I’m approaching what is supposed to be a significant milestone — 30! — and feel disappointed that I don’t yet have a personal “style.” I’ve watched countless Ted Talks, followed and unfollowed more influencers than I care to remember, but can only think of a few times I truly felt at home in an outfit. Can you help me begin my fashion journey, once and for all? — Calandra, Detroit
The truth is that it takes decades for most of us to find our personal style — and said style also often changes as we change. What may have screamed “ME” to us at 18 seems embarrassing at 25, and completely unimaginable at 35. (I, for example, wore a lot of granny ankle boots, boho black dresses, giant cardigans and black nail polish as a teenager; it was the late 1980s and, yes, I now cringe at the thought.) Jobs, family changes and cultural shifts all contribute to how we dress to be ourselves.
That’s partly why “stylist” has become such a burgeoning profession: We all want someone else to help us figure it out. Influencers, as you point out, serve a similar purpose, though more by example than analysis. Their “style,” like that of celebrities, is more a persona created for public consumption than necessarily something true to themselves.
I think perhaps the mistake we make is getting too bogged down in specific items. Style is an ethos; a way of moving through the world. Your style has less to do with the pants or dresses or shirts you wear than with words that describe who you want to be: “elegant,” “smart,” “efficient,” what have you. This is why the “three-word method” is sweeping TikTok right now.
Currently attributed to Allison Bornstein, the method has been used at least since 2016; I have also seen it linked to Amy Smilovic of Tibi. It should not be confused with the “three world theory” of international relations articulated by Mao Zedong in 1974, or the rule of three in color theory, though it’s a close cousin of the latter. Human beings have a weird affinity for the number three, which is the smallest number that can be used to create a pattern.
And that is why it is useful in identifying your style.
For example, when you think of Audrey Hepburn, a famously chic woman, the words “gamine,” “minimal” and “European” may come to mind. When you think of Grace Jones: “powerful,” “dangerous” and “smooth.” How those words get expressed in clothes then becomes an evolving concept.
Karla Welch, the stylist who has helped Tracee Ellis Ross and Sarah Paulson find their own look, suggests beginning with one piece connected to “the parts of your body you love” and building from there. Maybe it’s your waist, or your shoulders. Don’t worry about the pants — just find some good jeans or black pants and stick with them. Instead, focus on belts or jackets as a form of self-expression.
Thomas Carter Phillips, who is currently helping Danai Gurira get ready for her “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” red carpet marathon, suggests focusing on those few times when you really felt at home in your clothes, and trying to identify why. Maybe it had to do with a color, or a silhouette, or a neckline. Then think about what words those details call to mind. When you see another garment that sparks the same feeling, you are on your way to building your style.
And remember, as Ms. Welch said, “you can start and start again, over and over.” We are all an endless work in progress. Reassessing who you are and how you look does not reflect a failure of imagination. It’s what makes life interesting.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.