Lately, I’ve been pondering coolness. Noting how outfits that are unbearably chic on women in magazines look like misguided games of dress-up on me. Acknowledging that certain of my blogging peers can don outlandish clothing, shoes, and accessories and make them appear artfully amazing. Seeing how some garments that exude coolness on their own suddenly become awkward and strange when worn by a person with a less-than-cool personality. Such a strange and elusive beastie, this coolness.

I’ve never been cool. Never felt cool, anyway. And I remember being 13 and feeling CONVINCED that cool was all about object and image. So I decided that if I could just get the same trendy, expensive clothes that all the cool kids were wearing, I’d immediately be cool, too. I was surprised and crushed to find that hypothesis false.

On the flip side, I remember when I first started working for the public radio station in town, I was given a tour of the studios by a coworker. I was incredibly intimidated, to say the least. But she introduced me to many of the DJs and staffers, all of whom were friendly and funny and undeniably dorky. She said, “See? They’re all geeks, just like you. Their preferred topic of geekery just happens to be music.” Here was a group of people who were asked to push the appearance of aloof, knowledgeable coolness for the sake of marketing but, underneath it all, they were just as awkward and funny and delightfully normal as … well, me.

That experience made me realize, once and for all, that the bulk of coolness is posturing. If you can look cool and act cool, you are cool. But looking cool isn’t just about clothes, it’s about demeanor and the appearance of effortlessness. Acting cool isn’t just about scowling, it’s about attitude and projecting self-confidence. Coolness can’t be contained by a single formula for behavior or dress. So much of it is instinct. And it’s for that very reason that I believe some people can access their inner coolness easier than others.

And I’m not one of them. I smile in all my photos because I look bizarre when I try to do pouty-face. I would rather make a stranger laugh by playing the clown than stay distant and appear cooly removed. Although I feel the occasional pang when looking over street style photos of impeccable women with smoldering gazes, wishing for even a smidgen of their untouchable coolness, in the end I’d rather be myself than pretend to be cool.

I guess you could say I’d rather be warm than be cool.

Image is of Audrey Hepburn, who is as cool as they come, in my opinion. My preferred Hepburn is Kate, who has always struck me as more passionate and less aloof.

Originally posted 2011-06-22 06:32:38.

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82 Responses to “Cool”

  1. Peta

    Great post. I often leave the house feeling great in my fluffy, brightly coloured vintage frocks but suddenly feel deeply uncool once I meet up with friends in their sleek, black outfits. But I also know from experience that dressing like that makes me feel uncomfortable, not cool, and I’m realising that said friends often perceive ME to be the cool one. I think we’re all geeks on the inside πŸ™‚

    I did want to point out though, while my understanding is that it doesn’t have the same connotations in the US, for many people ‘spastic’ used as above is quite offensive.

  2. poet

    Mhm, so… “cool” has been borrowed into German, signifying “great”, “stylish”, “admirable” – and this may cloud my judgment, since it doesn’t have that connotation of “cold and aloof” there, but to me you seem a pretty cool person in that sense.

  3. T.

    I feel like there are different meanings to the word cool. I love cool in the sense of LBDs, sunglasses and simplicity (and that’s a look I feel very comfortable wearing), but I dislike cool in the sense of “I’m cool and you are not because I wear the right brand/ listen to the right music/ etc.” I will never be the latter kind of cool, and I don’t want to be.

  4. Pam @over50feeling40

    I teach high school…it is a daily reminder of how UNCOOL I am! But, at this stage of my life COOL is not one of my goals. The word COOL says to me that my focus is to be accepted by other people more than myself! I want to be accepted by me…comfortable in my own skin and happy about me. That just might not be COOL to others. It has taken me into my 50s to finally begin to dress for me and not worry about the world around me and try to be something I am not….and honestly I think that is COOL!

    • LE

      Oh man, this is exactly how I feel! “Being cool is just not one of my goals.” I have zero interest in other people finding me cool, nor is trying to appear cool a worthwhile effort. Kindness, compassion, intelligence, diligence, hard work, etc. are qualities that are worthy to pursue and which add value to my life. Coolness not so much.

  5. Cynthia

    I think I will never be cool (for certain values of “cool”). But, I think if you’re looking at cool as this very narrow ideal of skinny people in dark neutral clothes with aloof faces (la Audrey being the archetype) then you’re discounting a lot of potential cool. I mean, insofar as one can tell from a blog, you are cool. Angie of You Look Fab is cool too, but she smiles and wears bright colors. And those people that the Sartorialist happens to capture in his pictures looking (for a fleeting moment) perfectly cool might well be the biggest dorks in the universe the next second.

    In middle school I did get caught in the trap of thinking that the right material things would make me cool. But when my friends now occasionally tell me what makes me cool, it’s never what I’m wearing. It’s that I’m freaky-smart (when I socialize outside the University crowd this comes up a lot) or that I take no shit or that I unapologetically occupy my space or some intangible, unphotographable thing.

  6. poodletail

    Cool is a mystery. Don’t you love it when someone you’ve considered Cool turns out to be warm and funny and unaffected?

  7. Kenzi

    Oh I was the typical teenager, always looking for approval from “the cool crowd”. I was a cheerleader, gymnast, dancer oh all of the typical popular girl activities. But I’ve always been on the outside. I’m kind of quiet & shy. I’ve come out of my bubble some as I’ve aged. Partly because I don’t care about the “cool kids” any more. We’ve all graduated and dissipated into the real world. I’m still fairly close to home and have one good friend from high school. And I’ve noticed me and her are the same in many ways. We’ve known each other since we were 10. We’ve always had our own sense of style and we liked things BEFORE they were cool. When we were younger we loved Hello Kitty & the Sanrio things before you could find them everywhere. We had to LOOK for them. And in Middle School, we loved Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe (I’m Audrey she’s Marilyn) before you could find their faces on T-Shirts all the time. (I know they’ve been around for awhile but it seems like they’ve only recently come into a lot of merchandising and such) we would spend our Saturday nights in High School watching “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Some Like it Hot” – Pretty cool I know πŸ™‚

    (I recently did a post on both Audrey & Marilyn)


  8. Stacy aka Stacybeads

    Kate is my Hepburn of choice, too. The cool, distant thing has never been something I’ve wanted for myself, although I do love all those Hitchcock heroine-types. It’s just not me. When I try to pull off a smoldering or pouty look in a photo, I end up looking like I’ve just been hit over the head with something. I like to dress with a sense of humor, but I know that some of my clothes are too bold for other people to pull off. I just wear my stuff and really own it, and it feels natural to me. The cool, chic stuff is fabulous on some people, but it would definitely feel like playing dress-up to me.

  9. Erin

    I am not cool. I am earnest. It’s one of my most obvious qualities. I have no poker face. I can be sarcastic and clever, though never cool. Once, when we got upgraded to first class because of miles and overbooking, I was bouncing around in line happily, and my husband said, “You just can’t be cool about anything, can you?” (He said it with an “and that’s so endearing I can hardly stand it” tone – I know it sounds like a putdown, but it wasn’t.) That right there pretty much sums me up. I like this quality about myself. Sometimes I wish I was cool (and that could be why I play guitar, although -oops! Classical), but most days I like being an earnest dork.

  10. Erin

    PS – Total Yes on Katherine Hepburn. She is the embodiment of the lady I want to be.

  11. Jen

    I’d rather be warm than cool too, Sal! I’m always on the hunt for newer and cuter clothes and my husband is always reminding me of my stuffed closet. It is a cycle going back to junior high school when I hoped that the new (shirt, jeans, sweater, etc.) would magically transform this geek into posh and cool. Now I just do my best to be okay with it. My sister is on the path to becoming a fashion stylist. I rely on her skills when shopping, but won’t let her take away my sense of crazy and love for orange, yellow and pink! Hooray for us warm people:)

  12. Iris

    I’m not cool. I’m silly, excessively happy, clumsy, occasionally obnoxious and often smile so much my cheeks get sore. My fondness for novelty jewelry and bright colours and tendency to look a bit rumpled means I can’t do sleek, chic and stylish too well… And I wouldn’t have it any other way. πŸ™‚

    I do know some people who are genuinely really cool – but find they’re rarely very fun to be around. To me, ‘cool’ almost requires some aloofness, an attitude of superiority. There are so many much better adjectives to be.

  13. Courtney

    Nope. Never been cool. I desperately wanted to be cool in middle school and could never understand how my closest friend from elementary school managed the transition when I could not. I ended up hurting (and losing) a true friend because I kept trying to follow my elementary school friend into the cool crowd. When I realized that I had lost a friend who liked me for who I was and not who I could pretend to be, coolness lost its allure for me.

    I found my people (dorks) in high school when I joined the speech club. Even the kids in that group who seemed to exude coolness were still dorks at heart and didn’t hesitate to make fun of themselves. This carried through to college and into real life. I’ve made friends along the way with some people who are effortlessly cool, but I always feel more at home among the dorky. It seems to me that dorks have more fun because we are willing to be silly and laugh at ourselves.

    It’s also a trait that I find very attractive in a man, because it signals that he is less likely to try to change me or tone me down when I am at my silliest. In fact, I got hooked on my latest celebrity crush (Michael Fassbender) after watching an interview video in which he dorks out about 70s American TV shows (including singing some of the theme songs.) I thought, “He’s so dorky! It’s adorable!”

  14. Denise

    So interesting, this “cool”. I know what you mean that it is mostly an affectation or seemingly genetic, but I have to admit it’s sort of boring for me. There’s a part of it that seems afraid of risk. Funny, I don’t see Audrey as “cool” at all! Chic, proper, ladylike . . . in fact, I get a cold vibe off Katharine much more, with her haughty, stylized diction and confident striding. I admire the kind of “cool” that is sexy: a quiet kind of ice that’s magically holding in a roaring fire. A bit reserved and maybe even distant, but still friendly and yes, even warm. Not effusive (I am nothing if not effusive!) but very focused and interested. Kind of like intense eye contact without a smile. Maybe I’m confusing “cool” with the type of sexiness I like!

  15. nestra

    Whenever I try to wear (or be) what I consider cool I feel uncomfortable. My discomfort is always written all over me and that is the opposite of cool!

    I do better when I just and do what is ‘me’.

  16. Katharine

    I’m not sure why you think that cool people are only the lean solemn black-clad ones — because out of the cool people I’ve known in my life, many have had an inimitable style that looked as though they’d fallen into a rainbow basket of vintage clothing. (I’ve always thought, for instance, that Cyndi Lauper was totally cool.)

    I tend to think that there are two kinds of cool which sometimes overlap; there’s the notice-at-the-party kind of cool (which does indeed rely a great deal on genetic blessings, cheekbones and good styling) and there’s the genuine cool, which is NOT about appearance (and might include looks that are not necessarily perfectly symmetrical by classical standards, but the kind of face that’s marvellous in motion) but instead hinges on personality and the kind of raging, visible talent and intelligence that draws people in.

    In case you can’t tell, I’m all about the second type of cool. Appearance is all well and good, but talent is something completely else, and will continue to fascinate long after a pair of cheekbones with no conversation or interests has lost all power.

    The coolest people I know are a pair of brothers I’ve known since high school, and yes, they COULD model menswear — but one is also a musician and composer on multiple instruments, and the other is the only person I know who has read Ulysses multiple times and understands it. Both absolutely brilliant, and gifted, as well as ornamental to a room.

    • Amber

      You missed a key point. She’s using the word “cool” to describe that traditionally cool image portrayed in magazines and catalogs of aloofness, pouting and wearing all black, because most consumers see those qualities as attempts at being “cool.” Put a girl who is wearing a lean, sleek, all-black skinny pant look and a slight pout next to a girl wearing a full skirt who looks like a bag of Skittles threw up on her, and most people would identify the first girl as an attempt at cool–the “notice-at-the-party” cool.

      Although you can surely argue that you think rainbow-colored vintage clothes wearers appear “cool” to you, the image that Sal is describing is a specific type of cool image that most people will immediately be able to identify as cool as portrayed in media.

      • Katharine

        I don’t think I “missed” any points, although I may have been conflating this post with the other recent one about wearing neutrals. Anyway, I think even in the media there are multiple images of “cool” to be found, and the sleek, black-wearing urbanite with suggestions of artsiness is only one of them.

        Regardless, I doubt that any really cool people sit around thinking they’re cool, and very likely most self-directed efforts to “be cool” are more likely to result in a terminal case of pretentiousness.

  17. An

    1. Never been cool and I’m cool with that
    2. Audrey was very warm….just watch roman holiday
    3. You seem pretty cool!!

  18. Elissa

    Fantastic post, as usual. Coolness was much, much more important to me when I was younger (middle and high school age), and there was a clear divide between who was cool and who was not. I most certainly was not. A band geek with thrifted clothes and the refusal to smoke, do drugs, or even curse, being classified as cool was most definitely out of my reach. But as I made my way through high school and college, I became much less concerned about the whole thing.

    As I’ve aged, I’ve realized that “coolness” is ultimately about confidence. The women I considered worthy of the title were self-assured, slightly cocky, walked with a bit of a swagger, and seemed altogether unconcerned with what anyone else thought of them. They seemed to know who they were and were unafraid to express themselves.

    Now that I’m becoming more involved in the blogging world, coolness has become a bit of an issue for me once again. Occasionally, when I’m getting dressed, I question if a “cool” blogger would approve of my outfit. But I remind myself that ultimately, being unique is cool. Being confident is cool. Being an individual is cool. Being courageous is cool. And that’s what I strive to be.

    By the way, Katherine Hepburn is also my definition of cool, as is Greta Garbo, Mae West, Bessie Smith, Isadora Duncan, and Tori Amos. All strong, outspoken, completely individual women.

    • Heidi/The Closet Coach

      Ditto ditto ditto.

      It’s interesting how we think we’ve left the world of junior high and high school behind, with its over-emphasis on cliques and caste and who was cool and who was not, and then we realize that we’re creating new hierarchies for ourselves: do they like me at work? am I one of the “cool” bloggers? what would So-and-So think?

      And I love both the Hepburns for their unique, individual, indomitable qualities.

  19. Sarah

    As my friend Gabe says, coolness is an effortless balance of Passionately Engaged and Totally Jaded. I think I’m incredibly cool, which I’m sure makes nobody else think I am. But as long as I think it, I live in bliss.

  20. Terri

    I never really thought of myself as cool. I’m pretty dorky and proud of it! πŸ˜€

  21. Audi

    Coolness is such a subjective quality; I suspect that many of the people we think of as cool don’t actually think of themselves in that way. That’s the elusive part; TRYING to be cool pretty much automatically guarantees that you’re not, while not knowing or worrying about whether you’re cool is a huge step to getting there.

    I’ve never thought of myself as cool; especially in high school where it really counted. But years later I ran into a guy I’d always had a crush on in school, and he told me, “You were the coolest girl in school.” What?!? So if I’d had the courage to actually talk to him instead of acting shy (which probably *seemed* aloof), I’d have blown the cover I didn’t even know I had. Perception is everything, I guess.

  22. NIcole

    Growing up I felt pretty uncool. As the slightly overweight, shy, middle kid who had severe asthma and could not play sports I felt alienated most of the time. Both of my sisters were very athletic, outgoing with large group of friends and boys knocking on their windows at night…me…not so much. I thought they were the coolest ever. I think back then I associated cool with being socially accepted by your peers.

    Now as I have gotten older, I think my definition of cool is more in line with Elissa’s in that cool is about confidence. And I am certainly a lot more confident at the age of 35 than I have ever been in my life. I am comfortable in my body, I no longer feel ashamed of my weight or try to hide in the back of the room. I stand up straight, speak up when I want to be heard and have no problems declaring my love for things that are nerdy and geeky. I try to acknowledge and be true to my own likes and dislikes and that is reflected in the way I dress. If I want to wear a crinoline and full out vintage inspired outfit to work one day and the next wear jeans and sneakers…I have no problem wearing both outfits with confidence as long as it reflects how I am feeling that day.

    Do I feel cool? I am not sure…but do I feel confident in who I am…hell yeah!

  23. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Some people have called me “cool” but I have NEVER thought of myself that way. I think I am warm, self-conscious, and a little nerdy. With age, though, I do see that I am more unflappable and more confident — so I guess that could be “cool”. Not a goal though : >

  24. Lisa Z

    Sal, this must be why I like you! I can so relate to this post! I too wanted so badly to be “cool” in junior high and consulted all my “cool” friends about it (comb in back pocket?), but then I largely got over it in high school and college. Probably because I a) had a boyfriend who was in love with me; b) had good friends (finally) and c) was happy. However, now that I’ve turned 40 and my own kids are at the jr. high stage, I think I’m going through a second adolescence myself. I am TERRIBLY worried about being so uncool and awkward. I have NO IDEA what I want to be wearing, and feel uncomfortable and either over- or under-dressed much of the time. My body is not what it used to be. I have been a SAHM for years and now see a different future opening up and have no.idea. what to do with it. My DD12 is way more beautiful and cool (but in a sweet kind of way) than I ever was or will be, and I swear, THAT is making me feel unsecure! Do other mothers go through a time of panic when their daughters start to become beautiful young women?! Is this why so many middle-aged women are dressing like teen-agers nowadays?! Because, I don’t want to go there but I want to look good and sexy (for my husband) and feel good in my skin. I really hope I get over this very soon, because I hate being so self-conscious again.

    • Sal

      Oh Lisa, I am SURE you’re not alone! I’ll try to open up a thread soon to get more input!

      • Anonymous

        Thank you! I would love to see some discussion on this. I’d love to see more in general from mothers of teen-agers…I do recall my mom might have gone through a similar phase when I was in junior high, as she became a compulsive shopper at about that time, remains so to this day, and I don’t want to do that.

      • Lynn

        I can totally relate to this! Even though I am the mother of boys, I feel insecure when the darling teenage girls come over with their beautiful hair and skin just at a time when my body and hair seem to have been taken over by an outside force. I think it is especially hard when statements like “forty is the new thirty” are all around us, and there are very few examples of attractive, normal women in the media.

        • Lisa Z

          Lynn, I agree. I am beginning to have some real issues with the whole “40 is the new 30” message. For one thing, I don’t FEEL 30 or look 30 nor do I want to go back there. I also don’t feel very confidant at 40, however, even though there’s all these messages out there saying I should get over it, not worry about it, do whatever I want. Well, what do I want? Heck if I know! I don’t think I’m in a mid-life crisis (maybe that’s coming) so much as in a 2nd, awkward adolescence. Not fun. But I guess just like Jr. High, this too will end.

          Oh, and “anonymous” above was me, thanking you Sally for your comment. Not sure it went to “anonymous”.

          Lisa Z

        • Eleanorjane

          Not a mother, but as an ex teenager and ex-high school teacher one point to add is that those unbelievably stunning teenage girls usually don’t realise that they’re unbelievably stunning. Also, they would never compare themselves to someone more than a couple of years older than themselves. As a teacher, the younger teens didn’t really think I was an actual person. They almost thought I lived in a cupboard at school and just came out to interact with them!

          So, I guess the comparisons are in your head, not theirs. Probably doesn’t help, I can imagine that it’s a tricky time of life, but exciting too, to be able to reinvent yourself.

  25. Amber

    I have moments where I feel “cooler” than most of the time. Yesterday, I wore an outfit that included a black shirt, olive green capris, a silver chain and black gladiator sandals. And other than the fact that my capris are so large on me now that I have to belt them, I felt kinda “cool.” I guess black really is the color of coolness.

    I have this picture of me modeling a new-at-the-time gray military-style jacket I’d bought that afternoon (gray is the other color of cool). I can tell just by looking at the picture that I felt “cool.” I wasn’t scowling, but I had this measured smile (not a big, goofy one), my eyes were closed ever so slightly and I was leaning on the wall.

    I’m surprised at the fact that even I–the dorky, always-weird-looking facially deformed girl–can feel “cool” even on occasion. But apparently I can.

  26. Kate K

    I think that my idea of cool has changed. The people who I thought were cool in middle school and high school all had that detached air about them, whereas I was the loud enthusiastic choir and theater nerd who couldn’t remain detached if you paid me. Now, though, the people I consider cool are those people who are interested in the world, have interesting hobbies and make wonderful conversationalists. They’re not trying to be cool, they just are. (To quote Yoda, “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” Oops, I think my nerd is showing :D)

    When I’m trying to dress cool (cooly?), I channel my inner “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.” That song just epitomizes cool to me both in its sound (that opening!) and its swagger. So, in my head, cool equals a classic sheath dress made to fit me perfectly i.e. flatter my curves and my 5’10” frame.

  27. jcb

    I’ve also been thinking about this one, and I think you’re especially on to something when you mention cool as being effortless. If there’s anything I’ve observed over the years (and it’s all the more striking as it applies to all areas of life, not just dress), it’s that effort is not cool. A crumpled white button-down and faux-mussed hair is cool, an outfit composed of accessories carefully matched around a bright turquoise skirt is decidedly not. Just the same as the kid in school who writes a highly-praised essay claiming that she only worked on it for an hour the night before…somehow this kid is not only viewed as cooler, but also somehow smarter, than the one who admits to having spent weeks drafting and editing to produce similar results. It’s true on the level of social interactions, too. People who are conversant in quick and ironic repartee make conversation seem effortless, and are usually considered cooler and more interesting than those who think about their answers, pause between thoughts, and show some signs of not being totally comfortable in the situation.

    What’s interesting is that we like to see the end product of what undoubtedly takes effort – a mussed “look,” a stellar essay, conversation skills – but we don’t want to SEE the effort behind it. I guess that’s why there’s something about coolness that has always struck me as a bit dishonest, in the way it seems to promote concealment and denial of parts of oneself, usually to the detriment of people who fall victim to it. It strikes me as particularly unfortunate that many of these people are children.

    • Sal

      Totally agree. “Unstudied” and “effortless” are both looks that typically take some serious crafting, but we try to pretend they don’t.

  28. Diane

    There’s nothing COOLER than marching to your own beat.

  29. Casey

    Well I’ve always thought you were cool, Sally! πŸ™‚ Not in the “aloof” way that we (especially as women) seem to equate with “cool”, but in a “she’s an amazingly talented and cool woman; I’d love to be friends with her!” way. There is something to be said for that brand of cool, over the ever-put-together and chic cool. (What I like to call the “fashionable” cool. The sort that James Dean had as well as all fashion models seem to.) In my eyes, there are many sorts of “cool”; my brand of cool is a sewing/fashion history geeky-cool. And I embrace it. Because ultimately that model-esque gaze and head to toe black just ain’t me. πŸ˜‰

  30. LinB

    I think there are at least two commonly-held definitions of the concept of “cool.” One connotation is that intangible quality of always seeming to be on the cutting edge of popular trends, and/of of setting those trends. These “cool cats” are usually rich and famous, or at least celebrated. Another connotation is the quality of being part of the popular, in-crowd in one’s immediate community. These persons may or may not be pleasant to be around, or worthy of emulation. I’ve always preferred to be with persons who are comfortable in their own skins, no matter their age, gender, or social position.

  31. Laura Elaine

    This is such a great topic, that I think “cool” people would shudder to think was being discussed ;). I have always felt painfully self-conscious about my appearance, but at the same time, always felt I was cool. I was blessed to discover early that the “normal” things the “cool” kids were doing wasn’t where it was at. I definitely got snarky comments from girls who discovered I didn’t go tanning, or preferred reading magazines to gossiping backstage during dance practice. I did my own thing, and that ultimately made me more comfortable and more happy.

    I won’t say I’ve always been bullet proof, but I did discover early that 1) I had a great personality and 2) (and more importantly) I *liked* my personality! I think that’s where the crux of “coolness” starts. You carry yourself differently when you’ve got that going for you.

    It’s all relative of course, and I have always admitted to being a total geek about many, many things. And of course, I feel supremely uncool in some situations. But at the same time, I acknowledge that I just met person A – I’m only scratching the surface and she could be awkward at things I’m an ace at. I also realize that I’m cool in different ways – it doesn’t make me any less cool than anyone.

  32. Stacy

    Cool in high school is completely different than cool to me now. In high school it was about looks and material possessions, and now it is about being an individual, who is comfortable in their own skin and who you want to sit down and have an in-depth conversation.

    Audrey was cool not only for her style, but also for her humanitarian efforts. I don’t know if I am cool or not. I think I am interesting based on my life experiences and my creative efforts. That is a sort of cool-ness. πŸ™‚

  33. candice

    I would say that I am capable of acting cool, but only in an artificial and aloof way. I cultivated this side of me through performance; as a classical soprano, it is often necessary to appear very cool and collected on stage. I think this is part of what people believe they’re paying for.

    In real life, I refrain from doing this because I like to connect to people on a tangible level. To anyone who knows me, I’ve always been a dork. My interests range from Andrew Lloyd Webber to chemistry.

    Also, the comparison between the two Hepburns reminded me of The Philadelphia Story–remember Hepburn’s central conflict in that movie? Of course this was just one of her characters, but seeing her struggle with that aloofness seemed almost real (guess she was just a great actress). πŸ™‚

  34. sarah

    So much to say here, hard to pick what is most important! One, I don’t consider myself cool. But I will say that,, in striving to be myself and be at home with myself, I think I present an image that generates the response that cool generates.

    I dress for my students. I do my hair, pick accessories, steam wrinkles, give them bright colours and pattern mixing to look at on dark winter days. It’s an effort. But I think because it is a consistent effort, that people forget the effort and assume it is easy. In my building, everyone assumes “of course, Sarah can pull ____ off” because I consistently experiment and have fun. It’s the not taking oneself too seriously that seems to make others take you seriously – do you know what I mean?

    I also put a lot of effort into my work. My profs laugh about my compulsive preparations, the way I constantly doubt my own ideas. When I teach, I prepare detailed lesson plans, reading and rereading material several times beforehand, etc. But at the same time, I have no problem telling my students that something is “just my opinion” and encouraging them to make their own choices, or admitting when I don’t have an answer for a question or haven’t read something that they bring into conversation. Nevertheless, a former student told me this summer that I “own the room” when I teach.

    So, what is cool? Is respect cool? Is admiration? Is trusting someone else’s instincts? Is it believing they can pull things off that you can’t, sartorially? Or does cool in the process of erasure (whether that erasure is effected in the gaze or by the cool individual themselves) that hides the effort? I think we can agree that “cool” signals a certain kind of magnetism/attractive power. We can probably also agree that insecurity often prompts the desire or active seeking for cool. In my opinion, there are those who can manipulate the image of cool in order to fashion a self that corresponds to a cultural ideal. But I also think that the person who is comfortable in their own skin creates the same kind of fascination, especially if that person is gregarious, outgoing, warm – it’s the absence of those rough social edges of insecurity and awkwardness that creates a kind of vaccuum about a person, drawing others in, particularly those seeking someone who can make them feel like their own rough edges aren’t so obvious. In this way, you are cool because, by embracing yourself (flaws and all), you create a positive environment that encourages others to come and embrace themselves, too. And obviously it is an attractive power, because look at all the blog readers you have, and how warmly they feel about you.

    Personally – and I’ve said this before, on your neutrals post – I think we’d do best to be really wary of “cool,” particularly as typified in our culture, because it is fraught with issues of class and hierarchy, it’s about illusions and distance rather than reality and connection – and I think these things can be misleading – and damaging. But I’ll stop there for today. πŸ˜‰

  35. Allie

    I adore this post. Even at 36, I often catch myself TRYING to be cool. And if you have to try, you ain’t cool. πŸ™‚ Cool is confidence, and Sally I think you’re a pretty darn cool chick!

    • Lisa Z

      I agree, Allie, cool is confidence. And that’s what I took Sal’s original post to mean. We all want to feel confidant in our own skin, wearing what makes us feel good.

    • spacegeek

      Ding ding ding! GIve this woman a prize! Cool is confidence.

  36. Aziraphale

    This is an interesting topic. It came up several weeks ago when you wrote a post about how neutrals are “cooler” than bright colours. I agreed with what you wrote, and even started a related thread over at YLF:

    So, yes, I am more interested in looking cool than looking pretty or sexy or what have you. Whether or not I actually FEEL cool varies a lot, and depends heavily on my accomplishments at the time. While it’s true that looking cool can sometimes translate to a lot of posturing (especially for teenagers), what REALLY makes people cool is the awesome stuff that they can do. So if I do or achieve something that took a lot of effort to learn and skill to pull off, then yes, I feel cool (even more so if my hair is particularly awesome that day).

    That’s why the pouty models in glossy magazines don’t impress me all that much. They’re very pretty, yes, but since I don’t know what they can do, I don’t really see them as cool. But if, for example, I see a person play a musical instrument dazzlingly well, or if I know that they are a rock star at, say, computer programming — well, those things don’t automatically make the person cool, because he or she has to have poise and a certain effortless-looking style, too, but the actual skills account for a huge part of their coolness. Whether you pout a lot or smile all the time, it doesn’t affect your “coolness quotient” at all, in my view!

  37. Cel

    I am so not cool. I’m a frolicking, hopping, whirling twirlwind of un-coolness. I think I was just meant to be making happy faces and curious faces and if I try to look cool I just wind up looking like there’s an exhausted mask of skin on my face trying to slide off.

    I absolutely adore Kathrine Hepburn in The African Queen. Love that film!

  38. masha

    Funny, I definitely consider Katherine to be the cooler Hepburn. Audrey is more coquettish. She strikes me as a people pleaser, which is pretty much the opposite of my definition of cool. To me, Cool = you do your own thing/Uncool = desperate for approval. Being really cool is about making interesting choices. But the main thing is not constantly seeking approval.

  39. Sal

    I love you people so much. What a fabulous array of opinions and ideas about the nature of coolness. I learn so much from you. Seriously.

  40. Elle

    I’ve never been cool in the “popular kid” sense, and I never will be. But I think the people I surround myself with think I’m cool, and I think they’re all cool too. That’s what friendship/companionship is, right?

  41. Postdoc

    Traditional “cool” is pretty in pictures but boring in real life. I haven’t thought about whether or not I’m “cool” in years, so your post got me thinking. “Cool” depends on what other people think – and I don’t really care that much about what others think. I’ve always, always been a total nerd and marched to my own drummer, and I keep growing into myself as I get older. In the past few years I’ve gotten a Ph.D. in biophysics, met and married the love of my life, realized what amazing friends and family I have, and survived and emerged stronger from a very serious illness and have the surgical scars to remind me every day. I’m whip-smart and fiercely independent and witty, and grin, crack jokes, and pull pranks incessantly. I’m fun at parties, pretty good at Rock Band, and make a mean cocktail from stuff we grow in our garden. I’ve decided to forgo a lucrative career in industry to stay in academia and pursue research curing diseases, because I’m passionate about what I do. I shop at thrift stores because I like the one-of-a-kind pieces, helping the environment by repurposing, and finding designer clothes for $5 makes me feel like I’m getting away with something. Sure, I don’t have beautiful pouty pictures on a style blog – I don’t have the time, nor the inclination. But thinking about it now, you know what? I’m happy with myself. And I think that’s all pretty cool.

  42. Dionne

    I am a geek. Always have been. An SF&F reading, oboe-playing, top marks goody-two shoes geek. And as a teenager, I wanted badly to be cool, to be popular, to have boys pay me attention. It was an awkward, lonely stage.

    Thank goodness for adulthood. I’m the same way I’ve always been, but now I like my dorky self. For me, that’s the best thing about getting older. I’ll be 40 this fall, and I’ve never felt more comfortable in my skin than I do now. I will never be cool, and I’m fine with that.

    But interestingly enough, I’ve turned out to be a cool mom, or so my proud-to-be-geeky teenagers tell me. I’m the laid-back, “Come on in!”, up on the latest youtube memes mother. A couple of months ago, I got talking with some of my sons’ friends about books, and later one of them said to Thing2, “Dude! Your mom knows who Chia Mieville is? She is awesome!” My sons aren’t part of the cool crowd either, but they’re far more fine with it than I ever was, and there’s something strangely satisfying in being a “geek mentor” fpr their group.

  43. Kate K

    Sal, I was just thinking about your comment about Katharine Hepburn seeming less aloof to you. I’ve always like Kate and I don’t find her one bit aloof. But, this whole conversation reminded me of Kate in The Philadelphia Story, where her character’s big issue is that everyone thinks she’s this ice queen and puts her up on this pedestal. Her fiancee tells her “You’re like some marvelous, distant, well, queen, I guess. You’re so cool and fine and always so much your own. There’s a kind of beautiful purity about you, Tracy, like, like a statue.” Yet another definition of cool I suppose. (And one I would never want given to me…)

  44. Melissa Blake

    I never used to think i was cool either. especially with my disability, i’d see other people and think they had it all. but as i’ve gotten older, i’ve realized that cool is all about you…being happy with who you are and not caring what anyone else thinks. THAT, to me, is the ultimate in cool!

  45. Vildy

    I don’t associate those disconnected, disaffected fashion images with “cool.” I think of cool as being hip – more aware, open-minded, live and let live. The people at a gathering who are checking out other people (for coolness?) are not cool. The people who are not checking out other people are cool. They’re the ones who are attending to the spirit of the event. Not looking for how to better present themselves for the event. If you focus on putting others at ease, learning about them, having fun with them… then you’re automatically cool because you don’t have the time to worry about who is cool and who is not.

    It’s like shyness. The cure for shyness is to leave off thinking about oneself and put other people at ease, as though one were the host of the event;

  46. Loren

    Yes there is the ‘cool’ aloof person in the all black.
    But a girl I really admired told me once that ‘Being cool is about treating everyone like they are ‘cool’. (She was totally ‘cool’) Being nice, confident, interested and enthusiastic about what they talk about (they same way you might to a ‘cool’ girl in high school). Not to a fault clearly. But in high school a lot of ‘popular’ kids were mean to the band geeks, the smart kids, the goths, or whoever. The ‘cool’ kids were nice and friendly to everyone which MADE them popular. And treating everyone this way does I think make you appear more confident.
    Sure dressing in a flattering way and keeping up with your personal hygiene also helps. But I do think it is 90% confidence.
    I’ve never been a ‘cool’ kid in my own mind, I still see myself as the social awkward band geek I was in high school. But a number of my friends have assured me that I am ‘cool’. πŸ˜‰

  47. meg

    This is an interesting conversation. I think I am cool, somehow, but as soon as I type it I feel like saying I am cool is the very dorkiest thing I could say. Funny how that fits with the seeming effortlessness that cool exudes. Cool is about not officially owning your coolness. I don’t quite know what to make of it but it is an interesting thought puzzle.

  48. Eleanorjane

    To me, cool in terms of clothing is an effortless, eclectic, fashion forward look. Someone who would wear unusual local designers, have a cutting edge haircut and hand crafted ‘design-y’ jewellery.

    I’m happy not being an ‘early adopter’ when it comes to fashion/ style trends. I generally get there, but it takes me a while to adjust. I do worry that I can dress older than my age i.e. what I’m wearing today could easily be worn by a 40 or 50 year old… I feel the need to keep watching that.

  49. retro reva

    hi Sal πŸ™‚
    I too often ponder “what is the essence of cool” ( a Buffy quote, see no cool here πŸ˜‰
    My hubby has always evoked the cool factor, probably why i fell for him, hoping it would (might) rub off…………..
    He is Anti – goofy on the outside, but has allowed me to see the inner goofiness that makes him real.
    It’s funny, but sometimes i do feel kinda cool, usually during a loud music episode or a great black outfit.
    i think cool can be a form of masking insecurity, but then I see the REALLY cool bloggers who never seem to let me sneak a peek of their inner goofy.
    My Hubs once said that cool is actually the exact opposite of cool, which blew my mind completly.
    So I asked him what “cool” things he sees in me, the answer was ‘my lack of fear to be real, clumsy, talky and dress in “weird” stuff and my ability to love whole heartedly.
    So that’s cool? I asked.


  50. Carmen

    Firstly, it depends upon what I am doing.. I feel cool when talking about music or art b/c I feel like I like cool shit. I feel very un-cool exercising cuz I am SO not an athlete, but I’m improving.

    Secondly, I love you! In a purely platonic, “I read your blog” kind of way. You overthink things wonderfully πŸ™‚

  51. Cynthia @ Go Chic or Go Home

    I think goofy, overly enthusiastic, and dorky is cool…so yes, I am cool. And so are you for that matter.

    At 34 I don’t care much about fitting in or emulating some general embodiment of “cool”. I just roll with what works for me, and enjoy a super geeked out life with my equally dorky husband. The way I see it, if someone is going to be all judgy (sp?) and say I’m not “cool”, then I probably wouldn’t like them anyway so who cares.

    And I LOVE Audrey. I always got the impression that she would be a bit bookish and nerdy in “real life”. Plus, she had a deer named Pippin…for a pet. Nickname was Ip. That’s goofy.

    • Postdoc

      Love this!! I agree 100% with your philosophy. I too “enjoy a super geeked out life with my equally dorky husband”, and I love it, can’t imagine life any other way. πŸ™‚

  52. Anna D.

    I don’t *think* I’m cool, but I have always, always wanted to be cool – not so much in the sense that everyone liked me but almost literally cool, in the sense that I always wanted to seem like nothing and no one could bother me. The downside is that I think striving to be cool in this sense can come across as being uninterested or unapproachable. I nonetheless do still strive to be cool, because to be consistently warm and open equates, for me, to being too vulnerable. (I guess if you see the choices as going for respect or love, I try for respect. Not that these qualities are either-or, it’s just that’s how it operates in my head.)

    “Cool” clothes do make a difference to me – I do tend to stick to neutrals, especially black and charcoal; I love the way you combine colors and I love accents of color, but I would probably be uncomfortable wearing a lot of your color combinations myself. I also strongly avoid patterns – geometrics can be okay, and I don’t mind pinstripes, but softer patterns are no go, and definitely not florals. Again, these are lovely on other people, but I don’t like them for me.

    One of the most frustrating things about gaining weight (about 35 pounds in the last 10 years) is that I find it very hard to imagine “cool” and elegant combining any way with fat. Being “cool” requires being bone thin and tiny like Audrey Hepburn. (Never mind she was so small due to shortages of food as a child!) For instance, it’s harder to find really well-tailored clothing when you’re fat, and elastic waists are, generally, to me the very antithesis of cool. I do know many incredibly cool and elegant fat women (I read many elegant cool bloggers!), but I, personally, don’t *feel* cool at this weight. (Okay, so I never really feel cool, but my clothes feel even less cool now.)

  53. Anne

    My notions about what is cool have changed over the years as has my relationship with being cool. As a kid I was something akin to being an army brat. We moved every two years and that meant that every other year I was the new kid. Being the new kid is hard but it also automatically imbues you with a cool factor of sorts. You are an unknown quantity and that can make you interesting. Being the new kid also allows you to learn from your mistakes and as I went from new school to new school, I could pick and choose which parts of myself I wanted to share. Eventually we settled down in one spot. I was no longer the new kid and I’m sure my stock as the cool kid sank. One important lesson I learned about being cool: Cool people, and here I’m equating cool with being popular, can be careless. If the supply of admirers is plentiful, it doesn’t matter if you offend a few people along the way, there will always be more. It is when the popularity subsides that you learn important lessons about being kind and being genuine and appreciating people. I now lean more towards Loren’s point that really cool people treat everyone else as if they are really cool people.

    I also now equate being cool with being comfortable in your own skin. It’s knowing that you have both assets and shortcomings and being able to embrace them both. I know I will always be a work in progress and I won’t be “perfect” most of the time. People that are cool in my book understand that being unique and flawed is a good and that being perfect (in that Hitchcock/ James Dean kind of cool) is boring.

    My extra 2 cents: I love both the Hepburns. Audrey had a fragility and vulnerability, and according to Edith Head, serious figure flaws. (too skinny and flat chested) Kate was bold and brazen and her most un-sexy trait: she was whip smart. My impression of Kate is that she knew how to hold her liquor, her convictions, and her end of the conversation. How cool is that?

  54. Francesca

    Sally, there’s a recent picture in The Sartorialist that reminded me of your post a couple of weeks ago where many readers felt that to be cool meant dressing predominantly in neutrals, and black in particular. Check out this young lady — she oozes “cool” (at least by my definition) yet is dressed in bright warm colors.

  55. Ms. M

    I know a handful of people who’ve tried way too hard, throughout their lives, to be perceived as “cool”– wearing the hippest clothes, listening to the hottest new bands, etc. They put down other people whose taste differs from theirs.

    It has not served them well. It’s like they’re stuck in this immature rut. And they come off as arrogant. Nobody’s trying to emulate them, that’s for sure.

    As far as dressing cool (neutrals) vs. warm (colorful), I think that is something related, but slightly different. I prefer a cool, minimalist, neutral look for my own wardrobe. But that’s more a matter of comfort and suitability than me trying to be better or more fashionably modern than someone else.

    However, there are certain people that I perceive as stereotypically “cool”. They do dress a certain way, but the biggest defining factors, I think, are confidence and effortlessness.

  56. Lisa Walter

    WOW…Sally; you nailed it! One of the best post I have ever read. I’m not cool, never have been, use to care a lot, don’t care at all now. You are correct…the bulk of coolness is posturing!!!!!

  57. MelD

    Is aloof cool? Interesting, I think I am often considered aloof because I usually prefer to do stuff on my own, a bit of a loner. And never in my life have I been “cool” societally! Being smart at school, being the first to have a child when others went off to uni, having ‘intellectual’ interests, have always prevented me from being cool, I think. Also I am physically short and curvy so that never looks fashionably cool!! I will wear chic mediterranean black or my favoured colourful stuff and just get looked at for being different, it always seems disapproving somehow, which stops me feeling confident, but as I get older I get more resilient so accept being considered strange better than I used to. Those who know me know that I am warm and effusive and vry smiley, almost always positive and cheerful and fairly outspoken. These days I get my confidence more from feeling competent, so confident dressing helps. I try to add a dash of myself to the more accepted style of where I live, though secretly I’d love to be a Dita von Teese… so cool πŸ˜‰

  58. Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy

    Ha! I was formulating my own thoughts as I was reading, and then was delighted to see we were heading the same direction. It’s taken me years to figure this out, but I too would rather be warm than cool.

    As an introvert, I find “cool” an easy and comfortable posture. People will admire you from afar but will hesitate to approach you. I finally realized I’d rather be likable!

  59. Kookoo

    Teaching high school gives me a front seat to cool. Confidence is cool. I often profess”I’m the coolest nerd you will ever meet”! It evens the playing field in a style/ looks focused environment. I’m sure my quirky fashion doesn’t hurt either.

  60. Anne

    People tell me I’m cool. I’m geeky as hell, rarely if ever wear black and I most definitely don’t try to act cool. I laugh at myself a lot. They still tell me I’m cool. I try not to listen, of course πŸ˜‰

    In my case I think it’s about having finally come to terms with who and what I am. I’m wearing clothes that portray my own style (which is nothing special in itself) and carrying myself with pride but trying to remain humble.

  61. Jill

    Fantastic post. I have never felt particulary cool and tried REALLY hard during my teen years. Maybe a brand or style could make me feel cool for a fleeting moment, but then I was back to being awkward and insecure.

    I think you’re exactly right about posturing and such. It isn’t always intentional. Those who I thought were so cool back in the day, come to find out in our adult lives, felt just like me.

    I’ll be linking this on FB today!

  62. Nelly

    The funny thing about “being cool” for me is that no matter how long I try to portray the aloof kind of cool, I end up breaking into a goofy dance once I know I am in good company! As a self-confessed geek, I don’t think much of trying to be, yet I am pleasantly surprised when people tell me that I was/am cool — was=not over-reacting in high-school interpreted as cool, and am=because I am comfortable being my goofy self. And the latter is what I see it to be really, you are cool when you are accepted as you are.