What is New York Style?

by Leandra Medine
January 16, 2014
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Trying to locate exactly what makes us, us

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They say style is personal and I agree, but it’s hard to refute the plain fact that different countries and more acutely, cities, develop and fine tune cues that become indigenous to their regions. These cues are often influenced by circumstantial details — a city that snows 200 days a year vs. a place where social culture depends on nightlife, or nature. This is the minutia that separates your city’s style from another’s.

But in considering the style of a New Yorker, I’ve been having a hard time locating exactly what makes us, us. This problem has only been further propelled by the four days I spent alone in Paris last week.

Admiring thigh high Céline boots that could have been anything and still looked equally spectacular on one of the city’s denizens and the animal-friendly, blue and hairy Carven coat that cloaked her upper half, I questioned why she looked so Parisian when it seemed very clear that if I were to try my hand at the same outfit, I would look like I was trying too hard.

I surmised that this is simply because I would be trying too hard. For her though, it’s what was natural. And devastatingly French.

But what is devastatingly New York? I tried to come up with adjectives but realized that the qualities they evinced — effortlessness, that which is cool, dark, practical, sometimes simple and so forth — are actually attributes we’ve borrowed from elsewhere.

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Black, for one thing, is not ours. It has been universally adopted as the anthem of fashion and if anyone has a true stake on the non-color, it is Emmanuelle Alt who is definitely not a New Yorker. On the other hand, “American style” doesn’t quite define us either. Sure, Ralph Lauren is local but his aesthetic reads more American than it does New York — which I’m coming to realize (with the help of one Rosie Assoulin) is a buffer that separates the rest of this country from Europe. But maybe then, our style can’t be classified by simply a selection of all-encompassing adjuncts or designers.

When it’s cold, it’s cold, and those multiple pairs of socks and neck-paralyzing scarves have a utilitarian function that transcend the boundaries of layering for the sake of looking cool, but still speak to our tendency toward irony because the fashion aspect of the total look doesn’t get lost on the spectator. And when it’s hot, we put to practice similar policies in the opposite direction and our blaring sense of the shifting, seasonal paradigm forces us to live with closets that could conceivably clothe a very broad selection of women.

In a transient city, we’re transitional individuals and as a result, dressers. One friend explained that she thinks “New Yorkers have a tendency to pack their schedules and often never get to go home and change.” The schedule packing equips us to dress in a way that teaches us to clothe ourselves like we are more volatile than our own city’s stock exchange. A morning at work uptown becomes a lunch in midtown and an evening in Brooklyn. With your in-laws — three dramatically different settings that beg one outfit to string them together and do it flawlessly.

Another friend put it to me this way, “What’s important about New York dressing is the New York girl.” If you were to look into the closet of any woman across America-and-beyond, you can rest assured you’d find at least an iteration of a pair of slim jeans, a white blouse, and an ankle boot. But what makes the New York girl arguably (though, of course, not always) more compelling to observe is the city she occupies and how those coordinates have forced the definitive yet elusive factors that make her style just…so New York.

Images shot by Tommy Ton

REPLIES
  • pemora

    new york style = b!tch face. i’m convinced.

    • Norwegian

      I think resting bitch face transcends all cultures. For example, I live in the Midwest, and my resting bitch face makes it so I’m asked what is wrong all. the. time. Or that I need to smile more. I’m just concentrating people!

      • pemora

        HA! ok, I take it back then. because i definitely get asked ‘what’s wrong’ constantly. and my response has always been, “i’m from nyc!”

        • http://www.lucidnewyork.com HandmadeJewelrybyLucid

          It’s not that bad to hear “what’s wrong?”, it’s way worse to hear someone saying “smile” to you when you’re just walking and thinking

          • http://dressupwithlola.com/ Lola

            Someone once asked me why am I not smiling, I misheard him and thought he asked me “why am I not smoking” (it was a club, it was loud) and I responded with “because it’s REALLY bad for you” he looked scared and walked away slowly…

      • http://madamecouture.blogspot.com/ Emma Hager

        Haha I was gonna guess you were from the Midwest re: “Norwegian.”
        My mom is from Northern Iowa so boy are those Norwegian/Scandinavian traditions strong! (If anything, “Uff Da” is the most commonly-used phrase in our house).

    • http://www.EatStylePlay.com/ Eat.Style.Play

      I’m here in DC, I’ve had a resting bitch face since I was 11/12.

  • Liz

    It’d be interesting to have a test like the NY Times Linguistic Test where you answer a few style questions and they pinpoint where you are likely from.

    • http://madamecouture.blogspot.com/ Emma Hager

      I LOVED that quiz. It was so scarily accurate. And I bet we could all piece together a clothing quiz, as well!

  • http://www.coralsandcognacs.com/ Hallie Wilson

    I agree with your sentiments on wearing black, but I actually never embraced black-on-black in my wardrobe until I moved to New York. Perhaps the city is fashion’s gateway drug for some?

    Also, your last sentence summarizes my thoughts on New York City style perfectly. Another great read, Leandra!

  • http://www.fashionoverreason.blogspot.com fashion over reason

    To me, New York style encompasses the pragmatism so identifiable with the North American DNA and the chicness owned by Europeans. I think you put it perfectly: NYC is the buffer between the American and European senses of aesthetics. A little bit of column A and a little bit of column B.

  • Selena Delgado

    In my opinion, the problem with this question is that it should be based on several components of a New Yorkers perspective. Deducing (but not limited to)
    1) Which borough you live in: there are 5, for all you non New Yorkers
    2) Where in each borough you live in: UWS style possesses a more relaxed aesthetic/UES style has more of a high end label aesthetic/LES has a greater bohemian vibe due to the influence of the rich artistic history (I can go on forever but I think you get my point).
    3) How we travel: Is it wise to wear 4″ platforms if I know I’m taking the L from Brooklyn to the #2 train Uptown as opposed to cabbing it? These dilemmas most New Yorkers find themselves in this greatly influences our sartorial endeavors.
    4) Can we afford it? Buy cheaper clothing and have more choices or buy an expensive piece that possesses a timeless quality.

    We are all so different and that is what makes us all beautiful as New Yorkers. We are unique and admire/steal/envy each others look. The usual elucidation that anything in Black is our safest bet is true for the most part.

  • jess

    as a londoner i love NYC style but like u am confused what it is even though i want it!
    i wrote an article on this recently……
    http://www.thestylelane.com/new-york-walking-the-fifth/4581374492

    would love you to read it!!

  • Shannon Ashley Kennard

    New York is the crossroads of the world and that is why our style is somewhat of a hodgepodge of different cultures, ideas, aesthetics, etc.. That, I think, is what ultimately makes us different.

    • Jackie @ Kleiden drew

      I so agree with you. And the city is a hodgepodge of income to the extremes – what one person may afford in Chelsea is damn sure different from the Bronx. But you all OWN it. Considering the density of your population, interesting merges of styles result in random and deliberate sampling of styles. I live on the other coast (very good friends live in NYC). I love your style. Just noticed Selena Delgado’s more cogent response below.)

  • Quinn Halman

    Maybe that’s the thing; you can’t define New York style. It’s a city made up of millions of different people so could you even try to define a style. Sure you could define the UWS or Harlem but the city as a whole? I doubt it can be done. I think it’s more of a state of mind, to be a New Yorker. When my mom and I took a mother-daughter trip to the 212, we stopped into Kirna Zabete and the amazing sales associate thought we were natives.

  • maud.schellekens
  • http://taliashulze.com/ Talia

    I think New York ‘style’ tends to be mostly about fit. Everything is seemingly very body conscious or very dramatically oversized. Performancewear and outdoor gear is really popular here too, sometimes seemingly due to trends, but also I think out of necessity. When you spend as much time in the weather as New Yorkers can, it’s important for your stuff to hold up well.

  • Cay

    New York doesn’t own black, but I would disagree that just because someone like Alt wears it, that doesn’t make it the New York “thing.” I oftentimes don’t brush my hair, but the fact that I do that and am American doesn’t make tousled hair not a French thing.

    Maybe we don’t have an exclusive right to it, but classic New York style is black on black. There is no way around that. In very general terms, I think that NYC is pretty dependent on layers. If I had to tell you a uniform for here, it would be all black – tights or skinny jeans, boots, a classic top or dress, a well-cut wool coat and scarf, hair in a bun or neatly loose, a tote-style bag to hold your change of shoes and all of the stuff you carry with you all day because no way are you making it back to your apartment in Greenpoint before you head out for the night.

  • Sofie Johansson

    If a High School class aka my class in Gothenburg were to discuss one of your texts in English, which one would you choose? Any favs? GREAT SITE btw, älskar den as we talk in Sweden!

  • Joyce B

    As a Brit, we view New York style as very ‘safe’, with a great emphasis on cut and fit rather than creativity. New Yorkers seemed very concerned with looking pulled together.

    • Lilli

      I’m Australian and I totally agree that NY’ers seem safe. Brits are probably the most adventurous style wise, it makes me so excited walking into oxford circus to everything from crop jeans, nikes and some huge puffy sweater to a tutu, mickey mouse tee, commes beanie and the highest creepers you have ever seen! Love!

  • http://mafaldadotzero.blogspot.fr/ Mafalda

    Show us what NYC style is!!!

    Mafalda ❤
    http://www.mafaldadotzero.blogspot.fr

  • diane

    Born in Brooklyn, but a transplanted Southern Californian for decades, I am still immediately outed as a native New Yorker by the way I dress (i.e., dark minimalism with an edge). It can be hard to wear black in heat like today (80 degrees along the San Diego coast), but I still find it hard to buy anything else! Meaning, perhaps, that you can take the girl out of NY, but you can’t take the NY out of the girl?

    • LJ

      Me too, Diane! LA for 12 years and all black everything. When it’s 90 degrees I cave and wear jewel toned maxi dresses. I agree with whomever said pulled together is the priority. That said, whenever I go to NYC to visit family, I never have the right shoes or bag anymore…

  • Andie Schlather

    Great post, Leandra! You hit the nail on the head about trying too hard while trying to dress like someone from another city. I hail from Houston, Texas, which while being a very global city, isn’t very cosmopolitan in its fashion sense. Among the 4+ million of us, you can see just about everything (including the archetypal cowboy getup) but overall, we are pretty conservative in our fashion choices. Trends don’t really start here, they trickle down several months later. I still get strange looks when I wear harem pants, or if I wear sparkly gold Manolos in the A.M. Forget throwing a vintage fur over my t-shirt to run to the grocery store and going unnoticed. I think the beauty of NYC fashion is that New Yorkers aren’t afraid to make bold fashion choices while at the same time making them seem understated and cool.

  • http://funkymonkynancy.tumblr.com/ Nancy S.

    I always use to think New York fashion= black but this post enlightened me that there is so much more to it

    The Artistically Challenged: Beauty, Fashion, Music, Lifestyle Blog

  • Alba Cohen Mara

    I loved this article!! I’ve never been to NYC but I always picture NY’s style as arts-y – referential to everything from snotty/edgy art students’ lifestyle, to gallery openings, to Basquiat’s work. Greetings from Argentina.

  • Caroline

    London is punk, Paris is reserved, Milan has that ever elegant flair, but New York is all about first impressions. Your look has to define who you are and what you do. It has to convince people at once. NY is all about business and succes. This makes me think about that scene in ‘Eat, pray, love’ where they try to find a word that describes a city in one word. It shows that it’s somehow possible and that every city truly has its own vibe. It’s the same with the way of dressing. New Yorkers wear more colors, more accessories and their style is more eclectic. Don’t forget your hair and make-up, which also defines a big part of your appearance. Hair and make-up like Lauren Conrad from LA, you’re not going to find that in Paris by example!

  • anastasiaC

    When I visited NYC I did a lot of people watching as you do when travelling…..uptown had a total different feel to downtown. I saw a lot of well cut, classic…preppy styles (Tory Burch fans?) – nothing too creative that made my head turn but it was definetly quality over quantity. Further midtown I came to the conclusion that it was all about denim shorts, loose Tshirts, natural long hair and flipflops… but they could have been tourists enjoying Summer in NYC?!

  • jurgita

    NYC style for sure Black! there is never too much black for nyc

    http://www.afterout.com

  • Maria

    Definetly BLACK Although like you said… Black is everywhere never as much as in NYC. Definetly WORNOUT because there are no “clothes groomers” or if they are they are super expensive; because laundry machines are too harsh, because you are outside a lot, it’s a city you walk around a lot! Definitely NOT SWEET… There are limeted amount of frils and bows in the street…and then there’s the attitude, call it bitch face, cool, swag, eforless, cutting edge, tough, edgy, smart… Or all of the above…
    Ps: have you ever seen a pair of a Newyorkers sneakers?? Always dirty to perfection. They get dirty on their own… With only a week ofwearing them… Do you know how it takes me to get my sneakers dirty to perfection in BA? Months, even a year… !!

  • Max

    New York? = My next home, because I wanna see u!!

    http://www.mrfashionmaker.com

  • Amélie J.

    new york style = many different opinions about what good fashion is.

    http://perfectlittledaisy.blogspot.com
    http://perfectlittledaisy.blogspot.com

  • sketch42

    OK, so one thing Ive noticed that I can say definitively – New Yorkers don’t do cleavage. At least not on the reg.

  • Katie

    Great post, Leandra! I’ve never been to New York or London but I think both have a punk rock edge in their own way with the latest trends- usually something with flair like Doc Martins for example. Parisians are comfortable wearing one trend usually: their hair messy, boyfriend jeans and a baggy coat and heels and looking effortless. I envy that style and strive for it daily myself after traveling there. I visited there 3 years ago this winter and I miss the laid back lifestyle. I am from the Midwest- Wisconsin and here was strive for comfort, layers and style. We can pull off many European trends because of the weather but since we are in the Midwest we seem to get the trends after NY, LA, Paris, London and Milan but that is why British and French fashion magazines and blogs are wonderful. Thoughts?

  • lily

    I have to say, I disagree with nearly all of this as far as a collective style vs. personal style. I’ve spent a lot of time in NYC, traveled to Paris and London a few times and of course love to observe fashion and identify what may be the next trend. My estimation is that none of these cities has a lock on style. That was true pre-television and internet days, but I don’t think that’s true today. I do however think there is a class distinction and a tendency or willingness to adopt a trend or better, break with the uniform dujour and be unique and I think it’s more common on either end of the class spectrum. The danger zone from a style perspective, in my opinion, is the huge swath of people in the middle who may be too timid to develop personal style for fear of being different. The wealthy who live all over, but can travel to NYC often and who add to the NYC scene, have the luxury of access to the top designers and are willing to incorporate these new looks into their own. Then there is the avant-garde crowd which exists all over and they too add to the mix, but they’re everywhere not just NYC. What’s over looked in the NYC style and ought be, is the non-subway riding crowd who likely bring their ho-hum middle class uniform to NYC with matching coordinates purchased at Macy’s.