It is important to mention that even though style essences are closely linked to and take into account personality and temperament, they are not a personality analysis. Style essences are primarily concerned with a harmonious image as it pertains to physical features.
In other words, style essence analysis determines which clothing styles flatter you and which ones break with your natural lines. Let's understand how this works.
I. What Are Style Essences?
Have you ever noticed that some people look effortlessly sexy in a tight dress? And others look incredibly cool in skinny jeans and leather jacket? Some people look fierce and others look totally innocent. All of these descriptions are style essences.
A person's style essences describe their looks or what kind of beauty they communicate - because there isn't just one type of beauty. Beauty comes in many facets, and each style essence portrays a different aspect. Depending on the style essences you have, certain looks will emphasise and bring out that kind of beauty in you.
And there is a simple reason for this: clothing that follows the natural lines of your body and face (your overall appearance) will look harmonious on you. Whereas clothing that doesn’t respect your lines will look disharmonious or odd.
So we could also say that style essences or style identities are the natural lines and shapes of your face and body repeated in clothing. This is not to be confused with the traditional ‘fruit’ body shape theory. That theory is concerned with achieving symmetry in your silhouette. Style essences are about repeating the natural lines of your body in your clothing to achieve a harmonious look.
To demonstrate this better, let’s look at an example:
This is when Beyoncé wears her lines. She looks stunning and her clothes look like they're part of her.
And this is Beyoncé when her clothes don't respect her natural lines:
This is not a question about how beautiful Beyoncé is. It’s simply about how much she looks like herself in clothing that follows the natural lines of her body vs. clothing that doesn’t and therefore looks odd or separate from her.
Beyoncé's look is sexy. It's what her physical appearance communicates. So any clothing that does not portray this kind of style will look odd on her.
Let’s look at another example:
Above Lady Gaga when she respects her lines and below Lady Gaga when she doesn't:
Again, this isn’t about beauty. It is simply about the kind of clothing that looks harmonious on Lady Gaga (unconventional perhaps, but that’s just Lady Gaga). The point is that the clothes don’t look separate from her. The flouncy dresses might potentially fare better on Beyoncé, but they don’t work on Lady Gaga at all. She doesn’t look like herself in them, and she looks separated from her clothes. In contrast, the oversized, straight-cut garments that look so foreign on Beyoncé compliment Lady Gaga beautifully.
And that makes sense because Beyonce’s body and face are curvy and soft, there are no straight lines or harsh edges. Consequently, straight clothing breaks up her feminine roundness - it's like trying to fit a square into a circle.
With Lady Gaga it's the other way round. Her appearance is more angular and straight with sharper edges. Clothing with round shapes and soft silhouettes won't fall nicely on her, as she doesn't have the curves to fill them. Lady Gaga's natural appearance doesn't communicate sexy or girly. It communicates boldness and intensity. That's what makes the suits look powerful on her.
Both ladies are beautiful, but they look their best and like themselves when they wear their lines.
II. Yin & Yang: The Foundation of Style Essences
Most style essence theories are rooted in the ancient Tao principle of yin and yang. The most prominent style theory in this line of history is arguably David Kibbe’s archetype system.
But the history of style essences can be traced as far back as the 1920s when Belle Northrup at Columbia Teacher’s College first described how yin and yang pertain to a range of personalities and the natural world.
By midcentury, two professors of textile and design, Grace Margaret Morton (1930s) and Harriet Tilden McJimsey (1940s) refined the theory, each developing their own ideas of style and colour essences.
In the 1960s, style essences in their current form were last updated by John Kitchener, Director of Personal Style Counselors. He recorded a total of seven style essences, including two which he discovered himself.
And finally, in the 1980s, David Kibbe published his famous book Metamorphosis, an all-encompassing system comprising a total of thirteen style archetypes.
The principle of yin and yang
So how does the principle of yin and yang translate into fashion? The definitions of yin and yang vary slightly from theory to theory, but they essentially have the following meanings:
Yin: small, delicate, round, soft, gentle, flowing, light, low-contrast, graceful, youthful
Yang: large, angular, long, striking, dark, high-contrast, strong/firm, dignified, powerful, sophisticated, poised
The shapes that best represent yin and yang are the circle and the square, respectively. In geometry, these are the two most extreme shapes. If an object resembles the square shape, it will be straight with sharp edges. A rounded object, on the other hand, will be similar to the circle shape with no edges at all. And between those two extremes lie variations.
Based on this principle, yang shapes are more angular and feature sharp edges, whereas yin shapes tend to be more rounded and soft. So some people have sharper appearances, while others appear rounder.
If we go back to our examples, we could say that Beyoncé has predominantly yin qualities in her appearance, and Lady Gaga has yang qualities. Beyoncé's appearance is softer and rounder, and Lady Gaga's is sharper and more angular.
The same goes for clothing. Clothing lines can be sharp and angular, and they can be soft and flowing with all kinds of variations in-between.
A quick note on yin and yang
If we boil down the principle of yin and yang to its essence, it could be interpreted as femininity and masculinity.
Sadly, owing to perceived beauty standards and expectations in some societies, having masculine characteristics as a woman is often equated with not being beautiful (and likewise in men, masculinity is preferable). A lot of societies see femininity in a woman as equivalent to beauty.
However, it is important to point out that no style theory based on the yin/yang principle is trying to reinforce this view. On the contrary, these theories try to show us that beauty can only be achieved through clothing that respects our natural features, which in turn creates a beautiful harmony. Note the difference: neither is more beautiful than the other. Each is most beautiful in their own style.
And therefore be aware that the principles of yin and yang in all style theories are always laid out positively and never to be interpreted negatively. Yang does not mean manly and aggressive, but strong, poised, majestic and dignified, and yin does not mean naive and weak, but gentle, mild, and delicate. Yang is powerful, yin is alluring. Both are incredibly beautiful.
III. The Kibbe Archetype System & Its Limitations
Ever since its introduction in the 1980s, Kibbe’s archetype system has been hugely popular. The system is based on the yin/yang principle and features variations of style essences, which are referred to as archetypes or image IDs.
The system comprises five pure archetypes (style essences in their pure forms) and eight archetypes which are mixtures of the pure types, creating a total of thirteen style archetypes:
Kibbe’s system is great, and many people love it because it's comprehensive and claims to be complete. Where Kibbe broke with the tradition was in the fact that he designed his system in an all-encompassing way. So in theory, everyone should belong to one - and only one - of the thirteen archetypes. However, not everyone does. Let’s take a look at why that is.
Since Beyoncé has soft yin qualities, she is classed as a Romantic in Kibbe’s system. And here is another Kibbe Romantic: Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn had yin qualities too, without a doubt. Just like Beyoncé, she had soft, round features and a voluptuous, curvy body. Consequently, she looked amazing in dresses that showed off her curves.
However, part of Marilyn’s allure was her innocence. And while she was certainly sexy, she also retained a youthful, innocent quality in adulthood.
Marilyn looks cute here. The whimsical design of the clothes doesn't look odd on her, and she doesn't look like a woman dressed in children's clothing.
If we now take a look at Beyoncé in similar playful lines, we don’t get quite the same effect.
When Beyoncé tries to be cute, it doesn’t really work. Beyoncé looks like herself when she is sexy, not cute. She doesn’t have that playful quality that Marilyn had.
But Marilyn can pull off both looks. And this is where the Kibbe system pushes at its boundaries. Since an individual can only be one of the Kibbe archetypes, Marilyn would simply be a Romantic, and we would have never gotten to see her play to her cute side.
So the problem with the Kibbe archetype system is its inflexibility when it comes to mixtures of the pure essences. And more importantly, the system misses two pure style essences (one of which is the Ingenue essence, which gives Marilyn her youthful look).
IV. An Open Approach to Style Essences
Other style theories embrace a more open approach to style essences. John Kitchener argues that most individuals are a blend of multiple style essences. In fact, when he types individuals, he will present them with a percentage for each of their essences.
Outside of the Kibbe system, we count seven pure style essences:
As we have seen earlier, Kibbe’s system covers five of them. Kitchener adds two yin essences: the Ingenue and the Angelic style essence.
So if we go back to our examples, Beyoncé would still be a Romantic in Kitchener’s books. But Marilyn would be a blend of Romantic and Ingenue.
For the most part, Kibbe’s archetype descriptions fall in line with Kitchener’s. The two additional essences are variations of yin qualities. The youthful essence is a cute, playful essence, and the angelic essence is the most yin essence of them all. It has an almost ethereal otherworldliness to it.
In the next article, we will look at each style essence in more detail.
If you want to explore wardrobe building then learn more about how to build a capsule wardrobe here.