Yin and Yang of Style

Belle Northrup, a professor at Columbia Teachers College in the 1930s, is generally credited with bringing in the Chinese cosmological concept of yin and yang to describe the appearance and nature of women (though it also applies to men). The terms refer to extreme opposites like soft and sharp, dark and light, smooth and rough, small and large, and so forth. Pretty much every physical type can be described in the language of yin and yang, which is useful for describing the ebb and flow of these various characteristics and the combinations they produce.

In her book, Art in Clothing Selection, first published in 1963, Harriet Tilden McJimsey developed Northrup’s concept into style archetypes: Dramatic, Natural, Classic, Romantic, Gamin, and Ingenue. This is the basis for most style typing today. The definitions are not one hundred percent the same across all style typing systems, but they are close. Generally, the style types are aligned with the yin and yang categories like this:

Yang – Dramatic, Natural

Balanced Yin/Yang — Classic

Yin — Romantic, Ingenue, and Gamin (size-wise only)

These style types are also not placed relative to the yin/yang scales in identical ways across typing systems. For example, one system posits Romantic as the most yin while others insist that place belongs to Ingenue. The Ingenue category has further been redefined or subdivided in other systems as Youthful or Soft Gamin, the latter which cannot be the most yin as it incorporates a touch of yang. And further, John Kitchener’s PSC (Personal Style Counselors) system identifies another style type, Angelic, which is non-existent in other systems, as the most yin. I have read arguments pro and con about these various assignments to yin, and personally I’ve also been curious as to why Dramatic (long, sharp, smooth) is considered the most yang when Natural (long, broad, rough) is not. Perhaps attempts to calibrate broad style types into even columns of comparison or fit them into a perfectly divided circle is artificial, much like Newton’s attempt to splinter the hues he actually discovered into seven because it fit his preconception that it should match the number of notes on the musical scale.

Around 1665, when Isaac Newton first passed white light through a prism and watched it fan out into a rainbow, he identified seven constituent colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—not necessarily because that’s how many hues he saw, but because he thought that the colors of the rainbow were analogous to the notes of the musical scale.1

Perhaps style categories should look like an arrangement of atoms and molecules, a fancy way of saying I have no idea what the perfect representation should be. But it does seem that the yin and yang scale aligns intuitively with our aesthetic sense of heavyweight vs. lightweight characteristics.

Lest I give the impression that all people fit precisely into one of these exact style identities, apparently neither Northrup nor McJimsey believed that, and neither do the current proponents of this general method. These categories only suggest the broadest impression an individual’s physicality is likely to produce. The devil is always in the details, and if you omit the details, you are likely to get stranded in the sand traps of the whole concept.

Alhambra ornament 14

During the 1980s, David Kibbe published Metamorphosis: Discover Your Image Identity and Dazzle as Only You Can. It combined color and style in a way that married up personal coloring and natural lines. His style identities were based more or less on McJimsey’s original ones, but with some changes. His basic typing ran something like this:

Yang – Dramatic, Natural

Balanced Yin/Yang – Classic

Yin – Romantic

Combination Yin/Yang – Gamine

Let me qualify my categorization of Kibbe’s Gamine type here as yin/yang rather than yin. I looked up charts to see where others had placed Kibbe’s Gamine and it is almost invariably put into the yin category, presumably because of the size factor. But here is a quote I found from Kibbe’s book: “The Gamine is equal parts Yin and Yang, always maintaining a natural contradiction that is the basis for her physical makeup.” Equal parts yin and yang is not yin. It is yin and yang. So I think I’ve represented it correctly.

Essentially, Kibbe maintained five basic types. He further subdivided them into versions that were more yin or more yang than the pure type, except when the type was all the way to the extreme ends of yin and yang. (You cannot go more yin than Romantic or more yang than Dramatic in his system.) Most individuals are a mixture of some degree of yin and yang, so he took his basic types and added extra yin or yang where that was possible. In recent years he is rumored to have eliminated his pure types altogether. Apparently those of any general category will still lean to the more yin or yang side of it. So his types with added yin or yang break down more like this:

Yang – Dramatic, Soft Dramatic (extra yin), Flamboyant Natural, Soft Natural (extra yin)

Balanced Yin/Yang – Dramatic Classic (extra yang), Soft Classic (extra yin)

Yin – Romantic, Theatrical Romantic (extra yang)

Combination Yin/Yang – Flamboyant Gamine (extra yang), Soft Gamine (extra yin)

After fading into obscurity for about twenty years, Kibbe’s book enjoyed a renaissance during the 2000s, and the terminology has stuck firmly in people’s minds till this day. My reason for including this information is not to teach Kibbe’s system but to include his typing for comparison with other systems.

There are several points of confusion I could address concerning Kibbe’s book, though much of it apparently came up in the editorial process, which Kibbe had no control over. The greatest problem I had was with the questionnaire. It creates an impression that the facial features are as important as the overall body silhouette in determining one’s type. I don’t think so, and I doubt that Kibbe thinks so, either. There are many, many nuances that are very hard to spot in his book. The fact is, facial features can be all over the place but the overall silhouette still defines the style identity. That’s why actress Shirley MacLaine, in spite of her gaminish face, is a Flamboyant Natural in the Kibbe system. A nose or chin will not alter the silhouette, but hands and feet are part of the macro-structure. Jennifer Aniston is a Soft Natural in Kibbe, yet her very yang jaw and chin do not change that. And yet, these anti-type features are the very reason people of the same style type look so wildly (and interestingly) unique. Kibbe knows that – I’ve seen his work. It just isn’t apparent to the casual reader of his book. Apparently, there is a lot that goes into his work that isn’t clearly voiced.

I bought his book during the eighties and for many years thought I was the only one who had ever heard of it, because there wasn’t an Internet community yet. I spent the next twenty years alternately consulting it and swearing at it. It became, for me, a problem because I ended up losing my way with it, not finding it. I heartily recommend looking up Aly Art and Merriam Style on YouTube for a more thorough explanation of his system if you have been left completely confused by online discussion groups. I credit both of these YouTubers with changing my mind in a positive direction about Kibbe.

P.S. Since writing this page, I discovered a new category someone created: Delicate Dramatic. It seems to cover those women who fit sort of, but not really, into Dramatic, Soft Dramatic, or Flamboyant Natural categories. I found the explanations to be a real game changer.

1Ashley P. Taylor, “Newton’s Color Theory, ca. 1665,” The Scientist, March 2017, https://www.the-scientist.com/foundations/newtons-color-theory-ca-1665-31931