iris apfel quote

My impression is that many highly-visible style experts – the ones with TV shows and books and magazine columns – either choose to or are forced to adopt an attitude of judgment. Since viewers and readers seem to find it endlessly amusing when a stylist chuckles under her breath at some garment, outfit, or sartorial choice, the stylists keep it up. They poke fun, they skewer, they judge.

That’s not how I roll.

Over the years, I have worked to refine my messages about style to be as open and accepting as possible. I want all to feel welcome here and none to feel excluded. And I truly, truly want anyone who reads this blog to come away with these messages: Style is for everyone, style is empowering, and there is no one right way to look good.

That said, I still have taste. I don’t like everything. And over the past few months I’ve struggled to understand the line that divides taste from judgment.

When I say I dislike something, it may sound like I am condemning that thing and all who enjoy, wear, or choose it. That’s never my intention, but I can understand how that might be a common interpretation given my vocation. I generally attempt to explain why I dislike things or provide background on any bias I may have accumulated due to personal experience, but it still often sounds judgy. And I hate that.

I can say quite honestly that even if you wear clothes that don’t please my own aesthetic sense, I don’t think you’re stupid. I don’t think you’re wrong. I think you’re making choices that are different from mine, and I may not like the physical garments you’ve chosen to wear, but I don’t presume to know why you’ve made those choices and I don’t wish you’d worn something else. I don’t feel the urge to “fix” your outfit, or guide you toward something that I consider to be better – not unless you specifically ask for my input. I acknowledge that my voice is merely one of many and that my opinions are based solely on my own experiences and preferences. Although I’m always honored to be asked for advice, I never consider my own word to be gospel. The world is diverse and people’s tastes are diverse. Even if I don’t understand or agree with your sartorial choices, I do my best to reserve judgment.

But I realize that voicing likes and dislikes related to style just feels like judgment – regardless of intent – since style is deeply personal and driven by personal, aesthetic choices. Aside from unexpressed thoughts, any commentary on the clothing choices of another person – positive or negative – carries the weight of approval or disapproval, regardless of the source of that commentary.

So how can an expression of taste be differentiated from a message of judgment? How can comments or observations about someone else’s sartorial choices NOT sound like wholesale approval or admonition? If they can’t, what do we do? Discourage all style-related expressions of taste and preference? That just doesn’t seem viable, nor does banning observation of clothing and style choices that others have made. While it’s certainly none of our concern why someone else dresses as they do – nothing we should try to “fix” or judge even privately – at the very least we may naturally think, “I probably would’ve worn something else myself,” or “Gosh, I love that.”

Of course, some of this comes down to the difference between private thoughts and expressed ideas. I mean, walking up to someone to say, “I hate your shoes,” or giggling and pointing are both deeply inappropriate behaviors. But walking up to someone to say, “I love your shoes,” is generally considered to be a fabulous thing to do. So while asking people to remain completely neutral about every other person’s sartorial choices seems like an unreasonable demand, it could just be a matter of keeping unsolicited criticism internal, but expressing praise.

Of course, the classic way to express taste is through personal choices, with a focus on the active and positive. Disliking things is natural and normal, but we’re going to avoid the things we dislike, right? In terms of fashion that means don’t buy them, don’t wear them, don’t worry about them.* The philosophy of promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate. We don’t have to love everything, and by wearing only what we love the rest becomes irrelevant by default.

And that includes virtually everything worn by other people.

*And in terms of writing, this means talking about things you love and recommend, and avoiding lists of “don’ts” and items you loathe. This is how I try to run my ship, overall.

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