In “The Truth About Style,” Stacy London of “What Not to Wear” offers fashion advice for women looking to boost their self-confidence and develop a sense of personal style. London also shares her own painful struggles with body acceptance, while highlighting the emotional transformations eight other women underwent by finding their own looks. Here’s an excerpt.
What This Book Is Not
This title is a funny one for me. If this chapter were a person, I’d never let them get away with defining themselves in the negative. But in this case, I want to dispel you of any preconceived notions you may have about this “type” of book.
Why write a book about fashion? I’ve struggled with this. It’s not that I don’t love the subject, but what else is there to say that every fashion blogger, mommy blogger, stylist, ex-model, and even I haven’t already said? I mean, there are a kajillion fashion books out there already. Does anyone really need another tome to tell her what 99 items to buy, how to dress like the women on TV shows, how to dress for the red carpet, or wear shimmer? I’m not knocking “how to” books—they are often great, and necessary. But I did one of those already. My first book, Dress Your Best, which I coauthored, was about how to dress according to body type, just like a Colorforms manual. Why write another one? Save the trees! Keep your money! Who needs another fashion book?
And then I had a bit of an a-ha moment. It came to me at the home of my dear friends Molly and David, whose three children were all under the age of six at the time. These kids were like aliens—so polite, so well behaved, but inquisitive and joyous, and just such a pleasure that I had to ask Molly and David how they managed to be such wonderful parents. What was the trick? It was Zion, their son, who gave me the answer: their number-one house rule was called “Yes . . . And.”
I sat there blankly looking at this five-year-old, waiting for him to finish the sentence. David stepped in to explain that this was the first rule of improv: The idea is to take what life has given to you, accept it wholly, and then build on that. Accept and create, essentially. Molly and David’s kids had been taught to accept rules and to be creative, and their demeanor reflected what they’d been taught. It’s not only a great parenting strategy but a fundamentally useful life philosophy. And as I sat there, I thought, That’s a great style philosophy, too—and one I can write a book about.
First, consider the principle “accept what you’ve been given”—the “yes” part of the equation. “Yes,” where style is concerned, is an unbiased, dispassionate acceptance of who you are, where your body is right now (today, not next week, after a crash diet), and what your life circumstances are. You must accept the good, the bad, and the ugly, without prejudice. “Notice, don’t judge,” as my sister Jaclyn once told me (attribution, sister, see?). You must get to a Zen place about the raw material you have to work with, to be able to say, “I love my back, hate my ass, I’m old, I have limited resources and that’s okay.” Acceptance means knowing when your pants are too tight. It means not wearing your favorite dress when the armholes squish your chest into your armpits. When I say “accept,” I mean accept: No more judgment, just pure dispassionate observation. The “yes” is absolutely essential to style. If you deny the reality of your body or your life, you’ll never be able to dress any of it well—even the parts you love. You have to see it all to work with any of it.
Ignoring a problem (or a “problem area”) doesn’t solve it. Trust me when I say I’ve tried that route many, many times. The only way to deal with a style problem is to confront it and attack it head-on. This is the “and” part of the equation, the best part of it. “Yes” is acceptance; “and” is advancing to the next step. “And” is coming up with a passionate strategy to emphasize what you love about yourself and to de-emphasize what you don’t. Don’t ignore your least favorite areas or try to hide them. Hiding implies a shame about ourselves. Even when you don’t like something, you can accept I and “consciously camouflage” (trademark pending) it instead. Go up a size or three to look great in your pants. Strategize your spending budget. Part of “and” is using style as a tool to help create the image you want to put out in the world that tells others how you want to be treated. It can also help you foster self-esteem you didn’t know you could have.
Going through the mental process of “Yes . . . and” is paramount before you try on a single article of clothing. Style doesn’t start with your body—it starts with your brain. There has been much discussion in the last few years about neuroplasticity, the notion that the brain can reconfigure itself and form new pathways throughout life. The same can be said for how you think of your physical appearance, especially how you dress—call it the neuroplasticity of style.
For fashion-book clichés like “the must-have trench for spring” or “three ways to rock a poncho,” you’ll have to go somewhere else. Let’s be honest: If “how to” advice was that useful, you’d all be dressing well and I’d be out of a job. The “how to” approach is about changing your look. From years of working with women, I’ve discovered that that is only part of what they’re really after. For that reason, my bookdoesn’t only deal with only how to dress well, and why you should, but it examines why you don’t. We all put obstacles in our own path toward personal style, myself included. If we understood why we constructed these practical and emotional obstacles, we might move beyond it to healthier, happier perceptions of ourselves and, ideally, a better sense of self-esteem. Style can change your look, certainly, but it can also change your life.
And that, my dears, is What This Book Is.
The book is called The Truth About Style. But when I think about it, there’s more than one truth. Or maybe there are lots of little truths that add up to one big one.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group Inc., from “The Truth About Style" by Stacy London. Copyright © 2012, Furry Purry, Inc.