What is Taste?

Taste: noun ( JUDGMENT ) a person’s ability to judge and recognise what is good or suitable, especially relating to such matters as art, style, beauty and behaviour.

I adore full skirts, cinched waists, and classic pumps. I totally dig motorcycle jackets, engineer boots, and anything with enormous chunky chains. I can’t resist button-down shirts, pencil skirts, and cashmere cardigans. I’m a sucker for bright, clashing prints and avant-garde construction. I love tissue-thin graphic tees and structured wool dresses, flowy maxi skirts and tailored blazers, graphic polka dots and outrageous abstracts. All of these things suit my personal taste, different though they may be. And I do my best to sprinkle them throughout my wardrobe and wear them in ways that seem organic and unified. (Emphasis on “try.”)

But how is it that I can love these fundamentally different aesthetics, and love them equally? How can I see something and know IMMEDIATELY if I adore or loathe it, even if I’ve never seen anything similar? Why do I like design aesthetics that bear no discernible relationship to each other?

I realize that if I dig a bit deeper, I’ll find some common threads: I prefer clean lines, I prefer cinched waistlines, I prefer tall shoes. All of these motifs can appear in classic or rocker or preppy or boho aesthetics, depending upon the designer and garment. But it still amazes me that I can have a visceral reaction to a piece of clothing (or art, or music, or literature) that is only thinly connected by logic and pattern to other objects that please me. I’m also dumbfounded by the origins of my tastes. My dad is an architect who furnished my childhood home in chunky blonde wood furniture and minimalist light fixtures, so that’s where the whole “clean lines” thing comes from, but the rest? The 50’s silhouettes and rocker influences? Beats me, friends.

We may all agree that taste is, essentially, personal preference but it can be hard to determine its true origins. Or how it evolves. Some possess tastes that encompass apparent opposites, and some possess tastes that are narrowly defined. But perhaps its mystery is also its power.

Images Dries Van Noten FW11, Barbara Tfank FW11, Acne FW11 courtesy style.com. Definition from Cambridge, hence the British spelling.

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29 Responses to “What is Taste?”

  1. A

    I love these thoughts. I feel like taste is a mixture of all of that. For me, my personality, taste, etc was being defined at a young age. I have heard experts say that your personality is formed within the first 6 years or something and I can say this was true of my beginning taste for style. I have always loved bright colors, skirts, dresses, etc.

    Another thing that has really defined my tastes is my size. I have always been a little curvier and while I was young didn’t feel comfortable in my body. I started wearing my conservative clothing because of this. Never would you have seen me in a mini skirt or baring my stomach. So my “classic” style evolved from that as well.

    Now, I am happy in my body (most of the time) but my taste still really comes from what looks good on me. Much like you Sal, I love dresses, skirts, anything waist cinching because it looks good on me. This look is a lot more classic than many of my trendy friends but I would not say I have more “taste” but it is my personal style.

  2. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Very thought provoking Sal. So many elements make up the input, I think: looking in the mirror, at magazines, at nature, at other women. A lot of the end result comes after experimentation and internal work too. I love the way you described the elements of your own tastes, and you certainly do put them together beautifully!

  3. Holly

    Sally, I admire both your self-awareness and the eclecticness of your style preferences.

    I’m in the process of discovering and articulating my tastes to myself. I’m a self aware person in general but I’m finding it more difficult to figure out my tastes in what I wear than in other areas of my life.

    I know I like jeans, tend more toward the timeless than the trendy, love knit fabrics, knee length skirts and dresses, simple but occasionally weird jewelry, but also love whimsical tee shirts and socks — can you be classic with a side of quirky? 😛

        • Stephanie

          Holly, I am with you on this except for the socks. 🙂 My problem is putting myself out there with color. I have red hair and pinkish skin and have been sefl concious of my very pale skin my whole life so I stick with plain and simple most of the time. 🙂

  4. SD

    I enjoy knowing the there are some things that I just LIKE. There is no reason and I’ve never tried to find one. It is part of me and part of what makes me happy and I just go with it. I’m sure I could come up with some logical progression and dig back to when I was younger to find some hidden meaning and that might teach me something BUT! I also just like the simplicity of liking sometimes : )

  5. Jillian Bee

    I suspect our personal taste also has something to do with the part of our mind we usually don’t connect with, at least not consciously: namely, the part of ourselves that decides what impression we want to put out in the world. I think people who perhaps care a little less about what they wear don’t address it as directly as fashion-lovers do, even to the point of a running dialog (of which I am certainly guilty). While fashion lovers are aware of the power of clothing to articulate certain messages (“I’m a 60s librarian today, cute and a little naughty!”), I don’t think it’s always as natural to study the impulses that guide the messages we choose.

    For example, my taste leans towards a clean and sophisticated aesthetic, always very pulled together and a little bit playful. That more or less reflects the kind of person I want to be seen as upon first glance: fancy (but not in a stern way), appreciative of quality (in all aspects of life, from my own lifestyle to customer service) and still very girlish.

    And maybe the breadth of your own choices–from motorcycle jackets and circle skirts–is articulating the same thematic kind of thing. Maybe deep down you’re someone who wants to embrace all aspects of life, and wants the freedom to change her mind. Dressing accordingly codes that message.

    Eh, that’s just my thinking. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure I inherited my strict inner guidelines from my grandmother, who was a torch singer in the war. She died when I was young, but boy golly, if she wouldn’t dress up to go to the supermarket. Love that.

  6. FutureLint

    Hmm, it’s interesting to think about… I guess I can blame my love of color on the fact that I grew up in the ’80s when it was totally appropriate to rock neon green tights to Easter Sunday… but neither of my parents really cared very much about their clothing or designing our house in a stylish manner… And I’m pretty aesthetically obsessed and my sister is an interior designer, so maybe our love of design evolved as a rebellion to their lack of focus on aesthetics? I don’t know… I’ll have to think about this one some more!

  7. The Budget Babe

    So many factors have determined my tastes in fashion and personal style, and I’m always discovering new ones. But my parents certainly had a huge impact on what I find aesthetically pleasing or socially acceptable. Luckily, I think both my parents have great taste so even though mine diverges from theirs considerably, it was a good launching point.

  8. tiny junco

    huh. growing up, the definition of ‘taste’ put more emphasis on the ‘good and suitable’ & ‘behaviour’ part of the definition above – so taste is going to be about what is appropriate and proper according to social norms. what you’re talking about seems to me to be more along the lines of personal style or aesthetic.

    so for example, cousin Glynda could showcase her outrageous personal style by wearing a patent leather cutout corset dress in lipstick red + mirror finish thi-high platform boots – but if she wears this to her older sister’s 11:00am spring wedding at a country inn, it would be in bad taste.

    but the last few years especially people talk more about ‘personal taste’….for me it depends on if something’s for me, for someone in particular, or just the thing in and of itself (re: clothing). i’m very very strict about what i wear, partly for consistency of style and partly cause i’ve just always been picky as hell about clothes. but i can appreciate and very much enjoy all types of different styles and aesthetics on various people. i’ll also develop ‘cravings’ based on what i’ve been doing……after a period of pretty spare looks i want to pile on the petticoats and lace, & vice versa.

    the best way to develop your own eye is thru experience. look at the best stuff you can find to look at, and take your time to check out your gut about it, about the parts (color, line, texture, and so on). then go into analytical mode and pick it apart – what makes it tick? then see if you can bring it all together. comparing and contrasting two items you love (or one you love, one you don’t) is also a great way to develop your eye. color theory, graphic design ideas, art history are all wonderful areas to explore if you want to develop your own eye and personal aesthetic. fun topic! steph

  9. Loren

    I never consciously made this decision but I recently realized I’m drawn to lose drape-y tops with a more fitted bottom. Whether that is an over-sized graphic Tee with skinny jeans & boots, or a pencil skirt with a cowl-neck shirt with classic pumps I don’t really mind.
    I think everyone is drawn naturally to shapes that are more pleasing to the eye. (Like the golden ratio.) Since I’m a bit bottom heavy I think this silhouette probably naturally evens me out a little. So I’m more likely to wear it even if the reason I do it is because I tried on 75 different tops in the dressing room and picked the three I liked most without ‘planning’ a wardrobe. Finding a good style that works and is flattering for me is 95% ‘just trying it’ and 5% actual planning (like when I NEED a new pair of heels). Although that may not work for everyone.

  10. rb

    I used to sew until I finally admitted – I hate sewing! I still knit. So my love of high-quality garments and natural fibers (mostly really fine woolen weaves) comes from my knowledge of fabrics and construction from sewing.

    I also came from a family where money was always tight and we kids always looked a bit shabby – sometimes we wore clothing for a very long time after we’d clearly grown out of it. Sometimes we wore stained or torn items. Many times we wore hand-me-downs from 5 years older cousins that were clearly out of style. So my taste is influenced by that experience, in that I don’t want to be that kid ever again!

  11. Andi

    I’ve always had a fervent love for what I think would be termed “bad” taste. I have fond memories of puff-painted t-shirts from the 80s (particularly the way the puff paint would stick together after washing and you’d have to peel it apart), ridiculous imitation Victorian dresses with huge puff sleeves and Hypercolor. I like plaid taffeta. So sue me.

    I’m not sure where I got these heretical leanings. My mother is a classic and tried to dress me that way for years — even to the point of putting me in things that made me look 10-20 years too old. I have some horrific pictures of me when I was a kid that look almost older than I look now in my 30s. We fought over my high school graduation dress because I wanted black and my mother insisted on navy, saying it needed to match the gown (WTF? I have no idea why). I won because I found an adorable black dress that would be versatile for other events — yay me! After many years, I finally realized I just look ridiculous in tailored anything — a quirky blazer works, but that’s about it. Also, navy is evil next to my face.

    Anyway, my style icons are pretty much made up of Betsey Johnson, the outfits from Hairspray (80s version) and Cry Baby, anything that would be described by my family as “trashy.” I love tattoos, except the overly offensive ones. I like piercings (used to have a pierced lip) and I’m slowly getting used to the stretched holes aesthetic. I’m currently coveting a pair of leopard-print pants. I do draw the line at skin-tight or uncomfortably revealing, but I’m over 35 and I wear miniskirts and NO, I don’t have the legs for it. Tough luck, Stacy and Clinton!

    To be fair, my taste in other things (books, movies, home decor) is similarly questionable so it’s an overall aesthetic that I’m drawn to. No idea why, but thankfully I have an accepting husband who doesn’t mind if I get a sudden notion to dye my hair purple or develop an affection for head-to-toe cheetah. Just as long as I don’t paint the living room in giraffe, it’s all good.

    • Stephanie

      I love that you told Stacy and Clinton tough luck. They so often try to put all women in a box of their idea of style.

    • Mander

      I also have several photos of me when I was a pre-teen and young teenager in which I look a lot older than I do now, at 36! I don’t know if it was just the 80s aesthetic and the fashion for the “dowdy librarian” look, my terrible perm, overly large pink glasses, or what.

      There is one particular photo of me posing with my younger sister and two young cousins, one of whom was a baby at the time, that illustrates this. It was a formal portrait studio shot so we all got dressed up in our fancy spring outfits. I totally look like I am their mother, even though I think I was probably 13 in the photo.

  12. joelle van dyne

    i think about this question all the time! my first real boyfriend and his whole family were obsessed with consistency- the best compliment they could give you would be “you’re very consistent”. even though that was a long time ago, it sticks with me, so when i find myself going for something really punky, or really retro, i get a little nagging worry that i’m being inconsistent to my usual taste. and i feel a HUGE sense of relief if someone sees the item and says “oh that is SO your taste”. then i get another nagging worry about why i care so much! it is a vicious cycle. i like how you’re able to relate aspects of your childhood home to the things you like now- that’s something i’ve never thought about but it would probably be revealing!

    • alice

      that’s so interesting (and funny); i think i generally value consistency as well, but would never think to offer it to someone as a compliment!

  13. Audi

    Wow, this one’s a mind-bender, Sal! I find it hard sometimes to separate MY taste from what I consider GOOD taste; for example, I very often see outfits on others that I think are fabulous, and I’ve sometimes made the mistake of trying out the same look on myself, only to find that it doesn’t really suit my own personal style. Being bombarded with beautiful images as voracious blog readers often are can be hazardous to one’s pocketbook, and can create a hodge-podge of beautiful wardrobe orphans. So I think it really is important to analyze the WHY of one’s own taste, because with clothing it isn’t enough just to like a thing; it also needs to suit your body and fit with the rest of your wardrobe.

    • tiny junco

      “…with clothing it isn’t enough just to like a thing; it also needs to suit your body and fit with the rest of your wardrobe.” Audi, that is it eggz-acktly! it’s possible to find an outfit mind-numbingly gorgeous and at the same time realize it’s completely not for you. but as you point out, you need to get at what’s YOUR OWN thing first to be able to sort this out.

      and Audi, it gives a person hope to find out even a fashion goddess such as yourself gets bamboozled now and again by all the seductive images out there 🙂 happy monday! steph

  14. Brittney

    Interesting questions. Here’s the thing: with me, I don’t always *instantly* know whether I like something or not. I mean, sometimes I do and I’ll do a mental gasp-o’-joy if I love it. But sometimes I have to study a look or an item for a long time (sometimes months) before I can decide where my opinion falls. Perhaps this is still because I’m still searching for/trying to nail down my own sense of style? Or maybe it’s because different styles, presented in various circumstances, on different body types, etc. can sell themselves based upon the association we have with them, whether positive or negative? I don’t know. I’m enjoying the train of thought this post has seated me on. I just hope there’s a dinner car…
    http://adayinlifetoo.blogspot.com (my daily outfit blog; come on by! although I’ll be the first to admit, what you find there is less than deep-thought-provoking…)

  15. CC

    I love how in recent years we have entered a phase in fashion where pretty much anything goes. You are totally free to wear a mini or a maxi and still be stylish. You can wear skinny jeans one day and flares the next. If you want to be a stepford wife one day that’s great, but you don’t have to wear it every day. I love that I can wear whatever I want to wear depending on how I am feeling that day. My personal taste is pretty narrowly defined. I love minimal silhouettes and beautiful colors. However I always add great shoes and jewelry or scarves to my looks so I am not truly minimal. This is really the first time in fashion history that things have been so open. I grew up in the eighties and everyone dressed the same. In my mother’s time no one wore skinny jeans or pencil skirts. My grandmother’s hemlines ranged from below the knee to super mini depending on the decade – but it was always what everyone else was wearing.
    Obviously there are still elements of good taste – what is appropriate at a wedding, or at church, or even at work, but the freedom to wear what makes you happy is awesome.

  16. Emma at Daily Clothes Fix

    Great questions Sal. The short answer is I have no idea. I remember falling in love with a jumper when I was little which I thought was so cool and I cried when it no longer fitted. I also loved my poncho because Luke Skywalker had one.

    I look at my taste now and I realise that I don’t have a need to conform (the opposite in fact) and that I like bright colours and retro styles. Is that because I am a child of the 70s? No idea but it’s fun to ponder nonetheless.

  17. The Waves

    I stepped away from reading my favourite blogs for a week or so, and WOW, I came back today to read this post first. My brain almost hurts, I have so many thoughts! 🙂

    I think (like many others) that our personal tastes develop with time. Some parts we adopt from our families, some likes and dislikes just come about after long processes that might be difficult to pin down. I do believe that at least some parts of our taste also develop from us creating our tastes on purpose, because we as human beings long to “know” who we are. Hence, especially when we are in our late teens or early 20s, we try to almost forcefully define ourselves on the basis of our likes and dislikes, and we develop mantras for ourselves; ie. “I am the type of person who likes to wear black” or “I am the type of person whose taste in fashion reflects my taste in music”. We repeat our beliefs so to speak, and create (at least some parts of) our taste as a result.

    Now the interesting thing for me is the common definition of the word “taste”. Personal taste is different from what is generally considered good taste, and it seems that general good taste is what is also referred to as someone having “style”; it is often nothing too personal, nothing too specific, sort of vanilla. What goes into creating “good taste”, gosh, I haven’t got a clue. But these are really fascinating terms!

  18. MarieP

    Whenever I take a style quiz (in a mag, on a blog, from a book), I come out as “Classic/Bohemian”. Classic/bohemian? Is that even possible? Aren’t those two styles the epitome of a contradition in terms? Apparently not, because that’s me: a classic bohemian. Or maybe a bohemian classicist? Either/or, I suppose.

  19. Gracey at Fashion for Giants

    Loved this post. This is something I think about often, but don’t often articulate. I think my taste and my style is most heavily influenced by two things. The first is because I was such an outsider as a child with my mixed race heritage and strange upbringing (trust me) that all I ever wanted was to fit in, so I have always been painfully aware of what the mainstream populace was wearing and I tried to emulate. At least until I decided I as over trying to fit it (it never worked) and then I had to find my own style – I’m still working on that.

    The second influence is my mother who I am actually not close to, but who remains a big influence because she has an amazing sense of personal style and taste. I think that’s where I get my love of color and bohemian looks. However, she also influences me to be the opposite of her which is why I sometimes like more buttoned-up looks.

    But, basically my taste and style is still evolving and I don’t wonder if it always will.

  20. Cel

    My tastes are all over the place. I love modest, neutral items but I also love loud, colourful patterned pieces. I think our style is always evolving, a constant work in progress as we go through life, experience new things, see new things, do new things and evolve as people too!

    When I was in college, I was still in my tom-boy mode and spent most of my time in jeans and a band shirt. Nowadays I’m a bit more of a cross between a hippie and a well-to-do 70’s lady, depending on the day heh. I changed as a person over the years and my style changed with me!

  21. alice

    How interesting. Growing up I had no style because my family had little disposable income for clothes. I then went to a women’s college where I somehow developed a notion that caring about clothes was frivolous and anti-feminist, so I wandered around in a uniform of strictly black/gray tank tops and one of two pairs of jeans. I think I’ve always been drawn to neutral colors and uniforms though because now that I’m looking back, I see that my college uniform morphed into a uniform of threadless tshirts and skinny jeans in grad school and the more adult version of this today – button down shirts with sleeves rolled up and skinny jeans. I am happy and comfortable with this current incarnation of the uniform because it 1) suits my figure 2) is easy to assemble in the mornings 3) projects the image i want to others 4) makes shopping easy. it sounds boring but i do love clothes and fashion and it’s fun to figure out how to make the uniform distinctive to me.

  22. Nomi

    Although some elements of taste may be traceable back through childhood, I think taste, like style, can evolves across a lifetime. What’s frustrating is when your taste is difficult to reconcile with your reality, as when you love fine materials but you’re barely eking out a living. Or, as in my case, when you’re drawn to a slender, vintage-1930s-ish aesthetic but your figure is no longer sylph-like. I’m not saying you can’t look sophisticated on a tight budget or Dioresque while dumpy, but it takes a lot of care.