My Style Dilemma: Am I a Cool-Girl Minimalist Or a Wacky Maximalist?

Can too much inspiration be a style-killer?


My maximal to minimal(ish) looks.

As a lifestyle and shopping editor in her early thirties, I feel pressured to have a distinct, set-in-stone style. I should wear only one color, all the time (like Knit Wit’s Ann Gitter), or I should be a reliable wackadoo, wearing ostrich feathers and sequined visors on Septa. My closet should be a tightly edited collection of painfully cool Rick Owens pieces, sort of like Vera Wang and everyone who works for her. A particularly great street-style photo should not sway me, nor should glossy magazine (or equally glossy online) profiles of Very Stylish Women. I should look at these and think, “That is very nice, and they are very stylish, but that is not My Style.”

But here’s my dirty little secret: They do sway me. And as I near my mid-thirties, I feel as if I should be inconvertibly unswayable.

For the most part, I lean toward the wackadoo side. Why not, I think. Life is short. Wear whatever the hell you want. But lately, that’s the problem: What the hell do I want to wear?

I partly blame this on the constant onslaught of inspiration and information thrown at us via Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. I also blame this on my job, which is to sift through all of this every day and whittle it down to the best. It’s tough to find your own voice amongst all the noise, and even harder to retain it without being lured into minimalism (this photo always does it for me) or tempted by over-the-top maximalism (she slays me, every time).

I’ve recently been doing a great deal of shopping at NINObrand, the Rittenhouse-based atelier owned by Bela Shehu. The clothing here is sharply minimalistic and modern. It’s very tonal — blacks, greys, camels, whites — and sculptural. Bela herself is a wisp of a thing, always in some ultra-cool, ultra-modern look. When I’m in the NINObrand shop, a spare space with polished white floors, I crave this aesthetic (which I suppose is the litmus test of a successful store). I am minimal. I am modern.

And then I go to Malena’s Vintage in West Chester and I promptly change my mind.

Here, I fall for the dramatic fur capes, weird little clutches and heaps of glitzy costume jewelry. There are giant silver horse head belt buckles and silk brocade evening coats! I want it all, and I want to wear it all at the same time — that horse belt buckle with my huge flared jeans and that silk brocade evening coat, and maybe five of those giant costume rings, too. Okay, fine, and that 1970s turban. It’s like I’m a chameleon, changing colors based on whatever’s around me. At this point in my life, I think sometimes, I shouldn’t let my environment change my spots. Right?

In her book How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran writes, “When a woman says, ‘I have nothing to wear!’, what she really means is, ‘There’s nothing here for who I’m supposed to be today.’” It’s true: We are ever-changing, and why shouldn’t our clothing reflect that? To let your style be wholly dictated by trends is to hold yourself back, but to let yourself be influenced by the infinite sources of inspiration out there, well, that’s just being smart. Like a sieve, you have to take in all in and filter out what doesn’t work for you.

Me? I’ve discovered that, quite ironically, I’m most comfortable when I’m slightly uncomfortable. I feel best when I feel slightly off, a question mark — ‘Does this work? Am I pulling this off? Do I like this?’ — niggling in the back of my mind. Dressing is the way I communicate how I’m feeling and who I want to be to the outside world. (This is why I generally can’t choose my outfits the night before; who knows how I’ll be feeling the next morning?) So my minimal is perhaps maximal for others, and vice versa. And it’s all probably informed by something I’ve seen or read, even if I don’t realize it — how to pin that brooch to the pocket of your jeans, or how that one girl in some online photo wore her necklace turned around and draped down her back.

That’s what personal style is, dressing for who you feel you are today, whether that’s a power suit or a sex-kitten dress or a very particular caftan that reminds my one friend of “an 80-year-old Olsen twin.”  If my closet looks a tad schizophrenic, it’s because, like most people, I’m a chameleon. And I’ve got to prepare for whatever sort of colors I’ll be up against.