What makes a woman stylish?

Last updated 13:00 18/03/2011

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As Sonya's weekly Style column nears an end, she reflects on some of the definitive rules of stylishness.

Having recently made the decision to finish writing about fashion and style to focus on family, I've been thinking carefully about what I want to say in my final two columns.

I reflect on the question: What makes a woman stylish? I also think about the learning and maturing of my own ideas during the past five years.

Here are my thoughts about what the answer might be.

The popular television series of the mid-2000s What Not To Wear popularised what stylish women have always known: that looking fantastic is about knowing how to disguise our shortcomings in favour of accentuating the good bits, and making the most of who we actually are, not who we'd like to be.

Covering our flabby, saggy, blobby bits might limit what we wear, but we will be presenting ourselves in the most favourable light.

As correspondence about my previous columns shows, not everyone agrees with this idea. Some women feel that we ought to be free to flaunt the good and bad as we wish.

While personal freedom might apply to a range of settings and circumstances, I maintain that truly elegant and stylish women, past and present, are subtle in showing off their assets and have perfected the art of disguise where their imperfections are concerned.

In addition to restraint according to our bodies, some restraint also applies to occasion, environment and circumstance.

It is said that one of the special qualities of style icon Jackie Kennedy Onassis was her ability to dress in a way that made those around her feel comfortable, and that she had a knack for looking great whether she was holidaying with her children or attending a state occasion with her husband, President John F Kennedy.

Such knowledge and skill enabled her to use her style as a means of relating to the people around her. She had the ability to translate her clothing preferences into the language expected by social circumstance without losing her own sense of style or individuality.

While dressing to suit and to be appropriate might require a little knowledge and a wardrobe to reflect it, the basic principle of grooming does not. It simply requires us to take care in the finer details of our personal appearance.

We 're not talking perfect makeup, precisely co-ordinated outfits and a hairspray-stiff coif. But clean and well-kept clothes, shoes in good condition, washed, well-styled hair and natural makeup as the occasion calls for it do matter.

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Some might view the idea of grooming as an outdated concept, of a pre-feminist time when we made ourselves pretty for the menfolk in our lives or because we had little else to do with our talents. My take on it, and a more contemporary view, is that modern grooming is about presenting yourself in a way that shows you care about yourself and that you look after the things you own.

Having a co-ordinated look is another quality of stylish women I have observed. Icons of style past and present have mastered the skill of putting together outfits in a way that makes sense to the eye.

Colour, style and details work together to produce an outfit that is visually coherent. Of course, like fashion itself, what we perceive as visually coherent has changed (and will continue to change) over time.

Some of the most influential style icons of today, such as Kate Moss, have been women who have challenged those boundaries to create new rules of dress, yet still managed a "together" look.

Where once stylish women co-ordinated their handbags to their shoes, and wore matching cardigans with their printed floral dresses, now stylish women work with contrasting elements such as denim and lace, leather and cotton, high heels with jeans and sneakers with dresses.

If you have an unlimited budget and nothing much else to do but shop and dress and groom yourself each day, then you can skip this one. It is about being organised, and is about ordinary people with limited incomes and busy lives achieving a great look. It's about planning ahead, caring for your stuff, and adjusting your fashion and style ideas to suit reality.

Becoming a mum has reinforced the importance of this idea for me, and learning from other mums around me has helped me to see that style is very achievable for most of us. Looking at style in a purely practical way, getting organised, caring for what we own, being creative with what we already have and making good shopping decisions are essential to achieving a great look on a limited budget and time.

As regular readers will know, one of my recurring messages has been the importance of personal style. This principle is about finding a way to express yourself through the way you dress, within the context of how your peers dress, social expectation, high-fashion and popular culture.

It is not about being wildly out there or even necessarily much different from anybody else. But it is about trusting your own judgment and dressing in a way that makes you feel good.

Personal style can be elusive to many of us, and has always been a revered quality of icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Madonna. It is regarded by some as the X-factor of style, which cannot be taught or learned. It is a quality that might come more easily to some than others, but I believe it can be cultivated with time and experience.

Finally, while one might posses all of the previous six qualities of style, none of it will have much effect if one does not also posses the grace, confidence and poise to carry it off. Some writers extend this principle to encapsulate the idea that true style is a reflection of the inner condition. Without self-esteem and a degree of social intelligence, style is elusive to even the most knowledgeable and affluent among us.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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