Many stylists and style writers (including me!) frequently describe certain outfits and styles as “effortless.” It’s one of the highest compliments in the fashion world, and publications such as Racked (now Vox) and Refinery 29 have criticized the glamorization of “effortlessness” as one of the underpinnings of the mythical French Girl style. But the idea of “effortless” style is a problem on its own, whether or not connected to a French aesthetic because it discredits the importance of work.
“Effortlessness” doesn’t exist, because anything good takes work.
When scrolling through beautiful style posts on Instagram, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that the idea of “effortless” style is absurd on a number of levels, firstly because everything, including a “casual chic” ensemble, takes work. Everything is harder than we expect, even—and especially—art that is made to look easy.
With style, the work to look “effortless” is often front-loaded, meaning that while it may not take long to dress in the morning, that’s because the wearer has already done a lot of work to make it that way. A stylish ensemble could be a favorite “uniform” that that person often wears, such as high-waist denim pants with silk camisoles or circle skirts with button-ups. People can create a cohesive look quickly and easily when they own items that coordinate, but to own items that coordinate, one has to shop not haphazardly, but with a plan, vision board, and/or a vibe or color scheme in mind. Going back even farther, new outfits may be easy to put together because people have honed their style sense and learned design principles, either from a book or by trial and error. Some people may not have to think about proportion anymore; they just know that a fitted top looks good with voluminous pants, but it’s not because they were born knowing—even though it may seem that way.
(Hilary Rushford Collyer in Paris.)
Hilary Rushford Collyer, stylist and founder of Dean Street Society, recently illustrated these concepts in an IGTV recap of all the clothes she brought for a vacation in the South of France. Rushford Collyer discussed the importance of making sure that sets of your clothes (such as a vacation or seasonal set) all pair with each other, so any outfit you put together will look good. She talked about how the cardigan that she brought for the trip would match with everything she brought—including her pajamas, explaining that she gets “nerdy” as a stylist and even takes her loungewear into account. On the cardigan she chose to pack, Rushford Collyer said, “It’s going to make me feel more chic to wear something that pairs back to [the pajamas] . . . rather than something that totally clashes with it.” It might appear to others like Rushford Collyer’s clothes and even her PJs matched magically, accidentally, or “effortlessly,” but her videos show how much thought and organization she puts into everything she buys and wears.
R29 style writer Megan Cahn’s French colleague, Catherine Masraff, confirmed that for stylish French women, “It is not true [that] it comes magically. It’s routine, constant practice. Like sport, you become really good with regular practice . . . years of regular routine.”
Glamorizing “effortlessness” devalues that work.
The work of creating a stylish outfit or wardrobe is what the “effortless” description erases. Instead, it implies that we should be born with style, born knowing what fits, how to mix patterns and colors, arrange proportions, accessorize, and play up or down different pieces. The glamorization of “effortlessness” suggests that style is natural, that you either have it or you don’t. In reality, style is a set of skills just like any other art, craft, or hobby: therefore, it’s one anyone can learn with study and practice. Calling style “effortless” discourages the study and practice of style by making even the effort you could put into learning the art “uncool.” To put effort into developing your style is to acknowledge that you weren’t mysteriously “born with it,” the ideal that we all (consciously or unconsciously) uphold. Devaluing the work it takes to get good at something makes style exclusionary by discouraging other people from even trying to reach the same level or improve. When you think about it, it’s a strange attitude to deny that it takes study, practice, and experimentation to develop a sense of style. After all, in how many other fields do artists feel self-conscious for “trying too hard”?
“Subtlety” is a better descriptor.
When we say an ensemble is “effortless,” what we really mean is that the style is subtle and casual, that it has a certain je ne sais quoi. A couture Oscar gown, for instance, is not usually referred to as “effortless,” because it is obvious why it looks stylish: it’s a gorgeous, floor-length, baby-blue couture taffeta gown with a beaded bodice. It’s overtly fabulous!
However, a more casual look is cohesive in a way that’s so subtle that it’s hard to define or pick up on. At a glance, it’s not obvious why the informal outfit looks so chic. The outfit may consist of jeans and a white shirt, which seem mundane, but with a closer look you may find that it works because it has been dressed up with elegant basics, such as loafers, a leopard-print-belt, tortoise-shell sunglasses, and a chunky gold necklace that pulls the outfit together. Someone with a less trained eye may see that it has a certain harmony without being able to immediately pinpoint why. It is not “effortless,” but in fact carefully calculated to look “put-together” or “well-dressed” in a casual, refined manner.
As a writer, I do understand why “effortless” keeps seeping into the conversation. When you’re describing ten or twenty ensembles, you can quickly run out of synonyms for “casual chic.” But let’s try to move on from using “effortless” so much. Let’s try to get past acting like we’re too-cool-for-school when it comes to style. Let’s take pride in the work we did and admire the practiced skills of others. Let’s value our journey toward refinement in the art we have chosen.
This piece has been updated since it was originally published.