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The difference between fashion and style

The difference between fashion and style

Yves Saint Laurent is alleged to have said, “fashions fade, style is eternal” and he is a man that would know. The designer was responsible for creating some of the most iconic fashion moments of the 20th century from the Mondrian dress to Le Smoking – the tuxedo jacket for women. However, his clothes were definitely part of fashion, and influenced and inspired trends – Le Smoking is still referenced today, more than 50 years after the runway debut – something that style purists claim is aside from style. But can you really have fashion that is separate from style, or style separate from fashion? Put another way – is there a difference between fashion and style?

To decode the difference (or even ascertain if there is one) you need to be clear on what fashion and style really mean. In this context, the definition of fashion is – as defined by Merriam Webster – fashion (noun), the prevailing style (as in dress) during a particular time.

The definition of style, however, is – style (noun) 1. a distinctive manner of expression, 2. a distinctive manner or custom of behaving or conducting oneself or a particular mode of living. Working from the dictionary definition then it would appear that it is possible to have style without fashion but not fashion without style. 

Another simple way of breaking it down is to consider fashion as the clothes you put on your back, the height of a hemline or the width of a lapel. It’s something that changes quickly, sometimes every six months. Style, though, is the sum of all these parts. “There is definitely a difference,” says stylist Luke McDonald, “in that style transcends fashion. You can be stylish without being fashionable or a part of the latest trends.” 

As Luke says, the difference between fashion and style is more than just wearing, or not wearing, the hottest trends or the latest trainers. Take someone like Frank Sinatra. There’s no denying that ol’ blue eyes had style, but it wasn’t attention-seeking. Picture him and you see a suit with a wide tie (something that wouldn’t be considered at all stylish by today’s tailoring standards). His style came from more than his clothes, it came from the way he wore them. 

“Style is personal,” says stylist Toby Standing, “while fashion is a collective endeavour.” To be a dedicated follower of fashion you need to know what is going on with the latest trends, the colours, and shapes that designers are sending down the runway, the ideas that are influencing them and how they’re being interpreted at large. Fashion is dictated by designers, magazine editors, photographers and influencers. It changes each season based on arbitrary guidelines that may or may not reflect life. 

Style is slower, but not unaffected by fashion. Its fashion at a few years remove, a macro view that embraces the things that last – often silhouettes, or movements like a shift from suits to more casual clothes – rather than the season’s hot colour.  “You can’t establish a timeless style without fashion – everything has been a trend at one point, that’s why these things still exist now,” says stylist Alexander McCalla. Even the menswear that comes from military or industrial history has, at some point, had a fashion spin. Style is more than that though. It’s how you put the clothes together – what influences you as a person, be it your environment, your politics, your socio-economic scale, even your religion can influence your style.

“David Hockney is a great example of a man with a style that exists almost separately to fashion, while still being fashionable,” says Luke. His bright coloured rugby shirts, dad-style corduroy trousers, or fail-safe cardigan and knitted tie combinations, are rarely intentionally fashionable, but he is without a doubt a stylish man. He chooses what he likes, outside of trends, and wear the pieces without letting the pieces wear him.

A man with style might not make the best-dressed lists (though there is likely a crossover) but they will look good – even if it takes a while to find your groove. Take David Beckham, a man who regularly appears on said lists, and is often declared the man most men would like to look like.Now, cast your mind back twentysomething-years to the sarong, the purple wedding suit or the black leather all-in-one (that matched the one Victoria Beckham was wearing, because nothing says style conscious like matching leather catsuits).

No one could or would argue that those were choices that were about style, they were all about Fashion – the capital F is important. This was following a trend, wearing head-to-toe designer labels and intentionally making a statement. That they are all choices he would stand by says more about the evolution of David Beckham than it does about style (or fashion). He was finding his footing in his own aesthetic, something that can take a while.

“It’s easy to make mistakes when figuring out what works for you, in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s necessary,” says Toby. “You almost have to get distracted by trends and the things you think might work for you, to discover the trends and styles that actually do go on to form the basis of your style.”

If finding your own style takes time, then surely one of the ways of learning what is right or wrong (for you) is to be familiar with fashion. Think of it as food. You can use food to survive, probably make a passable meal – this is the basic idea of clothing. Or you can love food, use it to create elaborate meals that not only nourish but also inspire, be something of a foodie – this is fashion. And above all of that, you can marry the two elements to create nourishing food that inspires but is not an elaborate statement every time you go to the kitchen – this is style.

There is a school of thought that says it is more important to focus on an overall style, rather than aiming to be fashionable. Designer Marc Jacobs once said, “I’m a bit suspicious of men who follow fashion too closely.” Which is, of course, the kind of statement only a man who has dedicated his life to being a part of fashion could make. And yet, maybe there is some value in his statement.

The danger in prescriptively following fashion too closely is that you lose the elements of ‘Fashion’ that suit you in your ongoing quest to be on-trend. Real style, the style that makes other men take notice, the style that feels personal to you without ever becoming a uniform, takes consideration and a willingness to be on the outside of what is considered fashionable. It might sometimes mean you’re accidentally in fashion and might often mean you’re outside of it but in a way, this doesn’t matter. Style, in this sense, is evergreen. Trends may come and go but if you have a sense of style that works for you – and you feel comfortable in – then you’ll always look good.

Words: Nadia Balame-Price
Illustration: Calum Heath