Coco Chanel. Audrey Hepburn. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
The very names conjure up images of their distinct personal styles, where simple lines, glamorous accessories, and effortless chic reigned supreme. Reporters recorded their every move, and women everywhere scrambled to copy their clothes.
Why did these women, among a handful of others, set the standard for consummate chic? Was it because they had an avid audience and a cooperative press corps? Waif-like figures and deep, deep pockets? Easy access to haute couture?
Yes and no. While celebrity, fashion, and money have all mixed well for centuries, these women don’t have the lock on chic. You probably know someone yourself who is always well dressed yet virtually unknown outside of your town.
No, the biggest reason these women left their mark, I believe, is because they both knew their bodies and understood the power of the personal uniform. They knew what worked for them and wore it well, never straying far from a handful of silhouettes. As the years passed, all they did to update their look was to change colors, textures, or cuts. They didn’t blindly follow the latest trends; they only incorporated those that were among their best looks.
This thought came to me as I was reading a trade journal article about fashion at the 2006 Golden Globes. There were the usual blurbs about the good, the bad, and the ugly, but there was also a lot of room devoted to the fact that Reese Witherspoon’s vintage white and gold Chanel dress had made the rounds at the Golden Globes before – on Kirsten Dunst, in 2003. The writer scolded Reese and her stylist for not doing their homework.
Now frankly, this kind of misguided obsession is one of the reasons fashion and glamour are in the sorry states they’re in these days. Everyone is so wrapped up following designers and who-wore-what-when that few have the knowledge and confidence to step out and make their own style statement. Not in the “Let’s see if I can top the worst dressed list with this outfit,” kind of way, like Mariah Carey or Johnny Depp did that night (Johnny, please! We love you! Comb your hair and put on a proper tux so we can swoon!), but in the “I know clothes and I know what works for me” way of Coco, Audrey, and Jacqueline.
These women knew their bodies, knew what worked for them, and had the confidence to wear it well. They didn’t follow fashion; they lead it.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel grew up in an orphanage and was determined to make something of herself. She had a flair for fashion and opened a shop in Paris around 1913 with money given to her by a paramour. Unable to afford haute couture fabrics and disliking the frilly styles of the time that did nothing for her boyish frame, Chanel began adapting menswear into women’s wear in the 1920’s, using men’s trousers, shirts, and military uniforms as her templates, and men’s sportswear fabrics for her own. She then contradicted the mannish looks with very feminine accessories, like big hair bows, silk flower lapel pins, and chunky, shiny jewelry.
Audrey Hepburn also had a boyish, H-framed body that did not work well with the tiny waist and wide skirts so popular in the 1950’s. She opted for lean lines that forced attention to her face, where her cutting edge hairstyles, heavy brows, and unique necklines kept fashion followers worshipping at her feet.
The 1950’s hourglass silhouette didn’t do it for Jacqueline Kennedy either, because she had the small shoulders, small breasts, long waist, and wide hips typical of the A-framed body. So instead of trying to emphasize her waist, she opted for A-line skirts and sleeveless sheathes that skimmed her body and forced attention to her head, neck, and shoulders. Beautifully coiffed hair and eye-catching necklaces kept her face in focus.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
In looking at the overly-styled starlets at the Golden Globes, it’s obvious that such knowledge and confidence is in short supply today. While there are a few celebrities who consistently dress well for public appearances and red carpet events (and have garnered fashion and cosmetic endorsement deals as a result), you’d be hard-pressed to find one that has a definable style, much less one that subscribes to the concept of personal uniforms. The closest, perhaps, are Oprah Winfrey, who has exercised her way into an svelte figure that she now shows off with form-fitting clothes and killer belts, and Tina Turner, who, even in her sixties, has a great pair of legs and isn’t afraid to use them.
So what, exactly, is a personal uniform?
It’s a collection of basic pieces that fit you well, highlight your assets, and make you feel great whenever you wear them – whether you had an hour to dress or five minutes to get out the door. These are the clothes and accessories that work in harmony with your body to make you feel taller, slimmer, bustier, hippier, or whatever, and that consistently bring you compliments. Once you’ve established what those elements are for you, work current versions into your wardrobe each season so that your look is always evolving yet consistent.
Now some people think this is limiting, wearing the same silhouettes over and over. In fact, just the opposite is true. While others are struggling to follow the crowd and make the latest “of the moment” look work for them, those who know their best looks are wearing them, looking great, and further refining their distinctive style. It’s like the difference between taking a few tennis lessons, a few golf lessons, a few swim lessons, and a few gymnastics lessons, never getting proficient in any of them, versus devoting oneself exclusively to the study of ballet. When you do one thing for a long time, you hone your skills through constant study. When you do a smattering of things, you never advance very far.
The same is true with fashion. When you start with the latest trends without a second thought to your own body, you never advance beyond beginner. When you start with your own body and evaluate trends based on how they work for you, you master the art of dressing yourself.
And so it was with Coco, Audrey, and Jacqueline. They never assumed the latest trends were right for them. They knew their bodies, learned what shapes worked best for them, and then wore updated variations of the same looks over and over for the rest of their lives.
You can do the same. Once you determine your best silhouettes, create a personal uniform based on your own best looks, and wear it consistently, adapting it each season. It no time at all, you’ll become the fashion leader of your set.