I’ve always been a producer at heart. I love the process of taking an idea and crafting it into something tangible. As frustrating as I often found my job as a fashion designer, seeing the end product that sprang from small ideas, months of planning, and coordinating always was a high I relished. It’s so incredibly satisfying to see something that I helped build come to life.
My job today, as a personal stylist, is very different than my career as a fashion designer but in many ways, it’s also very similar. When I begin work with a client, I amass all the knowledge I need to help a client craft a style narrative. It may sound weird, but, for me, being a stylist feels like I am producing a person. I take the information I have about them and use that information to help them build a wardrobe that visually expresses who they are. This information can be quite vast because I analyze information including, personal style, temperament and personality, lifestyle, physical characteristics, goals, inspiration, and more. Just as I did when I was a designer, I take all the information and use it like a blueprint to build something tangible; I help clients visually create and capture themselves. The best part about doing this is each and every client requires me to build a completely different style narrative. In one week, I could easily create one black dominant wardrobe, a funky boho wardrobe, one that is modern and austere, and then another that is rooted in classics. As someone who truly enjoys this process, I find this aspect of my job to be the most thrilling.
When my client, Mrs. Wonderful, moved semi-permanently to Paris with her family last year, it was amazing to take her out of her current life situation and put her in a new one. I asked myself who is this person in these new surroundings, what does this mean for her style, and how do I realize this person in this different world? This was the narrative that helped us build her wardrobe for her new life without losing her. If a client needs to elevate their image due to a new work position, I take all the components of what makes this person who they are and work to alter this client’s wardrobe to match the situation. Styling a client is often the commingling of two things: style and situation, you can’t ignore either.
I can’t say that this is how all stylists work, but it is how I work and how I manage to provide the best service I can to each client I work with. But you don’t have to work with me to benefit from this process. Building a style narrative can be accomplished by anyone.
A STYLE NARRATIVE TELLS A STORY
Last week, a member of my Facebook Group shared an article titled The Costuming of George Santos. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that George Santos is the newly elected congressman representing parts of Long Island and Queens who has had almost all the stories he has told about himself proven false. These aren’t small white lies or “embellishments,” as Santos has called them, but boldface falsehoods. Politics aside, Santos is a liar, but just as the article stated, it was the image or style narrative he built that helped him become so convincing. This is nothing new, and as the article also pointed out, cons like Anna Sorokin as well as fictional cons, like Tom Ripley, from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley books have convinced people of the lies told partly using how they dressed.
Yes, creating a style narrative can be used as a force for bad but it can also be used as a force for good— if it’s honest. Creating a style narrative shouldn’t be created in order to hide who you aren’t, it should be used to more fully express who you are. Using costuming as an act to pull the wool over the eyes of others, as George Santos did, may have been deeply disingenuous, but that doesn’t mean we can’t remark on its effectiveness. Condemn the act, but don’t condemn how well it works.
Certainly, you could argue that you’re above judging people based on appearance alone, but simple biology would argue that you’re not, not really. Humans are wired for something called affinity bias that gives near-instant intuitive trust and fondness for people who appear to be like us. Further to that, humans also tend to be more easily persuaded by the appearance of higher status and conventional success which is mainly expressed through clothing. When we know little about a person, visual appearance is all we have to go on, which is why non-verbal communication is the strongest form of communication we possess. Nobody has the time, nor is anyone interested in hearing your whole life story, but it takes mere seconds for someone to glean a lot of information about you simply by how you present yourself.
A style narrative isn’t just about trying to get elected to a political position under false pretenses or to become a more successful grifter. For the honest person, a style narrative tells a true story about you, it’s not costuming, it’s an expression, it’s honest, and it’s effective. You’re not telling people who you’re not, you’re telling them who you are
YOUR STYLE NARRATIVE EVEN INFLUENCES YOU
Not only does building a style narrative communicate things about yourself to others, but it also affects your relationship with yourself. Again, argue all you want that this doesn’t matter to you, but then read about something called enclothed cognition. Enclothed cognition is the influence that clothing has on the wearer’s psychological processes. Instinctively, we know the difference not only in how we feel but how we act when we dress a certain way. When we feel better, we do better. You could say that it was enclothed cognition that helped George Santos fully embrace his lies.
A study on enclothed cognition involving a lab coat displayed increased the selective attention of the wearers when compared to participants who wore their regular clothes. The success of enclothed cognition depended on two things: 1. that the actual participants actually had to be wearing the lab coats and 2. there needed to be an understanding of the symbolic meaning of the lab coat by the wearers. The study proved that we act differently when clothing helps build a different relationship with ourselves. Basically, what we wear affects and changes how we interact and engage with the world… which I have been saying since the first day of my career as a stylist.
A STYLE NARRATIVE IS A FRAMEWORK
Let’s set aside the psychological effects of a style narrative for a moment and talk about why having a focused style narrative in your wardrobe is effective. First, it creates a framework. I often use the analogy of home decor when describing this. If you were to decorate a room, you wouldn’t randomly throw objects into that room without considering the direction you want the room to go, otherwise known as the narrative. You would be selective about the components of your room based on what you were ultimately trying to accomplish through your decorating. Your narrative is the story of the room you are creating. It sets the mood and affects how others feel when they are in it, not to mention how you feel. You can use the style narrative to create a cozy atmosphere or one that is clinical and cold just by what you choose to put in your room. You can’t know what to put in the room you are decorating without establishing the style narrative first. Without this direction, you’re flying blind.
Another analogy I use as a form of comparison is shopping for the tools for your kitchen. In a blog post, I wrote years ago using this analogy, imagine you were buying appliances, pots, pans, and utensils for your new kitchen. You would go in and think clearly about your needs before you’d go to the store. You wouldn’t go in and buy 14 skillets, 16 blenders, no saucepans, 40 spatulas, and two spoons. You would go in with a clear sense of what you need to make your kitchen complete; there would be a plan and you’d make sensible choices based on your cooking needs.
In both these cases, there is a macro or over-arching plan which is the narrative, and then the act of carrying out the plan. The reality of how most women manage their wardrobes is they skip the first step and go right into carrying out a plan. Yet, without this first step there essentially is no plan. You’re just throwing the equivalent of 14 skillets, 16 blenders, no saucepans, 40 spatulas, and two spoons into your closet. Much of it is a random assortment coupled with the wish that it will all somehow come together. When you look at it from this perspective, you can see the ridiculousness of going about it this way. Yet, the irony of this is, many women fail to see why they’re failing so hard. Few stop to realize that all their really doing is throwing spaghetti against the wall with the hope that something will stick.
Yet, I get it. Stores are insanely over-merchandised and it can literally feel like a full-time job just to get a wardrobe in decent shape. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have a full roster of clients and a business that is two decades old. All the blame does not lay at a woman’s feet for why her wardrobe is a chaotic, mismanaged mess. However, if you can’t get things figured out, my guess is you’re making the whole process of managing your wardrobe a whole lot harder than it needs to be. When you think in terms of starting with a narrative, it’s a much smoother process.
ESTABLISHING THE STYLE NARRATIVE OF YOUR WARDROBE
It rarely occurs to someone to think about their wardrobe from more of a macro perspective. Yet, it’s the macro perspective that is so critical in creating a workable wardrobe because it’s how you build your goals, strategy, and direction. This is your blueprint. Can you imagine an architect designing a building without one? It’s why I can’t help but grin when a client tells me they are struggling with their wardrobe but never once thought to take a step back and develop any type of plan or narrative. But it’s absolutely ludicrous when you stop and think about it. Once clients begin to see how much easier it is to shop with a framework, or a style narrative, they realize just how silly it was to think they could have ever created balance in their wardrobes without one.
If putting structure around what you put in your wardrobe feels like a limiting practice that drains all the fun from fashion, know that the opposite is in fact true. Building a narrative in your wardrobe is what makes the process of buying clothing much more enjoyable. A narrative gives you a place to source from, it gives you focus, and it helps you cut down on the endless sea of options available to you in the stores. It puts you in command. Go back to buying appliances and tools for your kitchen, or decorating a room, did you feel limited in your focus, or did you find that once you set a direction, it brought you a sense of ease with your decisions, with editing or choosing the right path? Parameters set a course you can follow.
Once I build a narrative for a client, even if all my picks don’t make it into a client’s wardrobe the framework continues to exist that a client can even use on their own without my assistance. Many of my clients have told me they have benefitted once they had a clear picture of where their wardrobe was going. It helped them cut down, helped them navigate options in the stores, and know what didn’t belong in their closets. It helped them establish a clear story and starting point that could easily grow and evolve.
HOW TO BUILD YOUR OWN STYLE NARRATIVE
I used the word macro perspective earlier, and if you want to develop your own style narrative on your own, you need to take a step back and look at your wardrobe with some distance. Within what you have been buying, a narrative wants to be told and the reason so many women miss it is that they haven’t looked at their wardrobe from a bigger-picture standpoint. You want to lay your wardrobe all on the table (not literally) and look at it objectively. This is what I do with clients, I take a step back and look at what a client’s existing wardrobe wants to tell me. I look at what clients are trying to accomplish with the clothing they buy, what problems they are trying to solve, how are they trying to express themselves, what colors are they drawn to, and what are the qualities and consistencies of the items in their closets that they love. I look at what inspires my clients, and I look at their lifestyle, their physical characteristics, and what they are trying to express and accomplish in their lives. My role is to be the facilitator who comes in and figures out how to help them get their wardrobe from where we are starting to where they want it to go. Clients tell me what they want, what their style is, and who they are, even if they aren’t entirely cognizant of how much information they are actually giving away. This is what you want to be able to do yourself. To take this macro look at your wardrobe and find the clues, connections, and natural direction.
The next step isn’t to get stuck in the processing of the information you find, which is commonly what happens. Don’t get mired in analysis. You do not want to get bogged down by trying to give this style narrative a name, or by becoming over-analytical. Don’t get stuck in this part of the process. Usually, a stalled wardrobe is just a sign of indecisiveness and a reluctance to commit, not because you don’t instinctively know what to do. Nobody is asking you for a set-in-stone commitment, nor is anyone telling you you can’t change course. All that is being asked of you is that you start taking steps forward that are clear and directed.
For each person, this framework will be different. Just as one person’s kitchen would be filled with tons of cooking supplies while another person, who barely has an interest in cooking, wouldn’t. Don’t limit yourself to formulaic standardized rules that dictate things like how many pairs of pants you should own, a set amount of wardrobe colors, or exactly which shoes you should buy. There is no set formula that should be followed, so don’t go looking for it. What you want to create instead is a sense of balance, clear belonging, and a cross-section of clothing that makes sense hanging together for the very real life you live. The pieces themselves don’t matter as much as the usability of what you buy does. Build for your life, not what some magazine or fashion blog told you you need. I don’t work within any established set of rules, I don’t use formulaic lists, and I don’t ever tell clients they should own anything. What I look at, instead, is how to build a cohesive style narrative that is based on the bigger picture of a client’s style narrative wants to be expressed.
YOUR STYLE NARRATIVE SHOULD FEEL NATURAL
Ask anyone who has created a balanced, easy-to-mix, clearly directed and they will tell you the same thing: a style narrative is created by telling the story of who you are by putting the pieces in their closet that clearly supported what they wanted to express. Once you figure out where you want your wardrobe to go, it’s a lot easier to get there.
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After “What not to Wear”, Stacy London did another show, where instead of pinning everyone into the same boxed look she tried to work with their personality and their goals (taken seriously as a small business owner of a creative thing; not overlooked for promotions as an academic teacher, etc). it was an interesting example of how others view your clothing narrative. cant remember the name of the show, found it on youtube years ago. sometimes the hardest part of finding your narrative is being objective/ taking that step back. thanks as always Bridgette for the food for thought.
I completely agree. It’s much easier for me to style others than myself because I don’t have to deal with my inner filter when working with clients and I can be much more objective.