A la mode

Second week of classes with professor Long and the same question remains in front of our incredulous eyes: What is style ?

At the moment, I don’t have an answer. I mean, I thought I had an answer, but all of our stereotypes and opinion about it had been totally turned upside down right from the start, by the teacher’s challenging questions. I am unable to provide any answer right now, but I think I found something interesting.

Reading Dona Gorrell gave me an idea, which might help me in the process of finding an answer to this somehow rhetorical question. In her introduction to Style and Difference, she makes a comparison with style and fashion. I’ve made some research to make sure I understood her parallel, and at least if I had it wrong, I came up with an idea.

It’s true that people tend to confuse style and fashion; they don’t make a difference between being stylish and being fashionable. By definition, fashion is:

a popular way of dressing during a particular time or among a particular group of people.

– Merriam Webster

Fashion is then about trend. You are fashionable when you behave or dress like a group of people that are said to be fashionable. This group of people has its own style, which is admired by others who copy it and progressively make it popular. So if you follow the trend, you will be a fashionable person. If you are a student of Keene State College, for instance, and if you are “fashionable”, your winter outfit could probably be described by this following combination:

yoga pants + UGG boots + North face jacket

If you dress this way then, no one will look down on you, because it is fashionable here. Bur you will also be said to be stylish, which is not entirely right.

Style is something that refers to individual choices, to identity. When you said that someone has their own style, it means that they have a special way to dress (or to behave). In France, we say that someone has style when they have a sense of style, that they have a great deal of taste. Someone that would walk around with pink overalls, yellow rubber boots and a Mexican hat would definitely be said to have their own style. However, does that mean that this person has style in the sense of someone who has taste? Probably not.

This also raises the question of subjectivity of style. Maybe in 10 years everybody will think wearing pink overalls is cool because it would have become the latest fashion. And there are probably today people that already think that the outfit I described is very stylish.

However, we’ve just seen that fashion was a trend followed by people. You probably wear UGG boots and yoga pants because everyone else is doing it. Yet this style that you have adopted is not an expression of your own style but an expression of the style of the group of people that are said to be fashionable. Therefore, being fashionable is not an expression of your own style. Nevertheless, choosing to be part of a given group means that you deliberately choose to distinguish yourself from other groups (or at least, if it is not a deliberate choice, it is its consequence). Moreover, following fashion is also a way to express yourself. It reflects your personality. If you like to be fashionable, it means you are in a constant change, you are modern and flexible. So in a way, by making this choice, you express your own style as well.

Thus, nobody can have no style. Dressing like others doesn’t make you less stylish, and at the same time dressing like no one else doesn’t mean that you have a great sense of style. But as styles are various, once you choose to dress you are automatically distinguishing yourself from another person, from another group that adopted another style. So you can be fashionable and stylish, but you are not necessarily stylish and fashionable. The same phenomenon applies to language.

People think that having style is actually having an interesting or note-worthy way of writing. This is partly true. But style can also be defined as “form” (as opposed to substance). In this case style would just be the “external” part of language, considering that the internal part designates its meaning or its content. In this way, I can affirm that a quote from Hemingway has as much style as a warning sign in the London subway. However, we will all agree that the last of my example has a very poor style compared to the first one. Thus, every single expression of language has style, it’s own style. But it doesn’t mean that it has an interesting style.


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