Throw away the magazines and develop your own style

Just when I get around to replacing those comfy, baggy jeans with something called a "boot cut," along come the fashion mavens to tell me I'm already out of style. Jeez, why don't clothes come with an expiration date, like bread or yogurt? Instead of "best by such-and-such a date," the label could read, "Warning: Wearing after October 2006 exposes you to the risk of fashionista ridicule."

Seems like comfortable pants--you know, the ones that allow us to sit without splitting a seam--are out, and "slim" is the newest thing, or the newest old thing. I have a foggy recollection of skintight pants from another lifetime, along with leggings, which, I'm told, are also making a comeback.

So this fall and winter, we can look forward to a visual feast replete with women of all shapes and sizes sporting the "pencil" look.

And heaven knows there is little as pleasing to one's aesthetic sensibilities as standing in a supermarket line behind a woman as wide as she is tall wearing leggings with those endearing creases around the knee. What could be more attractive than watching gravity work its inevitable pull to create wrinkles mirroring the fleshy ones around the neck, arms, ankles and assorted body parts? No matter what fictions women's magazines spin, current fashions--whatever they are--and real bodies don't usually work well together.

This would not matter if women would muster the gumption to reject fashion dogma and instead opt to wear clothing that complements their figures rather than making them look like makeover material. But as long as being stylish carries cultural cache, too many of us are willing to dump the old for the new.

Besides the visual travesty of size 14 bodies wearing clothing designed for size two anorexics, fashion is fundamentally boring. Some piece of clothing may be the "newest" thing, but how much fun is it if everyone is wearing one more iteration of the same item? Except for variation in color and material, being "in style" is akin to wearing a uniform.

Instead of sporting the latest cocaine-induced vision of some effete designer laboring light years away from the world of real women, we would be much smarter if we let common sense and individual taste (not to mention body size) inform our clothing decisions. I'm convinced none of us can claim to be truly "liberated" unless and until we develop our own personal style. Until then, we're doomed to be little more than walking ads without the sandwich boards.

Cultivating a unique look that both flatters and reflects our individuality may be daunting for those of us cowed into believing that unless we clutch the latest fashion craze to our bosom, we are certain to end up friendless outcasts. Though the process may be difficult, it is not impossible.

The first step may be the hardest: believing in our own grown-up ability to dress ourselves by placing our trust in the mirror rather than in some mass-market magazine. This may be easier to do if we remind ourselves of most women's magazines' hidden agenda: to reinforce our insecurities.

The unspoken message in the cleverly spun copy is always the same: Without the help of some self-ordained fashion gurus, we are forever doomed to a life of shlumphood. But we can escape this fate if we reject the arduous task of developing our own sense of style and instead take the effortless route of doing what we're told.

Which means, among other things, wearing this month's lipstick color--or this year's hem length or pant style or what have you--makes you an OK person, while wearing anything else labels you suspect and eligible for placement on some watch list.

The truth is we don't all look good in pink or short skirts or tight pants, but we can all look as good as possible if we spend the necessary time figuring out for ourselves what works and what doesn't for our shape, size and skin tone. And let us not forget age. There is little as ridiculous as seeing a 50-something decked out in clothing from the junior department.

Once you work up the confidence to toss the magazines in favor of your intuitive sense of what works, you may enjoy an experience similar to one I had, quite serendipitously, the day I began work on this column. Hurrying through a checkout line at the market, a young clerk said, "I like your style." When this happens, what will make it sweet is knowing it's yours.