Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline. Or maybe, just maybe, she has an impeccable sense of style.

It’s true that some people have a knack for dressing. I’ve heard some claim that at the young age of four, they possessed the ability to style monochrome ensembles, power clash, and more. Yes, some people have had this ability their whole lives and use it to express themselves every day. For them, it’s as easy as breathing.

I grew up in a family of dapper intellectuals who didn’t discuss fashion, but were more interested in politics, ideas, and philosophy. My mother, classic-leaning and elegantly understated, always looked stunning. Having a well-dressed mother taught me that if you have an impeccable outfit, people will remember the clothes but if you have impeccable style, people will remember you.

Fashion is the elusive art of visually communicating who you are, in a way so subtle that it’s your person, not what you wear, being enhanced. What a magical talent, n’est pas?

Unfortunately, style is not necessarily innate. One could say that language is easier than style because it is passed down from mother to child very early on, and refined throughout the years. So while babies develop an affinity for language in the womb, the ability to recognize the elements of style are not so natural. It is, in a sense, a language more foreign than any other, because it’s not a necessity to survival (except, possibly, in spheres of New York City and Paris).

The Linguistics of Learning

I know a thing or two about foreign languages. Though I was born in Texas, I spent the first six years of life in Venezuela, so my “mother tongue” is Spanish. When I moved back to the United States at age 6 I didn’t know any English at all.

Of course, that all changed. With necessity and exposure comes fast education, and though I’m sure Noam Chomsky could explain it better than me, kids pick up languages much easier than adults. This is because they are still maturing, and thus adapt quickly during this “critical period” of development. As for adults, we are capable of learning most things, including new languages. There are key differences, obviously: we’re not empty vessels, for starters; we don’t take things at face value; and one way or another, we alone are responsible for progress made or squandered.

A person’s capability for learning, and the motivation to do so are complex. To master a new skill as an adult, you really need to want and need it. You need to set your ego aside, take a seat, and be open to learning. Some more tricks? Immersion. Effort. And in some cases, a fair bit of force.

Mastering the craft

Learning the language of fashion was a lot more like being smacked over the head with the Rosetta Stone than learning English. It was something I resisted for a while. In the beginning of my time in New York, I took my writing very seriously and delighted in the Oscar Wilde quote: “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” I only cared about books, great film making, and experiencing New York City—not dressing a part and certainly not caring about how I was perceived.

As the editor in chief at Social Life Magazine, writing and editing were my main duties, while the fashion editor and stylists on shoots were responsible for style. Looking back at my first years as an editor, I can’t help but smile at all the silly moments. I was truly in a bit over my head. For a long time, designers sent me pieces to wear to events, and instead of asking a stylist how to put them together, I haphazardly threw them on with no rhyme or reason.

Thankfully, exposure was the catalyst to my eventual transformation, but it took some painstaking effort to really get there.

Do you remember that amazing moment in The Devil Wears Prada? The one where Anne Hathaway’s character scoffs at Meryll Streep’s, then gets schooled on fashion via a monologue centered largely on the color cerulean? That’s what it was like for me. I was roasted and even berated by stylists early on in my journey in the NYC fashion world. Harsh? Maybe. But this influence taught me why fashion is important, and that no one is “exempt.” It’s what made me take fashion a bit more seriously.  

Being immersed in this culture and pushed by different stylists to explore fashion as an extension of myself helped me take to it as a language, a necessary form of expression, rather than something to opt in or out of. I learned that fashion is at once a language and a legacy, which tells the story of you and of the world that cultivated it. Learning it means mastering that story’s narrative, and understanding the bigger picture.

Sending a Message

Fashion is like a visual business card: how you put yourself together is how people first perceive you. This is why style is important. Learning to correctly communicate who you are through color, fabric and texture is a powerful talent.

Personally, when it comes to style I think effortless yet sophisticated is best. Understated elegance is timeless and seems to be an art possessed by women of the 1950s as well as French actresses of all eras. What I’ve learned is that clothing should complement and suggest the shape of the body, not show or flamboyantly showcase the body. (If only I could jump in a time machine and remaster many of my outfits).

Anyways, understated pieces never give it all away but instead tease at some mystery, intelligence, quirkiness or mood that is unique to you. Perhaps there is a favoritism towards certain textures, shapes, or colors, or maybe even a playfulness that can be featured, but dressing well is never over-the-top.

Paraphrased Pearls

It’s easy to wax poetic about the philosophy of style, but how do you create it?

At one point in history, access to top fabrics and cuts was an exclusive luxury owned by royals, movie stars, and the internationally well-heeled. Thankfully, with the democratization of fashion, it’s now an art that can be had by all. Karl Lagerfeld noted this when he said, “Never use the word cheap. Today everybody can look chic in inexpensive clothes (the rich buy them too). There is good clothing design on every level today. You can be the chicest thing in the world in a T-shirt and jeans—it’s up to you.”

As a starting point toward timeless elegance, here are some simple tips:

  • Build a timeless wardrobe: For an elegant look that is as stylish as it is affordable, focus on building up a wardrobe of quality essentials that will last for years.
  • Choose style over trends: Don’t be a slave to short-term trends. Know what style suits you regardless of the date, and make this “signature style” part of your brand.
  • Focus on fit: Ill-fitting outfits are not worth holding onto. Make sure that everything in your wardrobe fits you properly, because an item that actually fits is always more flattering than the one you aspire to fit in.
  • Don’t sacrifice or fetishize comfort: Looking good means feeling good, so if your clothes are causing you discomfort and pain, odds are it shows. At the same time, there are great-looking and pretty alternatives to sweatpants for daytime wear. Find that middle ground!
  • Less is more: Too much embellishment can come off as tacky. Understated looks, on the contrary, enhance you without overcoming you.
  • Buy the best you can afford: You don’t need to be wealthy to look good. Whatever your budget may be, it’s worth getting the best quality you can afford— it’s a great investment because it will look better and last longer.

Check out these links for more France-inspired and minimalist fashion advice! And remember, as with any language, it only takes a few basic “phrases” to get started.