Sextyle Sells*

Posted by JSYL on Thursday, March 27, 2008 in
By Jane Lee

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn,” Gore Vidal once said. A famous 1950s American playwright, Vidal’s work could not have been further from that of fashion’s glamorous style authorities. But his definition of style rings true even today.

The word ‘style’ is often referred to as a static concept: “He’s so stylish”, or “She has style”. But in a world where what’s considered ‘beautiful’ is ever changing and trends come and go, style is merely the pursuit of someone else’s look. And fashion is the only currency in which it can hope to be bought.

Whether you like it or not, everything you wear, and the way you wear it, makes a statement to the rest of the world about who you are, or, more accurately, who you want them to think you are. Style means more than just wearing trendy clothes. It’s what those clothes represent- a worldview, a lifestyle and a personality- that make them so desirable.

You’d like to think that you’re immune to this superficial world. We could play coy and talk about individuality and inner beauty forever, but I’d rather cut right to the chase: everyone wants to look like ‘somebody’. People read you by the way you look. So why not make sure you write your own story?

As you read this, there is no doubt a concerned mother who is shaking her head at these words. ‘What about the skinny models setting bad examples for our daughters?’ she thinks to herself. ‘Are you suggesting that anorexia and bulimia are tools for stylistic self-empowerment?’ Of course not. Make no mistake: eating disorders cannot be justified in the name of style.

But it would be churlish to ignore the fact that ‘style’- wanting to look like something or someone- can be found in all of us. It only gets dangerous when we don’t have all three parts of Vidal’s formula in place, i.e. when we cannot distinguish who we are from what we want to say about ourselves.

Style Icons
We take our fashion cues from those goddesses that walk among us mere mortals: the beautiful ones. These are girls who are deemed physically beautiful by traditional standards; their facial features are proportionately placed, their figures are perfectly symmetrical. This is the feminine ideal; style 101. We want to look ‘beautiful’ because we want the awe and admiration from others that comes with it. If being beautiful meant being cross-eyed and having a hunchback, the plastic surgery industry would still boom, just to a different beat.

But style goes further than this. Style icons both inspire and influence us over generations, because of their chameleon-like ability to pull off different desired looks effortlessly, or because we can identify with the style they personify. Kate Moss may have been dubbed the queen of heroin chic, but her angelic face that first inspired Calvin Klein in 1992, combined with a reputation for week-long party antics, has forever transformed muddy boots, vests and oversized t-shirts into fashion must-haves. This does not mean all ‘Kate Moss for Topshop’ consumers want to sniff cocaine and marry Pete Doherty. It means they want to be viewed as Moss is: beautiful, reckless and indifferent.

Entertainers are increasingly held up as style icons because their character shines through their demeanour and their clothes in concerts, movies and interviews. Whether that character is genuine is irrelevant- what’s important is that it is on public display. Even today, oversized sunglasses, strings of pearls and black shift dresses are worn in the hope of exuding an ounce of Audrey Hepburn’s natural grace in Breakfast at Tiffanys.            
It’s when you combine style icons with high fashion that the real exploitation begins. Canadian model Jessica Stam explained it best when asked by ‘Shop ‘til you Drop’ magazine to describe her job in one sentence, “I make clothes look good.”

Style is the main reason high street labels can afford to charge exorbitant amounts for sub-par designs. Style alone fuels the fashion industry because it is a marketable desire to own beauty that only a select few naturally possess.

Reality television celebrities have also jumped on the fashion bandwagon. Lauren Conrad, Laguna Beach alumni and star of her own spin-off series, The Hills, last year launched her online label “Shop Lauren Conrad”.

Conrad’s popularity among teenagers who empathised with her failed past relationships and longed for her fun-loving Californian lifestyle generated enough support to launch her first collection of ready-to-wear casual dresses as generic and uninspired as last season’s Primark range. Yet her website promises, “This Fall, the Lauren Conrad Collection will offer timeless pieces that are sophisticated and chic, to bring out the California girl in you!” in a bid to sell her fans a piece of herself.

Whether you love or hate the way style icons cash in on the fashion industry, they play an instrumental role in helping us determine who we are, who we want to be, and how to dress accordingly to show ourselves off to the outside world.

Statement style
For many, style takes on a much more literal process. Members of ‘emo’ and ‘goth’ subcultures wear heavy make-up and dark clothing that, while not always aesthetically pleasing, distinguishes them from other groups.

(Source: usuarios.multimania.es)

Sub-cultural fashion is by no means a new phenomenon. The punk movement that began with Vivienne Westwood and ended, arguably, with Green Day, was notorious for taking mundane objects such as safety pins and turning them into accessories to symbolise anarchy- the antithesis of the ordinary.

Style has voiced political statements and made a mockery of the status quo over the years, and has always used fashion as its canvass. Boys that grew their hair long and girls who wore mini skirts in the 1960s did so to rebel against the rigid attitudes of the previous decade. Peace signs were once considered taboo. The symbol, featured on colourful tie-dye shirts and badges became a universal silent protest against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s.

Sociologist Eileen Barker conducted studies of Fundamentalist, Marxist and Agnostic groups, which showed a direct link between religious groups and particular patterns of dress as a subconscious display of solidarity.

“If jewellery is worn at a Fundamentalist meeting, it will be a small gold cross or unobtrusive pendant around the neck of a young girl, or perhaps, a small lapel brooch on an older woman…Agnostic jewellery is more expensive and could come from Bond Street,” writes Barker in ‘Dressed to Impress: Looking the Part’.

Our style makes statements about us all, even those of us who don’t know we are making them.

The London look
Style is influenced by the culture of its city. In Sydney, where the fashion industry is nowhere near as developed or distinct as the fashion capitals of the world- London, New York and Paris, style is suffocated by a narrow perception of what is ‘cool’. But in London, style is free from any such constraint, and what would elsewhere be viewed as strange, is, in this city, intriguing. Jessica Hogan wrote in Vogue’s Spring/Summer Catwalk report, “You know you’re in London when rock chic rules. It’s all about the bold statement: dramatic eyeliner and radical hairstyles are key to the ‘outsider’ ethos.”

London-born model Lily Donaldson is growing increasingly successful at portraying different facets of the London look (no Rimmel pun intended). “Lily epitomises the cool London girl. She has such beauty and energy; even when her hair or make-up is bonkers she always manages to create the perfect Vogue picture,” said photographer Lachlan Bailey after working with Donaldson on a photo shoot in Vogue’s February issue.

In short, London’s style follows Vidal’s advice: not giving a damn.

It was on a particularly gloomy London day, I discovered the true meaning of ‘style’. I was on the tube with a friend. We couldn’t help but turn to stare at a teenager’s sophisticated-preppy ensemble. I immediately made a mental snapshot of her mustard, three-quarter sleeved cardigan belted with a bright red ribbon, dark green A-line skirt that hung just over her knees, and her cream pointed heels. I imagined myself pinning my hair just so, as she did, half up, half down. I found myself thinking, I have just that shade of lipstick. I wonder if that would suit me.

In the moment it had taken for the double doors to welcome the new passenger on, I had somehow become once more a little girl stumbling around her parents’ bedroom in high heels ten times too big for her, playing dress ups in my mind- ridiculous and unashamed. I had processed that the girl-on-the-tube’s style epitomised a healthy mix of femininity and confidence I wanted for myself and so I made a list of the material items needed to achieve it.

My friend was nowhere near as impressed as I was. She whispered disdainfully, “Its such a shame that that girl is dressed so elegantly, but acts nothing like it”. Together we watched her sway, head bopping to the tune blasting out her iPod headphones, her perfectly manicured hands waving in the air and immaculate patent shoes jumping in the aisle.

Long after the girl had skipped off the tube with a huge grin on her face, her style stuck in my mind as perfect because just as Vidal said it should, it appeared genuine. To me she’d looked feminine, happy, and perfectly at home with herself. Hers was a style I would pay good money to possess.

*First fashion journalism "feature" article, wherein all the rules of what NOT to do at UTS did not apply. Editorialise? In-text/hanging quotes? Subheadings? Sure!

** From L-R: Kate Moss, source: thegirlrevolution.com; Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', source: The Fabulous Review



Anonymous says:

You call LC casual dresses generic and uninspired but I have to put my foot down for that. I thought last year's collection was beautiful and full of imaginaion. Maybe you should go back and look at them and you might change your mind.

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