The Difference Between Fashion and Style—and Why It Matters

You need to know the difference so that you can express your individual worth and dignity.
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Lilly Bozzone
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You need to know the difference so that you can express your individual worth and dignity.

As a teenager, I didn’t anticipate days like Christmas or Thanksgiving (OK, maybe a little). The days I dreamt of most came twelve times a year, not just once.

How’s that, you ask? Once a month, every month, my magazine subscription arrived. With each new month, I became giddy. Those glossy pages could be relied on to arrive on time, and I lived for those editorial spreads.

I could name every designer garment featured without looking up the name. I knew every model, and I could recognize the photographer who shot the spread with one glance. I pored over the pages and envisioned myself incorporating what I saw into my own wardrobe. The word "obsessed" is taking my interest in fashion lightly.

Over the years, though, I began to anticipate the arrival of my glossies less and less. After a while, I completely unsubscribed. I was disenchanted with the pages that tried to top the past month’s extremes, and I was overwhelmed with all the information I felt like I had to retain.

So I did a fashion purge. I tossed my beloved Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar into the trash, declaring them "superficial and materialistic." Free from magazine influence, I began creating looks for myself that felt truly my own. I had the most creative years of my young life. And I discovered the important difference between fashion and style.

See, many of us use the words "fashion" and "style" interchangeably. I certainly did, and my confused terminology had me reading my magazines all wrong, causing me to demonize the industry itself.

As someone who would have described herself as having a "passion for fashion," I was guilty of not really understanding what style or fashion really were and in turn, lost the significance of both. When we confuse fashion for style, we strip fashion of its purpose as an art form and minimize its power by forcing it to be commonplace.

And when we confuse style for fashion, we end up trivializing the deeply personal process of expressing the internal through the sartorial. When these two terms are mistaken as the same thing, both are diminished.

If you Google the definition of fashion, the first description is "a popular trend, especially in styles of dress and ornament." Note what word is not mentioned in the above description in a personal context: style. The definition of style, on the other hand, is "a distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed." Could these definitions be more different from one another?

The telltale sign of the fashion/style confusion is when someone sees a runway look and quickly declares, "I would never wear that" or "That’s not even pretty." I hear this a lot, and it makes me think of the eye-opening moment I realized that runway shows and editorial spreads are the fashion world’s equivalent of an art gallery. You might go to a museum and appreciate a Jackson Pollock splattered canvas or Grant Wood’s American Gothic. But you don’t necessarily want to hang it in your home to see every day; it isn’t meant to be common.

You may have heard a dramatic fashion fanatic proclaiming fashion as "art." While this may have become a stereotype or cliché of the industry, it’s true and often forgotten. Gucci’s Alessandro Michele–designed multitiered tulle rainbow dress with sequined parakeets wasn’t meant to fit into someone’s personal style. It was art, an expression of creativity.

Style, on the other hand, is ultimately more significant to each individual and actually has nothing to do with the artistic pursuits of fashion designers. Style is deeply internal, as it has the power to visually express what we cannot verbally. Style has the power to reveal who we are in a way that is entirely unique to ourselves and our clothing. It’s an approach, a method, a technique that has been chosen by you to best represent who you are as a person.

That’s why when you think of Audrey Hepburn and Lady Gaga you’re thinking very different things. Hepburn wasn’t fashionable; she was stylish. We revere Hepburn because her spirit came out in the way she carried herself, spoke, and dressed. It was her style that visually communicated how special she was internally, thus why we love the woman, not just how she dressed.

An egg-encased, meat-wearing Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is fashionable. She wears works of art, not outfits. The attire isn’t meant to be something you like, per se, but rather is a one-time statement meant to strike you, much like Gucci’s parakeet dress.

You can see then how the two ideas—style and fashion—are actually quite different. But, why have we been confused all these years? This is where the fast-fashion industry and, unfortunately, many magazines come into play. The concept that one must be fashionable and follow the latest fashions in order to be cool is fueled by consumer-facing companies looking to increase sales and profits; fashion becomes a marketing tool. If we view fashion and style synonymously, we eventually fall victim to trends. When this happens, massive companies trick us into feeling as though cheaply made, runway-inspired knockoffs are what we need to be relevant.

Personal style is just that—personal. It has only been by distinguishing between style and fashion that I was able to uncover the power of personal style as a tool to express individual worth and dignity. It’s something each person can and will decide for themselves based on a myriad of things. Fashion is something we can all appreciate but would be wise to not imitate just for the sake of relevancy. Fashion is meant to be appreciated on the outside; style is meant to emerge from the inside.

Am I still abstaining from fashion magazines? Definitely not. I’m simply viewing fashion and style in their appropriate fields. Most importantly, I’m dedicating myself to helping women discover and reclaim the true meaning of style. All of this has got me thinking: How powerful would it be if every woman understood the depth of individuality, beauty, and her inherent worth and was able to express that in the way she dressed? How different would our world be?

Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery