Knowing your look: Should you have a signature style?

By Sharon Stephenson

Is having a signature style really important, asks Sharon Stephenson.
Do you believe in having a signature style? Photo / Getty Images
Do you believe in having a signature style? Photo / Getty Images

The leather skirt was short, tight and so blingy it was probably visible from space. It was also the kind of garment that finds favour with ladies of the night and anorexic teenagers.

Except this was the kind of store frequented by over-Botoxed women with impressive dentistry who had nowhere else to be at 11am on a Tuesday. So I threw a month's mortgage at the buttery soft skirt, only to find when I got home that: a) it made me look like Danny DeVito's older, uglier sister, and b) it didn't go with anything in my wardrobe.

And so it's been ever since someone was silly enough to give me a credit card. I've wandered lonely through the complex maze of fashion, getting battered by every new trend, never finding a place to call home.

A former colleague, probably the most stylish woman I've ever met, asked me once why I bought clothes for a life I wasn't living.

She, damn her, was clever enough to work out what suited her at an early age and willingly surrendered herself to the god of tailored separates. She also rejected large chunks of the colour wheel, preferring a palette of black, white, grey and navy.

You may call my colleague boring, but she had discovered fashion's Holy Grail, a signature style, and stayed loyal to it. Once, at a party at her house, I strayed into her closet, which was like a monochrome branch of Armani; I wanted to move in.

"It's obviously not vital to our continued survival as a human race, but it's useful to know what you're trying to communicate to the world every time you get dressed," she said to me on yet another morning I arrived at work dressed more as fashion road-kill than runway-ready.

The message I am obviously sending to the planet is that my wardrobe is a schizophrenic purgatory where ill-advised trends and buyer's remorse go to chill. Where a Stella McCartney top I almost lost a limb for at a sale rubs coat-hangers with a should-have-seen-the-inside-of-a-rubbish-bin-years-ago Glastonbury T-shirt. There's a boho dress that grabbed me by the throat years ago and refused to let go and a delicate beaded cardigan that hasn't quite evaded the call of the moth.

Kate Moss is often seen wearing a pair of black skinny jeans. Photos / Getty Images
Kate Moss is often seen wearing a pair of black skinny jeans. Photos / Getty Images

If I'm honest, most of my clothes look as though they were purchased by someone with severely compromised eyesight.

Which is something of which Suzanne Fahey could never be accused. The Wellington image consultant has been covering people's nakedness for the past 15 or so years and has yet to meet someone she couldn't dress.

"A signature style is a way of dressing yourself that expresses your personality, whatever that might be," says Fahey. "At its most basic level, it's about being clear about who you are, what you love and the kind of clothes and accessories that realistically fit your lifestyle."

It doesn't, however, mean that you have to stand out or wear the same thing every day of your life. In fact, dare to mention the B or U words and Fahey will laugh in your face.

"A signature style isn't a uniform and it sure as heck isn't about being boring or in a rut. It can be as simple as a well-cut suit or preppy-style chinos and a button-down shirt, but what it does is help define your identity and your place in the world."

You don't have to look far to find people who've made this formula work. Steve Jobs was addicted to black polo necks, Anna Wintour has rocked the same hairstyle since she was 14 and Audrey Hepburn adored striped Breton tops. More recently, Kate Moss (skinny black jeans) and Sofia Coppola (button-down shirts and ballet flats) have found - and stuck to - their signature look.

Sofia Coppola is a fan of the button-down shirt and ballet flats combo. Photos / Getty Images
Sofia Coppola is a fan of the button-down shirt and ballet flats combo. Photos / Getty Images

Here in New Zealand, Judith Baragwanath has flown the signature style flag for more years than she cares to remember. Hers is a distinctly masculine silhouette which goes heavy on men's business suits, army and navy surplus coats and shirts, jodhpurs (her two pairs pre-date World War II), Doc Martens, Raybans and dark lipstick which, contrary to popular opinion, is brown rather than black.

Baragwanath, who's lived on Waiheke Island since 1994, admits it took some time to nail her current look.

"I went from Victorian petticoats and tailcoats in the early 70s to m,odern masculine later because I looked at blokes and thought, they look all right and they don't have to change their whole wardrobe every season, whereas women are on a hamster wheel - and an expensive one - year in and year out. It's complete madness."

Far from being a slave to fashion, Baragwanath settled upon good basics that don't date and tarted them up with strings of paua and pearls and old silver cutlery worn as brooches. She laughs at the memory of pinning a fox tail to the seat of her pants, once all the rage.

Unsurprisingly, she's a cheerleader for having a signature style, not least because of how much time and money it saves. "There's no indecision or flapping around for hours deciding what to wear. It's on and I'm gone in 60 seconds."

Not once to mince words, Baragwanath wishes others would follow suit: "It's beyond me why women don't know what suits their colouring and frame by a certain age and then stick to it for the long haul. It's just common sense that seems to fly out the window whenever some ghastly new trend made of crappy cloth rears up and flaunts itself, demanding to be worn by those who really should know better."

Her advice is equally blunt: "Ladies, look in the mirror. Seriously. Front, back and don't forget the side view. Be honest with yourself and then get your arse to a good tailor. Trust me, your bum will instantly look smaller".

Judith Baragwanath stays faithful to her look of men's-style suits.
Photo / Courtesy of Eithne Curran
Judith Baragwanath stays faithful to her look of men's-style suits. Photo / Courtesy of Eithne Curran

Auckland style coach and blogger Caitlin Taylor applauds Baragwanath but says it's okay to not have a signature style.

"Of course it's good to know what you like and what suits you but that doesn't mean you have to become a one-trick pony or be afraid to try something new," says Taylor, who has worked in the fashion industry for 15 years, five of those as a stylist.

"Style for me is an external expression of inner confidence, so if you feel amazing in something then wear it and rules be damned! Unlike a lot of other stylists I would never tell a client what not to wear. I'm a firm believer that anyone can wear almost anything, it's all about how they wear it," says Taylor, who describes her own style as feminine, edgy and relaxed.

That means focusing on your good bits, downplaying the not so good bits and using that to develop your own style.

"Dressing well is all about knowing your body shape and recognising the cut of clothes that suit your body."

For example, if you're an hourglass (think Scarlett Johannson, whose hips and bust are roughly the same size but with a narrow waist) then you'll probably want to highlight your waist with a fitted dress or belt, or maybe even use a cropped or fitted jacket to bring in the waist from the sides, advises Taylor.

Pear-shaped women, whose hips and rear are wider than their waist and bust might want to bring a sense of balance to their frames - i.e. making the bottom half look smaller by drawing attention up and to the shoulders. "All the off-the-shoulder styles around right now are perfect for pears," says Taylor.

Should you happen to be that other fruit-related shape, a bust-heavy apple, make use of long necklaces, scarves or open jackets to create a vertical line down your body, which minimises a larger top half.

"If you're a tall and lanky column, then lucky you, you'll look good in a paper bag," laughs Taylor. Sometimes, though, columns can be long in the body and short in the legs. "By wearing a top or blouse tucked into pants or a skirt, you give the illusion that your waist starts higher up, making your legs look longer."

Ladies, look in the mirror. Seriously. Front, back and don't forget the side view. Be honest with yourself and then get your arse to a good tailor. Trust me, your bum will instantly look smaller.
Judith Baragwanath

Working this stuff out does, of course, involve being truthful about your body.

"Once you accept the fact you're not 6ft tall with Elle McPherson's legs, you'll never again have to buy a certain pair of shorts and wonder why they don't look right," says Fahey.

"Coming to terms with your body shape means understanding the type of styles that work, which should make the entire shopping and dressing process more pleasurable and save you time and money."

Following the path to style's sunny uplands also means not getting hung up on the latest trends, which are generally shifting and unpredictable. "As Heidi Klum likes to say, 'In fashion, one day you're in, and the next day you're out'," Fahey says. "My advice is not to worry about the next big thing, but to wear what makes you feel good."

Anna Wintour is known for her unchanging bob. Photo / Squiz Hamilton
Anna Wintour is known for her unchanging bob. Photo / Squiz Hamilton

Which is, of course, the key to achieving a signature style.

"If a look suits you and you love it and feel confident wearing it, then congratulations, you've won the style lottery."

All of which qualifies as some kind of happy ending. And yet I'm still not sure I feel grown up enough to have a signature style. And maybe I never will. Which could explain my wardrobe's multiple personality disorder. But it's the place I go for my daily joy fix, where I can dress according to however I'm feeling on any given morning. And if that includes a stripper-esque leather skirt, then so be it ...

- Canvas

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