This is Part IV of my new series “How to Think About Style”, a weekly serial written with the purpose of helping you develop an authentic personal style. My goal: supply you with the framework necessary to express your personality through fashion.
And now, the moment you've all been waiting for: the first step in applying broad concepts to reflect your unique personality. While the lessons about style fundamentals (fit, context, color palette) we covered earlier in this series may initally seem limiting, I urge you to think of them as constructive. Instead of squeezing out your personality, these style lessons allow you to express yourself – your likes, your dislikes, your unique interpretation of the world at large – within a framework that makes the end result look pretty darn good. It's one thing to love what you wear with hubristic conviction; but authentically representing that love outside of a street-style backlot is a task that requires much more nuance. Over the past month, we've worked to develop a framework that enables nuance - now, it's time to develop that first part.
This week: we'll be discussing how to cultivate your inner connoisseur so you recognize what you like and how best to express it. The word I'd like to focus on is "taste." And this time, it's personal.
But first, let’s synchronize the watches: what do we mean when we talk about taste?
Personal taste is often used interchangeably with personal style to describe the expression of an individual’s opinions. However, analogizing the two removes the role of style and places undue emphasis on personal conviction as the cornerstone of dressing well. Unless you're the flamboyant (read: nude) emperor in a bedtime story, simply asserting that you're well-dressed doesn't befit style, no matter how much you like what you're wearing. Therefore, i encourage you to understand and observe a difference.
Instead of considering taste and style the same, it is better to think of the two as related. In my opinion, they're sequential links of the same chain. Using the definition of style we’ve developed over this series, taste can be thought of as the bridge between the style framework (fit, context, colors, etc) and the fashion choices we wear. In other words, it's a mechanism that enables thoughtful, cohesive selection.
Taste is your personal preference – a second osmosis between the market and your wardrobe. Understanding style shapes your fashion choices by arming you with the knowledge to build cohesive outfits, regardless of clothing choice. On the other hand, understanding taste shapes everything from the graphic on your shirt to the brands you identify with to the designers you follow to the advertising against which you immunize yourself by refining the picture of what you emotionally enjoy. Style may be more fundamental to the process of learning to dress, but taste is the 800lb heuristic gorilla that caused you to fall in love with those shoes (and you know which ones I’m talking about.)
And really, isn’t that what fashion’s all about? The emotion? The pull? The humanity?
In a frictionless environment, yes. There’s just one slight issue: our world exists with finite resources, with cotton comprising the two most important – raw clothing material and, of course, the almighty dollar.
Without the style framework, your taste-driven impulses have a higher chance of not getting worn because they don’t fit your cohesive wardrobe (see: “I loved it in the store, but I just never get to wear it” – as if not wearing a garment were an astrological phenomenon and not a matter of individual human choice.) These disjoint, unworn love affairs begin gathering dust in your closet, then, when you run out of closet space, in the landfill. This is bad for you and for the environment – and best of all, completely avoidable. You just gotta know what you like.
My goal for today is to help you dissect the components of your personal taste to help you best integrate it into the fundamentals of style we’ve discussed earlier in this series. We’ll begin with some strategies that help you crystallize your personal taste in order to better identify just what you like; then, we'll discuss how to mitigate corrupting social forces to represent your authentic self, not just the wishes of others.
First, let’s discuss self-awareness. It is satisfying to know that you like something, but man wasn't blessed with the concept of self to arbitrarily stop at "that's cute." It is much more rewarding - both intellectually and stylistically - to develop an understanding of why you like certain things, and to place that knowledge into your view of the whole.
In the fashion space, this self-awareness comes through compilation and examination. I am a firm believer that the only surefire way to refine and identify your fashion taste is to drink in as many visuals as you can and make note of what you like. Once you have collected enough of these visuals, it is possible to analyze the group and begin identifying specific categories or interests within the mosaic of your puppy love. Before computers, this was done by clipping physical images from magazines, newspapers, et al and then scrapbooking them into a collaged visual reference.
The results were personal, tangible, and really goddamn difficult to store. Thanks to flash memory and the modern mouse, there now exists a more elegant solution with which to cultivate taste: the inspiration album.
It’s as simple as this: create a new folder in your Documents titled “Inspiration.” Whenever you see an image that genuinely appeals to you – whether it be fashion, photography, art, whatever – right-click and “Save as…” that image to your folder.
Do this for a full month with no change in your typical browsing habits. Then, at the end of that month, open your folder and check the dragnet: you should have built a nice little collection. (Note: a Pinterest works just fine, too.)
Regardless of media, the final result should look something like this:
Within that collection, you should begin to see similarities. For example, my first inspiration album included a lot of denim, layered flannel, natural scenes, retro outdoors gear, and anachronistic details. It wasn’t all images of the Brawny lumberjack (especially not the 80's supercars or Shia LaBeouf), but those forces so dominated my initial album that I explored that taste through my clothing purchases. I included some images below to give you a better idea of that first collection:
Knowing my tastes put everything else we've covered so far (fit, context, color palette) into motion. Armed with respect for and knowledge of the style framework, I bought raw denim jeans (with the right fit for my body type), Wolverine 1000 Mile Boots (with soles and detailing that fit my context), and chunky knit sweaters (with colors that complemented my neutral palette).
I then fell hopelessly in love.
For a solid two years of my life, the denim/flannel/nature style described above was how I loved to dress – and oh boy, did I know it. I actively relished chances to wear the clothes I knew I liked, partly because they looked good on me, but mostly because they expressed my individual preference for the lifestyle they represented. I famously wore my Wolverine boots to a championship swim meet just to walk to the opposing locker room knowing I looked like a million bucks. You bet your ass the positive feeling followed.
Of course, taste is opinion and therefore transient in nature, hence why I said “first” inspiration album. While your tastes will eventually change, identifying and solidifying your current opinions will grant them a fast fashion-defeating staying power that both saves you money (no more fear-induced trend chasing) and amplifies your confidence in your clothes.
Returning to our example: two years is a long pax romana in an environment that preaches wardrobe renovation once a season. It was pure emotion, yet channeled productively, all thanks to the solidified understanding of taste I developed through the Inspiration album process. The confidence I felt wearing those boots was only made possible through an awareness of personal tastes guided by an understanding of style fundamentals.
Yet, as rosy as the above sounds, I’m no Anthem. In fact, millions of other dudes from 2010-2015 embraced the exact same fashion choices I described above, enough to give “lumbersexual” (the slang term for an urban dandy who leans on outdoorsman imagery in an attempt to masculinize their look) its own Wikipedia article.
Long story short, my unique personal taste was about as unique as a white kid at Kanye show. That didn't detract from my enjoyment of the clothes - it just meant that I was susceptible to the sort of mythmaking that aims to segment the unconfident into tropes that make them easier to sell to at the expense of their individual development. Turns out, there’s a lot more to your taste than merely how you choose to express it – far before you even began your Inspiration album, some mighty forces began to push out your ideas in favor of their own. If your aim is to build personal style, it's not enough just to know that those factors are there. Understanding those forces, the factors that subconsciously sculpt taste, can tell us a lot about how to build an authentically personal style.
Next, let’s dissect what influences personal taste.
Taste is strongly influenced by what you’ve lived, what you see, how you were raised, and your perception of self. These factors, more than any others, affect what you like. Not what you wear – but what you like. While you may occasionally feel stifled by outside restrictions on your fashion (ex. dress codes, the correlation of shirts and shoes with service), those exact same restrictions exist in your mind well before you ever decide what to buy. And you didn’t even put them there.
In my experience, the effect of external factors on taste (ex. age, gender, socioeconomic status, friend group, race, etc.) is often ascribed the misnomer “style” because they create their own sort of boundaries on what certain individuals wear. This is tragic for two reasons: one, because the vast majority of the public doesn’t understand the depth to which they are marketed, meaning many of their thoughts about clothing are not their own to begin with. And two, because confusing the style with taste misidentifies those thoughts of others as higher level insight, in turn breeding a sort of groupthink among cultural lines. The end result of dressing purely on these lower concept boundaries is a Halloween costume: a foundationless get up more akin to a disguise than an authentic representation of self.
Current examples include the longevity of the Stan Smith urban plague and the very concept of Vogue's "Skate Week."
Sounds crazy, right? But it’s just simple group psychology. No man is an island. Social pressures strongly influence personal clothing preferences at the root, simply because we yearn for group acceptance more than we care nurturing a unique identity.
This scientific explanation directly contradicts the idea of “free will” as it exists in nearly every Western democracy, since we imagine ourselves as an individual who just happened to be accepted by the group rather than a compromised being whose ideas are determined by external forces. That slight humming noise is cognitive dissonance.
Fortunately, there’s hope. Before you get out the Deneuralyzer on a fool’s quest for objective moral purity, here’s some good news: you can offset many of those negative influences simply by diversifying from where you draw your inspiration. If you draw from diverse sources, the negative parts of each tend to naturally offset, leaving only what you authentically like to be analyzed after you build your album.
My advice: read everything. Look at everything. Make notes about everything. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be clothing-related - some of my fondest “a-ha” moments have come from public lectures and art museums. What matters most is your exposure to the great mash of the universe, followed by your thoughtful distillation. Seek things outside of your comfort zone, consume them, then reflect on your consumption.
As humans, we are gifted with the ability to think critically - so why do anything else? For reference, I keep a pocket notebook, multiple “Inspiration” folders, and the [INSPIRATION] section of this site. I consider each integral to my ever-evolving style journey and my ever-sharpening personal taste. By drinking in the value of your world and recording what made an impact, you can synthesize a world of stimuli into a trickle of rich information that nourishes your unique perspective. Once you identify and nurture your taste - the sky's the limit.
Thanks for reading! Did you enjoy the piece? The concept of the series? Anything you think I could clarify or otherwise improve? If you have feedback, please leave a comment below or on my Facebook page here.
Next time, we'll conclude How to Think About Style by bringing it all full circle. We'll discuss how to merge your newly-crystallized personal taste with the style framework. From the fitting room to the cash register to an overslept alarm before 9am class, you'll be well-dressed in a way that authentically expresses who you are. Of course, if you'd like a refresher on the series so far, read on to check out Part I: How Clothing Fits, Part II: Context, Inside and Out, and Part III: Color Palettes here on the blog. Until next time.