Style Like You Mean It

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June 5, 2014

“Effortlessly” is not the only way to get dressed.

I remember very little from the five years I spent fancying myself a ballerina. I cannot recreate my turnout or conjure up once-instinctual barre movements. Still, I do recall the exact tone that a foul-tempered instructor named Marta used to inform me that ballet was not supposed to be effortless. “It’s supposed to look effortless.”

Chalk it up to my Soviet training. While I may never have realized a career as a dancer, I found myself channeling Marta and her militant refrain each time I embarked on annual back-to-school shopping trips. No matter how considered or strategic, style should seem easy, breezy! (Beautiful! CoverGirl!). It should be delicate and graceful — like a sugarplum fairy or Carey Mulligan.

During those years, I bought cardigans and cheerful dresses. I rejected overtly assertive alternatives and amassed drawstring bags, a rainbow of ballet flats, and as many Lancôme Juicy Tubes as I could convince my mother to buy. Long before Beyoncé said so, I was desperate to at least appear as though “I woke up like this.”

I wasn’t the only one. After we outgrew our erstwhile longing for pin-straight hair and French manicures, my friends and I all aspired to long, flowing locks, sun-kissed makeup, and a wardrobe full of the kind of generic “going-out” tops that Mandy Moore wore so well. Teenage girls are capable of a thousand kinds of evil, but none seemed so vicious to me as the pronouncement I once overheard at a high-school party: “Ugh. Her outfit is trying way too hard.”

That is until right about now. After several decades of feigned indifference, it’s finally cool to care.

I have proof. Hedi Slimane’s most recent Saint Laurent runways boasted the kind of sharp-shouldered women so sexy they might have made Marta blush. The exuberant silhouettes that Rosie Assoulin designs are not exactly for sugarplums. Neither is Sophia Amoruso’s edgy fringe or Lena Dunham’s constellation of tattoos or the Birkenstocks that Phoebe Philo has redeemed.

Be it Edie Campbell in leather leggings and Technicolor sneakers or Jenna Lyons in a rainbow of rhinestones and chambray, the best of us are no longer too scared to admit to some sartorial deliberation. The result? Well, I think it’s a lot more exciting than the tired, “Oh, this old thing?” gambit of yesteryear.

But not all my evidence is observed. I have in fact experienced the revelation myself. A few weeks ago, I stepped into a tiny dressing room in East London. Egged on by a friend and former hip-hop dancer, I shimmied into a sculptural marigold skirt and cropped silk tank. A whisper of midriff peeked out. I stared at the bold sliver of skin and considered the girl that faced me in the mirror. She did not look “dainty” or “delicate.” She did not affect effortlessness. She seemed strong and observant and audacious. I decided I liked her a lot.

Life is not like ballet class. No one even pretends it’s going to be easy. But it is exhilarating and dynamic and a constant adventure. These days, it can finally look like one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/boyfriendsandblazers Boyfriendsandblazers

    i love that, its not supposed to be effortless its supposed to look effortless.

    • Celeste

      did you read this article?

  • Iza

    I don’t think being effortless is synonymous with being generic or boring. I might even argue that some of the looks in the slideshow give off an effortless vibe. For me, effortlessness is more about the way the clothes are worn. Even Rihanna, who certainly has a strong look, still always looks effortless because of the way she wears her clothes.

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

    Mattie, you brilliant woman. Loved this essay so much. I had several ballet teachers that preached just the same thing. After doing ballet quite intensely from practically birth to age 12, I think part of your above sentiment was exactly why I reached burnout. It no longer felt beautiful when everything became more intense. I still love ballet and find it beautiful, but the finished product vs. the behind-the-scenes just felt very disconnected. So I took up running, which has changed my life. My body feels good and I think my mind is far stronger. Plus (I am stereotyping a bit here), the girls aren’t as nasty. You will rarely find a backstabbing bitch on a high school XC team, I can almost guarantee it.

    As far as style is concerned, I was reading a review of this book last week, and one of the premises of the book was the fact that American style has totally slipped off into this abyss of casual and sloppy. It was comparing it to the days in which women wore hats and gloves, and American women had this sort of cultural grace, even in their suburban homes. While I can’t say I miss the constant hat and glove wearing (I actually did that as a kid when I was possessed/obsessed with anything from 1935-1964), I do believe there is some truth in the fact that this idea of effortless has almost just lost itself in overall slovenliness.

    Here’s to girls who like wool circle skirts and a great vintage jacket!

  • http://cityhabit.wordpress.com Modupe Oloruntoba

    This is fabulous. Here’s to not caring that we look like we care. Or something.

  • Sara

    Love this. It’s okay to care. It’s okay to have an opinion and be vulnerable. It’s okay to make an effort and have someone disagree with you. Definitely something we always need more of. Great job!

  • http://www.curatorsofstyle.com Curators of Style

    Fantastic article. Most everything that appears effortless has thought, practice and work behind it. As a great man I knew once said “Most things that are difficult/work are the things that are worth it.” It’s just an added bonus when it looks easy. It’s an amazing feeling to stretch your imagination, go outside your comfort zone and take risks. I try to do that with my style every as often as possible. It is what I respect about your style!!

    Kristin
    http://www.curatorsofstyle.com

  • http://www.margojewelry.com Margo

    I like to consider myself a 3 dimensional canvas. Every day I get up and get to design and paint myself. And every day it’s a different painting. Evenings too. Women are so lucky. We have an incredible array of choices. Rejoice!!!!!!!!!! margojewelry.com

  • bong