Part Two of this contemplative series focuses on the books and people/person who most influenced my style growth journey.
The first book I read that completely opened my eyes to the transformative power of fashion and it’s ability to help you explore who you are was ‘Elegance’ by Kathleen Tessaro.
Proof of the lasting effect this novel had on my 20 year old self is in how easily the title and author’s name rolls off my tongue. It’s one of those stories publishers seem to love – American in London, marriage falls apart, she rediscovers herself and finds love again. Hardly original plot wise, but what makes it a deeply satisfying read is how the protagonist’s wardrobe blossoms as she attempts to follow the rules of a 1964 French Fashion guide she finds in a second hand bookstore.
The idea that there were/are ‘rules’ that can help a woman both organise and elevate her wardrobe, the concept that less is more when the less is of a very high quality, and the notion that by being well groomed and taking care over your appearance can actually affect the way a woman feels and approaches life was, quite frankly, mind blowing to me.
I loved this book so much that I immediately bought the original handbook, ‘Elegance’ by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux. To this day, I’m not even sure if she’s real or fictional but I didn’t care. I loved having a handbook though I found some of the rules a little strict and not always relatable. Eg advice re hats just didn’t seem so relevant, though it probably did spark my love of hats (I was much more adventurous then!)
I bought both ‘Elegance’ books at least twice because friends kept pinching them off me, and then I finally decided I’d learned all I needed and it was time to let it go.
Over the years, there were other interesting, enlightening books but I definitely became more interested in the inner rather than the exterior. Studying acting at drama school definitely compounded that, which is ironic because everyone stereotypes actors as being vain and obsessed with their looks.
I found it much easier to dress up for an occasion than to dress well for everyday life, inspired by my style-heroines Grace Jones and Diana Ross…
During this stage, what truly had more of an impact on me were certain people who came into my life with attitudes to life, fashion and beauty that completely challenged my own.
The biggest influence on me in my 20s was a Parisian friend of mine, who we’ll call S (she has no idea I’m writing this and probably no idea of the huge impact she had). It’s something of a cliche to turn to Paris for style inspiration and yet there must be something in the water or in the way young women are brought up that makes this cliche true.
S’s approach could be distilled into a few words: you matter and you are worth the time and energy. It wasn’t preached or shouted from the rooftop but it was something she lived. She made small regular investments in herself, taking care of her hair, skin and nails, buying good quality shoes and finding her perfect match in nude lipsticks that made her lips look natural, voluptuous and just, well, healthy! She never looked like she was wearing makeup and yet was always glowing…
The terrible thing was that as good friends as we were, I teased her all the time because I thought her focus on beauty and self care was frivolous and vain. It was only after she moved back to Paris that I realised it wasn’t frivolity but ‘joie de vivre’ or better known as FUN. She was hardworking and smart but also feminine and flirty.
She was always urging me to enjoy life and loved my natural hair, my brown skin and my independent streak much more than I did then! I remember going through a phrase of working out a lot and losing a ton of weight and she complimented me but then said something so wise and powerful.
“Remember your body is not your enemy”, she said.
That was the second major lesson she taught me. There’s a way of a woman looking after herself, whether through exercise, makeup, fashion or hair styling that is gentle and self-affirming, and there’s a way that is aggressive, obsessive and self-harming. I believe this difference is quite important, whether you change your hair colour or wear hair extensions, whether you go barefaced or contour the s**t out of your poor face – are you enjoying your beauty or trying to change it?
The third major lesson she didn’t teach me on purpose, I just soaked it up. I went to hang out with her and we got ready for a night out. I was shocked by how little makeup she had in her room and how few outfits she actually had in her closet. And yet her makeup was all Chanel Illusion D’ombre and Guerlain bronzer and her clothes were gorgeous and fit her personality perfectly. Like a lot of young Parisians, she actually loved shopping in London but she didn’t waste any time on trendy crap but went to stores like Topshop for their high end or vintage ranges. She was a SMART shopper, she shopped carefully and she saw no need to buy more than ONE of anything.
I turned back to books after her departure, one of my favourites being ‘I Your Style’ by Amanda Brooks.
I love how this fashion journalist and consultant charts her fashion coming of age from growing up on the East coast to working with major fashion labels. However, what makes the book really special is how she devotes a page each to different fashion styles. Rather than a ‘how to’ telling you how to wear different looks, she collates photos of various style icons and stylish women who embody their style in the purest forms from minimalist, boho-chic to high-fashion.
The lesson here is that there is something to be admired in a woman who knows, understands and loves her sense of style but also that part of the journey is in experimenting and trying all of them out.
The final and most recent book is ‘Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style, and Substance’ by Tish Jett.
This is more of a beauty book for older women but it contains more lessons learned from French women who continue to invest in themselves rather than looking at beauty routines as a chore. They cherish purchases that have longterm value instead of seeing fashion as a form of relentless consumption and they don’t waste money on cheap things. Clothes are seen as investments and accessories can be more playful, disposable and trendy. I LOVE this approach. I love the idea of passing on my favourite items, bags and jewellery to my future daughter but in order to that, one needs to build a real wardrobe.
Something that also struck me was how Frenchwomen invest in luxury and affordable products that are French – quality handbags, mineral cleansing water, vintage pieces. It opened my eyes to have few African women invest in their own homemade products and this inspired my investigation into Nigerian products – both luxury and mid range that could become staples in my wardrobe and bathroom.
So there you have it – the books that have helped me the most! I hope they help someone and my ramblings weren’t too long.
Part Three covers the vloggers who helped me continue the journey and who I really love to follow.