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What is Style?

In the first of our posts from our talented Fashion Writing Series Finalists, we asked Kathryn Carter to put her spin on the age old question – “What is Style?”

A writer from Melbourne, Kathryn loves books, fashion and documenting all the arbitrary thoughts that pop into her head. She decided from a young age that she wanted to image for a living.

It would be easy to start this article with a quote about fashion. In the words of [insert famous designer here] I might say, style is like marmalade; everybody spreads it different, no one eats it the same. Paying heed to the famous name, you would regale in my borrowed wisdom, and read on eagerly to hear more. But, most unfortunately for both you and I, style has nothing to do with fashion, and so I would have to start again. It’s not easy though, exploring the nature of style with no hasty reference to the runway, or to the countless ‘style icons’ who we love to love, and hate. It’s a little like talking about Dr. Jekyll without mentioning Mr. Hyde, or bringing up Batman without asking after Robin. Perhaps it’s because both involve creation, both require expression, and because both fashion as well as style demand some form of physical manifestation before they’re properly understood. And even then, it’s all down to interpretation, and subject to debate. But despite these parallels, what is fashion and what is style are two very different things.

Fashion is the short-lived inclination towards a something—clothing, shoes or other—that a group of elusive strangers decided was on trend. Wear this and you’ll be hip, they tell us, do that like this and you’ll fit in. To fashion yourself, it would seem, is to present yourself in a way that is predetermined and preset. As a result, what with its fleeting fads and passing crazes, fashion requires endless acquisition; an unyielding devotion to a life that’s cookie cut. But perhaps its biggest flaw, or biggest triumph (depending on your view), is fashion’s self-evident shelf life; it’s inability to endure. What is new will soon be old; what is popular soon passé.

But this is where fashion and style are irrefutably distinct. You cannot package style, nor can you put it in a box. Style is internal; it is the purest reflection of everything that’s you. This is why true style is so much harder to achieve. It’s about asking questions, not of others, but of yourself. Simply put, style is an attitude, and one that can’t be taught. There are no rules, no guidelines, and no leaflet of instructions designed to tell you what to do. Contrary to fashion’s reliance on seasonal directive, style requires a much deeper intuition, an ability to make up your own mind, and to do so with panache. Through the mediums of hair, body and cloth, our style communicates and compliments the person that we are, without the need for words, or further explanation. That is of course, if we let it. In the words of fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, a lot of people have taste, but they don’t have the daring to be creative.

That daring is called style. It’s about having the chutzpah to dress as you please and say: So? What’s it to you? And, perhaps most importantly, it’s about having the courage to say no to the things—material or otherwise—that will not work for you. It’s this fearlessness; this ability to remain untouched by fashion’s ready-made influence, which ultimately nurtures ones genuine self, and in turn, their sense of style. And so, though fashion and style are repeatedly misconstrued as two handsome peas in a prêt-à-porter pod, it’s important to remember they’re not as mutually exclusive as we’ve been led to believe. It would be easy to start ones pursuit for personal style with a quote about fashion. After a little Google, you might pay heed to the name of some famous designer, and read on eagerly with a thirst for inspiration. But, most unfortunately for both you and I, that’s not how it works. The procurement of ones own ‘look’ can’t be unopened or unzipped. It requires authenticity, intuition; things you cannot hold or touch. A cookie cutter might help you look good, but it cannot give you style.

As part of her prize, Kathryn will be mentored by Dana Thomas, the author of the New York Times bestseller, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, published by The Penguin Press in 2007, and contributing editor for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.  She has also written for the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, WSJ, the Financial Times, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Architectural Digest and Elle Décor and was the European editor of Condé Nast Portfolio.