How To Define Your Personal Style (And Why You Should)


If you hear the word, ‘preppy’…what comes to mind? Lily Pulitzer? Tory Birch? And what about the word ‘boho’? Do you immediately think of Free People or something similar?

Chances are you do, and that’s because brands have spent lots of time and energy (and $$) defining their aesthetic, their brand, their style.

But what happens when we do this for a person? If we think of Jackie O (one of the most well-known icons of style) we can describe her style as, well, preppy. But that certainly isn’t enough. It was preppy, but also, in turns, sophisticated and chic and ladylike and — one could argue — even a little tomboyish at times.

Jackie O was a real, complex person, so summarizing her personal style into a few words is like trying to summarize our own complex selves. It’s hard. It’s much harder to define the personal style of a person than it is to summarize the style of a brand, something that has been created to fit into a neat little slogan, for the purpose of driving sales.

A Guide To Defining Your Personal Style: 5 Steps For Creating A Fashion Inspiration Board

So what is personal style? How does one begin to define their own and, if we’ve actually managed to come up with something truly representative of our complex, ever-changing selves…what’s the point? Is it even…helpful?

What Is Personal Style (& Why Should We Care)?

I think having a rough definition of your own personal style can be very helpful. It can be helpful when you are figuring out what to wear on the daily, and it can be really helpful when purchasing anything new. A solid understanding of your personal style goes a long way to minimizing episodes of buyer’s remorse, for example.

But let’s start by defining what personal style is NOT:

Personal style is not following trends, nor buying new clothes, nor worrying about what other people are wearing. And personal style doesn’t even require an understanding of what is most flattering on your body type (crazy, but true). It’s simply the knowledge of what makes you feel your best, an understanding of what you think is cool.

That’s kind of the crux, here. We all get to have our own definition of cool. It’s why Doc Martens and preppy riding boots are still sold in stores (and have been for decades). One is not better than the other — they each have their own dedicated following. And we’re not here to arbitrate on some narrow definition of cool. The definition of cool has infinite boundaries, and is completely dependent on your own perspective. We are simply here to help you better understand your definition of cool.

We firmly believe, here at The Mom Edit, that we should all be wearing exactly whatever the heck it is we want to be wearing. Whatever makes us feel the most like our best selves. Trends, age, body types — throw those old ‘rules’ out the window. Figure out what makes you feel good on a daily basis, what meets your definition of cool.

A personal style definition, then, is simply a collection of adjectives that best describe your concept of cool. Here’s mine:

Unexpected, Fresh, Undone, Effortless

To really make my personal style definition tangible, I like to layer in a bit about my current lifestyle, as well as my shopping values (sustainability, budget, etc.,). The result is something like a personal style manifesto.

My personal style is slightly undone, a little messy. I'm the most comfortable when my outfit has an effortless vibe. I like unexpected elements to keep comfortable basics from being boring.I prefer outfits that let me walk for hours, and will always think twice if a piece isn't sustainably produced. I am horribly uncomfortable spending over $1K on any one piece.

How To Make Your Personal Style Work For You

I think it comes down to five key steps:

  1. Define Your Personal Style (this will change over the years)
  2. Document Your Personal Style Manifesto (this will change more quickly over the years)
  3. Create A Personal Style Inspiration Board
  4. Clean Out Your Closet (to reflect your current Personal Style)
  5. Refer Back To Your Personal Style Manifesto & Inspiration Board before EVERY purchase

In this article, we’re going to tackle numbers 1, 2 & 3 – Defining your personal style, and documenting it. We’re in the process of re-writing our closet clean-out method, but if you can’t wait, check out our older post, The No-Stress Guide To Cleaning Out Your Closet. (Sorry about the hard-to-read graphics — we’re working on new ones.)

Finally, once you’ve defined and documented your personal style…and tackled your closet (ideally you’ve identified the ‘holes’ or missing pieces that make it a functioning closet)…you simply refer back to your personal style documents before each purchase. Sometimes just glancing at a page filled with things I genuinely LOVE, or re-reading my personal style manifesto — is enough of a level-set to keep me needlessly clicking ‘add to cart’.

Other times I won’t actually know if a piece fits (in the larger sense, not just size) until I’ve tried the piece on at home, using other pieces I already wear and love.

One rule of thumb? If a piece doesn’t quite fit with your most-loved pieces…think twice. If it doesn’t quite fit with your personal style board…think three times.

How To Define Your Personal Style (A Quick-n-Dirty Method)

I’ve now been using this method for years, and it hasn’t failed me yet. I’ve used it with family, with friends, with clients (long ago when I was getting into the styling business), with readers, and with the entire TME team. It’s quick and super-effective. If you really want the history of how I developed this method, check out this old post. It has some background info and one of my personal style boards from years ago. (And because it’s a personal style board…it still resonates, even though trends have shifted.)

For purchasing clothes, decreasing buyer's remorse & staying true to you, defining personal style & making an inspiration board are key. Our 5 steps, here.

Step 1: Roundup Imagery (Magazines & Catalogs Work Best)

I know everybody loves Pinterest…but for this method, hardcopy magazines or catalogs work best. Go out and buy some. Three are usually enough, but I’ve found that 4-5 are often more effective (especially if a couple are catalogs).

If you have a tendency to be reallllly critical of yourself (if “I could never wear that” is something you say quite frequently)…pick up a home decor magazine or two. The resulting board will be a little more abstract, but works just as well to define your personal style.

And frankly, I’m a huge fan of casting a wide net — it’s good for inspiration. Home decor magazines, or magazines/catalogs for different age groups can lead to new insights.

Step 2: Flip Through — Quickly!

Set yourself a timer for 5 minutes (OK, 10 if you have 5 or more magazines), and flip through EVERYTHING. The point is to go fast — we’re looking for gut instincts; do not over-think. Tear out any pages or pictures that catch your attention — even if you’re not entirely sure why. It doesn’t matter if it’s an advertisement, a quote, an object, a color…. even if it’s something you’d never wear! If it catches your eye, don’t overthink it. Just tear it out and go with your gut.

NOTE: You are NOT looking for outfits to re-create. That is something else entirely. You are simply doing a gut-check on what you like.

Step 3: Categorize Your Material

Now that you’ve got a big stack of tear sheets in front of you, go ahead and categorize them into two piles: LOVE IT!!! vs. EHHH…

Step 4: Analyze WHY You Love The Faves

Looking at all of the pages in your LOVE IT!!! pile, try and describe EXACTLY why you love each one. What was it that first caught your eye? What makes these images feel more like you than the others? Maybe it’s the color scheme, or an overall feeling. If it’s a feeling, what does it make you feel? Cozy, sexy or carefree? As you go through and define this pile, a pattern should start to emerge — this pattern will help you understand your personal style definition.

Use sticky notes to label your favorites with the adjectives (or phrases) that come to mind for each one. A few possible words that came up during our last teams’ personal style assessments?

Shana (me) – unexpected, fresh, undone, effortless, unexpected, messy, tough, deliberately dramatic, contrast, brave, casual, silly, fresh

Linzi – playful, easy, bright, practical, girly, bold color, flirty, quirky, international pieces, fun

Laura – boyish, casual, edgy, ever-so-slightly classic, London Punk-mod, art gallery, deliberate juxtaposition, balance, contrast, sporty

Julieta – chic, flirty, sophisticated, polished, fashion cred, ladylike, sexy, sophisticated, lux

Scotti – unapologetically glam, sparkly, sexy, bold, badass, fierce, comfortable, edgy meets glam in the most compatible way

Tiarra – chic, sexy, classic, vibrant

Jess – romantic, boho, breezy, creative

Gwen – classic, minimalist, graceful, current

Lex – romantic, whimsical, coy, eclectic, fun, demure, international

We obviously still need to do ones for Kat, Emily, Tori and A…but I wanted to use the above as an example. Sometimes adjectives work just fine, but since we’re complicated creatures (and cannot be restricted to mere labels), phrases like “edgy meets glam in the most compatible way” sometimes communicate more effectively.

Step 5: Create a Personal Style Inspiration Board

Next, turn these images into a Personal Style Inspiration Board. The easiest way? Organize your favorite tear-sheets into a quick flat-lay and take a picture with your phone. Include at least three key adjectives. For example, from the list above, the ones I ended up using are “effortless, undone, unexpected…and comfortable”. The result isn’t necessarily beautiful, but it’s effective and handy for shopping.

For purchasing clothes, decreasing buyer's remorse & staying true to you, defining personal style & making an inspiration board are key. Our 5 steps, here.

OR….if you have more time, make a Pinterest board or download images to create something pretty. Think about printing it out and posting it by your closet. At least keep it on hand digitally, and refer to it before shopping. The key here is to keep it REALLY edited — to only include the images you love, the images that define your idea of cool.

The important thing to remember, though, is that this board is NOT necessarily a list of possible outfits to re-create (although, feel free to create one of those, too). Your Personal Style Inspiration board is supposed to evoke emotion. It’s supposed to serve as a grounding point, reminding you of who you are.

For purchasing clothes, decreasing buyer's remorse & staying true to you, defining personal style & making an inspiration board are key. Our 5 steps, here.

We’d LOVE to see what you guys come up with!! And if you ever need help translating your personal style, send us over the results of your style assessment, and we’ll see what we can come up with in terms of translation. (An example of this can be found here.)