If style is a measure of personality, I'm not much of a decision-maker. Some days I leave the house looking like the professional young woman I am, while others I spend looking like a sloppy teenager. Some weeks I'm a goth, but I like to pile on the neon pink, too. I love shapeless, baggy minimalist garb and also short, tight things, sometimes with pictures of animals on.
This is where Kate Nightingale comes in. She is the UK's first "style psychologist" and is carving out a career for herself in relatively uncharted territory, consulting for customers and companies alike, taking workshops and classes, doing one-on-ones and generally sartorially rewiring the ever-growing number of people who are broken by shopping and baffled by their own wardrobes.
"I make sure people don't call me an image consultant or a personal stylist," Nightingale, 29, explains when we meet (incidentally, in PR guru and Ab Fab inspiration Lynne Franks's new private members' club for businesswomen).
"Because it doesn't reflect my knowledge and the expertise behind it. It's great to dress someone according to their body shape, but if you're forgetting who they are and what their emotional issues are, it won't work."
Rather than steering her clients towards trends or this season's colours, Nightingale looks rather to their personal lives, their goals and aspirations, their idealised vision of themselves, for her inspiration. This isn't personal styling so much as self-help shopping, dressing for the life you want so that everything falls into your lap. It's the clothing equivalent of cosmic ordering, good vibrations with a handbag and matching shoes.
"Clothing is a tool for me," Nightingale says.
"It's something that helps you feel better and represent yourself as long as they represent who you truly are. Because if you wear something that doesn't go with who you are as a person, people will see, and you will lose their trust or never gain it in the first place. It's the same with branding and advertising it has to be consistent."
Which is the one thing I'm not, in my havering and hopeless dithering. Sometimes it takes four or five attempts to get dressed in the morning; sometimes I spend the entire day feeling uncomfortable because I got it wrong; sometimes I just wish we all had to wear uniforms, like in Brave New World. If, as Kate Nightingale suggests, I can work out my own branding and dress accordingly (like when Coca-Cola swapped Santa's green suit for a red one), life might be easier, my future more certain.
"The way you dress will say something about you," she explains.
"About your job, your personal life, what kind of partner you will be. The first impression only lasts three seconds it used to be seven seconds about 15 years ago. It used to be 30 seconds about 20 years ago. And it's all subconscious. The only thing you get consciously from the first impression is 'I like, I don't like', 'I trust, I don't trust'. Then you start thinking, 'OK, why did I like them?' but by the time you start thinking about it, you've already made that judgement."
It's at this point that I start wondering what assumptions Nightingale has made about me, given that I have turned up wearing a jumper with a swear-word on it without even realising. Before we met, she asked me to bring along three pictures of styles I wanted to emulate or that I thought I'd suit. I chose three from the catwalks: a slimline, tailored and minimal Haider Ackermann look; a filigree floral dress by Erdem; and from DKNY, a streetwise, sporty ensemble. The first sums up how I'd like to look most of the time; the second I chose because I am rubbish at wearing girly stuff and would like to know how to do it; and the third because I firmly believe that I look like a pervert in anything even vaguely sporty. I feel silly in colours that are not black or grey, and I feel like a galumphing ogre in anything delicate, and I am allergic to frills.
But I've also realised that wearing black all the time might be giving out the wrong message. Because I'm reasonably young and quite good fun. The jumper with the swear-word on it is a recent attempt to broadcast these facts, but from the look on Kate Nightingale's face, I'm not convinced she agrees.
"We have to decide who you are, what you really want, and whether you think you have the characteristics that will get you what you want," she says, making me write down first a list of attributes that come to mind for each of the three looks I have picked, and then a list of attributes I think I myself have. Positive ones. It isn't easy.
Then I have to list the things I want to get out of life, and prioritise them. Then we talk more generally about how I feel in my clothes (the answer should always be "comfortable"), about my likes and dislikes, and about why I feel like some styles are simply "not for me".
Although very different in aesthetic, the looks I have chosen are all quite specific, quite codified and quite deliberate; they're confident choices made by an imaginary woman who doesn't stand around in her tights for 15 minutes agonising between two skirts. What they say as a trio, Nightingale tells me, is that I'd like to be stronger and more confident all-round, but without losing a sense of my own femininity. "Oh no," I think, "she's going to tell me to wear more red."
Nightingale's theories hang on a book of colour swatches that she talks me through, and sends me a personalised version of the day after our consultation. She explains that shades have various meanings and qualities that can help you to project the persona you want. Symbolism aside, there have been studies that show how colours affect us. Red is thought to relax some people, while pink is good if you want to be seen as sincere.
But rather than prescribing new colours or shades that scare me, Nightingale talks me through the scale that I already wear, suggests ways of adjusting it to give more scope for brightening up, and names a few shops that she thinks might suit. From neon pink, I can try a more subtle coral, that is welcoming and warm; from black, chocolate brown or burgundy just as serious but slightly less severe. Switching some of the grey for khaki green strikes me as a good idea, too. "This colour usually means someone has a military background. Do you?" she asks when I say this. "No," I reply, "I just like khaki."
It's a start, though, isn't it?
- THE INDEPENDENT