I used to think having style was about how one appeared to others, something that extroverts needed to know about, not nerdy introverts like myself. However, style is more than just fashion, it’s the total way we express our inner being outwardly, whether it be clothes, accessories, speech or how we carry ourselves. Strangely enough, I only started to realize the importance of style after spending some time alone, backpacking in the wilderness.
While solo hiking a section of the John Muir Trail a few years back, I came across a snowfield which obscured the trail and I made the classic mistake of asking someone else where the trail was. Two exhausted hours later I found myself off-trail, disoriented (the word has less finality than lost) and summiting Donahue peak (12,023 feet) with a full pack instead of hiking leisurely through the Pass. However, I remembered to do all the correct things, stifling a rising feeling of panic by sitting down, rehydrating, eating a snack and getting re-oriented. The point of the story is that, at the end of the day I felt that, despite my initial foolishness, I had extricated myself from a difficult situation in a way that matched or exceeded my self-image. On this occasion at least, I had acted with style.
On another occasion I broke one of my climbing poles on a multi-day backpacking trip. There was, of course, always the option of leaving it where it broke or burying it in the ground. Nobody would know and I wouldn’t have the hassle of schlepping an awkwardly shaped worthless piece of metal around the High Sierras. However, I knew I could not do this as I have always followed the ‘leave no trace’ wilderness ethic, so schlepp the worthless piece of metal I did. At the time I never thought of this having anything to do with style, but on reflection it has everything to do with it. Part of having style is having a generalized code of ethics that guides our actions in particular cases. This is what enables one to act confidently and decisively in a variety of circumstances without having to think through all the issues before every difficult choice.
Of course style can also have something to do with clothes and gear but again, not in the strict fashion sense that most people associate with the word. For example, most experienced backpackers believe you should stow all your gear inside your pack rather than having things hanging on the outside. Packing all your gear away leads to both economy of motion and thought, as there is no need to worry about anything catching as one walks. Having style, in this case, has to do with being functional. In the wilderness a piece of gear or clothing is stylish largely to the extent that it functions well.
The closer one gets to civilization the looser becomes the attachment of style to function. Meet someone in the wilderness and what you see tends to be what you get. In civilization, it is much easier, using the trappings of affluence, to convey an impression of who we would like to be rather than who we actually are. However, as most of us know, it doesn’t take too long to figure out whether someone is really what they appear to be. Sooner or later something always gives away the truth. Knowing that style has its roots in function, which is related to authenticity, should help us remember that wisdom lies more in working to make oneself closer to one’s ideal, than in manipulating one’s environment to bring it into alignment with one’s vision of the ideal.
“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” Gore Vidal