What is style?

Jean Genet

Jean Genet

There are many definitions of what style is. I’d like to add mine. Style is a response to injury – it’s a way of dealing with pain. Those that are truly stylish, and not merely fashionable or well turned out, are often those who grew up deprived of love or attention, who had a dream shattered, or who were forced to suppress an important part of themselves. Style is a form of grief. “I had the simple elegance, the easy bearing of the truly hopeless” (Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal).

When I grew up I had no style. My mother chose my clothes for me until I was 12. I had no opinions on them beyond their practicality. I had no favorites. It just didn’t matter to me. I embarked on my style journey when my best friend Martina Belgrad told me one day she didn’t want to be my friend anymore because she was embarassed by the clothes I wore. I wasn’t wearing jeans or sweatshirts, but frumpy dresses and skirts. This opened an abyss. I realized that the rules of childhood no longer applied, that puberty had officially begun and that I was alone and adrift on my own floe (my mother being woefully unequipped to be any kind of guide).

It was time to make up my own rules. The first of which was to utterly reject who and what had rejected me. I would define for myself what is beautiful. I chose a hard a time to do so. Rural Germany in the late 1970s lacked resources. Clothes in stores were unflattering and dowdy. Magazines were gaudy and populist. The only subculture were the so-called “freaks”, hippies in army parkas and jeans and jute bags. The world was drab.

But this lack of resources was liberating. I had latched on the existence of punk scenes in New York and London, but pictures were in very short supply. I took those few signals and interpreted them myself. I knitted, sewed, altered, dyed clothes that I thought might approximate a punk look, without being able to verify. My clothes were sui generis, as a result, if rather androgynous. The few images I had seen of female punks were too intimdating in their provocative sexuality. I avoided the cliches of ripped holes and safety pins, sensing even then how cartoonish these were. I wish there were pictures from this period. Sadly, there are none. I had cut ties with the rest of the world before it had a chance to cut ties with me. No-one ever got close.

Vivienne and Malcolm


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