Privilege Blog

Style May Not Be Virtuous, But Is It Stupid?

Note that this is in response to, not in reply to, a couple of posts and comments around the blogosphere. Here for example, and here. By which I mean that nobody said style was stupid. But what they did say provoked my own internal dialogue, and that’s what you get here. Let me add that  I’m not even measurably  distressed that my father finds style posting non-serious. I’m simply inspired to argue persuasively.

We have seen, in recent weeks, several bloggers in the midlife cohort confess to style posting ennui.

I can’t say I feel the same way.

Let’s admit, right up front, that style is not a virtue, Therefore the pursuit of style is not virtuous. Greed and Vanity sit like burnt devil handmaidens on style’s shoulder, while the minor angels of Appropriate and Appealing whisper away on the other side, saving no one’s soul. In fact, any attempted conflation of style with virtue brings us right to chaste maidens and gender-enforced clothing rules. Yikes. We shall avoid all talk of virtuous style.

But is style stupid?

My father has been known to ask why I don’t write about something more serious. It’s not a bad question. After all, I’m the kid who wrote her senior thesis in Comparative Literature on Metaphor and Metonymy: Lists And Catalogues In Epic Poetry. No kidding. I can’t join book groups because I fear I will rush from a friend’s living room in horror of non-rigorous literary discussion. It’s not a bad question.

But I don’t think style is stupid. Consider these three precepts.

1. The choice of what clothes to wear every morning is our most available opportunity to demonstrate an aesthetic. We may not choose to seize the sartorial moment, taking convention instead as the guiding principle. But we could. Imagine your closet. All neutrals? Minimalist. Bright and varied colors? Ornamentalist. Shades of one hue predominate? Conceptual, and focused. What about ruffles? Pleats, gathers, ruching? Levels of ornamentation all, barely less worthy of discussion than ionic vs. doric, Sure, there’s all kind of degraded fashion out there, but McMansions don’t negate Gehry, nor do supermarket novels violate Don DeLillo, Coetze, or Melville.

2. Personal style expresses our social understanding. Our politics. Are you comfortable in tight clothes? In shows of skin? No? What about how pink and green, or Lilly Pulitzer, serves to signal community in the preppy blogging world? Not too far from the Red State/Blue State paradigm, now is it? We wear our social class or aspirations on our actual sleeves. So much signaling going on. Why else logos? Think of pink, and yellow, and rainbow lapel ribbons. And, as I learned on Miss Cavendish via Belle de Ville, suffragettes wore lavender, green and white to promote their cause. Even Lady Sybil of Downton Abbey.

3. Finally, we often dress with an eye toward personal connection. Toward romance and the furthering of sexual engagement. To attract others. For biology, if you will. Believing in Darwin, as I do, I have to think that any prompts to procreation reflect one of the organizing principles of our existence. Not stupid.

Sure style can be pursued stupidly. But so can love, politics, and child-rearing.

And with that, I think I’ll go browse all of your comfortable summer shoe suggestions. Thank you for your intelligent company.

56 Responses

  1. Style is not a virtue but I believe art is. Quality & authenticity are virtues. Modeling whatever we wish to through what we wear for our daughters could be considered virtuous. (They might not get it in their early 20s — she said of her rebellious artsy daughter — but one day they’ll understand everything you so eloquently stated!)

    Style may not be a virtue but lots that informs it is, indeed, virtuous.

  2. With regards to the personal connection, I’d note that we can easily mix our signals. With my fiance, I might wear something slightly ruffly and feminine and think I look romantic and subtly sexy, and he’ll just see “girly clothes” whereas I might wear something very streamlined and close cut (though not tight) and I feel awkward but he sees “sexy”.

  3. As one who recently posted on style ennui, I agree with all you say here. The ennui I’m experiencing is temporary, I’m sure. I, too, find style as an expression of the self and of one’s cultural surroundings quite fascinating. I also, however, find that too often bloggers don’t examine it through these lenses and that there can be a tendency to be both prescriptive and dogmatic. That wearies me. I’m also finding that, more and more, the blogs that examine fashion and style are becoming increasingly caught up in the commercial enterprise. I don’t begrudge anyone a living, and I know how much work goes into each post, but at one point many of those who blogged about style were trying to provide an alternative to fashion magazines. I’m not as confident this will remain the case with such ubiquitous sponsoring.
    But I know that my enjoyment of fashion, style, and just chatting with blogging GFs will eventually put my ennui in balance . . . and your writing and analysis are in no danger of ever boring, truly!

  4. Is a big discussion on style frivolous? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make it less interesting, or fun to talk and think about. I think the diversity on your blog is one of the best aspects of it. Life would be boring if we spent all our time being virtuous.

  5. I’ve recently started feeling like my blog is running me a little rather than me deciding what I like to wear and just documenting. I feel like it’s taking (mostly time) away from my life rather than enhancing it. I am not sure how or if I want to continue to balance it with the rest of my life. So I was interested to read Une Femme’s thoughts about being driven to be “interesting” rather than wearing your own style. I can relate.

  6. Lisa, I agree with everything you’ve said here! In my own case, it wasn’t so much being bored with style as feeling pressured (from myself more than anyone) to come up with “interesting” ensembles and try new things. When really, what sings to me is some version of what I posted yesterday. Style IS a form of expression, and sure, when you get to Maslow Hierarchy level Big Picture views it’s a frivolous concern, but a little frivolity is sometimes the pinch of mint on the peas that keeps the senses piqued. And on that same level, it’s no more frivolous than a bunch of people coming together to wave various flags at fast and agile people sprinting around a track. :-)

  7. While there are stupid styles, style is not stupid – it is part of what defines us and makes us unique. As to whether it is a virtue…well, I don’t believe I’m quite virtuous enough to express an opinion.

  8. I am attracted to people of similar style the same way I am attracted to people of similar politics or humor; of course, the relationship doesn’t begin or end on any one of those points, but when I see someone dressed in what I consider to be an attractive style, my thought is always, “I think we could be friends.”

    Excellent post, Lisa. You had me at Lady Sybil.

  9. I am not stylish, but it’s not because I think style is stupid. It is because I am 1. lazy and 2. afraid of doing it wrong.

    That said, I do know what looks good on me and I make an effort to appear presentable when I go out in public. I do judge people on what they wear, although I have to remind myself that I, too, go straight to the grocery store from the gym.

    BTW, as delightful as I think your dad is (I love that photo of him with his dog), I have to disagree about your writing something more serious. I like what you write about. I am interested in your perspective. There are others who write more serious stuff and I’m sure there are people who want to read them. But I don’t come to blogs for discussions of Serious Issues. I want to be entertained by witty, insightful writing about subjects that interest me by people whom I feel would be my friends if we lived near each other.

  10. “So much signaling going on.” Agree. You’ve nailed it right there Lisa. This is why I know that style is not stupid, it is a purposeful expression even if people don’t want to admit it.
    Of course I also don’t think it is a virtue, it is simply a point of view, worn on the outside.
    Interesting about your father’s reaction to your writing here, and I am going to second other comments in stating that I love what you write about, every single post.
    It’s nice to have this outlet in the world. Thanks Lisa!

  11. I admire your father very much, and would suggest to him that an intelligent lightness of touch can cast an illuminating light in almost any area, as you do in the area of style blogging.

  12. Interesting question and, curiously, not often asked. I belong to that generation who thought you had to be dishevelled and unkempt if you were an intellectual. I’m still in two minds about personal style but more and more I admit that it is very much that : a personal matter. As for clothes, some of them are works of art ..

  13. Good post Lisa. I mostly agree, although you can’t really demonstrate an aesthetic if you don’t have one. However, you can copy, which I do. Like Silver Bunny, I’m still of two minds about style and for similar reasons. Your 3rd point never applied in my case as I was always attracted to nerds or rumpled intellectual types. The 2nd point, about social understanding, is an interesting one. That works if you have an understanding to convey. I’m not sure everyone does.

  14. Style need not be stupid or frivolous. The thing is, whatever men have not been taught to appreciate, THEY call frivolous. Men live in a very self-regarding world and don’t tend to understand that their viewpoint is actually not congruous with the truth, but they are almost never asked to notice the glasses they see life through.

    Style is opaque to most Western men because they are not taught to appreciate its meanings or nuances. As Sheryl indicates, they tend to have an extremely limited set of categories into which they shoehorn what they can’t apprehend–the extreme richness of style. It’s like asking someone who can only see black, white, red, yellow, and blue to critique a Monet before an audience of art historians. They just aren’t educated; it’s really not quite their fault.

    The reason I feel prompted to point this out is that too often, we don’t look past the reasons behind others’ judgments and simply ask whether the judgment is right/wrong or true/false. One MUST consider the source, which sometimes marshals an agenda (and sometimes not); but very often, the predictable forms those judgments take are designed to constrain the judgee to two choices only: the false dilemma.

    False dilemma is false.

    Maybe style isn’t EITHER serious or not-serious. Maybe it’s quite something else.

    1. I thank you for your thoughtful remark. Personally I need to point out that I’m quite fond of my dad:).

  15. I frequently read and rarely comment, and this has been a very interesting post to read– and I followed the links to the others as well.

    The thing I started thinking about when you said that “Style is not a virtue” was that the same thing can apply to art (including literature)– these things are aesthetic, and while they can convey or inspire social activism, virtuous living, etc., that is not necessarily the primary or sole purpose of art.

    Furthermore, what materfamilias and une femme have been articulating seems to me to be a combination of discomfort with the sensation of performance (in the Butler sense– performing an identity through their clothing) versus authenticity, and self-acknowledged insecurities around self-image. Which is also interesting to think about. Because even when we don’t blog what we wear, we still choose which clothes to buy or which to wear, which helps us perform our identity. And even those who eschew well-known brands/labels are performing a certain identity– though they might do other things to signal to people that they are still of a certain socio-economic bracket or level of education.

    Final thought: I too have warring angels on my shoulders that necessitate a middle ground. One says “don’t be so materialistic! There are starving homeless people– how can you spend so much on a blouse or pair of jeans?” The other says “Let’s go shopping! You don’t feel good today, do you? A new pair of ___ should fix that. You deserve it. Splurge.”

    I think the middle ground (for me) is to curb the unnecessary shopping, even if it’s cheap clothes at Ross, think about needs and wants, and try when possible to choose quality clothes, which sometimes means choosing a higher-end brand (and sometimes not) without feeling guilt that I didn’t find it on sale.

    /end novella

    1. Wonderful to hear from you. If you come back, let me know which Butler you refer to. I’ve been too long away from academia. Thank you.

  16. Well, with a foot in both camps, style may be frivilous, but it’s fun and adds spice to life, and does in most ways express our lifestyle and view of the world. Consider the plain blue almost ankle length skirt of am Omish woman versus the short, tight black leather skirt of a French tart. Style may be opague to some western men, or should that be most men, but they are some that of course know style very well. But then some who appreciate modern style are not in tune with the classic senses of an educated woman. It’s all very interesting.

  17. Style/fashion/clothing is neither frivolous nor stupid. It is another language – one your father doesn’t speak.

  18. OMG, everyone has made this so difficult comparing this to that. What if one prefers being “stylish” & knows of no other way to be, but absolutely does not think of it as profound or intellectual? I must say I think Oscar Wilde got it right, “My tastes are very simple, I am satisfied with the best.” But, wasn’t he referring to “everything” in his life? Not just apparel. I mean, fine wines, cheeses, great cars, thorough-bred horses & on & on. But, yes, apparel does signal others that the wearer is aware of quality and style, if done correctly, that is. And, who doesn’t love a man in a perfectly tailored suit? I do not dress for men, never have. But, God, I wouldn’t dare let my girlfriends down. xx’s

  19. Style is a fun, creative…and yes sometimes, a wonderfully frivolous escape that help to boost our feel good vibes and give our sometimes monotonous daily grind a little spark & panache…and you dear Lisa, are helping in igniting that spark…please doon’t stop, the inspiration you bring to us is priceless…and much needed for this girl who has spent the last six years building a house and has a closet full of rubbish!
    xoxo J~

  20. I have been extremely dogmatic (as materfamilias says) but I find ankle socks with high heels ugly, and am relieved to vent my opinion.

    When women write of their love for prints, their relationship with grey, or what makes a hat so pleasing, I am intrigued. WIWs less so; there is •sometimes• a narcissistic and consumerist aspect that disturbs me.

  21. You might suggest to your father that style is a rhetorical problem. He would understand that.

    For me, it is infinitely interesting. For many years out of economic necessity, I dressed in the most basic of clothing. And, while I’m still “working class” in my aesthetic, I relish the potential aspects of rebellion–rebellion against the dictates of higher education, against aging, against sexism, etc. I’m with Mater about the aspects of blogging that are prescriptive or commercial. I’d rather take a risk.

  22. Here is a quote which seems apposite:

    “Men say that style is frivolous – clothes are frivolous, that homes are frivolous, hair styles and gossip and entertaining are frivolous – but most men tend to live one-dimensional lives unless they have wives who take care of the homes and the clothes and the entertaining for them. Their wives bring a level of humanity to them. They bring drama and detail and style into their lives. … This thing we call style – this is the texture of the world.”

    From “The season of second chances” by Diane Meier.


  23. Obviously a very thought provoking subject! Isn’t “style” just a part of who we are as humans? I Googled the definition and the first two results I got were: (1) Noun: A manner of doing something; and (2) Verb: Design or make in a particular form. Well, to my simple way of thinking, isn’t that what our experience of living is? I think style is who we are and there are always people who will choose to exploit or denigrate our choices. “[On the virtuous man] He combines the highest, lowest and middle chords in complete harmony within himself.” ― Plato. Isn’t that style? Thank you always for your interesting reflections and for your readers’ equally interesting comments.

  24. A very compelling post indeed. Gone are the days (at least in my mind) where a discussion on something as “frivolous” as style cannot be balanced with one’s intellect. None of us are just one thing: intellectual, snazzy dresser, mother, career woman, athlete….so therefore our collective desire to discuss all things sartorial should not seem so unusual. None of these parts that make us whole are mutually exclusive. Sometimes, we humans do things just because they are fun. It is not a commentary on the level of one’s intellect to celebrate say, a snakeskin pump. I would say it is in fact a celebration of intellect, of creative thinking. Is it virtuous? Meh…does it matter? It is perhaps virtuous to be able to openly discuss a great variety of subjects, seriosity-level notwithstanding.

  25. So what is style? What is style in fashion, in clothes? What are we discussing about?
    These are questions needing an answer, before deciding whether it is stupid, frivolous or not.
    I see very little of it ( as I understand it ), in the blogs I visit. But then, I´m not in the hunt of it either from the blogs I read and follow.
    I might check The Sartorialist from time to time. There I see one person´s idea ( not mine ) about style, street style to be exact.
    Somehow, this topic does not raise great emotions in me.
    I simply don´t seem to catch the red string at all.

  26. I think that in our very complex world that does not always reward our merit style gives us an outlet, a way to make yourself feel and others see your personality and value. And of course, in a world ruled by visual and planet-spanning media you can’t avoid presenting a picture of yourself. It’s only natural that one should try and improve that image.

    And in some instances style blogs seem to transport more than style issues: body image, ways of living, frugality, selfassurance etc.
    Still pictures stay in your head and when I sometimes inadvertently scan people’s outfits and find them wanting, I get angry with myself. I remind myself there are more important issues than a shade of blue.

  27. A group of intelligent participants can have a stimulating conversation on any topic. A group of dullards will have dull conversations on same.

    Style, fashion, and design are often closely aligned with the 1. the zeitgeist of the times, 2. individuals reflection of their inner perceptions of self, and 3. a fascinating outward display of social class and membership. Sociologists of all stripes can have field days with sartorial expressions of groups of people.

    Just because our Protestant Puritan forbearers eschewed decoration (which is a statement in itself) does not mean that one so descended cannot engage in highbrow and interesting discussions of adornment.

  28. Another chewey post, LPC, I’ve been gnawing on it ever since you hit Publish. Maybe it’s the Artsy in me, but I keep coming back to the lesssons learned from my mother, she insisted that style came from the inside, that it wasn’t a commodity and it wasn’t available for purchase at Hermes or Chanel, et al.

    I think Max weighs in on topic, if obliquely, with this morning’s submission on his tumblr:

  29. Do we ever escape our social class…deep down the little sloaney whispers,pearls,pearls,alice bands,and I still tumble down that hole.

    I need a dose of frivolous to keep me from the boring!!

    Interesting post. Ida

  30. How incredibly lucky we are today as women, versus women from any other time in history, that we can express our aesthetic through dress in a variety of ways. One day in jeans and a blazer, the next in a pencil skirt and heels, we can dress appropriately in both outfits. Unlike 150 years ago when only hoop skirts, corsets and dresses to our ankles were acceptable. How we dress is not frivolous, unless our clothes become the most important thing about us.

  31. is fashion frivolous? yes and it is fun too. i think of the impact jackie kennedy had on the nation/world b/c of her personal style and then i think fashion can be important too. whatever, it’s fun to think about and fuss over clothes. your writing is spot on lisa. xo janet

  32. Late to the party — but I was busy gnawing on this particular bone, doing my own thinking about style and looking for others’ quotations on same. (Warning: Long post ahead!)

    Perhaps it is a characteristic of High WASPs to shy away from fashion and style and to categorize these topics as something frivolous.

    My father is half High WASP by way of New England and half French by way of New Orleans. He eschews fashion (when polyester leisure suits and bell bottoms enjoyed their respective vogues, he would have none of it).

    However, he most definitely has his own style, derived largely from his uniform at New Orleans’ Jesuit High School (where he was a scholarship student): all-cotton, button-down-collar shirt with Repp tie, navy blazer, and khakis.

    He worked for the same company for 30-plus years as vice president for engineering, and I believe he was probably the only man in his department who avoided clip-on neckties.

    Now that he’s retired, he doesn’t wear the shirt-and-tie school uniform anymore — only when he meets with his heart doctor or another professional to whom he wants to signal respect.

    Though Dad hews to gender stereotype in his avoidance of so-called “retail therapy,” there are occasions on which he’s felt the thrill of acquisition.

    In the Navy, when they stopped in Hong Kong, he bought a custom-tailored Madras plaid suit jacket. Years later, I was grown and on my own and volunteering at a fundraising rummage sale in a High WASP town, Dad was thrilled to find a genuine Harris tweed jacket in his size.

    And he takes great pleasure in seeing members of his extended family on “dress-up” occasions, even if they express themselves in an unorthodox fashion.

    “Your younger niece [who is 5],” he informed me during a phone call this winter, “wore her great-grandmother’s [i.e., Dad’s mother’s] rosary beads, a white blouse, a lovely Black Watch plaid skirt, mary janes, and red-and-white striped tights. She was a picture, as long as I didn’t look at her from the knees down.”

    1. I love this story. Your father seems to have, as you say, a definitive and unique sense of style. I will Google The Meaning of Sunglasses. Thank you.

  33. P.S. An apt quote, from The Meaning of Sunglasses by Hadley Freeman, deputy fashion editor of The Guardian newspaper:

    “To claim that pride in one’s appearance is solely and instinctively a feminine quality, women being such silly and shallow creatures, whereas men are thinking far too many big thoughts to have time to look in the mirror, is entirely in keeping with a lot of the gender-based nonsense that still, incredibly, gets spouted in the twenty-first century. It is also quite patently wrong, as anyone who has ever seen a portrait of pretty much any male member of the upper classes from the nineteenth century and before knows.”

  34. I appreciate your pondering here, and not only because I’ve now flunked myself out of two book clubs for their insufficiently rigorous literary discussion. (Not that I’m necessarily sitting around reading Proust in my leisure hours, but you smell what I’m cooking here.)

    I wrestle with the demons mentioned and still think the pursuit of beauty can be a virtue, as Babette commented above. Something about the Platonic ideal and all that; not sure I’d want to live in a world just dedicated to the inner without a break for the outer being diverse and lovely too.

  35. As someone with a desire for style (but never really makes that notion materialise) I have to agree.

    Of course the content can be viewed as frivolous and perfunctory but when written and executed with eloquence it brings a certain elegance.

    There is more to life than the state of the Euro.

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