Style vs. Trend vs. Frump (Or, How to Cultivate Style)

style-vs-trendThere were a few intriguing comments in Friday’s open thread about brooches and whether they were in style, with some readers even suggesting it might be a matter of age. To me, though, this kind of comes down to style versus trend — and I thought it might make an interesting discussion here. After all, don’t stylish women wear what they fancy — trends be damned? On the flip side, if something was once very trendy and is not any longer, at what point does it cross the line into frump and being “out of style”? How do you cultivate a style instead of merely following trends? (Pictured: The Glamourai.)

For brooches, for example, I 100% agree that they are not trendy right now. They did go through a brief moment of trendiness in the early aughts — for some reason 2003 sticks in my head, along with an episode of What Not to Wear where Stacy London was suggesting women add two or three brooches at a time to sweaters, coats, and more. Somehow, though, I had found my way to brooches before that — buying a ton of them at the Eastern Market flea market while I was in law school — and I still wear them now. (Here’s my advice on how to wear brooches.) As some readers pointed out, the excellent blogger Adina at Blue Collar Red Lipstick also wears them — and I also think often of a great post on The Glamourai (pictured) about how to wear particularly heavy ones without ruining your clothes.

Now — this brings us to another dynamic: frump. If something was trendy many years ago and you continue to wear it after the trend has passed, are you going down the slippery slope toward frump? I tend to think of frump as being more about ill-fitting, unflattering clothes and, perhaps, a general harried demeanor (wild hair, stains/wrinkles, unintentional half-tucks), but it’s an interesting question to ponder. For example, years after skinny jeans came in style, I insisted that my style was bootcut jeans, refusing to buy any skinny jeans until years into the trend. Now that bootcuts and flares are becoming trendy again, though, I see readers noting that their style is skinny jeans (or, specifically, skinny jeans with tall boots) — but that look is starting to look more and more dated to me as well. (It’s interesting, as I type this and reach for a word other than frump, to realize that the phrase “out of style” is what I hear most often, but obviously it’s maddening to talk about being stylish and not being “out of style” without feeling like it’s devolving into an “orange orange orange orange orange” kind of situation.)

What’s even more interesting is how quickly fashion trends move. When some retailers put out new clothes every few weeks, and others copy runway styles much, much faster than ever before, it feels even more like you should find your own style, rather than be a slave to trends and replace your entire wardrobe every season. So how do you cultivate style that transcends trends, without risking being thought of as “out of style”? I’m genuinely curious to hear what you guys think about it!

Here are a few specific fashion/makeup things for you to ponder — are they stylish enough to transcend trend? Does your thinking change if we contrast a “hallmark look” (think Iris Apfel and her eyeglasses, Anna Wintour’s bob, Carolina Herrera and her crisp blouses) with “I thought it would be fun with this outfit”? And — when does it cross the line into an affected look, where you think, “ah, she thinks she is Miss Fashion,” perhaps like with the bustiers/ties mentioned below)?

  • belting cardigans — hugely popular several years ago, but not so much now.
  • layering turtlenecks under dresses — I’m seeing more and more of this now as thin turtlenecks become trendy again
  • the red lip (with very little other makeup) — vs. the brown lip that is very trendy now (but can it be stylish enough to wear if it’s not trendy?).
  • maxi skirts for weekends — They were super trendy when I was in college, then went away until recent years — and now they’re getting harder and harder to find.
  • black/very dark nails (such as Vamp) — trend or style? (pictured below: Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction)
  • layering tons of necklaces and/or rings — Think Chanel with the heaps of pearls in that classic Man Ray photograph (pictured).
  • thick/colorful glasses — trendy now, but are they stylish on their own? (pictured: the very stylish Iris Apfel)
  • women wearing men’s ties — I can’t honestly think of a time this has been trendy because it’s such a difficult look to master, but if I see it done well it always strikes me as very stylish. Kelly at Alterations Needed has some tips on how to wear them well.
  • bustiers on top of crisp white blouses — The Thomas Crown Affair is one of my favorite fashion movies for this reason; I loved when Rene Russo wore the look (pictured) — and I just saw a flat lay with it somewhere (Barneys?). Of course this is another look that Kelly at Alterations Needed has knocked out of the park for years now.
  • leopard — it comes and goes out of trend, but some women love to wear it all the time.

How to cultivate style -- instead of following trends? This is a question all women must face, but for working women, their style can often be seen as an extension of their personal brand, their judgement, and their professionalism... so how DO you cultivate style as a professional woman? Great discussion with the readers of Corporette.

(Pictured above, clockwise: Coco Chanel, Iris Apfel, Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, The Glamourai, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair.)

Ladies, what are your thoughts on style vs. trend — where is the line in your mind? Do you tend to think of stylish women as being very trendy — or ignoring trends unless they suit them? What efforts have you made to cultivate a personal style for yourself? 

Psst: We’ve talked before about where to start to find style inspirationhow to define a weekend you distinct from your workweek style, and of course how to avoid professional frump.


  1. Vaguely related question: what do you think of #teacherbae? Many of the comments are about whether what she’s wearing would be acceptable in an office or how she could dress her very curvy figure without looking sexy–even in jeans & jersey, she is very curvy. My take is not to sexualize everyone, and to teach your boys to appreciate other aspects of women. Caveat: my boy is only 14; right now I don’t think the it’s inevitable that he thinks about sex all the time. I reserve the right to change my opinion on how teachable this is, depending on what happens over the next few years.

    • He IS thinking about sex all the time, there is absolutely no doubt about it.

    • The video here shows the teacher in different outfits.

    • After watching the video I thought that the mini black-and-red dress was too short, the tight beige dress looked better with a cardigan, the jeans outfit was not appropriate for school, and that she looked terrific in the rest.

      But don’t ask me to be able to articulate appropriate rules from this.

      This subject is an equal race issue: see Joan from Mad Men.

      • Diana Barry :

        The pink dress is too tight, ditto to EM on the mini-dress, the beige dress/cardigan, and the jeans outfit.

      • She is very pretty but most of her outfits are 1-2 sizes tight. That pink dress would look great in a club, but she needs to buy a larger size for work.

        • I didn’t watch the video, but that was my take from googling around for some pictures of her. Most of the dresses looked stretchy, so I don’t see how it would be a problem for her to go up a size – they would still fit her particular proportions. The jeans and tee shirt look looked OK (assuming that it was school appropriate in general).

          All 14 year olds are thinking about sex, pretty much all of the time. You can teach respect and whatnot, but it’s unrealistic to think that you’re going to convince them not to think about sex when presented with things that bring to mind sex (which are many, many things).

          • In a couple of years, that may be the case. That’s why I gave myself that out. Right now he refuses to go to school dances because the way the girls dance (without boys) is too sexual.

          • Anonymous :

            If he’s uncomfortable seeing girls dancing with each other, he’s probably feeling pretty awkward about some of the thoughts he’s having. It’s a tough age.

          • What Anonymous said there. While they’re still thinking about it a lot at 16, I think most boys have a bit more of a handle on controlling and understanding it by then. At 14, it’s all still a rush of new emotions that are really hard to deal with.

            That’s the case for girls, too (though generally a little earlier).

          • Sorry, did not ask for advice on the kid who talks to me about all.kinds.of.things, will remember not to mention him even as a light-hearted sorta-example around here ever again.
            Anon job seeker who sought advice on the timing of letting people know she’s pregnant, and instead got a boatload of comments about when women in general, or some specific women who were not you, started showing, I feel you!

    • purplesneakers :

      I think she’s being unfairly targeted for her body type. She can’t help being curvy, and if she dressed in loose-fitting clothes people would call her out for being a slob. Not to mention she shouldn’t have to cover up just because society doesn’t teach boys and men to treat women and girls like people rather than objects. That’s the problem, not the way she dresses.

      • Diana Barry :

        Eh – I think too tight is too tight no matter what your body shape is, but I do think it “shows” more when you are more curvy.

      • Anonymous :

        Whether you are 100 pounds or 200 pounds, those clothes are too tight for work. “Loose-fitting” to the point of sloppy is not the same as work-appropriate.

      • Totally disagree. She’s gorgeous but her clothes are maxxed out. If anything she’s getting a pass and undue sympathy because of her curves. If she were obese or flat chested and wore clothes that tight EVERYONE would just say “Eeww!”

    • Why is it wrong for teen boys to think about sex all the time? They are male, they are going through puberty, and if they see a curvy teacher, they will likely have a physical reaction. I am bothered that any mother would suggest that is wrong.

      • She teaches in an elementary school Any teens who are there clearly already have problems.

        • Boys can start going through puberty as early as age nine. And, yes, there are boys who have failed more than one grade so they could be 12 or 13 in elementary school.

          • Please stop. :

            Here’s the topic –>
            Here’s you, Waaaaaaay off-topic ———————————————————–>

            Please stop.

    • Really annoyed that women get blamed for men not being able to control their thoughts. Their ineptitude and inability to see attractive women as human beings is not our problem.

      • Teen boys are not men. They are boys and they are developing.

      • This is a tough one. Obviously there is SOME limit, right, or you would think a bustier is okay at work. Finding where that limit is is very tough.

      • That’s an argument I’ve heard about hijabs.

        Trish, this is an elementary school. The kids are neither teens nor men.

        • Boys can start puberty at age 9. And some teens are in elementary school if they failed more than one grade. I think your son is uncomfortable seeing girls dance and he needs an adult he can talk to.

    • What gets me is her posing and doing Instagram photos at work, in an elementary classroom. I would say it’s not appropriate in almost any workplace, and I don’t think I’m being that prudish about it, am I?

      • Are there kids in most of the pix? I’ve seen the one showing the back of her head, and the back of a student’s head, while they work on something together, but don’t recall other kids (I’m on my phone, so checking would be a pain). I’ve seen your comment several other places. My assumption was that a colleague with whom she is friendly took the pix in the mornings before students arrive.

  2. Would much rather see a picture of women wearing ties that didn’t involve Woody Allen (bleech)

    • heatherskib :

      When a former office moved from a satellite to a main head office all the women in our office wore ties one day to show the guys how to do it! I wish we’d done a picture then.

  3. I’m very curious when people say things go in and out of style in a year. I bought my first romper in 2009 (which was a little ahead of the trend), and they’re even more fashionable than they were then. Similarly, I’m not seieng trends now that will be out next year. Wide leg pants – they were in last year and will continue to be so. The color blush – never really out of style, but perhaps not as trendy as it is now. Riding boots over jeans may be a little out, but they’re still recommended by every blogger I follow to go with dresses, so I don’t regret my TB pair of a few years ago.

    I literally can’t think of a trend that goes in and out in a year. Even skinny jeans are still all over the place, even if they aren’t THE most trendy.

    There’s also the environmental aspect.

    • And skinny jeans had a good 10 – 12 years.

      • A few more things to note. I’m generally known as a super fashionable person (sounds braggy, but it’s true), so I think if I wore brooches, which I totally would I just don’t own any, it would be seen as fashionable. I also spend a good bit on my clothes (usually on sale, but still nice stuff like Kate Spade) so they stay nice for longer. I don’t feel like I’m subject to trends, really. I wear feminine, colorful, nice clothes, and I have a very distinct style that could easily include brooches.

        • I wear brooches frequently and get compliments on them all the time. My personal style tends towards very feminine with pinup elements, and they work well with a lot of my work clothing as a result. They are not trendy but I think they are a classic accessory that remains stylish and timeless.

          I started wearing them after my fiance gifted me a collection of his grandmother’s jewelry, and found that a lot of the brooches were very delicate, colorful and fun to wear despite being in my mid 20s.

          That said, there are frumpy, old-fashioned looking brooches. That doesn’t mean the category itself can’t be stylish.

    • Anonymous :

      There are few things I can remember – perhaps gauchos or ruffled miniskirts, which were super popular for like a year when I was in college. More recently, perhaps the high-low hem? They were around for a year or two. The other thing is culottes, which people are trying to make a thing – but I refuse to believe they’re actually “in” in the fist place. They can’t be next year, they’re too hideous and unflattering on pretty much everyone.

      • Culottes is a good example, but even those were in last year and seem to be picking up steam this year, which means they will likely be in next fall too. (Although I agree that they’re awful.) Same with high-low hems.

      • pugsnbourbon :

        I sincerely hope that culottes and those “kick-crops” head out, and soon.

    • I had a fancy t-shirt that I could wear to work, with Dolman sleeves and a HUGE print of a flower on it.
      Then I think it was 2012, and Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann? went on a TV interview and she wore a similar t-shirt and it just felt so.dated. I think it wore it one more time after that.

    • I will miss skinny jeans with boots… so warm and comfy. Still not sure what to replace them with.

      • Me too! I’d actually love a post on this. I’ve a warm-weather transplant to a cold city and my winters here so far have all fallen under the skinny jeans into boots trend. How do you stay warm and slush-free with the new trends?

  4. WorkingMom :

    I would consider Frumpy dress to be the way you described it above – ill-fitting, unkempt appearance. I was one of those people who never fully embraced skinny jeans. I’ll wear them with tall boots, but never with any other footwear. Simply because that style does not flatter my shape. I’ve always gone with boot cut or straight leg jeans depending on the shoe. My Mom always taught me that just because something is in style or trendy does not mean you need to adopt it. Wear what looks good on you and fits your body type. When done well, I would consider that the timeless / classic look. When a person is wearing items that as a standalone item don’t go in and out of style, but the cut or shape might not necessarily be super trendy, but the wearer still looks great in them.

    • Diana Barry :

      I always think of frumpy as permanently stuck in one particular style, about 20-30 years out of date. Like mom jeans + 80s perm, for example.

    • SteelCityMagnolia :

      This. Thank you.

      Wearing trends because they are the latest trend even if they don’t work for your particular style or body type is the fastest ticket to Frumpville.

  5. I think layering necklaces is style so long as the necklaces themselves are in style. The pictured layering of chunky necklaces is old fashioned but still stylish. The trendy way of layering necklaces that I am seeing now is to layer very small, delicate necklaces.

    For glasses, I have been warned that thick black frames are no longer in style (horror!). My newest glasses are thick but a medium blue. I get compliments but sometimes can’t help feeling like an 8 year old wearing kiddie glasses.

  6. I avoid things that are only “stylish” because they are “in” right now. Very dark nails will go in and out of trend, but a red lip (done well) has been a great look since my grandparents were young.

    Skinny jeans and ankle pants look terrible on me, so I pretty much owned two pairs of slacks for about five years.

    On the other hand, dark green looks good on me and I’ve always loved it, so I’ll pick up a few pieces this season and, um, just hope that it doesn’t look “so 2016” when I wear it over the next several years.

    But I read this s-te because I am chronically unfashionable. :)

  7. I am bothered by the trend of thinking normal, healthy, natural and instinctual reactions by teen boys should be shamed. How they treat women is one thing, whether they think about it all the time, another.

  8. Wildkitten :

    I need boots to wear with jeans to casual work this fall. Is the Frye Melissa still a good choice?

    • Wildkitten :

      Also I live in DC not NYC/LA so… I have flexibility for “on trend.” And the Melissa is currently only $115 on Amazon.

      • The price might be a sign it’s on it’s way out? That said, those are high quality boots. I’d grab them at $115. Especially if they can be returned (if they don’t fit right).

        • Stephanie :

          Maybe I’m wrong, but the Melissa is going to last you for years, through the ups and downs of various trends. It’s hard to say no to $115.

      • Whaaa…? Where? Looking on Amazon, nothing under $250!

    • Anonymous :

      I would go with ankle boots instead.

      I think boots like this are starting to look a bit dated.

  9. Anonymous2 :

    What’s acceptably on-trend for boots for work? I have black ankle boots that I wear under pants but I see people wearing them with black tights and dresses – is that ok? And I also have tall leather boots with a block heel and buckle trim and a pair of black suede with no trim. Are those still in style with dresses or not?

    • TO Lawyer :

      Booties are more in style now than knee high boots, but I wear knee high boots all the time in the winter because it’s cold. Booties + tights + dresses sounds cute and stylish (depending on the individual items of course)

    • pugsnbourbon :

      I wear ankle boots, tights and skirts or dresses all the time. My fleece tights are even warmer than some of my pants.

  10. Anon for this :

    Not really looking for advice, just commiseration. Longtime friend approached me late last week and confessed that he had feelings for me. We spent a whirlwind weekend together and now, five fr*ckin’ days later, he’s conveniently moonwalking out of the commitment he was so quick to make.

    I get that he showed me his true colors, but I am crushed that I’m not only losing a partner, but a friend with whom I was very close. I am feeling very stupid right now.

    • Anonymous :

      Sounds like you’ve dodged a bullet. It stinks but it’s good to know that this is who he is.

    • Nancy Raygun :

      Jesus, sorry. That sounds awful. And I agree that you’ve dodged a major bullet. Give yourself some time to morn the loss of your friend and potential partner.

    • Ouch! Just when you need a friend to support you after the relationship turned out to be a fling, he isn’t there for you. Take care of yourself!
      Ps–MyFitnessPal just told me that a glass of champagne has as much potassium as half a banana, and Godiva dark chocolate has 2g of iron. In case you were wondering.

  11. I was on the hunt for booties this season and someone mentioned the rag + bone sullivan. I just want to say, these are so cute and very much sold out. My heart is in mourning.

    • It was me! Check eBay. I found another pair there.

    • I just bought the Frye Sacha Moto bootie in Fawn and I am in love with them. Like dragged them out of the closet to make my friends look at them when it was too hot to wear them in love. They are adorbs. And sosososo comfortable. Got them on Amazon for $199.

  12. I think this is a bit like the definition of obsc&nity: you just know it when you see it. I have a friend who rocksa a lot of granny styles a la block heels, loose coats, silk scarves and pins, but she pulls it off beautifully because it suits her and she manages to do it without looking conservative, frumpy or old fashioned by mixing in very modern and tailored elements. So e.g., “grandma” heels but a perfectly tailored dress and very modern structural jewelry. Or jeans, a fisherman sweater and a vintage silk scarf tied around her purse.

    I think trendy is almost never stylish. I’d sort of compare it to the Kardashians vs. someone like Alexa Chung. And stylish always needs to be a bit personal/individual – there has to be something that is somewhat incongruent in your look. It’s the reason that bare face and red lipstick looks so good and a full face of heavy makeup looks like you’re a Real Housewife of Whatever. Sort of like being s*xy means leaving something to the imagination; legs or boobs but not both.

    I don’t think that style ever crosses over into frump; wearing dated trends head to toe past their expiration date does but I’d say that was never really stylish to begin with. It’s why right now all the cute, stylish young women in the city are wearing mom jeans with bodysuits and the (not so stylish) moms are wearing skinnies with knee high boots and drapey tunic sweaters .

    • Is she in shape? When I was younger and gravity had not yet worked on me and I weighed 40 lbs less, I could wear all kinds of things. Some of my favorites were things that looked frumpy on the hanger. These days, with my lumpy body (not hating, I’ve done a lot of great things with this body, but my tummy and butt objectively resemble a bowlful of jelly and a bag of soggy pancakes) avoiding frump takes a lot more effort. I have to find a sweet spot between the extremes of things that look frumpy on the hanger and the latest looks as shown for teens/twenty-somethings. I don’t think anyone has mentioned body on here, because it could sound like you’re shaming people, but honestly, that’s what I think frump comes down to. You can look not pulled together with a bangin’ body, but I doubt the result would be frumpy.

    • I was just thinking of this this morning. So much of looking either stylish or trendy is just based on how attractive (and, young) a person is. I noticed it because there was an elderly woman wearing black leggings, a chambray shirt, and micro necklace, and solely because she was old, rather than young and fit, did it look “schlubby” rather than “instagrammy”.

  13. I think frumpy has much more to do with unflattering/not well cared-for clothing and less with how “trendy” clothing is. Someone who puts care into choosing quality clothing that fits well won’t look frumpy. Someone who joins in a trend that’s not suitable for their figure will absolutely look frumpy. The people whose style I like the most are the ones who know how to dress their bodies well. Trends are just meant to get us back into the store to shop.

    Vamp nail polish goes out of style over my dead body.

    Speaking of bodies, I’m over the body-shaming of #teacherbae and women in general. Strictly saying she should pay more attention to clothing fit is one thing, but reasoning that it’s too suggestive is another.

    Men (including developing boys) will think dirty thoughts about women wearing anything from bikinis to footed pajamas- it’s really not in our control. However, demanding that we’re treated well regardless of whether we’re wearing footed pajamas or bikinis is within our control.

  14. SteelCityMagnolia :

    Things I think are frumpy: Unkempt, unironed, head to toe trends, head to toe labels. Anything that screams “Look at me!” If it needs constant adjusting or tugging. If it’s skin-tight and showing every bulge and line. Faded and worn out. Too long, too short, too big, too small. Wearing a trend because it’s the latest trend even though it does not work for you.

    Trends are fine to wear – the trick as I was taught was to just add one or two of them to a wardrobe build on classic pieces. And to never, ever pay full-price for a trend piece. And some trends become classics. Dark nail polish is becoming more of a classic look. Chunky, dark-framed glasses I think have always had a classic look (I just got new frames, and while the heavy, dark frame look does not work well for me, 90% of the frames available were the chunky, dark frames.) The Frye Melissa boot is a classic. You’ll wear that forever. I think booties will be a classic look for years to come because they are so versatile and comfortable. Skinny jeans? Probably a trend that will go away because not everyone can pull off the skinny jean look. Brooches? Classic. How you wear them is a trend (more than one at a time? Trend. One gorgeous brooch on a suit lapel? Always a classic look.) Huge, chunky necklaces? A trend that seems to keep resurrecting itself every few years, so it may as well become a classic. Red lipstick? Always, always a classic.

    As for women paying attention to how their clothes fit, I wish the somebody would introduce the women on our local TV news to their correct dress sizes. Our weather girl wears dresses so tight that she looks shrink-wrapped. A few others can barely walk across the set because their skirts are so tight. The Miss-a Wiggins look/walk is NOT flattering!

  15. Clarification: Rene Russo in the Thomas Crown Affair is wearing a bustier dress with a shirt under it.

    I love her clothes in that movie, and would die to find the motorcycle boots she wore when they broke into his house.

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