How To Cultivate Your Personal Style

Style is not just about what you wear, it’s about what you do & how you do it.

When I started writing this article, I took it to the streets — well, Twitter — & asked my followers who their ultimate style icon was. One of the things I noticed was that almost everyone they mentioned was someone who lived their entire life with style. They weren’t just A-list celebrities who had stylists dress them for big events. They were men & women with strikingly original aesthetics, fresh new approaches to living & a different way of doing things.


The reason I chose a picture of Manko to accompany this article is because she perfectly illustrates what it means to allow your personal style to permeate all aspects of your life. I had always adored what I’d seen of her modelling online, & when I met her for brunch a couple of months ago, I was delighted to see that it’s not just something she turns on & off for the camera. She is just as nutty in person: tossing her hat around, prodding at her food, laughing at inane Americanisms & making pedestrians stare.

So, who are your style icons? If I had to guess, I would say mostly they are people who have their own little universe of style, separate to everyone else. For example, when Fight Club came out, unconventional girls went ga-ga for Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of the notorious Marla Singer. It wasn’t just what she wore. Who even really remembers that, except for the big hat & the pink bridesmaid’s dress? It was about what she did & how she did it. The way she smoked cigarettes, the way she walked into traffic, the way she spoke on the phone, her heavy-handed eyeliner & crazy hair.

My personal style icons are people (or characters) like Madonna, Carrie Bradshaw, Diana Vreeland, Marchesa Louisa Casati, & Little Edie. I didn’t always love the way they dressed, necessarily; I am not the sort of person to emulate someone else’s look, anyway. Really the reason I admire them is because of their attitude. All of those women really pushed boundaries, & were completely unashamed to look a way that pleased them — not anyone else. (You can read more about these individual women — & a few more! — on Top 5 Fictional Female Style Icons & these pieces from my Style Icons series: Madonna, Carrie Bradshaw, Diana Vreeland & Marchesa Lusia Casati.)

Personal style is about the way you interact with other people in line, the way you stack your magazines, how much stuff you carry with you every day — & what those things might be. It’s about your chosen references to pop culture, whether you dance in public & the way you fill in forms.

Everything you do is a declarative statement of your personal style, whether you’re aware of it or not.

If you want to start consciously developing your own style, you don’t have to start self-monitoring like a lunatic. Just allow yourself to become aware of how you are & the way that you do things. If there’s something you decide you could improve — maybe your table manners, or the tone of voice you use when you’re irritated — then do that. But overall, just become conscious of your various facets, the things that make you up as a person. Consider who influences you & how they do that. Then, start to expand. Think about the things you could start to incorporate into your life.

Not sure where to start?

Start a style scrapbook — on paper or even on Flickr — & use it as a jumping-off point for dressing yourself, decorating your house, interacting with others. Don’t feel like this is just some amateur move, either; in actual fact, the most stylish, put-together people I know often have multiple style scrapbooks that take various incarnations. They might have a set on Flickr, a collage on a board in their bedroom, & a collection of pictures beside their desk at work. Truly stylish people are always evolving in some new direction. Style is not about choosing a look & sticking with it forever, it needs to change as you do, & having a style scrapbook helps you do that. Think about fashion designers: ultimate taste-makers, they often have entire walls covered in pictures & inspiration to kick them into gear.

From your style scrapbook, you can really expand. If you notice that a lot of people you admire wear hats, for example, maybe it’s time to branch out & pick up a snood, fedora or fascinator! You can also use other people’s ideas to help facilitate your own wardrobe. Most of us own an item that we love but which drives us crazy because we don’t know how to wear it (tulle skirt, oxford heels, sequinned mini?) — & every time we see it in the closet, it gives us these crazy mixed emotions. Trawl street fashion blogs, the trend-spotting, personal style, street style & model style discussions on The Fashion Spot, Wardrobe Remix & to find new, innovative ways to wear the things you never do, or just to give old items a new lease on life.

Photograph your outfits. I know that I bang on & on & on about this, but I do so for a reason! First of all, it gives you a real perspective on how you look, as opposed to just staring in a mirror (where we tend to focus on one thing at a time). In a mirror we often stand up straight or adjust our bodies according to our clothes, but a photo illustrates how the clothing actually falls on us. Secondly, it gives you an instant catalogue of already-worn outfits if you have to run out the door at a moment’s notice!

Actually put aside time to look at your outfit photos & consider what you could do differently next time. What if you changed shoes, added a jacket, took off that necklace, wore a different belt? Dissect it & break it down. What does this outfit say about you? Where is the ideal place to wear it? Who would appreciate it & who wouldn’t? How good do you feel in it, & why? Use all these answers as a platform to help you evolve.

Think about ye olde “quality versus quantity”, but don’t just let it flit across your mind. Actually devote a little brainpower to it. You know, deep down in your heart of hearts, that a $30 dress isn’t going to get you very far. What is it made from? Under what conditions? How well is it made? The answers aren’t going to be very endearing. This is not to say that you need to become a snob & refuse to wear anything with a double-digit pricetag, but just be aware that if you constantly spend your pennies on many cheap items, you’re probably missing out on fabulous shoes, lush sweaters & beautifully-cut dresses. That’s all!

Also think about what you spend your money on in general. Do you buy things just to fill a void, or do you buy things which really speak to you? I think we all have moments where we spend indiscriminately, but the real problem comes when you discover you own a whole lot of crap that doesn’t serve or even please you! Some home organisation experts recommend doing a house cleanse where you essentially get rid of everything you don’t love. Take a look around your room. How much of it do you actually love?

Spend time alone. This might seem like an odd way to cultivate your own style, especially when I have spoken so much about external influences, but really that’s the thing. Personal style is personal style, & while we are all strange, sweet amalgams of other people, places & dialects, the reason we are the way we are is because we’ve twisted all those things together in our own unique way. Think of it as having a concrete mixing truck in your belly. Even twin brothers & sisters can be complete opposites, despite having had many of the exact same influences. It’s all in the twist.

What this also means is that you should allow yourself to be as wild (or mild!) as you please, & don’t let other people & their own judgemental nonsense affect you. All these little things we do, from the way we spend our time to the people we speak to, changes & impacts us. I remember spending hours in the public library as a teenager, sitting on the floor, staring out at Wellington, with a huge, torso-sized stack of books next to me about New York City. I wrote things down, made notes, photocopied pictures, & told myself that I’d live there someday. It all counts, even the small things.

So, why go through all this madness? Why not just throw on a pair of jeans in the morning & yell, “TO HELL WITH IT!”?

Because discovering yourself is one of the most fabulous things you can do, & personal style is a way of flipping your discoveries inside out & putting them on display. Because people who know who they are are much more confident, happy & content. Because being our true selves empowers & emboldens other people. Because there is pure joy & magnificence in wearing something you love. Because experimenting with your personal style can magically transform you, & turn you into the person you’ve always wanted to be. & finally, because personal style & self-expression adds to the beauty of the world.

Even though sometimes other people’s personal style isn’t to our taste, I have to give people props for breaking the rules & wearing something different. It takes courage.

I would MUCH prefer to live in a city full of people wearing questionable things that made them happy than suffer through a drove of repressed-looking people in prescribed corporate attire! Bring on the knobbly cardigans in primary colours, unusual footwear, beaded waistcoats & lipstick accidentally smudged onto teeth! I love to see people who are actually excited about the clothing they have on. You can spot them in a crowd: they always look happier, walk with more confidence & check themselves out in shop windows!

I am definitely guilty of the sly sideways glance at a particularly reflective shop window. Sometimes I am even guilty of stopping & facing it front-on! But you know what? That’s just it. We all deserve to feel good enough about ourselves that we want to stop & savour the moment! & that, to me, is what personal style is all about.