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The 2 Key Questions To Ask In Articulating Your Style: Clothing, House, Or Garden

Chanel jacket with wide trousers as example of evocative fashion

Now that I’m writing about 3 areas of style – fashion, house, and garden – I notice a couple of commonalities. Seems to me in articulating style, of any sort, we need to ask ourselves 2 primary questions.

  1. What must our style do for our physical selves?
  2. What effect do we want to create, and for whom?

The answers can be quite multi-faceted, of course. The needs and constraints of the physical self break into smaller and smaller components.

  • Clothes: into heel height, strategies for 3 feet of snow, the number of compartments you like in your handbag.
  • Gardens, into how much maintenance you’re willing and able to do, do you require shade, light, food, or flowers, as well as will you want play space? Oh yes, and geography. We always live somewhere specific.
  • Interiors, into all the use patterns of your life and your family, and again, your geography.

This is the stuff we solve for together, in the blogosphere. Non-dowdy flats that stay on your feet, tops that survive cross-Atlantic flights, plants deer won’t eat, new ways to fix cracks in concrete walkways, we figure it out.

Garden view through trees as example of evocative landscape design

I also find the second question quite fascinating – and less discussed. What effect do we want to create, and for whom? I’ll start with myself, since that’s what I know.

  • In fashion, I focused quite intently on the the gaze of the stranger. I used to want to create the effect of nonchalant elegance, intelligence, and a sophisticated but classic aesthetic. Nowadays, I don’t care so much about the nonchalant. I am edging Artsy, it is an effort, and because it’s an honest effort that I make for myself, I don’t mind letting people know.
  • In gardens, I’ve realized that out front I want to create the effect of being a pretty good citizen, with pretty good taste, doing a pretty good job of tending her house. I don’t want to make a big show, but I don’t want to let down the side either. In the back yard, the effect is for myself. I want to feel as though I’m miles away from other people, as though civilization can’t interrupt me, and resources for beauty are ample. Tricky, that, in a suburban lot.
  • My wishes for interiors have been the hardest to analyze. I think I do not want to create any effect other than serenity, comfort and harmony, for myself and my loved ones. But I know for sure I do not want to see any signs of trying for an effect. Tricky, again.

Of course, the question of effect can be explored more deeply. In order to communicate the complexities of what we’re after, we create typologies, like, The Artsy Cousin, The California Mid-Century Modern Garden (camellias, azaleas, jasmine), The Classic High WASP Family House. Or, drawing from archives other than my own, The Over-30 Parisienne, The English Cottage Garden, The Bohemian Swedish Apartment (where do they get all that bright light, we wonder?!).

And some may feel the effect they are after is purely aesthetic. But I find it very hard to separate aesthetics from feelings, in style. Even a love for red plaid brings other meaning quickly on its heels.

Farrow and Ball wallpaper as an example of evocative interior design

It’s so interesting the way the desired effect changes across domains. What we want in our clothes may not be what we want in our gardens, and may in fact be antithetical to what we want in our houses.

How about you? Do you have a unified approach? Do you show your self in your clothes the same way you do in your house? Or does each variant of your style satisfy different needs?

Top 2 photos, Tumblr to Pinterest maze here, and here, pinned by Tara Dillard. Bottom photo, Farrow and Ball.

42 Responses

  1. The one thing I am finding at the moment is that I want the style to bring me calmness and help cope with city life and the stresses of living in a big and crowded city. I found recently when decorating that I dont’ want to make a statement or impress – I just want to come home and feel that aaahhhh and exhale moment. That also applies to clothes.

    1. @coulda shoulda woulda, That resonates. When I was working at stressful jobs, I wanted my house and garden as serene as possible. Now that I’m retired, I’m surprising myself with a desire for rich colors and even some whimsy.

  2. This is so interesting. I have quite a few random attitudes that are very strong, but no cohesive style in any of the three areas. I don’t make much of an attempt in fashion. Maybe because I wore school uniforms for 12 years, I still wear “uniforms.” Lands End turtlenecks, LLBean canvas pants, etc. I do obsess over handbags, because I need to have quite a few compartments. I spend a lot of time looking for the perfect one – three main compartments, middle one zippered, side compartments large enough to hold pads of paper and copies of journal articles, several smaller pockets, some zippered. Structured and not floppy, nice leather, no contrast topstitching. I haven’t found quite the perfect bag yet, but some Kate Spade bags come close. I’m using a bag I bought from Levinger’s a few years ago, tan because the black model had white topstitching. I really prefer black or darker brown. The very perfect bag is now available exclusively at Dillard’s, made by Brahmin – except that it’s available only in a tortoise-y stamped leather, not in the lovely plain black leather that some Brahmin bags come in. Flat shoes only.

  3. For interiors, I need a certain amount of empty space. Fussy window treatments, many folds of fabric, depress me. Paint colors are important – Farrow and Ball Orangery in the sunroom, Restoration Hardware Butter in the living room, a wonderful numbered Donald Kaufman paint in the foyer and 1st and 2nd floor hallways – it changes from blue to green depending on the light. RH Cappuccino in the large bathroom with white tile/black trim. I need a lot of natural light and, in the evening, bright enough light. If I go into the kitchen and only half the lights are on, I find it intolerable. This is all for me, the fashion and the interiors. But not for my physical self, for my emotional self.

    I’ve gone on and on too much already, will not continue to the garden!

    1. @Marie, I love how very specific you are, how well you have noticed yourself. And I’m with you on empty space and light – not a curtain in the house!

  4. I totally agree with the approach to gardens and interiors. Though I need to do better on the landscaping end. Thankfully, there are dedicated lawn services to at least keep up appearances. But OH my – that wallpaper is beautiful! If only these old walls were not plaster, we’d have something to talk about there.

  5. If you opened my wardrobe doors, you would see the exact colours that my house is decorated in but with one exception, I never wear pattern but love wallpaper.

    1. @Tabitha, I think of the entire UK as covered in glorious wallpapers. It’s far less common here in California. My mother always used to paper her bathrooms, to wonderful effect.

  6. Intriguing questions that I will enjoy pondering. Certainly, I expend a good bit of effort into creating what I hope appears to be effortless, especially in dress and house. Thankfully, the effort–especially in the house–is joy. I create for me and for my family, yes, but for who else? I’m curious. The garden, at this point, is all effort, transitioning from a play space to a shady hideaway. Winter mocks, but I saw daffodil buds this morning.

  7. I care more about my houses than I do about my clothing. And, over the years, I’ve spent much more time looking at interior design in magazine and online than I have spent looking at clothing and accessories. With extra $$ in my pocket, I would always opt for a antique chest over several new outfits or a lovely, but pricey handbag. And, I can say that the effects I am trying to achieve are for myself.

    I do understand the concept of being a good neighbor in your front yard–and we do the same. We try to fit in. But, it’s the backyard I see through windows daily and truly enjoy.

    1. @Susan, You have the most extraordinary taste in houses – I always want to point people to your Pinterest boards, because I want to heart almost every image you post.

  8. I do think each variant of my style in clothes and decor, feeds a different need. Just like each room has a different purpose and mood, I have sunnny, happy day clothes and “I don’t feel so great” clothes that either accentuate or endeavor to fix the feeling.

  9. My house is way more full of color and pattern than one would guess by what I wear. I always wallpaper bathrooms (like your mom) and find a mix of pattern, muted colors, and layers very soothing. In clothing I’m way more minimal – maybe just lazy?

  10. First things first: “edging Artsy”, like that! I suspect your choices are still discriminating, but truer to who you are now.

    My home and wardrobe (even hair) are of a piece. I like things that last and are not recherch√©, admire many types of decor and landscape, but can’t live with much busy ornamentation.

    1. @Duchesse, It makes sense to me that you are consistent across all channels, if you will. Takes a strength of will to do that. And thanks – still discriminating but truer, that’s kind of the goal of the second half of life, I think.

  11. Being parsimonious with energy and words right now, but I love the post and the stream of comments it’s generated. I’ll be walking with these questions for the next while. . . So funny, though, when I started thinking about my home, what design/decor, etc. appeals, I somehow flashed to Madeline l’Engle’s books — Going to have to find time for a reread and see what that’s about. . . (See what you’ve done! ;-)

    1. @Frances/Materfamilias, That’s so interesting! I loved those books too, I wonder how they translate to home? The first was all about a search for the lost father she loved, right? The rescue? And the little brother? The heroic sister?

    2. Still haven’t really had time to think about this, much less to look up the books, but I think the image that flashed was of a comfortable, slightly rambling house that accommodated slightly eccentric busy family life with more than a bit of quirky intelligence manifest. . . lots of tolerance in that domestic space, I guess. Might find I’m completely wrong when I get back to the actual pages. . .

      Bottom line, I guess, is that as much as I love tranquil, zen, architecture and decor, I’m most at home in places spilling over with books, old patterned carpets and cushions make of great textiles and cool carvings and pottery and all kinds of stuff that has to be dusted but reveals a rich life. Always at least one musical instrument in view — in many ways, I guess, the house I grew up in and the homes of my best friends through the years. . . But sigh, I need a maid . . . all those dust-catchers!

  12. Interesting questions. In clothes I want to look quietly elegant and feel comfortable. This is true whether I’m dressed up or wearing jeans, which means I like well-fitting clothes made out of good fabrics. Figuring out which colors are the most flattering has been a real help.
    On the garden, lots of people walk by our house since we’re near a park, and most of our yard is visible to the street. I like a garden that will make people, including me, smile, but which doesn’t take an expert hand. This means lots of daffodils in the spring, followed by hydrangeas, daylilies, and daisies. It also means lots of planters by both the front and back doors so that we see them whenever we go in or out. I plant them with pansies in the spring, assorted flowers in the summer, and pansies and mums in the fall.
    In my home I want to be comfortable above all. I’ve found that the colors that are flattering in clothes are the ones I gravitate to in my home as well. Plus we have some wonderful throws on our couches and chairs that we can wrap ourselves in whenever we want.

    1. @MJ, Sounds like you have a nicely integrated approach – elegant, but comfortable to both inhabitants and visitors. Welcoming.

  13. Oh Lisa, so much to think about! My wardrobe, home and garden are increasingly cohesive, if only in my eyes.

    Simple, tailored, organic and harmonious with a few extraordinary elements that make me happy. I am thinking of beautiful, mostly practical shoes, a perfect bag (monobagemous I am), nice cashmere sweaters and lots of white shirts, tees, jeans, a few lbds that work well and nice coats- and some well worn yoga pants! House is a jumble of antiques, new, comfortable upholstery, all with a rather clean classic feel :wing chairs, linen pillows, mahogany furniture, but spare of line. A couple of things a bit nicer than people might think we own but that don’t call attention to themselves- they blend in but delight me. Garden is lush, a bit wild, but with strong lines, strong axis and a few grand indulgences- long borders of hydrangea and 1000s of spring bulbs naturalized throughout (it helps that it’s an 80 yr old house and someone before me loved the garden). A simple aesthetic, tactile, classic and sensuous (nice things are nice to touch, pretty to look at and the cut flowers smell wonderful and fill the house spring through late fall) with a few luxuries.

    I wish I could say that I planned this but really its been a process. The only thing is I wear a lot of black, white and jeans and there isn’t much black in the house. I enjoy working on the house and garden more, personal style could use help (which is one of the reasons I began reading your blog). Thanks, just making me answer the question helped me see pattern myself..

    1. @Leigh Ann, Sounds gorgeous, all of it, and very similar to my aesthetics except almost certainly in another region of the world? I am fascinated by these comments, and coming from a place of expertise in personal style and amateur status in interiors, I am now wondering, why? What brings us to be quite comfortable in one realm, and less so in another? Am mulling.

  14. I haven’t had the time to do much gardening, but there are two very (8 feet long, wide and deep) large window boxes on the front of the house and I love to fill those. At Christmas time I fill most of the boxes with evergreen boughs (lower branches cut off Christmas trees at the nursery, that we get for free) and then add different kinds of pretty greenery (cedar, pine, boxwood, etc.) and white lights. In summer I like to have either orange/white/green with tiny trailing purple flowers or white/lime green/purple flowers. While looking online for window box ideas I came across a landscape designer in Detroit (my home town) who does spectacular window boxes. I love her green/white and green/white/purple designs, and I’m going to copy some of her ideas this spring.

    1. @Marie, I worship Deborah Silver, and read her blog voraciously. I think she’s a master, and can’t wait to see what she does for spring and summer.

  15. I like an easy, mostly classic/timeless style with touches of nostalgia. An antique piece… a jewel, family heirloom, art, oriental rug.

    My landscape is low maintenance. The inner garden includes: Flowering ornamental trees placed as focal points. My collection of Japanese maple trees adorn one large area. I place very large containers near the house and patios and fill them with lush greenery and flowers. The outer garden is manicured woodland with walking paths.

    My landscape also includes feeding the birds.

    Presently, we are under about 3 feet of snow with another foot predicted this weekend. Welcome to NE. Needless to say, “I will greatly appreciate the Spring!” Susan

  16. To borrow your words, I would say I probably will always be in the “effect of nonchalant elegance, intelligence, and a sophisticated but classic aesthetic” category of dressing. For gardening, I like color, yet simplicity. For the home interior, comfort mixed with style and a bit of elegance from antiques and paintings here and there. I am a collector and believe in the philosophy of “a few good things” when it comes to decorating.

    Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your hubby Lisa.

  17. Fascinating! I do have much clearer ideas of what I want in terms of personal style. To a slightly less degree, I also know how I want my home and garden to be – for myself, my family and friends – but for the longest time, from my earliest memory in fact, I have never been able to deliver on that for various reasons. However, for the first time I am on the brink of being able to do it since we are moving soon and I am almost too afraid now to think about it all!

    1. @silkpathdiary, Oh, so you and I have been in similar situations. I found this interiors stuff quite daunting at first. I am starting to feel much more confident – and I’m happy to have you as company!

  18. It has taken many years to find what works for me. Part of that is accepting my body and working with it. Being petite always seemed to be a disadvantage to me but I now embrace it. As for home decor, that took a long time to figure out, too. The problem was I admired so many different styles that it was difficult figuring out what I wanted. I embrace the eclectic, now!

    1. @Jane, Embrace the eclectic! And I am working on the hypothesis that maybe when someone is good at interiors and less comfortable with personal style that it is about body image first and foremost. So I’m wondering how I can be useful to people who feel that way.

  19. Do love the way you are able to clarify everything in a short , sweet manner. You mentioned fixing cement cracks – have you discovered any secrets? I’m still working on that one. Thanks.

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