Outside Input

style choices opinions
If you put on an outfit that you feel is super cute, but absolutely no one gives you positive reinforcement on it, are you more likely to continue wearing that outfit/type of outfit or would you consider rethinking its composition? Even if we think we make bold personal fashion choices, do we actually inadvertently tailor our personal style based on environment and that we take cues from others – spoken or unspoken – as part of our style evolution?

I think that personal style is heavily influenced by peer, family, coworker, and stranger feedback. Few women who live in rural areas adore pencil skirts with heels, few women living in nursing homes shop at Hot Topic, and very few female corporate lawyers wear Birkenstocks to the office. Peer group feedback – in the form of compliments, questions, looks askance, and outright insults – creates a loop of response, whether we acknowledge it or not. Positive feedback and acceptance help keep group-approved clothing and styles in heavy rotation. Insults and disapproval may provoke initial rebellion and over-wear, but for most of us these doses of negativity eventually lead to the removal of group-shunned clothing and styles from rotation.

Of course we ALSO dress for ourselves, and the choices we make about what we wear reflect our personalities and identities. In fact, how we dress is the one aspect of physical appearance over which we have near-total control: Every outfit is a choice, every purchase an act of power. Even when we buy trendy items because of peer pressure or groupthink, we still STYLE those items in our own ways and wear them on our own, unique bodies. I am certainly not saying that personal style is entirely dictated by the preferences of others.

But I do believe that we cannot help feeling influenced by how the people we encounter react to our stylistic choices. And while a small group may truly not care, and another small group may embrace criticism as encouragement and wear the disdained with pride, most of us will eventually mold our styles to fit within the comfort levels of our peers.

And that is NOT a bad thing. There is nothing shameful about dressing experimentally to see what reactions you can draw, or dressing to accentuate your favorite body bits in hopes of stirring up some compliments, or dressing for mutual comfort depending upon your companions. Dressing is a fluid, creative, expressive activity and needn’t mean the same thing each time you do it. Now, if you feel like you are imprisoned by the expectations and tastes of your friends, family, lover, or coworkers, that is problematic. But there are always ways to dress around a problem and still express yourself, if you tap your latent creativity. Personal style is like a puzzle: You must work within constraints to solve it, but you can take your own path to your personal solution.

Image courtesy MR+G.

Originally posted 2009-06-05 06:06:00.

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34 Responses to “Outside Input”

  1. elena-lu

    yes and no! 🙂
    if the Mr mentions i look good you know i take a mental note and think ok THIS outfit is a keeper! 🙂
    if i get good feedback yes i think it does reinforce 'ok this works on me' if i get negative feedback wait that only happens from my mother! its not so much negative feedback from peers its LACK of feedback that lets me know something that i thought was awesome wasnt as awesome as i thought! but you know what? if i liked wearing it -I'LL WEAR IT AGAIN! so i think i pick and choose when to let it in and make a change so again its me making a choice -do i let that person (s) influence me or not? hmm yes and no

  2. miss cavendish

    Yes and no as well! I tend to be contrary, so I often go against what everyone else is doing.

  3. lopi

    Well, one of the reasons I care about clothes, is because I want to project a certain image to the outside world. This means that a big part of my style decisions are made in an attempt to control what other people think of me. So, yes, it plays quite a big part in the way I dress. And I don't think that's necessarily bad.

  4. Michael McGraw Photography

    If one of my fashionable friends or coworkers comments on something I am wearing, I definitely keep that in mind when I come across that item in my closet.

  5. Laura.

    interesting input, mike! i agree. i also think it is a little cyclical. if i like something and feel comfortable in it, it shows, and i think that when i get compliments on those items, it is not just about the item, but about how i carry myself, etc. (most of which is probably mostly subconscious on my part as well as that of my peers). and then someone gives a compliment, and i think "i do look good! i'll wear this again!" and so i do and the cycle continues. . . . so i think the two go hand in hand.

  6. a brown-eyed grrl

    I think that women who live in rural areas don't wear pencil skirts with heels because it isn't practical, not necessarily because of what her peers think. Corporate lawyers don't wear Birkenstocks because there is a professional dress code.

    I enjoy a compliment, but I don't keep a notebook on what I was wearing in order to duplicate it later. It feels great, but the next morning, I'm still dressing for my mood.

    Also, my work environment is VERY laid back, even though we are a professional organization. Some people actually do wear Birkenstocks. But this just isn't me. One guy in IT said I was "overdressed" in a simple jersey shift dress with low heels, but I truly don't care. I like looking put together. When The Sartorialist is your inspiration, and you live in Austin, Tex., you're bound to have people think you overdress.

  7. Sal

    a brown-eyed grrl: Naturally, heels and a pencil skirt would be impractical in a rural setting … if they were worn for outdoor tasks. But people in rural areas go to the grocery store and to school and to the post office, and such an outfit COULD work for those tasks. If a woman living far outside a major city chose to Mad-Men it up for her errands, she likely could …

    People wear impractical and improbable things all the time in all SORTS of settings. I'm inclined to believe that there are women all over the place who wish they could dress differently – impractically, even, for the environment in which they live – but don't because they fear they'd be ostracized. Or criticized, at the very least.

    And yet, I really do believe that harnessing some of that restrictive input can be beneficial. Even if it's just to learn how hard you can push back on it before you step outside your OWN comfort zone.

  8. K.Line

    I definitely love to get compliments – so if I wear something, and it's a hit, I'm likely to give it another go. But I like styling things crazily sometimes, just to suit my mood.

  9. Sarah R

    This really was an awesome question. I get compliments a lot when I wear blue tops because I have blue eyes. I didn't even realize I was doing it, but now I somehow managed to acquire a sea (get it..the sea is blue? hahaha) of blue tops ranging from turquoise to periwinkle, cornflower to navy, because I enjoyed the compliments so much.
    Now, one thing I didn't follow was the barrage of people commenting "You should cut your hair." I like being known as the girl with the crazy wavy waist length hair. I did get it trimmed a few weeks back just because it was getting badly damaged, but I kept the length and poo on anyone who doesn't like it!

  10. a brown-eyed grrl

    I suppose some woman in the country could possibly secretly desire to dress differently, but as a rural dweller who works in the city, if you don't work in the city, you just wouldn't get much use out of the pencil skirt and heels to justify buying them over clothing more suited for your lifestyle. I suppose you could wear them to the grocery store, then come home and change, but that seems unlikely, to me anyway.

    I ADORE cocktail dresses, for example, but I only own one because they just don't go with my life.

    I guess I'm swayed more by dressing for my life and my tastes, so I don't relate to dressing for peers. If I am wearing something I love, and no one compliments me, that's cool. I can't say I notice. I'm too busy feeling fabulous. 🙂

  11. Legal Editor Mom

    I dress moreso for what the occasion calls for and how I'm feeling, and I'm of course pleased when I receive compliments. I might make a mental note for next time particularly if an outfit is said to be figure flattering or complimentary to my complexion, hair, etc., but for the most part I dress for myself. Dressing nice makes me feel good about myself, so that's my main motivation. 😉

  12. Anna

    Wow, this was so true for me growing up. I grew up in Iowa (a small town, not rural), and everyone there dresses really casually…jeans, t-shirts, sneakers or work boots. Anytime I work anything outside that "uniform" growing up, people would ask me why I was "so dressed up." So it started to make me uncomfortable, and for years I adhered to the same style rules as everyone else. Now that I don't live there anymore, I feel that I have a lot more freedom to make style choices that reflect me, but I'm still working on getting over feeling awkward about being "dressed up." Fortunately, there is no such thing as overdressed where I live now, which makes me feel a lot more comfortable to make interesting choices. Bring on the pencil skirts!

  13. AsianCajuns

    Very thought provoking! In the past, my local friends have definitely questioned my outfit choices. Many of them aren't as interested in fashion as Catherine and I are, and honestly we were not very influenced by their negative reaction (I think I've been a bit snobby and just thought "ahh, they don't get it"). On the flip side though, I know I have been very greatly influenced by fellow bloggers. Because you guys are also interested in personal expression through clothing/fashion/style, I definitely am influenced by what you guys wear and why. That's part of why blogging is such an awesome medium! I know I will continue to be influenced by what you and other bloggers share/ generously give to your readers.

  14. AsianCajuns

    oh ps- I would never negatively respond to friends who aren't interested in fashion. If they want to wear Crocs and Juicy Couture sweatsuits because that makes them feel happy- that is awesome! I wouldn't want to influence someone not particularly interested in style/fashion and give my opinion where it's not wanted 😉

  15. Sal

    AsianCajuns: Me either, Laur. It makes me feel awful when my girlfriends tell me they dressed up especially for me … like a style tyrant!

  16. Sharon Rose

    Hi there-I've been mainly influenced a lot by fellow bloggers and also style magazines-I tend to thrift pieces that inspire me so I don't end up spending a fortune!

  17. Becky

    I can really relate to this post. I work in a law office (in the same zipcode as Tiffany's might I add) as an assistant, and while, yes, professional attire is encouraged, I tend to jazz things up more than anyone else in the office (also it's a smaller firm and mostly men). I rarely get feedback from my co-workers as to what I'm wearing (the guy factor, I'm sure) but there are a few outfits that have been complimented by female and male coworkers alike. There's this one dress I have that isn't really my style (it's got a mod-ish graphic print, and my mom picked it out for me), but I get SO many compliments on it, that I wear it more than I think I would if no one had said anything. Sometimes I ask myself, "who am I dressing for?" There are other people in the office who seemingly don't put as much effort into their outfits/appearance (as evidenced by wearing variations of the same thing-I'm talking about the ladies in this case; men pretty much have a corporate uniform), and we all work in the same office. Well,, I dress for ME. I used to get a little miffed when I "worked" on an outfit and go an entire day without even a "that's a nice color on you" but I have since done away with that mentality. I put effort into the way I look, because it makes ME feel better about myself. Thanks Sal, and the reader who sent you that question!

  18. CR

    One of the things I love about being an adult is that you have much more freedom of wearing whatever you want. I remember in the thankfully long gone days of childhood how the slightest experimentation with wardrobe could lead to MONTHS of harassment. Are you grunge-y enough? Are your boyfriend jeans TOO boyfriend? So glad to be done with forced conformity!

  19. Cosmo

    I think that it definitely matters what the outside input is from others. I think that dressing myself is like the cover of a book or magazine. People who don't know me have to see that before they can get to know anything else about me. If I think I look sexy but only men I would not ever consider speaking to are staring at me then I am not presenting myself the way I think I am so I need to make a change. If I think I am trying to dress conservatively for some reason which is not my style at all and people keep asking me if I am going to a funeral I am probably not wearing the right thing. So even though I am not a trend follower really I definitely use outside input on what not to wear.

  20. ...love Maegan

    that is a great question … . if I love something that no one else does, I'll still wear it …unless it makes me FEEL gross.

  21. Imogen Lamport

    I'm with brown-eyed-girl – much of what people choose is based on the 'dress code' of their life or workplace – something which they may not choose themselves.

    I like deconstructed clothes, my husband makes jokes about them (did they forget to sew that jacket up…) so do not get compliments from him on them, but I don't care, because I wear them because I love them. I understand that they are not his style, and he doesn't actually understand them.

    I get plenty of compliments from others, which of course makes me happy.

    I dress in a way to the percieved image of what my clients are expecting – that is always put together, slightly creative, not overly classic or suited.

  22. The Seeker

    Oh Sal, I love this post, I feel so related to this!!!!
    Living in a small conservative comunity, sometimes I feel that's not worthy fighting for what I think it's my style and what I feel like, because my peers have another perspective.
    It's not that I do not have feedback… it is that they don't like the way I dress.
    Do I get insecure??? Yes, I do!
    Do I feel I must fight for what I like? Yes, I do!
    So…. it's kind of weird, mixed feelings…
    My blog is my refuge!!!

    Love, beauty you!!!!!


  23. Tina { Luphia Loves... }

    i think it's a mixture of personal taste and other influences, like if i'm buying from the highstreet, they are all influenced by the current fashion trend.. although different if i'm making my own cloth! 🙂

  24. dapper kid

    Humans are and always will be social creatures, so we need that sense of belonging. Put a bunch of random people together in a room, and they will seek out their similarities before all else. The same thing applies with fashion. We are both influenced by others in what we choose to wear, but also gain confidence from the affirming comments of others. I guess provided you are happy and comfortable with what you are wearing, and it gives you confidence, feel free to gain inspiration from wherever you find it!

  25. Diana

    Fantastic post, as usual! You always manage to say something that I have been thinking about, but have been unable to articulate elegantly 🙂

  26. Casey

    What a great, thought-provoking question! 🙂 I have to admit that feedback does influence my stylistic choices… to a point. It used to matter much more to me to receive positive feedback all the time (and thus, I tended to calculate "trendy-artsy" outfits that would elicit just that response as well as fit into my then-student lifestyle). However, as I've continued to evolve my personal style (which as you know is now very 1940s/50s influenced), I find that the conformity is less important to me. I like to stand out, to be a bit theatrical in my dress, and make a statement about myself. 🙂

    However, that being said, I do tend to be influenced by style feedback and ideas from those that share a similar fashion aesthetic (the retro/pin up/rockabilly groups). Because the style inspiration for others within these groups and myself are so closely tied, I tend to give their feedback and such a bit more consideration as pertains to my own sartorial choices!

  27. cciele

    Great topic, Sal!

    Outside opinion does matter to me, but I value the opinion of certain groups over others. I do like to add some eclecticness to my outfits, though, so I take what people say with a grain of salt.

    But if particular items of clothing consistently elicit positive comments, I try to figure out what it is that people are responding to–is it the color, cut, fit? Perhaps there is some sort of pattern there, and I can use it to find add more "successful" pieces to my wardrobe.

  28. issa

    oh such a thought provoking post!! i'd have to say i'm a people pleaser and care very much what ppl think.. and can often be overly self conscious… but since i've been blogging i've actually been more adventurous and stepping outside my usual attire.. of course it could be because of the influence of seeing what other bloggers wear.. all in all.. i try to pick things that I think look good on me.. even if say.. the hubby doesn't like it 🙂

  29. WendyB

    Sometimes I get pissed off when people don't acknowledge the cuteness of an outfit with a standing ovation or at least a "that's cute" remark. I am going to wear my tiger-striped Clovis Ruffin dress (http://wbjewelry.blogspot.com/2008/03/encore-presentation.html) over and over again until SOMEONE acknowledges that it's one of the cutest dresses the world has ever seen. SO THERE!

  30. Make Do Style

    Ah the old agency versus strucutre theory. Given we buy garments already deisgned by someone else, further edited by a buyer and then the magazine/blog editorial how free are the choices we make – even more so when you facotr in what you can afford.

    I'm not sure how important compliments are – it must depend on self. I love to just pretend I'm in a film and wear an outift adn perform. Even when I worked in an office I did this!

    I'm not sure how free we are to choose because we always reference something we like be it from a compliment, a picture in a magazine, the visual merchandising in the store…

  31. Winnie

    Hmmm. Well I would have to say that the answer would be YES that peers definitely influence you. However I think that would fall into two categories. One which may be that they approve of what you're wearing but the other is the knowledge that they won't like it, and maybe you would dress even more uniquely knowing that, a sort of defiance if you will.

    I tend to get a lot more dressed up and put a lot more thought into my outfits as opposed to some of my friends. So in a way, they expect me to look a certain way. I don't feel trapped into wearing certain things though and relish picking interesting outfits for the day.

    If people don't compliment my outfit it's not going to stop me wearing it again…I like to think I've got a good eye for outfits and as long as I like it then I will definitely keep wearing it. Bloggers are also a huge source of inspiration (and have led me to buy things I wouldn't have thought of before) It's reassuring to know there are people like me out there who put as much thought into their outfits as I do!

  32. bifocalsandrippedjeans

    Sal I love your blog,and read it daily… even though I hardly ever post.
    Aren't there different kinds of out fits? And those "kinds" are more or less subject to the feedback effect – at least for me.

    Going out with my husband anywhere I want to wear something I know he likes (feedback heavy, thank heaven I like his taste!).

    At work I want to look professional, approachable, current not too trendy (I look to blogs for ideas, inspiration, and feed back from customers, clients co-workers…but I find co-workers OFTEN dress down too much, so I temper their feedback with the other sources!).

    At home I want more comfort with my style…more "moveability" so no jackets, no tucking in, and I've just added Converse sneaks; this is the most feedback impervious…no one is going to say "Wow! You look hot in those chinos, cashmere v neck pullover and Converse!"

    Also I've noticed that when things fit well, I'll get more positive feedback – from everywhere (sometimes wistful, sometimes sounding almost jealous 🙁 ) I wish people would believe me when I tell them I take my clothes to a local seamstress to have them fitted.

  33. ambika

    I think I'm more influenced by the level of formality than the actual elements. That is, if my work place is *very* casual, I'm probably not going to sport dresses & skirts. Hot topic doesn't really play into that–even were I surrounded by goth-influenced teenagers, it's not going to be where I shop.

    I went from a work place where half the folks wore scrubs and clogs to a much more dressy (by Pacific Northwest standards) office. That was definitely influential–though not necessarily on the items of clothing themselves.

  34. The Raisin Girl

    There's this long, full hand-me-down skirt I have that I decided to wear as a dress one day, tied at the top with the drawstring and belted in the middle. I've never worn that outfit yet without getting a compliment on it, usually from a total stranger, and so I keep wearing it over and over.

    So yeah, I totally do this. And at one time I would have seen that as a betrayal of self, a concession of my originality to the tastes of others. But, well…I'm a lot more secure in my "self" now. I like to get compliments on what I wear, so if I get a lot of compliments on a certain outfit, I'm likely to wear it more often.

    Of course, I still wear "no-compliment" outfits. The way I see it, my style is all about what makes me feel comfortable and good about myself, so it just makes sense to take into account the reactions of others to some extent.