Style is many things, but the thing that it most probably is not is appearances. This statement is not a clever paradox.
Mention style, and most people will think of clothes. It is true that if you wear electric-blue suits stitched in brown and have on white socks and a patterned silk shirt you are dressed in a certain style. But it is not style.
Other people will connect the idea of style with writing. To be sure, if you write sentences filled with complex subordinations and honed parallelism or with a string of simple declarations, you are writing in a certain style. But it probably has no style.
And there are those who will refer the concept of style to architecture. Thus, a rich man’s home may have Ionic columns as a preface to the Georgian façade of a building with mansard roof, but this jumble of established styles will hardly assure that the architecture has style.
If style is not what is popularly thought to be style, what is it? Style is not to be confused with a style. A given style always involves external appearance; style always entails interior reality, a kind of Platonic absolute.
A particular architecture, a particular way of putting one’s words together, a certain type of dress – these are all manifestations of a personal attitude about oneself: I would like this type of house, that kind of writing, and this mode of dress to tell you that I am the kind of person that I think I would like you to believe that I am. This is sometimes known as putting the cart before the horse.
Style is not something that you put on last, on the outside, to create that final impression of whatever it is you imagine you wish to convey. Style is essence, inextricable and inseparable essence. Style springs organically from the deepest sources of one’s being; style is as unique an attribute of a person as a fingerprint or DNA, if not nearly as universal. For though everybody has a style, few have style.
Above all style is concinnity, a species of harmony. Only when the outer expression is truly consistent with the inner substance does the possibility for style exist. I would cite two examples. The farmer plowing his field and dressed in dirty overalls is on the right track; the graduate student in a humanities seminar who wears dirty overalls is a pretentious fake. The bureaucrat trying to explain in a foolishly cranked up Graeco-Latin English why employs should return from lunch on time is merely fashionable; the child scribbling his monosyllabic affirmation of love for a mother and father is closer to style.
It should be noted, finally, that style indicates a sense of self-assurance and a realistic assessment of one’s worth; an adventitious style, on the other hand, is more often than not a sign of uncertainty and dangerous delusions about self and society.
What has been said above about style in the case of individuals applies also to style with reference to institutions and society at large.
That should give us all pause.