Tuesday, 27 April 2010


Decades apart but still the epitome of style: Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, and Audrey Hepburn

When Yves Saint Laurent was interviewed about his views on fashion, he ended up creating one of the most famous fashion sound bites of the century. ‘Fashion fades, but style is eternal’ are words to dress by, but what does style actually mean? Is it simply ‘good taste’, and if so, who sets the standard? Is style about taste at all or something more personal?

Think of modern style and one name immediately springs to mind: Audrey Hepburn. It is a cliché to say it, but true, that she is a byword for elegance. Audrey reflects what we understand today as ‘style’. The trench coat, cigarette pants, ballet flats and even the LBD have come to define our vision of the contemporary woman’s capsule wardrobe.

But Audrey was not born sporting cigarette pants and a winsome smile. That classic look was born out of collaboration between Audrey and Hubert de Givenchy. Audrey’s budding film career coincided with the peak of the 1950’s glamourpuss age. The ‘Sweater Girl’ reigned supreme. Movie idols such as Jayne Mansfield and Lana Turner were pouring themselves into figure-hugging pencil skirts and scandalously tight scoop-neck sweaters. The Fifties were undeniably curve-friendly, but to someone with Audrey’s spare frame, filling out a sweater posed its own challenges.

Hepburn needed to cement her image, and separate herself from her illustrious namesake, Katharine. Givenchy knew his client was no sizzling Sweater Girl. These women, and Marilyn Monroe was the last of them, made allure into an art form. Audrey needed another aesthetic altogether: something clean, simple and fresh. Their response was to rebel. The look they created ran absolutely counter to everything that was pushing Hollywood’s buttons. Taking the 50’s Parisian art scene as their starting point, Givenchy created an image for Hepburn that became impossible to erase.

Audrey’s solution to the sweater girl problem was to not compete at all. Creating a sartorial blueprint, and taking inspiration from what was not in fashion, Audrey and Givenchy made something of substance and style.

What started as a rebel’s costume went full circle to represent the universal template for women who want to look stylish and refined. But is adopting someone else’s look the same as having style yourself?

Style is remarkably easy to pinpoint in others: but harder to recognise in ourselves. Why is that? We know, with astonishing clarity, who has it and who could do better. On the street, in the office and at the Oscars, style is a beacon shone bright: hard to overlook, and impossible to ignore.
Everyone likes to think they possess a degree of style, but no-one can define it with any real sense of certainty. If Audrey Hepburn began her style career as a rebel, where does that leave us?

If style is about what’s not in fashion, does it follow that style is about mavericks and rule-breakers? Style may be ‘eternal’, but without fashion’s influence, there is no style. If fashion is about being on the inside, then surely style celebrates those who operate outside the dress codes? Rebellion has always been part of fashion, but what about style? There is certainly a case to be made for it.

Vivienne Westwood introduced punk to the world of high fashion and neither have been the same since. The first designer to see the potential of democratising fashion, Westwood built her signature on technical virtuosity and blue-sky thinking. The phrase may conjure up pure horror in the office, but in real life, it is absolutely fundamental. Style can be about setting the pace and finding your own voice. It sounds easy enough, but in practice, it’s another story. We might have to bring in the professionals.

Stylist Patricia Field’s work on ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Ugly Betty’, has set the bar for fashion styling. She has taken the idea of building a character through their wardrobe to incredible heights. Carrie without the Manolos? Unthinkable. If you want to see how style is built from nothing, it is worth looking at how Patricia does it.

Think of Ugly Betty. Patricia routinely uses high fashion pieces (particularly from Marni and Marc Jacobs) to create Betty’s eclectic mismatched look. Individually, a blouse or a skirt can be runway-recognisable, but collectively, they are muddled together to make a character’s life story.

Betty’s way of teaming modern shapes with colourful prints rings absolutely true for her character: the girl who works in Manhattan still adores the spice and vibrancy of Mexico. By taking mainstream fashion pieces and mixing them in ways that shouldn’t work, Field has created visual shorthand for who Betty is. Her style is proudly and defiantly clashing, but if you look more closely, it has moments of rare beauty.

So style is not being a taste-maker, or a cultural tour de force. Who needs the pressure? Personal style is a smoother evolution. It may originate from other places, but what emerges and endures comes from you.

Style is what happens when fashion gets personal. It is about making those connections through memories and associations to create something unique. This sometimes goes hand-in-hand with fashion, sometimes it doesn’t. But that doesn’t matter – style doesn’t take sides.

Style is hard to define precisely because it is the journey of a lifetime, building a sartorial diary of who you are, who you were, and most of all, who you aspire to be.