Yet another Discussion on Style? Yes. No. Maybe.

by Chikashi

newdandism-michael-caine3There is no shortage of it out there. Style is the favourite subject amongst many, regardless of gender, age, race, political affiliation, class, religion or sexual orientation. I would venture to guess that, with the exception of sex, style sells more products and services than anything else, that is, assuming that style is categorically distinct from sex (I suspect that it may not be). I think youth is the only thing that comes even close. (Or, am I underestimating youth??) However, I think that it is one of the most difficult subjects on which a constructive discussion can be had. This is a confession of sorts because until I moved to Belgium my professional years have ostensibly had something to do with style.

Yes, I am very interested in the subject matter. Nonetheless, I have always hesitated discussing it, much less writing about it, given the difficulty in having a constructive, and therefore interesting, discussion about it. Jeffery’s blog post expresses some of my sentiments, as well as identifies one of the most glaring symptoms of the difficulty in discussing style: If you have to ask… It is not dissimilar to discussing what common sense is, as it is virtually impossible to explain. Alluding to it is easy enough to do. However, actually discussing it is another matter altogether.
coco chanel
Fashion is very easy to discuss. It is about colour, print pattern, weave pattern, surface finish, length, shape, material and treatment that are being proposed by the designers, are being talked about by the media or are actually being worn by people on the streets and on the social circuit. When you cut through all the noise, it’s just about the finished products (and their retail price). There is some element of how the current ‘it’ products should be or are being worn, but these discussions are invariably very mechanical in that they tend to be universal prescriptions that give little consideration to the type of person wearing the stuff. It simplifies the conversation, but the adverse effect can be seen in every city around the world: people who are very à la mode but simultaneously utterly unstylish. Fashion is a commercial subject; it is about what people are trying to sell and what people are buying.

sean_connery_as_bond

Whenever fashion is mentioned, implied or mistaken for style, self-appointed members of the style council have a tendency to pull out THAT Oscar Wilde quip about fashion. Wilde was a wit by profession, but those who continuously repeat THAT quip of Wilde’s tend to suffer from a deficiency of wit. To them, fashion is something that literally gets discarded every 6 months, whilst style is timeless despite revealing under the same breath that their own stylishness draws inspiration from the fashion of a specific period, now long discarded in its general form, such as the 1930s, 1940s or whatever, only to demonstrate their temporal tunnel vision without realising the inherent contradiction. Members of the style council seem to ignore the fact that seasonal fashion that they decry is likely to include a reference to creations by designers of their respective favourite periods, such as Madeleine Vionnet, Coco Chanel, Alix Grès, Halston and Hubert de Givenchy, just to name a few, or a reference to design elements of garments that were made by tailoring houses in London, Naples or Rome for their favourite actors and other people of note, and very much indicative of that particular period. The style council seems to take the view that the mere fact that a product was sold as part of a seasonal collection necessarily disqualifies the item for their worthy consideration, which not only betrays their fallacious thinking but also reveals that they are actually just talking about products or just certain product attributes. It was and still is amusing when Wilde said it because of who he was and who he knew himself to be. When others repeat it, it’s a bit like the anti-peristaltic deposit that cats leave on the floor from time to time. However, I still like cats (and dogs).

pablo picasso

Because style is such a difficult matter to discuss, the conversation can veer to that of craft. The technical subject of pattern / model making, manipulation and assembly is complex in its own way, contrasting various theories and techniques, work done by hand and by machine, regional variances, et al. However, it is a discussion about craft, not style. Like fashion, it is about the product, but unlike fashion, it is about the making of the product as well as the finished product. Admittedly, it is tempting to draw some corollary between craft and style or even conflate the two. However, there is no necessary connection between them. It can help if the suit was well cut and tailored, using better cloth, but it’s just one of many possible ingredients that make up the whole. Of course, when, for example, the trouser legs are properly shaped by deft iron work, stretching and shrinking the cloth in the right areas, rather than just steam pressing the entire trousers in a large industrial press, it does help that one’s legs look deceptively delicious. On the other hand, the quality of the garment may not even matter, depending on the person’s character. Craft is a technical subject; it is about how things are made to achieve a finished product of a certain standard.

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The discussion can also evolve into that of rules. We tend to like rules as they put things into neat little boxes so that life seems more orderly and predictable. Some of these rules are based on tradition and custom, that is, convention. For example, it would be a solecism to attend a luncheon wearing a dinner jacket, unless one is in a geographic region with different norms or sensitivity to daylight. Other rules are, and were ever only meant to be, mere guidelines for those who are less inclined to be bothered about matters of dress. The curious thing about rules of dress is that in-between town and country, in that increasingly vast area known as the suburbs, there exist so many rules of which others are blissfully oblivious. These Clipboard Nazis are proficient at going through a list of rules long enough to reach Uranus, many of them to do with the combination of colours, and judge the unwitting victim’s stylishness on how many boxes they, not the victim, can tick. To their credit, these judges are usually dressed in a way that does conform to their rules. However, in terms of their style, the nicest thing that one can say is usually not very nice. In more recent years, they have raised their collective public profile quite considerably with the help of the Internet. Witness the abundance of punters cutting up celebrities’ get-ups during the awards season as if, given half the chance, these punters would turn out a paragon of fabulousness and make everyone else tremble in awe. Rules are about convention, I hasten to add, in people’s respective realms.

Marlene Dietrich, 1940's

A discussion that is closely related to all of the above is about being well dressed. It takes things up a notch relative to any of the above individually. However, being well dressed can sometimes be confused with being well clothed, and such confusion can have a devastating effect on the discussion. Even with the requisite clarity, its scope is still limited to the quality of fit and material, as well as the propriety of dress, all of which are external elements and therefore do not necessarily relate to the person’s character.

The subject that encompasses several or all of the above and starts to touch on the person wearing the products is that of taste. What one sees is the result of the person’s selection of items, colours, shapes, patterns and textures, and putting them all together. However, someone that has impeccable taste can also appear very uncomfortable, betraying the fact that the person feels out of his or her element for whatever reason. The discomfort may have everything to do with the kit being worn, but it may have absolutely nothing to do with it. One could hardly perceive someone who is feeling uncomfortable or insecure as being stylish despite his or her impeccable taste. A variant of this is someone who is trying too hard. Taste is a subject on product bias; it is about what products and combinations people prefer. A recognised ‘arbiter of taste’ may not necessarily have style.

GARY COOPER1

Comfort, and therefore confidence but not arrogance, is a key ingredient of style. Actually, one might even argue that it is an essential ingredient without which the whole construct crumbles. The enquirer featured in the article mentioned in Jeffery’s blog asked whether he can get away with something, already signalling his discomfort and lack of confidence by the very fact that he posed a question of the sort. The concise answer is that, if you have to ask, then you probably can’t because you would be feeling a wee bit too uncomfortable, enough for others to sense it.
The feeling of comfort, or discomfort, is contagious. If one feels comfortable, then those in one’s proximity tend to feel comfortable too. If we accept that comfort is an essential element of style, then we might say that style is about all of the above (fashion, taste et al) and none of the above, simultaneously. It is perceptible but intangible. It would also explain why style is such a difficult subject to discuss. That said, I think that the following definition, pinched a few years ago from a source I no longer remember, neatly paints, notwithstanding the reference to a specific gender, a portrait of a person with style.

hot chick

A person with style is hot. A person with style is cool. A person with style has sex appeal, regardless of the observer’s sexual orientation.

Audrey Hepburn

What could be seen as a more formal treatise on style is Hiroshi Nara’s The Structure of Detachment, a lucid, annotated translation of Shuzo Kuki’s Iki no Kozo, even though the treatise is really about Japanese aesthetics. Iki is a Japanese word that is impossible to translate partly because there are elements of Japanese tradition and aesthetics embedded in the definition. However, it certainly does not mean that a non-Japanese cannot be described as being iki, which can probably be translated very loosely as stylish or having style. The work contains certain detailed discussions, such as Kuki’s views on striped garments, that could distract from the central theme. Nonetheless, it is probably one of the very few structured pieces written on the subject of style. Anyone who is interested in style would find it a worthwhile read even if you disagree with everything Kuki said.
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I think that one of the reasons why Timothy Everest and I get on is because we share the same view on what style is. I do not know this for a fact because we have never actually discussed it specifically, only peripherally in the form of referring to those people who we think have style. It does not mean at all that we agree on everything: we don’t. Actually, I did not set out to mention Tim in this post but ended up doing so simply because my rambling led to it. One recurring, or more precisely, underlying notion for both of us is being respectful of the past but not being tied down by it. It is not inconsistent with the view that style is not based on external factors even if the manifestation may be facilitated or enhanced by them, but rather it is something that arises from internal factors that cannot be expressed in a linear formula.

However, that makes things infinitely more interesting because it is about the individual. One might even attempt to equate style to a state of mind, but that would also be too simplistic. I imagine the man portrayed in this song to be very stylish.

My baby don’t care for shows
My baby don’t care for clothes
My baby just cares for me
My baby don’t care for cars and races
My baby don’t care for high-tone places

Liz Taylor is not his style
And even Lana Turner’s smile
Is somethin’ he can’t see
My baby don’t care who knows it
My baby just cares for me

Baby, my baby don’t care for shows
And he don’t even care for clothes
He cares for me
My baby don’t care for cars and races
Baby don’t care for
He don’t care for high-tone places

Liz Taylor is not his style
And even Lana Turner’s smile
Is something he can’t see
I wonder what’s wrong with baby

My baby just cares for
My baby just cares for
My baby just cares for me

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