Fashion and Permission

style clothes permission

Style is a vast, intimidating realm of topics, choices, and tastes. And as time goes on, it just becomes more intimidating as more wearable options present themselves and social expectations about coverage, chicness, and variety flux and expand. This, I believe, is why style rules are so popular. For many of us, having some sort of expert-blessed guidelines for what works and what doesn’t, what’s fashionable and what’s passé can help us navigate the realm of personal style with some measure of confidence.

But these rules also set us up to believe that there are absolute rights and wrongs in style. They lead us to believe that we “need” certain things that we might not, and that certain other things can only be loved in secret. Style rules train us to feel like we cannot make our own decisions about what we want to and can wear.

I encountered this frequently when I was working with clients. If a woman had become interested in style by reading magazines or books or by watching the current glut of style-related TV shows, much of our work together involved matters of permission. Many women become convinced that they “cannot” wear cropped pants, that a wardrobe comprised entirely of neutrals is bad, that they must hold onto their sheath dresses because they’re classic, damn it! It felt a bit weird to be the person who came swooping in to say, “No, actually you can wear whatever you’d like. Yes, of course you can continue buying and wearing neutrals. By all means, get rid of those sheaths. You certainly aren’t utilizing them.” All it took was a word from me, and I could see relief washing over my clients. They needed permission from someone before they could let go and move on, and I was often that person. I always hoped that, by the end of the consult, they felt less constrained and more free to make choices and trust those choices. But it didn’t always work out that way. These patterns are drilled into us over the years and can be tough to eradicate.

I’m a permission-seeker myself, so I want to be very clear that I don’t scorn people who feel this way about style and fashion rules. If you’re working within a realm that falls outside your personal comfort zone, getting approvals and input from trusted authorities is a wise course of action. That said, I want to gently remind everyone who is within earshot that style is fluid and social and complex. Boiling it down to “rights” and “wrongs” can feel safe and reassuring, and if that’s what is most helpful to you at this point in your journey, learn and stick to the rules that make sense to you. But boiling it down to “rights” and “wrongs” can also feel constricting, especially if you’ve been a rule-follower for ages and are aching to break free. So the next time you find yourself at a fashion crossroads, wishing that Rachel Zoe was there to give you the answer, try to trust your gut. The only permission you really need is your own.

Originally posted 2013-09-06 06:34:20.

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24 Responses to “Fashion and Permission”

  1. Aya

    Your articles about style rules and realizing their flexibility always leave me thinking about how style influences from early life might mold our patterns of thinking later.

    For example, for women, female figures and how they dressed or male family members and how they reacted may have played a role, as well as fashion magazines.

    In my family, my aunts dress like farmers, my grandmother dressed like a nice lady, and my father dresses like a homeless person (sounds mean, but he has actually been mistaken by workplace security.) so I wonder if that influenced my “Haha! Anything goes!” approach.

  2. LinB

    Oh, such a liberating philosophy! In my own experience, whenever my dear mother tells me, “Oh, I wouldn’t wear that!” (or “paint it that color,” or “fix that to eat”) the cosmos is telling me “Wear that!” “Paint it that color!” “Fix that to eat!”

    More than fifty years on the planet have given me a broad expanse of choices that she never had, in her growing up. I honor her and I listen to her advice, but don’t always follow it. Same for any expert, in any field. They are recognized as experts in their fields for a reason, but what they are “selling” is not always something that you should “buy.” Part of being a grownup is making your own choices. That’s the grand, empowering part about being a grownup. That is also the great burden of being a grownup.

  3. Sue

    Speaking of sheath dresses, I have two in two different shades of grey and love them but never wear them because I just don’t know how to style them in a fun and funky way. Any thoughts?

  4. Linda L

    Thanks for this, Sally. One thing I love about the current fashion era is that there is no one way to be stylish. There are so many choices and mixing of styles that it allows for creativity and really making a look your own. I think those advice shows can be helpful for some people who are just overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, but I always feel that the experts should mention something like these are just general guidelines, don’t think that you have to do this exact thing, feel free to personalize the look.

    Sue, on the sheath dresses – scarves or statement necklaces or in cooler weather, colored tights and booties could add interest. If you have a denim or leather jacket, see how that looks over them.

    • sue

      Linda, you make a good point, but one thing that annoys me nowadays are the constant caveats everyone has to add after they give advice. “That’s just my opinion..”, “It may not be right for everyone..”, etc. It annoys me, I guess b/c I think those things are obvious. It should not have to be said every time someone expresses their opinion or gives advice. Experts are experts for a reason, and if someone is coming to them for their advice, they shouldn’t need to constantly remind people that they don’t have to take that advice.

      • sue

        Could you imagine if doctors and lawyers constantly ended their statements with “that’s just my opinion, feel free to disregard it?”?

  5. tracy_a

    I keep a white button-down – but never wear it – I just think if I don’t have it, I will be tempted to buy one when I hear it’s a “must-have”. Hmmm – maybe it’s time to toss it and the idea. It just doesn’t work for me.

  6. WideCurves

    “These patterns are drilled into us over the years and can be tough to eradicate.”


    And thank you.

    I performed a big “closet purge” not long ago; however, I kept quite a few nice (and new) pieces I thought might be wearable after alterations, or I was reluctant to part with because I searched so long to find….and truth is, they won’t ever work for me, again.

    Purge #2 this weekend.

  7. Monica H

    Thak you so much Sal for continuing to spread this message. I am a person who likes to operate with rules in life. They help give me structure and I’m a master in my engineering life of working within the rules and guidelines to find a solution. It’s how I do my best work. I can be incredibly creative within boundaries and constraints.

    Until I read your blog, I honestly had never connected the dots to understand that I was taking fashion advice as if it were the laws of physics, rather than just some person’s (generally biased) opinion. If a magazine said, “Fall’s 10 Must-Haves!” – I’d actually expect that those things were somehow necessary. When I’d look at the strange collection of items and think, “I can’t imagine ever owning any of these, much less needing to,” I’d then declare myself hopelessly unfashionable. Somehow I never connected that these looks could be inspirational (or not), they weren’t some kind of formula for how to compute style.

    I had a breakthrough in this area this week that I owe to your blog. I bought a way-fab pair of magenta Cole Haan oxfords with orangey-pink soles. I almost didn’t buy them, thinking that I didn’t know what to wear them with, but at the moment in the store I had the confidence in myself that I would find a way to style them, because I LOVED them. Upon getting home, I googled ways to style them – and most advice said to style with boyfriend jeans or a full ‘ladylike’ skirt to balance the masculine shoes. Hmm… for a moment I was stuck. I don’t have (or particularly care for) boyfriend jeans, and full frilly ladylike closthes just aren’t my style. Drat. Guess I don’t know how to style these.

    And then I hear Sally’s voice whispering in my ear. Wait!! Who says I can’t wear these with a pencil skirt? Who says I can’t wear them with skinny pants? Or bootcut jeans? Who cares if these are ‘too masculine?’ I don’t!! They’re my awesome new purple shoes, dangit! I wore them with a denim pencil skirt, button down shirt, and a blazer. All the marketing guys (the most fashionable people of either gender in my office) said they loved the look and they loved the new shoes! It was a very ‘me’ look. WIN!

    • Sally

      Monica, you just made my day. Actually, week. I’m honored to hear that my blog has given you some support as you explore your own style, and SO glad you sprung for those oxfords! They sound AMAZING, and you are clearly going to rock the hell out of them.

      • Monica H

        Thank YOU Sal! I will be sure to send you a pic the next time I wear them. Which will be soon, and with whatever the heck I want. 🙂

    • Aya

      It’s so true! I often Google search or Google image search for ideas on how to style things. Sometimes it is helpful, and sometimes I’ll exclaim aloud, “Argh, they are all wearing the *same bleeping thing*!” and then to heck with the whole hog and try something completely different.

  8. Nebraskim

    LinB: the Voice of Mom is hard to lose sometimes. My mother says things like, “oh. you’re wearing that.” or “so. do you like your hair that way?” Her judgey tone makes me question everything. Sigh.

    • LinB

      At least I’ve been able to tune out the Voice of Mom-echo that used to play in my head, when she wasn’t around to actually speak to me, lol! Cheer up. It gets better. Trust your instincts. Smile a lot at your mother (she’ll love it, and it helps keep your jaw locked when tempted to talk back at her).

  9. Scarlet

    I’ve been mulling over this “permission” concept recently myself. I don’t keep up with fashion much, but I do know what flatters me, and I am often complimented on my choice of clothing and my color sense. However, I feel very out of step with the mainstream when it comes to the formality of my clothing. I would say I dress about on the level I see on this blog. In other words, I select tailored clothes that may (gasp) sometimes need ironing, and I wear them with appropriate undergarments and real shoes. Although, I consider this to be ordinary and appropriate daytime wear for an adult, it does seem that most women in my age range (30-40) in my city are wearing yoga pants, tank tops, flip-flops, and visible undergarments for their daytime look. I assume that women who work do not (cannot) do this, but the women I see out shopping, strolling, dining in restaurants, or relaxing in the coffeeshop are invariably attired this way, to the point where I begin to feel conspicuous in anything from an ordinary skirt and blouse to a sundress to even jeans with a nicer top. I wear makeup and style my hair (with brushed-out pincurls or a blowout) as well, and this apparently makes my look utterly over the top. I get checked out by men and women, comments are made, some even want to know why I am so “dressed up.” This “dressy” look might be a simple cotton print dress, sandals, and a bracelet. I would actually like to add more elements to my look, like a wide-brimmed hat on sunny days, but I already feel so conspicuous. Sometimes I change my clothes in an attempt to look worse or sloppier so that I won’t get so many looks.

    I apparently need to give myself permission to care about my appearance in a world where grooming is too often seen as pointless vanity. I received a beautiful gingham vintage reproduction dress recently for my birthday, but I am a bit embarrassed to wear it because of the way tailored and feminine clothes are viewed where I live.

    • Jill

      Scarlet, when I first moved to Georgia, I used to get that too – especially the “why are you so dressed up” question (usually because I was wearing a little a-line skirt and tank in the summer instead of jeans or shorts or (god forbid) yoga pants. I could never understand it, but I’ve never changed my style for it. And now most people who know me, know (or expect) that I will be the one to “bring it” to events or get-togethers…they got used to it and sometimes now I even get “I thought you’d be MORE dressed up” comments. And I do sometimes get looks in my relatively small, fairly conservative, sububurban Southern town (mostly about my shoe choices), but I don’t care. I work from home and most days it’s grubby work, so I like to dress a little when I am out of the house. That could be as simple as a cute top (not a plain tank) with jeans, and some funky heels…but it’s a lot more than most folks around here do.

      Stay true to your style and don’t worry about who’s looking or commenting. Enjoy your way of dressing; life’s too short (IMO) to worry about who’s looking or caring. Actually, maybe your response to “why are you so dressed up?” should be, “why are YOU so dressed down?” *wink*

  10. Jill

    Fascinating. I threw out all “rules” when I left a corporate job (though it took a few years to transition the closet). I wear what I like, when I like, within reason of course. The only question I usually ask is, “Does this make ME feel good?”. If the answer is yes, then I’m ready to roll.

    Just Tuesday (the day after Labor Day) I went out to dinner with my husband, wearing white shoes. And he said, “There was a big discussion today at work about wearing white after Labor Day; some of the girls put their white jeans away, etc” and I said, “STILL?? Are you kidding me?” I don’t even think about it. It still feels like summer in Georgia so I was wearing summery shoes (they’re a strappy platform sandal). 🙂

    I find it fascinating how many people need permissions regarding their wardrobe. I try on and if I like it or find it flattering, I wear it. End of story. I think it must be hard for people to live by so many rules – about something that hardly seems to need rules…the Fashion Police *aren’t* going to come and arrest you. 🙂

  11. sarah

    Sal, I love love love posts like this. They’re like a big ol’ hug from a very thoughtful girlfriend. You create such a safe, warm and welcoming atmosphere for everyone. Thank you!

  12. Cynthia

    This post is yet another reason why I love your blog, Sally. And I’ll take your advice over Rachel Zoe’s any day 😉

  13. sandrine

    Sally: I love to see before & after shots on various style blogs. It’s so helpful.Do you ever post pictures of your style clients?

    • Sally

      Hi Sandrine, the consult process is pretty private and I don’t take before and after photos of my clients because most of them aren’t interested in being featured on a blog. Also the process just isn’t conducive to it – it’s more of a wardrobe and styling overhaul than a before and after process.

      You can read this guest post from one of my online clients about her experience, and there are before and after photos of her in it:

  14. Kay Bug

    <3 this post. <3<3 it. I also agree with the Voice of Mom: It can be hard over the years to eradicate her whispered comments to me and my sister about the woman in my dad's office who was raped, and how it must have been what she was wearing. It NEVER is about that, sorry, mom.

    I have full permission to be publicly sexy and never worry about that violence against me. Never, ever.