addition, limited resources should suggest focusing on quality clothes that will last a long time, that we can wear very often and with which we will always feel comfortable. In a way, paradoxically, the more limited the resources, the more important it becomes to choose top-quality garments. Because we will not be able to replace them frequently, so it is better to spend a little more to get the best we can afford.
Fast-fashion and ultra-fast-fashion, which are often based on the idea of being able to afford clothes that we would otherwise not have been able to indulge in, unfortunately also lead us to think lightly about our purchases, taking into account the idea of being able to wear them only a few times before they are ruined, outdated or become bored.
How to shop
But how can we make a reasoned shopping trip that really allows us to create our own personal style?
Meanwhile, it is important not to get carried away by impulses: most of the time, they do not work in our favour. Much better to have a detailed list of the items we need or want to integrate into our wardrobe. The more detailed we are at the outset, the more we will guard against impulse purchases, which do not fulfil the initial need and sometimes lead to further purchases in order to be worn. Let’s take an example.
This winter I am looking for a pair of black trousers, because the ones I used most often last winter are starting to get very worn. The colour is therefore the first requirement: black. Then I would like them to be high-waisted, or at least medium-high. Important for me, who likes to wear them with a belt: that they have loops.
I would then like them full length: not ankle-length, not cropped, I want them to cover the foot well, even with ankle boots with a few centimetres of heel. I want them wide-legged, but not exaggerated, and rather right at the waist, of a flowing fabric, absolutely not stiff, falling very softly following the lines of the body without bandaging.
I usually don’t like polyester, so I would like them to have a high percentage of wool, perhaps in combination with some more fluid fabric, such as viscose. However, I am willing to accept a percentage of polyester, as long as it is not the predominant fibre. Finally, I have a ceiling on spending. Suppose I find the trousers just described for 1,000 euros, I should unfortunately leave them where they are and continue the search.
Such a precise list of details leads to a severe restriction of choice, making impulse purchases virtually impossible, because they would hardly have all the requirements sought. Obviously, one can make small compromises: maybe to stay within the budget I will have to give up a few details, but I certainly won’t be willing to buy cropped trousers without loops in a rigid fabric…
Also because, if I did so, I might possibly discover that I don’t have the right shoes to wear it and maybe not even the right head-shoulder… triggering a spiral of ‘wrong’ purchases for me to go and repair the mistake made with the first purchase.
So: precise list and attention to detail.
Vintage and sustainability
Finally, a word on the concept of sustainability and its connection to personal style. The first sustainability is to wear a garment many times. Whether it is a mass market product, or a small workshop with super-ethical production, every garment requires resources to be produced and only intensive use ensures that these resources are not wasted. Finding one’s own personal style goes exactly in this direction: one becomes a curator of a small collection of pieces that are perfect for us, not a crossroads through which tonnes of goods pass quickly on their way to the dump.
Then there are other forms of sustainability, such as reading labels well, favouring natural materials, production in countries with laws protecting workers and the environment, and certification by independent bodies (such as B corp certification).
Another form of sustainability that has become very popular, especially among the younger generation, is the second-hand or genuine vintage market. This is a complex area, which would require an in-depth study in its own right, but I would like to reiterate one concept: even in this case, buying second-hand and perhaps at a heavily discounted price must not become an excuse to indulge a certain tendency towards compulsive shopping and the purchase of clothes that are used very few times (or even never), before ending up in landfills anyway.
User-friendly apps such as Vinted, Vestiaire Collective or DePop risk silencing our bad conscience as serial consumers, with the aggravating factor that goods sometimes even make long journeys before reaching their destination. Wearing every garment we wear many times over should still be our first goal, because if any garment is not so perfect for us that it becomes an integral part of our wardrobe for a long time and constitutes a valuable contribution to our personal style, why would we want to buy it?
To close, on the subject of personal style, let me quote an excerpt from Ryan Yip’s newsletter entitled “The toxic relationship between ‘personal style’ and ‘style inspos’:
So, what is the difference between dressing nice and having a sense of personal style? Emotion.
The emotion connected to each item. Unlike ‘finding a good outfit,’ personal style evokes emotions that are uniquely yours. What are your thoughts on polos? What’s your thoughts on an oversized hoodie? What are your thoughts on wearing bright colors? Don’t think too hard, just whatever it speaks to you on first touch. It can be a simple yes, no, or a more defined feeling. If it’s not something you’ve worn before, is it something you’re open to trying? By slowly vetting through your wardrobe with these questions in mind, questions that probe your emotional relationship with different garments, each answer is then part of the formula for what your personal style is.
Furthermore, once you’ve identified the sentimental value, clothes that make you feel confident can be mixed and matched, the same goes for those that make you feel warm, comfortable, angry, moody, etc.
Having a better understanding of how clothes make you feel will exponentially increase the value you get from style inspiration videos.