Timeless Style?

Everything has a beginning, so why do we refer to some styles as “timeless”? I think there must be two general answers to that one. Some things stay in style a very, very long time. Other items seem to cycle in and out of style repeatedly. And, actually, some things like button-down shirts remain year in and out, undergoing only very slow changes.

Additionally, I have recently seen versions of the two-rectangle Greek chiton showing up in designer fashion, and it has certainly morphed its way in and out of women’s evening gowns. Perhaps it deserves the title “timeless.” (I hardly know any more whether “classic” actually equals “timeless,” given that “classic” button-downs are decidedly not ancient.) I suppose we might say that timeless styles are merely hard to pin down to a specific year when we are speaking in general terms. (Click on the gallery below for a fuller explanation in the captions.)

Then again, many styles have developed over time for reasons of geography, climate, historical events, economics, social structure, or even the meanings assigned to them by people groups. At the same time, various people groups have met up and influenced one another’s clothing. I think of the salwar kameez, for example, as a compromise between the traditional Indian sari and the seamed garments of the West. There is also the cowboy fringe of the Wild West, adapted from the deerskin clothing of Native Americans and later recycled into women’s fashion. Some of the Native Americans of the Northwestern United States also turned Chinese coins into head gear (not pictured).

I won’t belabor all the causes of fashion changes–there is plenty of information you can find on it. It does change much faster since the industrial age made clothing construction faster. Fashion used to change by the century, and then the quarter century. Changes were incremental. Later it changed with national and social revolutions, and then the ubiquity of machinery that could catch the skirt of a dress made it desirable to wear less fabric. Eventually, fashion changed with every decade (approximately), and finally speeded up to the point that everything that could be done had been tried already. As one person put it, the 2000s seem to be a summary of all the fashion that ever was. People can pretty much do as they please, but what is appropriate anymore?

Even though I’m thrilled to see so much latitude for dressing creatively, I think we have (many of us) lost our clarity of purpose in dressing as we do. There are still some norms we could challenge, but in general I would say we have gone far enough–too far–in self-expression. Dressing is part of communication, and if the only thing we have to communicate is our right to go nude in public or to dress as we please regardless of the social context, we are no longer merely experimenting but dismantling the building blocks of social relations. People who live together must have some common footings or the cultural communication falls apart.

Okay, I will quit preaching here.

It is hard to figure out how to dress any more with all the choices of styles and recently minted customs. We have to choose our battles. Here are the truths I personally came to about personal style and expression:

  1. We are not deprived. We have more choice of clothing styles than any people in history.
  2. Limitations of choice can be good. They reduce the number of choices that can drive us nuts.
  3. Too many people get hung up on their imagined best fantasy or glamor image and miss their real-life style because they don’t acknowledge the context in which they live.
  4. Too often personal expression does not acknowledge objective best lines and colors; too often objective “best” lines and colors do not off authentic expression.

Based on those truths, I began writing a book that I hope to offer on this site when it’s finished. Until then, I hope I have you thinking about what is your own personal style philosophy. When you nail that down it makes it much easier to present yourself consistently in every undertaking, from personal dressing and branding to — in some cases — products you produce (The wheels in my own head are turning on this last point right now!).