Not Just for the Red Carpet: Stylists Considered Broadly

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MM. George Clooney, David Oyeolowo and Jake Gyllenhaal, fully styled / via
MM. George Clooney, David Oyeolowo and
Jake Gyllenhaal, fully styled / via

For several years  you’ve been hearing about Hollywood stylists and their increasing hold on the red-carpet look during awards season. So it goes in high gear now that the Oscar nominations are out and the February 22nd big night is drawing ominously nearer.

Only a few weeks ago, The New York Times’s fashion Galahad, Guy Trebay, called attention to the male actors turning to wardrobe helpers for advice—and you can’t stop yourself from thinking the actors are turning to them for solace as well. Trebay quotes Calvin Klein’s men’s wear creative director Italo Zucchelli:

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If you think about it, there wasn’t one actor 15 years ago that had a stylist, but nobody moves a finger today without a stylist.

Or, apparently, puts on a glove.

So that’s Hollywood: Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ethan Hawke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bradley Cooper and whoever else might show up as People Magazine’s sexiest man of the year. They’re down with a contemporary status requirement. You can almost hear the exchange between a client of theirs encountering the client of a competitor:

First celebrity stylist’s actor: Say, Ethan, who picked that out for you?

Second celebrity stylist’s actor (pointing to another stylist): She did. Whatsa matter, Channing? You don’t like it? If I was you, I wouldn’t talk, considering what you got on your back.

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First celebrity stylist’s actor: Lookit, Ethan, my stylist can beat up your stylist any day of the week?

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Second celebrity stylist’s actor: Oh, yeah, Channing. You wanna lay odds on it?

But what about the rest of us women and men? To begin with, few of us this side of the Koch brothers, Charles and David, could afford to keep a stylist haunting designers ateliers. Maybe even fewer of us would want such scouts billing us monthly.

My evidence is what I see in front of me as I travel the streets. I don’t see too many people who look as if they’ve been prepared for a walk, or to walk their dog, by a stylist. Whereas Ilaria Urbinati, a celebrity stylist whom Trebay quotes, avers, “If you see a picture of [my A-list clients] out walking their dog, chances are I picked out the hat and the pants.”

Well, that’s all right for them and their $20 million-and-up salaries per film, but the huge majority of us go buy for, and dress, ourselves without benefit of stylist. (Note: There’s no judgment here about who would be better off with such a retainer and who wouldn’t.)

Or at least this is what I was thinking as the very baroque 21st-century subject played on my mind. Then I got to thinking further and realized many of do have our in-house stylist. We’ve had them since birth.

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That’s right: Parents.

Mothers, more often than not, have told us what to wear from the time we were old enough to dress ourselves. They were the ones, of course, who up until then dressed us in what they thought we should wear. When we were infants and toddlers, we were often clothed in gifts from family and friends. For many of us who weren’t first-borns, we were styled in hand-me-downs.

Parents—also including grandparents—weren’t the only ones dictating style. Whatever was happening in the society was influencing our style, too. To put it another way, while I, as a columnist, insist fashion isn’t style, I have to concede that too often fashion passes for style and the larger majority of us merely follow along with it out of disinterest, laziness or both.

As we mature, new stylists enter our lives: our peers. Peer pressure takes charge. Lovers begin to have a powerful say. Sometimes we even subjugate ourselves to their sway. If a partner gives us a sweater as a gift that he or she obviously likes, we wear it whether we’re as taken with it as he or she is.

Yup, we’ve been styled—by parents, partners and society.

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Of course, sometimes society goes too far. There are, needless to acknowledge, nations where religious laws decide what the current—and abiding—style must be. Look at cultures where women are expected to cover their hair. Notice their only bows to style are modest hijab decorations.

Or come back home and consider Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech. Take into account not only what he wore but what most of the men in the room wore: blue suits, white shirts and ties of either subdued patterns or solid colors. There was the President orating in his uniform while Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, sat behind him in theirs.

The lesson is that while the men may have their political and philosophical differences, there is one symbolic way in which they absolutely concur. Their tacitly agreed-upon dress code, their style, announces that in some underlying way they choose to be more alike than different.

And there you have it. We should probably concede that all of us have our conforming stylists, but, getting back to male actors, its sort of the ultimate conformity. On Oscar night, their well-paid apparel cherry pickers may outfit them in tuxedos from Giorgio Armani or Ermenegildo Zegno or Burberry or Dolce and Gabbana, but when they trot down the red carpet, they’re going to look pretty much alike to observers other than themselves and their preening stylists.

And the same goes for the women whose stylists are undoubtedly racing around fashion houses even as you read this to find the bestest gown they can—the one Kathy Griffin will kvell the loudest over. Yet, because of whatever is in the 2015 zeitgeist, these winners, eventual losers and those ignored for this year’s awards, will also look like each other in—is that one-shoulder shmatte faaaabulous, or is it sooooo last decade?

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Maybe the very name “stylist” is incorrect. Maybe the name they should answer to is “fashionist.”