The Genteel
April 12, 2021


Bebe Zeva (Source:

How would you define your "personal style"? It's a question I groan at every time I see a street style gallery or a shop-my-closet-type feature on some website or in some magazine. The answers are usually equally painful, with variations on "modern" and "classic" something or the other. Equally eye-roll-inducing is that common reference to a "classic" movie icon ("I'm Sophia Loren-meets-casual") or, lately, fashionable throwbacks laced with nostalg-ugh like Mad Men ("I'm channeling dapper-like Don Draper"). But do you think - maybe - that we've taken this personal style bit a little too far? Personally, I am sick of people aspiring to actively develop a specific look that they think will make them look/seem cooler, or that will make them more niche-slash-trendy. Moreover, I'm over magazines and fashion brands pandering to a set ideal of what people should aspire to subscribe to in dress. "Be Aviator Chic like Amelia Earhart," I once read in a magazine. Aviator chic, really? Is that what she was? Newsflash: Earhart was an aviator. "Understated cool", "preppy-chic" - all bizarre combinations of words that serve only to box in our style much in the way music used to demand a choice between disco or rock, or hip hop or pop, or whatever genres were battling it out on the charts. And frankly, it's all starting to sound a bit silly - and contrived.

"Be Aviator Chic like Amelia Earhart," I once read in a magazine. Aviator chic, really? Is that what she was? Newsflash: Earhart was an aviator.

I don't think I've ever stopped to consciously think about what I'm doing or why I'm doing it, sartorially speaking. Of course, questions like, "What to wear to this dinner party?" come up sporadically, but it's never been a matter that makes or breaks me. Sure, I have what I assume to be feelings of a "winning moment" when the teenager in me wants to yell, "I'm so nu-grunge," but I'm equally okay with being a miss as much as a hit. That's just how I do things. When I was in school, in a third-year non-fiction writer's craft course, I had a professor who used to say, "You write because you write, not because you think too much about it." It used to be my one pet peeve with favourite English and lit theory classes - why should we have to dissect great works of literature until they're just piles of similes and metaphors? Don't get me wrong: I love talking shop about the written word, and making literary connections to context and time and space, but there's got to be a limit to the meticulous nature of it all, right?

Indeed, this phenomenon of consciously and deliberately cultivating a personal style is, I'd say, a relatively new thing perpetuated by fashion's rise as an unofficial superpower - a movement, if you will. Just last week, over lunch, a friend went into great detail about her pending plans to change her look, her wardrobe; it pretty much needed its own mood board. Another friend once confessed to printing pictures from websites like The Sartorialist to create a gallery of looks to pick and choose from. One part of me thought it was brilliant and quirky; the other part of me thought it was mortifying. This may be a flawed thought, but I always believed in the idea that anything you have to think too hard about or craft too rigidly comes off as artificial or unnatural. Much like music before fashion, there was never a choice, or, at the very least, it felt very inherent and intrinsic. Do you think Hendrix intentionally sought to make the "Star Spangled Banner" a hymn for the counterculture - or was he just trying to piss off the "man"? And then you wonder how much the pre-meditated persona has changed over the last fifty years, especially with mediums like television. Do you think Madonna - oh, well, never mind those motives. But still, first music videos happened and the radio star couldn't hide anymore, and Joni Mitchell's stockings had to be replaced. Then image management and stylists became de rigueur, working to clean it all up and polish it all off. The Internet followed, and fashion went viral. Suddenly, everyone had to be something - or everything - to become someone. And so came the personal brand mantra on which personal style was built and championed. Bloggers like Bryanboy and Susie Lau of Style Bubble emerged victoriously as superstars simply because they chose to dress in very random, experimental ways. Well, I guess randomness is a pattern in math, but let's not all go labeling and calculating things.

Image conscious: From left to right,
"next-gen" style bloggers like Bebe Zeva,
Bobby Raffin and Bethany Struble are
calculating a new era of personal style
(Source: Bobby Raffin, Blogspot).

And then there are "next-gen" style stars like Bebe Zeva, the pint-sized, barely-legal blogger from Las Vegas whose recent-ish New York Times profile, among others, points to a clear stream of consciousness when it comes to her look and her image. No word of a lie, within the first few paragraphs, the words "style" and "Cyber Goth" appear in the same sentence, just before proclamations like "when I made the conscious decision to pursue the hipster lifestyle." I remember reading this initially and thinking, "Okay, this is the end of modesty and humility." Editorial features like this Fashionista piece question if personal-cum-street style actually has negative ramifications to self-image. The very question of our stylized authenticity even sparked a collection of articles in the NYT last summer as part of the "Room for Debate" series. (An especially great read is a piece by GQ editor Will Welch, in which he notes that style has become too self-aware, creating "an environment where the blogs are as contrived as the runways.") If you want to have a look - or the look - it will apparently require some serious mediation. And yet, remember the days when boy bands and female pop stars were routinely criticized for being so-called manufactured? Even Courtney Love doesn't care this much about what she wears.

But if, one day, you do get stopped, looking good and feeling great, and someone takes your picture, and asks you that question, do me a favour - don't use the word "chic." Remember: if everything is chic, then nothing is chic. Think on that.



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