On the Substance of Style

Campbell was right.  You deserve to be you. After all, it’s the greatest gift you have. 

Why then do most of us hide who we are? We may allow others to see glimpses of us, but only in so far as they conform to an image or standard set by others. (Increasingly, they’re set by ‘influencers,’ who are loathe to reveal their true selves as well.) Sadly, the parts we suppress are oftentimes our most unique, interesting and memorable qualities.  

Why are people so afraid to shine? In some cases, I think the issue stems from a lack of clarity. Many of us were never given the tools, let alone permission, to dig deep, take risks, and expose our differences. In other cases, it may come from lack of confidence. From a young age, we’re taught to see our imperfections as failures rather than, as Leonard Cohen so eloquently put it, “cracks that let the light in.” In both cases, we forfeit that ‘privilege of a lifetime’ and end up stylistically invisible.  

I think technology exacerbates the problem, with its never-ending push for speed and efficiency. True style takes time to cultivate. It’s not a problem to be solved, but a passage to be explored. 

Despite its promise of visibility and ‘stardom,’ social media platforms have turned into stylistic wastelands. Yes, they offer a free space for self-expression, but the quality of expressions is superficial and flat, with images boxed in 1080 pixels and narratives confined to 280 unicodes.

Technology undermines style in other ways too. Our 24/7 connectivity makes it hard to focus, and hyper-awareness of threats – like crime, economic hardship, disease and environmental decay – makes it hard to care.

But we should care.  Style matters. 

I wouldn’t say the same of fashion. Fashion is driven by external trends; style evolves through personal growth. Fashion is temporal, style lasts.  Fashion is set by “them”; style, by you.

Above all, fashion focuses on how we look, whereas style is reflected in everything we do -- how and where we live, how we spend our free time, how we communicate through voice, tone and rhythm, how we celebrate and entertain, and even how we relate to art and nature.

I certainly am not disparaging fashion; it fills a purpose. It’s a language for culture and creativity. It’s a source of connection with other like-minded people. It reflects broad social movements. That said, it does not provide a path to self-knowledge, nor shine a light on the particularities and peculiarities of each individual.

Lastly, whether we like it or not, style is a choice. Some icons of the day may disagree. They view style as superfluous and wasteful and prefer to focus their efforts on more substantive, intellectual or lucrative pursuits.  (Think Mark Zuckerberg with his signature gray t-shirts & hoodies; Jerry Seinfeld with his light-wash jeans & white sneakers; or Elon Musk with his couch-surfing lifestyle.).  However, by choosing not to express their inner values outwardly, these individuals are still making a choice. Specifically, they’ve chosen to show what they truly value in life – functionality, ease and comfort. Aesthetic pleasures that may come from bolder, richer sensations – like brilliant colors, sumptuous materials, scrumptious flavors, or fragrant aromas – simply do not compute. Might their utilitarian view toward living also reflect how they view other people? Are deep and lasting relationships ever built on utility and convenience?  

When it comes to your own style, the most important choice you can make is to choose.  I encourage you to do so knowingly, freely, and joyfully. From there, prepare to embrace and showcase your best self – not despite your flaws, but because of them.

Pauline is the founder of Aesthetic Intelligence Labs, which teaches executives and entrepreneurs how to enhance their tastes, apply them to their brands, and unleash their aesthetic advantage.  Earlier in her career, she held senior executives positions at LVMH, Carlyle, Estée Lauder and Bain.


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