Privilege Blog

Why Are We Better At Certain Kinds Of Style Than Others?

I was very interested to learn that many of you reverse my experience with style. While I am extremely comfortable with clothing but less so with interiors, you love interior style, find clothing more difficult.

Which led me to wonder, why? Why would someone who:

  1. cares about aesthetics,
  2. enjoys implementing them in one area,
  3. might even be highly skilled in that area,

not be comfortable in another? Isn’t design just design, independent of venue?

I have a working hypothesis.

Why Is One Kind Of Style Harder Than Another?

I can think of two solid reasons someone’s capabilities might vary from domain to domain.

  1. One area simply leaves you cold. You don’t care. Granted.
  2. Circumstances don’t warrant the effort. Sometimes we might love personal style, for example, but live on a farm in Wales where it’s more sensible to focus on the right gumboots. Granted.

I can also imagine two reasons that are real, but can be addressed straightforwardly.

  1. Mama Never Told Me. You never learned the ins and outs of, say, dirt. Or cotton. Granted. Information is out there.
  2. Lack of resources.  All available funding goes to kids’ tuition. Granted. Budget style is out there.

Finally, I also know, first-hand, one intractable, stubborn, want-to-put-it-in-a-headlock reason.

  1. The infamous Shame, and its not-at-all Artsy cousin, Disdain.

At least if we can extrapolate from my experience. I was:

  1. raised in beautiful, luxurious, tasteful houses
  2. but never sat with Mom and her decorators to learn anything about how the houses got beautiful
  3. did go clothes shopping with Mom. Often.
  4. grew up bought an apartment in New York, furnished it partially with the help of a friend who was a designer.
  5. got married, moved to California,
  6. bought small ranch house, imported furniture from New York apartment
  7. got (happily) pregnant right after marriage
  8. had small children, haphazardly furnished house for their happiness
  9. went back to work, put in long hours
  10. saw a marriage fail.
  11. moved out of small ranch
  12. bought all Pottery Barn for temporary apartment, leaving small ranch furnishings intact
  13. moved back to small ranch, bringing Pottery Barn with me
  14. saw some of the small ranch’s original furnishings scatter to the wind.
  15. children meanwhile grew up and moved out.
  16. I remarried.
  17. whither now, small ranch, whither now?
Pottery Barn Manhattan Club Chair via Privilege
Not here, clearly. And I am not sure I want my furniture to choose my carbonated beverages.

Throughout most of those years I ignored interior style. Lack of time and lack of resources, sure, but I suspect distress about my marriage, and shame about the fading family fortune, also held me back. Why make beautiful something I didn’t love?

I defended myself from distress by firing up disdain for Trying Too Hard. There you have it my friends, Domestic Aesthetics As Psychoanalyst. I am deep into the process of figuring this out and have moved from sulking to laughing.

Is that how those of you who don’t like personal style feel? Do you wonder, “Why honor and embellish something I don’t love?” Which raises the careful question, does distress about your body, either because it attracts unwanted attention or because it doesn’t fit society’s approved silhouette, block you from enjoying your clothes?

If that resonates, and I do not mean to overreach, there may be personal style lessons to take from what I’ve learned dealing with interiors.

  1. It helps to have the time, but, the time can be fairly easily made.
  2. It helps to have resources, but, you can do this with way less money than you think.
  3. It helps to get comfortable with what you are making beautiful. That’s non-negotiable.
  4. So, how?

Making Personal Style Easier, And Most Of All Happier, If It’s Hard

I see three ways forward.

  1. Just choose to be comfortable. Can we do that? Worth a try. In our 50s? We’re reaching the age of Advanced Style, when only traces of Female remain, but all the Human is still there. Focus on human.
  2. Alternatively, and the approach I know best, work on your body enough to become comfortable. Extra benefit? Better health.
  3. Finally, or in conjunction with a. or b., try what we can call the Pottery Barn for Your Body strategy.


a. Choose Comfort

The community can help. Sally at Already Pretty toils long and hard for our body acceptance, and perhaps readers here know of other good resources.

b. Getting a Body With Which You Are Comfortable

You can’t quite buy a new body the way you might a new house. I suppose if resources were no issue, you could hire a chef and a personal trainer. Have plastic surgery. But the most important thing is to develop new habits of eating and moving. I’ve written before about my thoughts on how to do this:

  1.  The High WASP Diet
  2. 25 Ways To Maintain Your Shape at 50+
  3. Building Attractive: Practical Tips
  4. Building Attractive: An Incredibly Metaphysical And Highly Abstract Analysis Which Leads Us Perhaps To The Meaning Of Life

I can write more, if it’s useful. Just let me know.

c. Furnishing A Body When You Wish It Were Better, Or, The “Pottery Barn” Strategy For Clothes

On your way to comfort, and I’m going to trust you will get there, try the equivalent of my Pottery Barn strategy – choose a retailer in your price band and leverage their aesthetic. You don’t have wait on your body for personal style. I am sure J. Crew would gladly outfit anyone with 3-4 modern, stylish, neutral outfits.

Peach is a neutral, by the way, for some.

Once you’re happily dressed, the majority of the time, there’s every chance your perspective will shift.

Peach is a Neutral. From J. Crew via Privilege.

Back when I moved out of my small ranch, I grimly but swiftly bought a faux suede sofa, two “colonial” end tables, two large ceramic lamps, a “colonial” coffee table, and a couple of red and gold pillows. The pillows matched the wall I had asked them to paint burgundy, in that very small temporary apartment.

I am quite sure that choosing “good enough” style made my days more bearable. Matched lamps felt like pillars of stability, I was not yet ready for a harlequin rug. “Good enough” can carry one quite far, even to “And now let’s have some fun.” I’m keeping the sofa, it was innocent and is open now to change.


Pottery Barn room
Bonnie at the Women Enough project
J. Crew

45 Responses

  1. You completely skipped that interiors involve, if you have one, spousal negotiation. Personal style is easy enough, it’s you and YOUR credit card. Home style is you, your spouse/children and OUR credit card.

    If your spouse thinks the furniture he got from his parent’s old home is just fine, the poster of Fenway Park in the living room is all anybody could wish for, and everything in the furniture store is overpriced, it’s a battle that may not be worth the effort, particularly if you’re also dealing with young children.

    Since men mature later in life, mid-life may be the time when you can get Mr. Fenway Park on board for household improvements. Reaching mid-life and just getting started on a household style seems pretty normal to me.

    1. @RoseAG, This is so true! For most of my marriage I’ve lived with his furniture that I hate, my furniture that he hates, and compromise furniture. We both love oriental rugs, though, and we have some beautiful ones.

  2. Lisa, but this is a brilliant post. It’s brought up connections for me. Since reading about the Stanford “sexual abuse” case this past weekend, I’ve been remembering what it was like to be a young, attractive woman, in general, and in a very male-dominated field. We all remember what it was like to be hit on by all sorts of unappealing men, older, married, etc. As a 17-yo college freshman, the only woman in a physics class with 250 students, I encountered catcalls and cheering as I entered the auditorium-style classroom and walked up the steps to my seat. I learned to come as early as possible. My advisor, the head of the physics department, once said in his German accent, You are a pretty girl, why do you dress to make yourself look unattractive? I wore jeans and sweatshirts for a reason. I also have to point out that I was, by far, the smartest student. Worst, when I was in grad school, I did a summer project with a professor I hadn’t known. It went really well, he often said that I was the best student he’d ever had. At the end of the summer, he asked me out. I didn’t go, of course, and I didn’t see him again. But I wondered, was I really the best student he’d ever had, or was he just courting me?

    I think there’s a good reason that I wear uniforms, take no interest in my clothes other than comfort, wear almost no makeup and don’t own jewelry. But I love to read about fashion. I even read the blog about Michelle Obama’s clothes for a while.

    1. @Marie, I am so sorry you went through that, almost as much for the loss to society incurred by the capacity you had to exert to deal with it, as for what you endured yourself. Almost, but not quite. Thank you for the kind words, much appreciated.

  3. I think for a lot of women it comes down to feeling insecure about their bodies. For me, I sort of fell into a trap – I had mommy clothes, and work clothes and personal style fell by the wayside. Add in some major weight gain and style committed hari-kiri. But of late, I am trying to come back into my own. The mommy time pony tails are gone, and the makeup I prefer is back. The clothes are a little less utilitarian, a little more me. But thank you as always for the food for thought.

  4. Interesting point about distress in marriage being a sticking point for design. Just finished the Life Changing Magic of Tidying book and the emphasis on only having things you LOVE. Maybe that extends to people you love and until you clear out all the unwanted, it’s hard to move forward. Don’t love your body? Going to be hard to dress it. Don’t love your spouse? Going to be hard to design a life together.
    Maybe lack of interest in design (because it is everywhere and in everything) is actually a lack of connection in life.
    Love your writing.

    1. @Nelson Bartley, Thank you. Now that’s an interesting analysis. I know there are some people who don’t care about design simply because their brains don’t work that way. But that is a lack of connection, in a way, those minds don’t connect with with visual. Just as others don’t connect with, ahem, spreadsheets.

  5. Lisa, you have covered the waterfront here–and I’m sure you have gotten to the bottom of this issue–one way or another.

    I wan’t raised in a beautiful home and did not go shopping with my mother. I was raised in extreme frugality and made to feel somewhat guilty whenever I acquired a new item of clothing.

    I will admit that when I am at my best weight, I enjoy fashion more. I do not enjoy buying clothes at my current weight. What has caused this weight gain? After all, just a few short years ago, all was well. Stress.

    All this being said, I do prefer home decor over clothing style–even when I am at my best weight. I could go hog wild with home decor, except for one thing. My husband does not share my enthusiasm and is capable of putting a damper on my home decor plans. The MOST fun I have had is with our farmhouses as I was able to decorate them from scratch. THAT was fun.

    1. @Susan, Covered the waterfront, and there you have it:). My new motto! I think you bring up an important point, however, some people can do that from scratch, and others, like me, need a base to start from. I think the really talented welcome the green and open field.

  6. i’ve never really analyzed either dressing the way I do or how we have furnished and decorated our bungalow. Money, style and personal taste have dictated how and why we dress/decorate. Comfort and function factor into the equation too.
    There are many who hire interior decorators and personal shoppers to help them navigate the unfamiliar territory when they do not feel confident enough…nothing wrong with hiring a professional to do a good job.
    It’s no different than hiring a landscape architect to give you some suggestions for garden design.
    You certainly have written another brilliant post today!

  7. My guideline for both interiors & clothing comes from good old Wm Morris and *me:

    Have nothing in your house (or on your body)* that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

  8. Lisa, thank you for yet another beautifully written and thought-provoking post. And yes, to what Rose AG said about spousal negotiation when it comes to interiors. It’s not just about what/how much to spend, but what if your spouse has slightly to very different tastes, and strong opinions? Mostly, I capitulate, except when it comes to hanging art, and then my spatial/composition sense will not allow many of the proposed visual travesties. Balance! I say.

  9. There may also be an element of frustration with a disconnect between what looks/goes best with the body/house in question and one’s preferred style. It isn’t always a matter of not loving the body or house, just lack of a way to clothe/furnish it in the preferred style. For example, I might love a small cottage, but castle sized pieces of furniture (formal dining for 20?) don’t work. How to meld the two, especially if one needs to use pieces already owned, is something that may need professional advice. The challenge of negotiating design with a spouse is also very real.

    1. @DocP, That’s a great point. I always want to dress in sculptural, artistic clothing and it just doesn’t work for who I am or for my body.

    2. DocP, so true and so right you are!

      How to “meld” is an issue my clients and I deal with constantly. Everyone, including me, has something that they MUST keep. This “something” must be integrated into and must live comfortably with our current aesthetic and design requirements.

      “The challenge of negotiating design with a spouse is also very real.” A strong contender for the understatement of all time, as well as the essence of the human condition.

      The advantage of hiring a professional is that if one spouse is not completely on board with the new design, the other can rightly defer or deflect the responsibility to the designer, i.e., “it was Linda’s idea, not mine.” Domestic harmony ensues. Priceless, in my opinion.

      Engage the services of a designer, even if it is just for a two hour consult. Compare or contrast to a year’s worth of couples’ therapy. Value for money and you’ll have so much more fun!

  10. I was once asked why I didn’t apply the same aesthetics to my, er, self, when I was apparently “gifted” in design for my homes and gardens and food. That really brought me up short. So to all of you who have commented above, and especially to Lisa, thank you for these deeply interesting posts. I have thought about this for years. My personal answers are just that, personal. But I believe it has a lot to do with resistance to doing something just for “me”, whereas the others areas of design, creativity, beauty are shared with others. As a postscript, I should say that it took a long time, but I think I have overcome my resistance. Never too late, I say.

    1. @Swissy, Never too late at all. Issue a discreet hooray:) It’s an occupational hazard of being female, often, that we spend so much time supporting the family that anything just for ourselves gets left until late.

  11. I was raised to place a lot more emphasis on home, than on clothing. Calling too much attention to yourself was not encouraged at all. A lot of emphasis on maintaining a good weight, hair, skin, etc. – but to be very understated with what you had on your body. My grandmother taught all the granddaughters that a good watch, good shoes, and a good handbag were sort of “foundations” of a wardrobe and worth spending money on, the rest was kept very simple. I guess it sort of stuck with me.
    But, along with most everyone else, when I’ve gained weight, or am not feeling good about my body, I have way less interest in clothing. Not in the mood to buy jeans in a larger size at the moment.
    Very interesting and thought provoking post Lisa – thanks.

    1. @kathy, We grew up at the end of an odd era, with high expectations for our appearance, coupled with a contradictory caution – don’t attract attention. Thank you, for reading and commenting. I appreciate it very much.

    2. @kathy, I, too, was raised to dress in an understated (read preppy) way. I still remember my father having a fit because I had gone and picked out (on my own) a pair of glasses with wire-rimmed aviator frames when I was in college, rather than our usual tortoise shell framed style. This was outrageous to him and in entirely poor taste. Good shoes were essential. Everything else was understated, good quality but not flashy.

  12. Interesting post. I have to take exception to “Reaching 50 and only traces of Female remain” though. I’m long past 50 and still feel very feminine. Maybe that’s just the Human part of me.


    1. @Darla, Understood. I do think that “Female” and “Feminine,” in practice, are quite different. I’ve always struggled with the concept of Feminine, as a bull in a china shop kind of person, but have always been very centered in Female, and am now finding ways to explore that which I think may transcend the traditional, biological Female.

  13. you can’t buy taste … either you have it or you don’t. I love clothes, homes, gardens equally and my emphasis changes when the need arises. I have had decorated 400 square feet in my 20s with low end piece and it was adorable. Always adding a bouquet of flowers. Having moved to Sweden I did an entire house in Ikea and it was also great. Now I have the means to spend what I want on clothing, shoes and home decor but I still mix price points….well you can’t beat womb chair or morrosa italian sofa that takes 8 months to get, but some of the Ikea is still there.

    The body image talk still rankles me. I am dealing with body changes from cancer treatment and had a small meltdown so, i gave away all my clothes to my nieces that were uncomfortable and reverted to my much love tent dresses that I have always loved anyway. (Even when my mom constantly said “you have such a good little figure…why do you cover it”!

  14. I have completely opposite tastes in decor and style to most of my family. I love color, boldness, oomph. I also have a very different body shape to my mother/maternal aunt/maternal grandmother. I look at older pictures of myself and just go “ugh” because if it was okayed in terms of coverage, it was completely unflattering in terms of design.. (I grew up in Egypt, so… ) I think my first really cute pieces of clothing were bought when I forgot my suitcase on the bed when we were leaving for summer vacation, first in France, then to the States. But we had to buy me some clothes… And these were clothes that didn’t have the “hide” quality. And then after college my style started evolving more… But I’ve never been a fan of big and baggy, because it makes me look bigger. I have a tendency to go a little more cleavagy than my parents are comfortable with.. and I love BIG jewelry.

    For me, for home decorating, I have found that if I like it, it works. I tend to like very similar colors… my style is not Ikea or Pottery Barn, but a mix, with a dash of Anthro.

    For clothes, for me, it is harder just finding pieces I love that work. But I don’t like boring! Which is the problem… I am not preppy, but I don’t really want the skull-print outfit either…. I realized that Barbie had actually had a little influence on my clothing style…in some ways more than the things my mother/other relatives bought for us.

  15. Thanks so much for such a thought-provoking post, Lisa.

    I definitely feel more comfortable with interior design than personal style. Although I went clothes shopping with my mother, it was more about necessity with an emphasis on frugality & practicality than anything else.

    I think it is also partially due to the fact that I had more control over my own little environment (aka my room) than I had over my wardrobe. I didn’t have any say on furnishings, but I was allowed to arrange & re-arrange the furniture however I wanted & do some simple decorations with posters & pictures & how I organized my closet & such.

    As a result, I was able to experiment & express myself with interiors in a way I wasn’t able to with my wardrobe.

    1. @m, So interesting. It never would have occurred to me to rearrange my furniture – and I can’t imagine the idea would have been received enthusiastically. And my mom was not emphasizing frugality, or practicality for that matter. I can see how your experience would have a very different effect.

  16. I do actually love both interior design and style! There is a magazine in Germany called Couch which combines the two in a beautiful way, and I always wondered why nobody thought of doing that before.

  17. One difference I see is that there is a wide acceptance of variety in interior design in our culture. There is a mainstream store or shelter magazine offering and celebrating every style under the sun for every size home and budget, from formal palatial mansions to tiny apartments with thoughtfully trashpicked street finds. No matter what your style, situation or budget, you can probably find something on offer that suits you.

    From mainstream fashion sources? Not so much. Mainstream fashion media have made it clear for decades that the only acceptable bodies are very thin, very young, white, able-bodied, stereotypically feminine and preferably rich enough to finance a wardrobe replacement every few months. Mainstream clothing stores are dispiriting, at any given time they offer only a narrow selection of the trends of the moment.

    It’s only in the past few years that I’ve overcome my alienation from fashion and begun to develop an interest in style. The only way I’ve felt able to access useful information about real style has been via blogs written by regular people (and I’m thrilled about this development!)

    1. Aha. Very good point. The inventory in furniture/home goods turns over so much more slowly, and the trends shift more slowly, and the options are much deeper than in fashion per se. Good to hear you find what you are looking for in the blogosphere.

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