Reader Request: Balancing Contrasting Styles

How to balance contrasting styles within your wardrobe

Reader Chelsea had this request:

I’d love to see something on balancing different styles! I’m still struggling with feeling OK with having completely contrasting tastes in clothes. One day I’m wearing graphic shirts and jeans (I’ll even be specific…a UFC shirt, can’t help it, I love it!), or the next day will be a punk, stud-covered outfit, and the next day a cutesy knitted woodsy outfit. So it’s kind of a mix between confidence and style. Style confidence? The part that I especially have trouble with is going back to college and seeing people see me wearing things that appear to make me a completely different person every day, which is the awesome thing about clothes, but how do you do it without feeling unsure about it?

Although I do my best to maintain a consistent look myself, I occasionally suffer from Multiple Style Syndrome. Like Chelsea, I’ll be in a retro shirt dress one day, cowgirl boots the next, and leggings and 80s-influenced tunic the day after that. And occasionally I feel like I’m failing to broadcast a cohesive style, but most days I think I pull it off. Here are some practices and philosophies I utilize to keep me from feeling too fragmented:

Mix dressy and casual

The most common split-style issue is work wear vs. casual wear. I’ve written before about the merits of incorporating work wear into weekend looks, but it’s a good idea to mix casual items into weekday looks, too, if you can. (Not everyone can, I realize.) Part of what fuels Multiple Style Syndrome is segmentation of your wardrobe. If you allow yourself to mix pieces from different levels of dressiness and different genres, that will create some continuity. It may take a while for it to feel natural, and you may hit some bumps initially as you figure out HOW to mix all these seemingly disparate elements, but keep at it!

Keep stylized looks from getting too costume-y

I love to dress in outfits with punk influences. Summertime brings out my inner cowgirl. And most work days you’ll find me wearing something moderately vintage-y. But as someone who has an eclectic personal style AND a tendency to gravitate toward bold and showy looks, I make a concerted effort to tone down any outfits that might read as stylized. If I want to do punk, I don’t do studs and combat boots and a bomber jacket and head-to-toe black. I make sure to mix in elements from another style – typically a more neutral one – for balance. If I want to do cowgirl, I may do a denim dress and vintage cowgirl boots, but I won’t add a straw hat, turquoise jewelry, or a large-buckle belt. You catch my drift, I’m sure. If your Multiple Style Syndrome manifests in fully-formed and highly-stylized outfits, try to tone those outfits down on a case by case basis. Add simple, classic, even slightly boring pieces to the mix to balance out costume-y elements.

Define signature pieces

The quickest shortcut to unified personal style is to select and wear a few signature items. You may consider your watch or pendant necklace to be signatures, but this practice is most effective when the items in question are fairly large and noticeable, and exist within your wardrobe in several variations. Over the years my signature pieces have included silver hoop earrings, full skirts, tall boots, and utility jackets. I kept multiple versions of these items in my wardrobe, wore them often, and loved them to death. AND! By wearing them across the board, no matter what the dominant influences in an outfit may have been, I created continuity. If you find that solid-colored cardigans, ballet flats, and cuff bracelets are your signatures, do your best to wear those pieces often and in multiple style contexts.

Consistent hair and makeup

How boring does THAT sound? But if unifying a set of disjointed looks is your goal, making sure that your noggin looks approximately the same each day will help loads. If you do exaggerated cat eyes when wearing a 50s frock, spiky hair with your leather pants, a tight ponytail with your college sweatshirt, and nothing but blush when you go boho, you’ll just add to the stylistic confusion. Play a little, but be as consistent as possible.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with cultivating a varied personal style. Women who have honed in on narrowly-defined styles often do so for comfort or convenience, and they typically look chic and pulled-together at all times due to their careful choices and beautifully curated wardrobes. But those of us who prefer to dabble can and should do so, since style should be fun and exploratory as often as possible.  And, as Chelsea rightly points out, the true key to making it work is enjoying your experiments and wearing them with confidence. Which makes sense because confidence helps boost just about any outfit from good to great.

Originally posted 2011-07-25 06:22:01.

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29 Responses to “Reader Request: Balancing Contrasting Styles”

  1. Cynthia

    I definitely have different styles. Work is, I guess, a sort of feminine, arty, (but hopefully not too cutesy) dressed-up business casual. At home, I am ALL BOY. Seriously. I do not kid about dressing a la Mark Wahlberg. It’s fitted tees, retro sneakers, and unisex-ish jeans (or right now shorts) for me. I have been experimenting with bringing some of my fancier tees that I also wear as part of work outfits into my weekend/evening wear, and femme-ing up the shorts a little, or wearing jersey dresses on weekends, but basically I have two clothing personalities.

    I was thinking about doing a week when I post my “off-duty” outfits instead of my work outfits just so people can see my other style.

  2. coffeeaddict

    I have struggled with this in the past, but as my life became more and more consolidated so did my wardrobe. The merging of styles is usually a gradual imperceptible shift, a natural evolution in defining the parameters of personal appearance.
    Beside all the methods you described, I found it useful to pick a signature colour. The idea of a signature accessory might not always work, if the styles are too different, but I found colour to be the perfect unifying factor. Mine has always been turquoise and later more subdued versions of it: seafoam, teal, petrol blue.

  3. Anonymous

    I love both the rocker girl, bohemian look, and classy innnocent looks. I don’t think I really worry about it. I do try to stay trendy and research the lastest hair styles and of course reading your blogs and “borrowing” ideas for you 🙂

  4. Serene

    I pretty much give myself permission to wear what I like and not box myself into a particular set style. However, I DO try to have a common element in everything I wear and that is a sense of elegance. Even the most playful look for me must have an elegant feel to it. I try not to go heavy on accessories and that allows me to pull off pretty much whatever I feel drawn to that day. I completely relate to what the question asker queried! I often feel like I have the attention span of a gnat! I just love so many looks!!! ~Serene

  5. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Lots of great advice, thanks Sal. I think finding your signature pieces and wearing them often is a great way to define your core style. And some of have a defining feature we have to work with daily, in my case unruly curly hair. It is still fun, even at a *certain age* to play around the edges of style, and incorporate new things!

  6. JoAnn, Sidewalk Chic

    I really struggle with this in my own closet, mainly because I sometimes don’t know how to bridge the gap between a lot of my vintage dresses and everything else in my closet. This is something I’ll be working on when I get into graduate school, because I don’t want to be too segmented or costume-y all the time.

    I love the idea about wearing similar makeup and hair — definitely a good base to have to experiment in other things. 🙂

  7. Jen

    I definitely fall into this category. I love exploring my artsy-bohemian side, but will gravitate towards classic looks too. Then there is the sporty, Chuck Taylor wearing mom look I love. Oh, and the vintage cocktail dress girl too. I am like you in that I pretty much wear the same makeup for all looks, with a bit heavier eye/lip makeup for evenings. My hair doesn’t change much either. So I do unify my looks that way, I suppose. I just never really thought about it!

  8. Frankincensy

    About twenty minutes ago, I was sorting through my style inspiration folders and considered emailing you to ask the exact same question. Wow. (Thank you for answering it!)

    Anyway, like Chelsea I’m drawn to a diverse range of looks, yet when I look through my collection of images, I notice elements that keep recurring – specific colours, patterns, fabrics, silhouettes. It helps to really study whatever it is you like (whether it’s a photograph, a piece of clothing, someone else’s outfit) and analyse it, asking yourself precisely what you’re attracted to. For example, I like A-line skirts, oversized sweaters, slim-fitting jeans and pale neutrals like cream and ivory; all of these things could “belong” to various different looks. I think finding these common themes could be one way of bringing disparate styles together.

  9. malevolent andrea

    This is something I used to struggle with more when I was younger. I remember in college wanting to wear something very punk one day and very boho the next and feeling that was somehow “wrong”, that I should be making some deep meaningful statement about who I was with my garments. I think I still wear some very disparate styles, but somehow they’ve (I’ve) evolved some kind of unconscious unity, because friends can correctly pick a garment off a rack and say, “that looks like something Andrea would wear.”

  10. Nmaha

    Hi, I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of weeks and I love your approach with respect to body image. I have a three year old daughter and since she was born I’ve being trying to feel positive about my figure because I want her to love herself and not go through the confusion that most teenagers have to endure these days.

    Your style also suits my body type so I might steal a few looks.

  11. sarah

    Hm. I don’t know if I’d use the verb suffer. Or syndrome. I’d say I have eclectic taste and I like it that way. Do you feel a unified style is important? I can see how in certain professions (and, working ideally towards professorship in the arts/humanities, I’m certainly indulged where others aren’t) it could be a necessary part of a package, but I’ve never considered it a “problem,” per se, to refuse to settle on a singular “style.” In fact, I consider the sampling the sartorial equivalent of my research drive as an academic; I’m always challenging myself to try on new perspectives, new ideological positions, but my ultimate goal isn’t the stasis of a singular expression but rather the flexibility of the chimera.

    I’d be interested to hear from you and your readers about whether nor not a singular expression of style is important to them and why – or the circumstances which define the parameters of a need or desire for a singular style (or a varied style, for that matter).

    • Sal

      I think having fragmented style troubles many women, myself included. Your style is an expression of your taste and identity, and I think it’s beneficial to have some common threads. Not to the point that they feel confining – especially if you’re a dabbler – but a few themes, garments, or styles that tie your style together will help you hone and develop it as time passes. The prospect of constant, active sartorial experimentation doesn’t appeal to me personally, as I feel that identifying garments and styles that work is the goal, and allowing yourself to rely on them is rewarding. But as I mention in the conclusion of this post, I believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with cultivating a varied personal style. Just suggesting some practices for those who feel like they need help unifying their looks.

      • Eleanorjane

        What about working on the troubled-ness instead of changing one’s style? I can’t see any problem at all with wearing different styles if a person wanted to. Through this blog and others, I’ve been learning more to do the old cliche ‘be true to yourself’ and be less influenced by what others might think.

        • Sal

          To each her own, of course. I prefer a cohesive style for myself, so I work on it. And it doesn’t have anything to do with what others think. No one has ever given me feedback about disjointedness in my style, it’s just something I feel on my own.

          • hellotampon

            I think it depends on personality. Some people can tolerate or even thrive on multiple styles, and I’d be willing to guess that other aspects of their lives are just as dissonant and it doesn’t bother them. Others need order. I belong to the latter group and I understand the need to have a unified wardrobe. Something about dressing in a different style every day sets off some kind of nagging alarm in my brain.

  12. Anne

    Well, I was happy to just skim these and move on with out comment, but after reading Sarah’s comment above, I thought I might offer some insight as to why some one might want a unified or consistent style.

    My first career was in fashion merchandising and retail admin. During those years I cultivated a great work wardrobe. I had both ends of the spectrum: work wear and bum around the house wear and nothing else. No party clothes, no date clothes and I didn’t really know how to adapt what I had to suit other occasions.

    Years later I switched to a career in teaching and was able to cobble together a “smart casual” wardrobe that suited most occasions. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, we started a family and I became a stay at home mom. You probably won’t be surprised to find that after having two kids absolutely nothing fit. Furthermore, I no longer had a salary of my own so I couldn’t justify buying everything I wanted to suit all my fashion whims. Throw into this mix the fact that all of a sudden I had to show up at social/work functions (husband’s) and give people the impression that I had my act together. It took me many years and many mistakes to create a unified style that would take me from errands to social events to my part time job.

    I love fashion. I love being well dressed, but it isn’t my sole interest and I don’t have the time or money to commit to indulging in every trend or style. By having a “Signature Look” I know that the chances are good that I will show up where I need to be presentable and on time and without looking like I got dressed in the dark.

  13. The Waves

    Oh definitely, I have MSS! I go from girly vintage to androgynous looks, from flared jeans to pencil skirts. For the most part, I just enjoy it, but there are times when I feel like I should be more co-ordinated. Your tips ring true (as always) – I personally try to mix the different styles to break the costume-y look.

  14. Tara

    I am drawn to multiple styles of clothes/hair/make-up. I love classic 1960’s style, rockabilly, preppy, cowgirl and contemporary looks…to name a few. The only unifying theme I ever have is femininity – at least with make-up, hair and accessories. I don’t feel the need to have any unified style and I LOVE a theme outfit – head to toe. If I’m going to do a look, I usually go all out. Maybe that’s my style – excess. Ha!

  15. Gracey at Fashion For Giants

    This is great advice. I actually consider myself a pretty schizophrenic dress (especially with today’s outfit), but I may not be. I think I’ve definitely got signature pieces in pleated skirts, riding boots (in winter), wedges (in summer) and scarves and if I look back at my outfits, including today’s, I am pretty consistent with using my signature pieces. It’s like I’m a fashion idiot savant. lol.

  16. Tracy

    I often feel like my closet and my self are split into multiple personalities that just refuse to mesh. I maintain a number of very different “categories” of cloting and have a hard time combining them. I mostly work from home, so my default category is usually “comfortable and easy.” (It’s sadly possible that a better name for that category is “shlubby”.) However, I need to travel and teach for work for one week out of every few months, so I need to maintain a “professional” wardrobe that’s large enough that I don’t end up wearing the same few outfits every trip. On top of that, I also play in a rock band, so I need a whole other collection of “rock and roll with a touch of vintage cowgirl” outfits for performances that I also need to avoid repeating too often. The last category one is probably the happiest and most confident in, but I haven’t figured out how to work it into the other areas of my wardrobe.

    The sad thing is, I don’t even like half of the clothes I have, I just own many of them because they happen to work in that particular category of clothing. My dream is to find a way to blend the pieces I love into a single wardrobe that works for all the categories of my life and get rid of the cruft so I can have more room in my tiny and currently overstuffed closet to collect more great items. It’s nice to dream.

  17. Megan Mae

    Yes, I definitely suffer from this. Partially because I have such varied taste and have trouble applying things I like to my wardrobe. I can like florals on another person, but have since learned better than to buy them. I still end up with pieces that I feel like I love, but don’t define me, and that’s where I hit a block. I’ve gotten better, but it does take a period of exploring all sorts of options.

  18. MJ

    I personally enjoy being a bit style schisophrenic. To me its like books. I read a lot & partake from many different genres. Same with my wardrobe. Sometimes it leans more towards business casual, sometimes more Mad Men, occasionally a bit 60s. I could no more choose 1 particular style than I could stick with 1 genre of book. There are a few style ‘rules’ that I follow personally (no skirts shorter than knee length, no sleeveless or strapless, etc) but within those personal guidelines I love to play around with styles & decades. I do occasionally worry about the ‘costume’ aspect but thats when IMO you have to listen to Coco Chanel & ‘take 1 thing off’. I can wear a very 50s housewife dress with shoes reminicent of that era but layer a contrasting colored cami & some funky jewelry to make it more modern. I’d never do it with pearls & other 50s accessories but as a classic updated it works well.

  19. Cortney

    I have MSS too! 🙂 I actually love it and don’t really care if I get too costume-y. Sometimes that’s what I’m going for!

    I have a serious love for Japanese fashion (I especially covet the mori girl looks), and I would love to dress that way frequently. However, since I live in in the US I tend not to because I’m sure I’d get some weird looks. 🙂 I really wish I could go more “out there”, and maybe I will someday.

    My style changes with my mood, and I’ve decided I’m okay with not being cohesive. I used to worry about it a lot but it’s just an aspect of my personality and I’ve decided not to try to change who I am as a person anymore. 🙂

  20. Sonja

    I like different style inspirations as well, although my looks aren’t that diverse that it starts to bother me.
    But the whole questions has made me think about Iona from Pretty in Pink:
    The character uses very different, “costumey” styles to express a lively, original personality, but in the end starts to dress in a more normal or mainstream way [at least normal for that decade ;-)] because she finally has found a man she loves and trusts.
    My interpretation is that in the beginning of the movie she’s kind of trying to hide behind the different personalities she adopts, and only in the end finds the courage to show herself as an average and vulnerable person.
    It is not my intention in any way to suggest that this is the case with all people who dress in extreme, costumey or disparate ways, but I think it might be one aspect. Some people might use different looks to emphasize different aspects of their personality and hide others, which might be the reason for the slighty schizophrenic feeling that it causes to some.
    (Many “mights” here!)
    So this could be the reason some people would like to unify their look, to feel more coherent not only in their outward style, but also on a rather personal, psychological level.
    Or maybe not. Just a thought!

  21. Tabithia

    Well, I don’t mind having multiple style personality “disorder” haha. I will say, thinking about what Sal wrote, I do tend to draw towards skirts and dresses that have a retro feel to them, and even some of my jeans outfits too. That’s more of a “I like that this shows off my shape” thing though than being consistent.

    To each their own, and if you want a more unified style, that’s great for you! Just examine why you want it. She said something about going back to college, and can I tell you I’ve gone to two different universities and despite the style levels varying vastly in each town, no one on campus seemed to care that I looked different every day. Actually, it was more of a “wow…you always look put together for class…you even do your hair!” So if you’re happy with your style, unless you are going to law school or something where they expect a certain dress code level, then every one else will be happy to. 🙂

  22. Anne @ The Frump Factor

    Hey, somehow I missed this post until it was featured over on Feminine Bravery. I’m glad I found it! I recently discovered that “toning down” strong styles by mixing them with opposing elements is a key for me. I like how you articulated this concept.

  23. sarah

    I’m so fascinated to read that varying style really troubles some of you psychologically! The word schizophrenic is being bandied around here, which for me is a really strong term (history of schizophrenia in my family – and personal knowledge of the horrors of treatment before lithium) and I have to admit, I’m terribly curious. For those who have said that lacking a unified style is troubling to them – do you actually feel like you are not “yourself” in there when your wardrobe is varied? It sounds terribly distressing! I suppose there is the old adage that the clothes make the man, but I wonder if those who prefer their “MSS” to unified style actually approach clothing and identity in a completely different way?