Style. Elegance. Dressing Well. These three terms are often used interchangeably when discussing clothes and fashion. This mistake propagates confusion and controversy, easily witnessed on the more popular internet discussion boards devoted to such matters.
I prefer to consider these three terms as independent – though occasionally intersecting – domains:
- Style is a clearly characterised and expressed mode of dressing.
- Elegance is expressing oneself according to accepted parameters of good taste, especially as espoused by those viewed as arbiters in such matters.
- Dressing Well involves choosing items that fit the wearer, are of good fabric, and are well-made.
When choosing how to dress, I would advocate actively deciding which domains you wish to target.
For instance, a junior professional in a conservative industry may prefer to initially focus on Dressing Well. Too strong a Style may attract undue attention, especially if the Style being chosen doesn’t overlap with Elegance. Equally, too much focus on Elegance at a junior level may be seen as affected rather than natural and so be looked down upon.
Those who are a little more advanced in their careers or years, and especially those who move in traditional circles, would be well-advised to aim for both Elegant and Well-Dressed status. However, many of those successful in these two areas will still lack Style. Their outfits are correct and the lines are pleasing to the conventional eye… and yet the person within cannot project themselves beyond this.
Still, for people with such lifestyles, this is a safer position to take than being Stylish and Well-Dressed without Elegance: when shunning traditional perceptions of classic good taste, one can be seen as dandy, bohemian and foppish.
On the other hand, such attributes may be very much in demand by those with lifestyles not dependent on conservative careers and who rather enjoy making the point that they can avoid such restrictions. The fashion industry in particular works hard to fill this niche. It is also where I would instinctively place my own sartorial ethos, despite using traditional tailored men’s clothing and not high fashion pieces in my attempts to achieve it.
Perhaps the most interesting group are those who are both stylish and elegant, but without being conventionally well-dressed. Finding such beauty in the generic, or even the superficially ugly, is a rare treat. It happens when a person’s underlying character and personality is such that they impress everyone they meet, despite appearances. It is a wonderful thing.
Unfortunately, a lot more people believe that they have this charismatic and magnetic personality than actually possess it. This “I’m special too” attitude is partially responsible for the large numbers of poorly dressed people in the world.
Finally, there exists a very small subset of stylish, elegant and well-dressed people. I struggle to think of real-life, well-known examples who have achieved this. It is perhaps rarer today than in the past, as it requires a longer-term approach to dressing, combined with unusual strength of character. Brummell, Chanel, Hepburn… these are the historical names that spring to mind. The reader may be able to suggest more!
I do not necessarily hold any one of these domains (or combinations of domains) as being better than the others. It is more important to actively decide which most appeal to your heart and soul, and dress accordingly. This is not a laissez-faire, “anything goes”, approach to dressing. On the contrary, once you set the target, you should aim high! But the target should be set by yourself, in accordance with your personality and life goals, and not by an outside agency.