I was recently reminiscing about my very first designer purse. My parents gave me a small beige Coach baguette with the brand’s insignia when I was 13 or 14, and I remember it clearly. I wore that purse everywhere despite having no need for it, but looking back, it wasn’t the fact that it was cute or that it went with every outfit that made me adore it. It was simply the bag that everyone else in my class had, and I thought I had to have it to fit in.
I frequently write about how to develop your own distinctive hanfu cloak style as a fashion editor, but the truth is that it took me decades to accomplish so. Because I was always concerned with blending in with my surroundings as a kid, my clothing could best be described as “Staten Island Italian — Teen Edition” for a long time. During the mid-aughts, I was all about matching, wacky graphic tees and trying out celeb-approved trends; my go-to store was dELiA*s, which sold super wide-leg pants and up-to-your-ribcage shorts. My aesthetics in college were inspired mainly by whomever I was dating, so they ranged from Jersey Shore to early Zooey Deschanel.
Even when I first started working in the fashion industry, I struggled to develop a sense of style that reflected who I was rather than who I believed I should be. I bought clothes I couldn’t afford and couldn’t stop myself from trying to recreate whatever “It” trend I’d seen on the runway.
I’m not sure when I switched, but part of discovering my own particular style happened by chance. I had folliculitis for a while, and I’d wake up with hundreds of little pimples all over my neck, chest, and back. Panicked, I’d grab a bandana or scarf to disguise my outbreak, and it quickly became a look I couldn’t get rid of. Adding the ornament to my ensembles added some flair and made it feel like a one-of-a-kind move. People began to identify me with bandanas, pointing them out to me whenever they saw someone else wearing one or giving them to me as gifts. I loved that I had my own unique look rather than leaping on whatever was “hot” because the line between wearing this outfit out of necessity and wearing it purposely blurred.
From there, I began to add more “Samantha” items to my wardrobe, stuff that went with everything I owned and made me feel beautiful. I used to wear shiny boots with everything, but I eventually switched to a white pair. I had a phase where I wore extra-large statement earrings, which led to more wacky fashion like bright colors, puff sleeves, and polka-dots. Price tags have also played a role in developing my own particular style. I found $13 Gildan sweaters and checkered Vans, a shoe that is both timeless and inexpensive $40, while looking for economical everyday apparel.
As a result of all of this, I’ve developed a personal style — a uniform consisting solely of pieces that I truly adore, regardless of what everyone else is wearing. But I won’t say it isn’t a continuous process. Finding your own style entails adapting to it over time, and my preferences are continuously shifting. When I’m feeling a bit lost or my closet begins to seem a little cluttered, I use a few strategies to get back on track.
Here are the criteria I follow to make sure my wardrobe is working for me, whether you’re just starting to establish your own sense of style or need a refresh.
Trends Should Be Reconsidered
As part of my profession, I cover trends every day, and I’d be lying if I claimed I wasn’t tempted to shop them all. Last year, though, while I was looking for carrot-leg jeans, I had to pause and ask myself some serious questions. Was this passion, fueled by hours of staring at and discussing this strange shape, or was it true love? I decided they didn’t make me as happy as my favorite mom jeans, so I passed on that one (and saved some money). It should go without saying, but you should think about what you like vs what your favorite celebs or influencers are wearing. You may always admire a trend from afar without attempting to incorporate it into your own wardrobe or style.
Leave the “Rules” at the door.
Reassessing what I believed I could and couldn’t wear has been a big part of figuring out my particular style. For example, I’ve never considered myself a “Dr. Martens person” because I equate those shoes with a rock star look. My white platform Chelsea boots, on the other hand, were the pair I wore with everything this year. You don’t have to be X, Y, Z, or fit into a certain box to include something into your wardrobe (age included! ), and you don’t have to wear the products you love during a specific season or event. If you keep staring at that one piece and wishing you ‘could’ pull it off, I’d advise you to give it a shot. That could be the key to unlocking a style profile that previously appeared to be off-limits but isn’t.
Consider Your Wardrobe’s Core
Finding products I knew I could rely on every day, which weren’t particularly on-trend but offered me delight, was another thing that really helped me build a personal style. It’s how I’d characterize my previous connection with bandanas, but then it was puff sleeves, ruffles, and polka-dots — my coworkers jokingly (and lovingly) dubbed my sense of style “Fashion Clown” since I gravitated toward and wore clothes with such characteristics all the time. Even while styling celebrity photo shoots, I can’t help myself from wearing a white boot or sneaker – it’s my personal preference, as I believe a neutral shoe goes with everything.
Consider the adaptable pieces you can’t live without, and build your outfits around them. If you’re already a fan of Birkenstocks, don’t limit yourself to wearing them on weekends. Combine them with dresses and jeans, or add some socks to your ensemble. Use button-downs as sweaters, layer them under overalls, or use them as cover-ups if you enjoy wearing them. These essentials will quickly become your hallmark pieces, or items that others instantly associate with you in a favorable light.
“I would try to mix things together that were ludicrous and didn’t belong together. But out of that awe-inspiring magic arose.”
Playing Dress-Up With Your Own Clothes is a fun way to pass the time.
Is there something you own that you adore but never wear because you lack the “straight off the mannequin” perfect ensemble to pair it with? Perhaps there’s another way to wear that piece that you haven’t considered, and it’ll go with what you already have. Stacy London, a former stylist and TV personality, recently told InStyle that this method helped her reconnect with her wardrobe. “During the epidemic, I spent a lot of time in my closet because there was nothing else to do. And I decided to have some fun, pulling out things I hadn’t worn in years – perhaps they didn’t fit any longer, and it was time to get rid of them. But I also wanted to experiment with what I already had, go shopping in my own wardrobe, and look at my things with fresh eyes in order to come up with something unique. I would try to put things together that were ludicrous and didn’t belong together. But out of that awe-inspiring enchantment arose “she explains.
Consider reducing your reliance on fast fashion.
Browsing antique stores or purchasing secondhand sites like Etsy, The Real Real, or Depop is another way I spice up my clothing. With so many decades of apparel at my fingertips, I’m much more inclined to buy something I really enjoy, rather than being swayed by current trends. Maybe I’ll come across a cute flowery dress with ruffled sleeves, which will prompt me to key in that search term and look at a variety of results, eventually making that design a staple in my wardrobe (it’s happened before!). It’s also a terrific way to embrace throwback-inspired trends while still having clothes and accessories that are uniquely yours. Of course, you want to make sure these pieces go with your mainstays (the green shoes you can’t stop wearing, your expanding collection of big earrings, etc.) and that they’re not impulse buys. However, if some of your purchases feel eclectic or “punk,” while others are more simple or “girly,” don’t worry about putting a label on your style. Personal style is just that: personal, so if you want to wear outdated band tees with voluminous skirts, go ahead and do it.
The objective is to make informed decisions. You’ll be happier and have more outfit ideas if you buy two to three distinctive, standout items that epitomize you rather than 14 pieces from a giant store – I swear. London emphasized that the key to building your own personal style is to ask yourself the following questions: “How do you make your personal style function in all aspects of your life? What makes you happy about it? What role does it play in your life and in your closet? Do you think your closet is a unified space, or do you think there are large gaps that make it difficult to wear 80 percent of your wardrobe, and you only wear 20 percent of your wardrobe 80 percent of the time? You want to be able to wear everything in your closet. You live in a place where you adore everything.”
I went to Depop a few months ago, with the Y2K revival and my old Coach baguette bag on my mind, and picked up the same design for $40. I don’t care if the ‘cool kids’ aren’t wearing it today. It reminds me of a period when I was just starting to feel like myself, and I love it even more and in a different way now. Instead of making me blend in, it makes me stand out.