Style: Art or Science?


A few weeks back, Make Do Style left this brain-bender of a comment:

I worry when someone tries to link style with science. Science is the old paternalistic logical view of the world and fashion is a feminine space and offers a challenge to such traditional imposed views. Each to their own, but give me downright frivolity, creative indulgence any time – when it comes to style and fashion be inspired, take risks and avoid logic!

I completely agree that trying and experimenting and going with your gut are all vital to exploring personal style. If you only ever do what books or experts tell you to do, you may look as tall and thin and young as possible … but you might look deadly dull as well. Splashing out, being frivolous, and unleashing your curiosity and creativity help shape a style that is living and unique and vibrant.

However, there are reasons that certain garments look good on certain people, reasons that divvying up proportions in certain ways is effective and flattering, reasons that certain colors look absolutely smashing together and others don’t. And a little background on the whys and wherefores never hurt anyone … especially if the person in question is timid, confused, or lazy. As I’ve said before, understanding what flatters you – the logic and science of it – helps you feel more comfortable bending and manipulating that flattery.

So I guess I’m a believer that style is a mixture of art and science. Someone who just haphazardly throws on garments and hopes for the best may have lots of fun, but might only look good in one out of ten outfits. Someone who only ever wears exactly what Stacy London tells her to will maximize her assets, but never figure out her authentic, personal style without a little experimentation.

Beaker image courtesy Move the Clouds, fabric image courtesy Jiggs Images.

Originally posted 2009-09-08 05:42:00.

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32 Responses to “Style: Art or Science?”

  1. Anne

    Does fashion = style?

    I equate style with things looking good on someone. Things that are stylish are ageless, whereas fashion comes and goes. Many catwalk creations are stylistical nightmares and do indeed defy logic (in my mind). Hence style has got a lot to do with logic and fashion with frivolous creativity.

    Sorry about the semantics, you caught me at my most logical. 🙂

  2. mysterycreature

    Interesting! Great post, and I have to go with the boring response and say that I agree it is both – even if the "art" side is a little bit more fun!!

  3. Sal

    Anne: Ahhh, good point! To me, fashion and style are different, and just about as you've delineated. Fashion is trends, newness, the catwalk. Style is how each individual person deals with her/his clothing, shoes, accessories, grooming, and other aspects of outward appearance.

  4. lisa

    Great topic. I agree with you that style is one part logic, one part artful intuition. I mean, I can rationalize until the cows come home about why a certain skirt or top is or isn't working for me, but at the end of the day, if I put it on and have an "Aha!" moment, that will sell me on the garment, every time.

    I do have a problem with how the quotation you cited divides logic and intuition along gendered lines, but that's a different discussion altogether. 😛

  5. Oranges And Apples

    I think you're probably right that it is a bit of a mix of logic and sillines. I think it's important to nail the logic of what is flattering first, and once you know that with your eyes closed, you can start experimenting and having fun around it. Alternatively, you can just experiment around for a long time until you eventually settle on s style (this is what happened with me, although i wouldn't necessarily recommend it as a very efficient way of developing personal style).

    Keeping the semantics theme going, I have to take issue with the implication that science is logical and experimentation/play is art. Science is all about experimentation and doing things where you have no idea where they will lead you. If people didn't go off on tangents, there would be no scientific progress, and we'd all just be perfecting what we already know, the scientific equivalent of a well cut trouser and shirt combo every day.

    (my boyfriend is a geneticist and he hasn't discovered anything that he actually expected to find in bout six months, which sparked this comment.)

  6. Meli22

    As far as personal style- I think it's a progression, a mix of art and science. I think you need to learn the science BEFORE you get to the art.
    I personally started out by imitating others- and buying into advertisements and displays- that I thought looked good. I went through several 'styles' without learning anything about fit- if I could button/zip it up, it fit. Then I found the 'fashion' world and started thinking about what I like, shapes, flattering my body, and FIT. I am learning at this point what works best on ME, then I think I can progress into the 'artsy' part of my own style.

  7. bekster

    Yes, you have to have both art and science. I don't personally see science as cold and boring, but it is true that science in style doesn't account for one's personality and spirit. Art is fun and cool, but if it is not tempered by science, one could end up with ugly chaos.

    As I understand it, science is simply the idea of making observations and finding trends or patterns in nature to describe how things work. Those of us who read fashion blogs are all the time "observing" the style of those we view online. When someone, through observation, determines that they look great in a-line skirts, but they really look awful in red, that is science. Through art and being creative, however, they may find a way to make a red pencil skirt work for them.

    In my opinion, we need to know what works well for us in the first place before getting artsy with ourselves will really work well. But, being creative in the beginning can help us experiment and find out what does work well, as long as we really are observing those experiments to find out just that.

  8. Kathryn

    As someone that has spent the better part of her life studying art and design, I feel like I can say with a good bit of authority that most art and design cannot be created in the absence of science and logic. (There are exceptions in conceptual art for certain.)

    Like to wear leggings under your cute feminine dress? Thank the company DuPont for the polymers that allow them not to be a baggy mess at your knees by the end of the day. Have your eye on a nice oil painting at your local gallery? Thank centuries of artists for perfecting the complicated alchemy of getting just the right amount of pigment suspended in the oil to last a lifetime.

    If we all embrace the very freedom of thought that Make Do Style would like us to employ, then we will all realize that nearly every discipline has applications in nearly every other discipline. Artists can be scientists. (And artists can be logical!) Designers can be scientists. And if we blast through our long-enforced stereotypes, we can allow everyone, even engineers, mathematicians, and philosophers to be innovators of style.

  9. Make Do Style

    Oh Sal – now I'm hiding in the corner!! I suppose I'm a bit adverse to the word science being used to add gravitas to the word fashion! I know that without science we wouldn't have had advancements in production, materials and dye for colour. Also Nature provides fabulous colour combinations for us to appropriate.

    However I still stand by the fact logic is a by product of methodology and it tends to be lumped into the 'sciences' and i like to think logic is more free spirited and less defined.

    Gosh you are a rascal – I'll still comment though!!

  10. Make Do Style

    Oh and the division of science as masculine and fashion as feminine spheres is a cultural product post 18th century due to increased social genderisation of men and women particularly in clothes. Did you know that until the late 1940s baby boys always wore pink!

  11. dreamecho

    Intriguing post! As Oranges and Apples discussed, experimentation belongs to the realms of both art and science; I'd also contend that reason/logic also has its place in art.

    However, I think the topic gets murkier and that trying to simplify this into a binary might be the wrong tack. For instance, there are clear cut and predefined methods to looking extreme and out there. Certain proportions, color combinations will make for an instant "WOW" to the majority of people. Calculated shock factor, if you will. At the same time, creativity doesn't always stem from frivolity; I'm a big proponent of constraint as a means to creativity, and I think the countless experiments in limitations that other bloggers have done (e.g., a girl wearing the same dress for a year in The Uniform Project, Laura Jane of NOGOODFORME wearing each item in her closet only once until she runs out in the Ultimate Fashion Challenge, Sarah of Public Personae's similar test in the 30-Day Challenge) prove just that.

    Lastly, like Lisa, I also take issue with Make Do Style's aligning science and logic with the masculine, and fashion and frivolity with the feminine. None of those relationships is accurate…or even intuitive. 😉

  12. FashionAddict

    Fashion is more of an art for me. Fit is important, but I have to fall in love with an item of clothing or certain look in order for it to remain interesting to me. I could wear button down shirts tucked into A-line or belted pencil skirts every day if I wanted to look my thinnest, but being a "formula dresser" is just not for me. Too boring and predictable. I need a challenge.

  13. LPC

    I think we could look at style as a "soft" science, with its feet in psychology and neuroscience. The desire to make social and emotional statements is working against a background of aesthetic sensibility. To say nothing of socioeconomic reality… In this model, fashion is what you incorporate into your style. Fashion, it could be said, is really a business. A shiny business with a market for purple, but a business nonetheless.

  14. Leah

    Very interesting post…I agree style is a mixture of art and science. If you want to really look good and not just for the moment (which is how I see fashion), you have to be logical about the way you dress. You have to experiment, observe and conclude what best suits your personality.

  15. Sal

    LPC: I think I'm going to have to make, "a shiny business with a market for purple," the quote of the day!

  16. LPC

    Sal, I would be more than honored. The level of these comments is amazing. What a great group of readers you have! You probably knew that already:).

  17. Hanako66

    I totally agree with you…a little of both. I know what shapes work best for me and I try to play within those lines:)

  18. Jennifer Nicole

    I agree with you: style is definitely a mixture of art and science. I was just talking with Elle about how, once we gain confidence, we can deviate from one extreme to another – an architectural, "unflattering" outfit one day, a perfectly proportioned style the next – and still feel and look good. For those that aren't as comfortable with fashion, though, the science is important to help them gain that confidence.

  19. ambika

    Oh gosh, far more of an art. I even think about how the idea of 'flattering' has drastically shifted from decade to decade. The enhanced shoulder of the 80s and 40s, the eye being drawn to the hip line due to the low waists of the late 60s and 2000s, the straight up & down of the 1920s that's mirrored in the shift dress style of the 1960s–it isn't fact or truth that any of these were more flattering than others because even that's just a construct.

  20. kristophine

    I'm instantly on the defensive because I am a scientist–I'll say that up front! When I hear critiques of science based on its paternalistic nature, I just have to say: yes, there are issues with sexism in science. Yes, the pursuit of Science with a Capital S was seen a very masculine thing to do for a long time. But–and this is an important part–the fact that some people acted in a sexist way with respect to science does not devalue the scientific process.

    "Science," the way many laypeople use the term, refers to "men in white labcoats doing mysterious, very important things with test tubes and clipboards and machines that go beep," but the way scientists use it, science simply refers to the process. And the process is, in theory, perfect. (People, who are the ones doing the research, aren't–that's a sad fact in scientific endeavors!)

    You formulate a hypothesis based on a theory, you test the hypothesis, you've provided confirmatory, disconfirmatory, or inconclusive evidence, and you move on, modifying your theory if the evidence was disconfirmatory, or sometimes scrapping the whole theory altogether. Many of us had to listen to the spiel in 7th grade science class, but what we miss is the sheer beauty of the process: it is the only knowledge-gathering method ever devised by human beings with a built-in autocorrect. I don't mean to suggest that other methods of knowing, such as revelation, aren't meaningful, but with revelation, if it turns out you're wrong and that was the Twinkie you ate right before bed talking, there's no guarantee you'll ever know.

    I approach style in a way that's very similar to the way I approach my research: I formulate a hypothesis, say, "I think, based on my past experiences with green, that this green shirt will look good on me." I have an overarching theory about green, on me, and the specific hypothesis that this particular green shirt will look good on me. I test my hypothesis by trying on the shirt. I provide either confirmatory evidence–yes, this is awesome–or disconfirmatory evidence–whoo, not all shades of green look good on me. I have a set of standards I apply when I've tried it on to determine whether it looks good or bad: does it gape at the chest? Does it bag on the hips? Do I feel happy when I look at my reflection? These standards are particularly important to me (in my field, we would call them an "operational definition") because they allow me to decide, objectively, whether to buy something based on evidence more substantial than "it's pretty." Sure, it's pretty–but does it look good *on me*? This seems obvious, but for a long time I had a bad habit of buying clothing that didn't really fit, because it was pretty on its own.

    And in the end, I modify my theory if I need to: jewel shades of green are good on me, but mustardy greens are awful. Voila. The scientific process has given me new knowledge about what I should and shouldn't wear. Science isn't an establishment, although there is a scientific establishment. Science is something useful that all of us can do.

    Wow, that got long! My apologies, but I get pretty worked up over science. I teach it, too, so I think about What Science Is a lot. And science is awesome! It's the opposite of restrictive: if you can think of a hypothesis, you can test it.

    How cool is that?

  21. Make Do Style

    BTW – I didn't align science with masculine etc – if I had I'd be a world famous philosophical thinker. The notions of defining masculine and feminine is to be challenged for sure and the arguments and reading are wide and varied. Veblen, Marx, Simmel, Freud, Adorno, Bordieu, Barthes and Foucault not to forget Judith Butler are all great reads on the very subject of modernity, gender, conspicuous consumption etc etc all of which discuss and look at how areas of life get categorised as masculine and feminine.

    Sorry I hope this clears the matter up of where these definitions come from – they are not written in stone but are adopted and assumed by many societies.

    When I talked about fashion being feminine it wasn't to degrade it – that is the point. We have come to value experimentation, exploration in very scientific terms and the moment I use the word frivolous everyone recoils because the very notion of frivolity has changed post the age of enlightenment and is framed in Victorian morals which has change the origin of the word which was trifling or worthless. And those words had different connotations in the context of then – seriously this is a serious subject and I suggest you read Elizabeth Wilson's Adorned in Dreams for starters. Then go onto the French philosophers!

  22. miss cavendish

    Pure emotion and instinct! I never "think" about what I wear–it loses whatever style it has then . . .

  23. dapper kid

    Style is an expression of who we are, so I guess it comes down to how we view ourselves. If I am simply blood and muscle tissue and so on, maybe it is science. But if I am my thoughts, my memories and my passions, then that is arguably art. I think finding your own style and exploring the world of clothing is as the answer to that question, a fusion of both.

    You need to find out what flatters and suits you, and there is certainly a science to that. But once you have those basic rules, it is your eye and your heart that find the most interesting and individual pieces and ways to wear them. In that sense, expressing your style is an art.

    Hope you're having a lovely day 🙂

  24. Imogen Lamport

    Well you know what I think – I'm the original Art+Science=Style girl!

    And Fashion is a tool to help you develop your own Style, but Fashion does not = Style

  25. Rosie Unknown

    I see it as both, but not a mix if the two. It is a science, because one must experiment, and figure out what works. It is also an art, a form of self expression.

  26. My Shenanigans

    I find this interesting, as a scientist and as a fashion lover. I think that most must be reminded, that science isn't all logic, in fact a lot of it is having to think outside the box to create new innovative techniques and analyses. I guess because I see science in this way and not in the rigid confines of olden days, that I can correlate that thought process (hopefully) into my fashion choices as well. I really like this topic though, it's not every day that one wants to talk science and fashion!!

  27. The Budget Babe

    I take issue with attributing gender to science (paternalistic) and fashion (feminine space). or saying science is masculine and therefore founded on logic while fashion is feminine and therefore rooted in emotion. one must be creative and think outside the box to make any real progress in both science and fashion. women are making inroads into scientific fields now more than ever and fashion, well, its actually dominated more by men than women if you consider most designers are still men. i just like to think we'd be better off stripping away gender associations that hold us down, man.

  28. enc

    For me, style begins with science and continues on with integration and artistic interpretation. I run the experiment with each new garment/shape/cut/color/whatever, trying it on, seeing if it flatters or flummoxes.

    If it works, then I integrate it into my wardrobe and do the artistic interpretation with other pieces.

    Of course, the practical side of me dictates that I buy things I can wear with at least three pieces I already own.

    If I followed T&S's advice, or C&S's advice, I'd look like a homogenous "mom" in bootcut trousers, a floofy blouse, and a short blazer. Bleah.

  29. Audi

    As a scientist myself, I have to take exception to Make Do Style's comment. The best science throughout history has always included loads of creativity and oodles of experimentation. Many of the same principles of scientific enquiry are exactly the same as how we figure out what works and what doesn't in style. You begin by experimenting, find a combination that works, and then puzzle out the reasons WHY it does so that you can apply that reasoning to future experiments. It's really only in the final analysis that logic comes into play; you have to get it to work first before you can create a principle around it.