06 July 2014

On Inspiration & Identity

Inspirational display in downtown LA // Personal Picture

After reading Amanda's latest blog post on curating and jumping on bandwagons, I wondered about inspiration, where our tastes and aesthetics come from - more broadly, what affects our life choices. Does inspiration build our identity, or does imitating other people or keeping up with the Joneses make us drift away from who we really are?

When I was a child, I admired one of my aunts. The one who lived in the UK, was so smart and elegant, and sent me packages full of the Body Shop products for my birthday. I liked her simple style of clean lines, black, white and gray. I liked her simple silver jewelry. I liked that she was a vegetarian and commited to acting for the environment and her health. I spent a few months with her when I was 18 to refine my English skills, and she is the one who introduced me to the Body Shop, Muji, GAP, and beauty brands I'm still using like Clinique for example.

I clearly was inspired by her in many ways, and a lot of the choices I made, part of my style, and most of my favourite shops, were introduced to me by her. Does it mean I am an imitation, or is it a part of who I am now? That is the kind of question I asked myself when I was an identity searching young adult.

Another example of my own inspirations dates back to 2011, when I completely changed my style and built it back from the ground. At the time, I started by following a lot of fashion blogs - I somehow thought these bloggers were style experts, which I now doubt for most. After a few months, I discovered the wardrobe editing movement, mainly through the former blogger Dead Fleurette. And I have to admit, a lot of my style canvas is deeply inspired from that simplification/wardrobe curating blogosphere (I mean, taupe suede ankle boots anyone? I didn't buy the Dickers, but still...)

Three years later, I think my blog pictures and Instagram feed look a lot like what Amanda describes in the aformentioned blog post - clean line, wood, black, white and nice flower bouquets, French Press, striped shirts... Even  though I don't buy much from high end brands, I'd say my overall aesthetics does have a bit of a Kinfolk air sometimes. Does it mean I am a sheep and that's not really me? What part does inspiration play to who we are?

This "Mirror Neurons" Thing

I am no neuroscientist, so the topic will remain quite superficial here, but from what I understand, we humans are wired to learn by imitation. These mirror neurons of ours make us observe and reproduce actions and behaviours from other human beings - to learn how they did it and learn the skill for ourselves. I guess that's also a way to integrate in a social group.

I have a very practical example of this: my violin lessons. My teacher shows me how to play by playing the piece himself, then I imitate him. Sometimes, we play together, simultaneously. When I don't quite catch something he wants to teach me, he shows me. I watch and learn.

I'm thinking, it's probably the same for everything, not only manual skills. Children learn language by listening to their parents. We learn to say hello, thank you, goodbye, because our parents say it in front of us (on top of punishing us if we don't, that is). Maybe, as a child, I learned how adults are by imitating my aunt. Maybe I figured out my new style by imitating a selection of bloggers I liked, as I had no knowledge of my own on the matter at the time.

Even artists imitate. They reproduce masterpieces to learn the trade. Good writers read a lot of books and take inspiration from the writing styles they like most. I'm sure this is true of any kind of art or craftmanship.

On Choosing Sources of Inspiration

Now, the question I'm asking myself is, where does the imitation/inspiration stop, and where does our own identity start? If our tastes and life choices (this job over that, this holidays location...) are based on inspiration, how can we be sure to be "ourselves"?

Jess recently wrote about cultural capital, and, even though it is not the main subject of this article, reminds that a lot of our choices and purchases depend on our social group's cultural capital, and we forge an image - who we want to be, or who we want to be seen as - through the brands we buy from and the knowledge we expose. But what I'm wondering is, if this conspicuous consumption is about showing off and belonging, where is our "self" in this? Does this become who we are, or is it a social mask? How can inspiration lead to building who we are?

I think this comes down to the choices we make. There are a lot of sources of inspirations out there, but we choose who or what we are inspired by, and from these people, we choose which elements to take inspiration from. And I think this choice is what makes us who we are.

To illustrate on the personal examples above - I chose to be inspired by this aunt and not another member of my family. My sister for example, was inspired by a completely different person in her young years. Funnily enough, my aunt and I have a very similar personality, and my sister's inspirational figure has a similar personality to hers as well. And I don't think our personalities have been molded by our inspirational figures, I think that, on the contrary, we have been inspired by these people because they had a similar personality as ours in the first place.

The style and blogosphere example above is the same. Between March and June 2011, I followed many fashion blogs, and I had a very wide range of choices from which I could take inspiration. At first, I wasn't into wardrobe simplification at all, my initial goal was only to find a style I could feel "myself" in. But I discovered the "minimalist fashion bloggers", I felt drawn to this simplification project and I chose to take inspiration from this movement rather than another. I chose my source of inspiration.

The Patchwork of our Identity

In the end, I believe what makes us who we are is this patchwork of inspirations we select here and there and put together in a unique way. The motivations for picking this element and not another are ours, and stem from our own taste and personality.

Sure, some choices are related to wanting to belong, to compensating a low self esteem, and, at some periods of our life, we imitate and search ourselves. I think that, as we grow, discover ourselves and evolve, we get less and less influenced by standards and bandwagons, and create more and more our own patchwork. But in the meantime, the influences that work on us, the bandwagons we choose to jump on, already tell something about who we are.

Again, to go back to my two examples of inspirations - as I became a young adult, when I compared my tastes and choices with my aunt's, I realized I had grown into myself, I don't always agree with her, I don't like everything she likes. In the end, we still do have a lot in common, but my identity has grown into something else.

Same for style inspirations. I have "minimalist fashion blogger" elements, the taupe suede ankle boots, the striped tops, the khaki jacket, the mini cross body bag... But I also have reintroduced pieces from my other inspirations - silver and natural stone jewerly from my "ethnic/exotic" taste, leather jackets from my "goth" years... In the end, my current style has its own unique elements from various inspirations, reinterpreted and patchworked together to become "mine".

My Current Take on Inspiration

I still have sources of inspiration, we all have. I didn't suddenly become a transcendental being who invents things ex nihilo. I probably have just as many sources of inspiration as I used to, and as many as you do. After all, it is human to be inspired, and learn from imitation. For example, one of the only famous French fashion bloggers I still more or less follow is Coline, and I know that I'm inspired by her jewelry collection and natural beauty routine.

As my identity became stronger and more defined, I am more aware of which elements inspire me and why. I know my own details and preferences, I know my ethics and values, I know my tastes and priorities, and I know how to integrate these inspirational elements into who I am. And I'm not only talking about style or material aesthetics here, I am talking about political choices, life choices as well.

I still have a long way to go, as we keep evolving until the day we die, but I think that inspirations are a way to know ourselves better, and I feel much more confident with my choices now, and much more immune to criticism. I don't like it anymore than the next guy, and I sometimes get hurt too, but since I know myself better, I stand behind my choices, so if someone doesn't like it, I'm better equipped to defend my opinion, and also to not care that they don't agree.

In a way, I wonder if being aware of our sources of inspiration, of the motivations that make us choose this option over that one, isn't a way to strengthen our identity and self confidence, of being more at ease with who we are.

The reflection here has gone further than initially planned when I started writing this post, but I really believe that what makes us strong and confident is to admit that we imitate other people sometimes, that we take inspiration from various sources, to be honest with ourselves and other people, understand and stand behind our choices.

To wrap up this long post, here is a TED talk about difficult choices and how they forge who we are. There is no talk of inspiration here, but I think the idea is linked to what I talked about above: what we choose to be inspired by forges who we are:
Ruth Chang - How to Make Hard Choices


  1. I feel like, if we're inspired to imitate something, it's most likely because we liked it to begin with. I know with the whole minimalist fashion blog thing, I was very inspired by another blogger whose blog is sadly gone; checked out all the brands she was buying, products she was using, clothes she liked. Practically all of them ended up being things I don't exactly care for now that I have a better idea of how I want my own "minimalist fashion blog" dressing to go, but just like when you begin anything, the imitation is a starting point to develop your own skill/style/etc.

    Right now I'm naturally still inspired by others, but I also have a strong idea of what I like for itself, and what I like because I'm seeing it everywhere, or on someone I admire. In any case, it seems to me its tiny differences that make people individuals, rather than what particular group they can be classified in.

    1. It's so interesting, this idea that imitation is a starting point to develop your own self (skill, preferences, aethetics...) I find it to be so true from my own experience in various life areas. Your inspiration from minimalist fashion bloggers seems similar to mine - I also started off discovering this specific blogosphere, following a small selection of bloggers I liked the writing and style of, and checked out the brands they recommended, their "uniform" and they way they curated their wardrobe. And as I "learned" on that subject - trying on outfits and seeing what works and what doesn't with my own body shape and taste, discovered brands, made some trial and error experiments, I refined my own approach to style and to my wardrobe, as you say.

      The only thing is, I wonder if we aren't vulnerable when we are at the imitation stage though, easier to influence.Still on the topic of minimalist fashion blogging, I remember reading a forum thread on the subject, started by an angry commenter who found this "minimalist approach" was fake and hypocrit. After a few exchanges I realized that the real reason for that anger stemmed from the fact that this reader had bought an APC shirt, imitating one of these bloggers, and ended up realizing it didn't work for herself. And she was angry at the money wasted.

      I have myself bought an APC sweater some time ago, during that "imitation and searching" phase, and I'm not wearing it anymore either. I'm not angy myself, as I think this is the kind of necessary mistakes that guided me to my own style and "signature" now, but I can understand that vulnerability, and how it can be frustrating when you are starting to move from imitation to your own thing. Hopefully the reader in questions isn't angry anymore and learned something about her style in the end.

  2. This is bit of a random comment, but I was just wondering whether you'd like to at some point make a food related post. I know you've done something like that already and don't know if anyone else would be interested in it, but I'd sure love to read about your thoughts on food, daily/seasonal food habits and so on. Just a suggestion :)

    1. Thanks for the suggestion! I'm definitely open to thinking about topics that interest readers. I think I already wrote about food indeed, but if that's something of interest I can think of follow-up posts, if I find an interesting angle to explore. I'll keep that in the corner of my mind and put something together once I have an idea.

  3. I think for me (and maybe for you too), the stark, minimalist aesthetic that's currently popular just happens to align with what I like anyway. I think we've talked before about how much I looked up to my mother as a child, and to this day I still prefer the same things she did. For clothes: darker, neutral colours, pants instead of dresses, not much makeup or jewelry. Our whole house was wood and white paint growing up (we had decorations, of course, but you get the point). She also had a friend who was very similar to her, except this friend was a little more outlandish in her decorating style. I loved her friend, but her house always felt overwhelming to me. So I think I was more naturally drawn to my mother's aesthetic instead of her friend's.

    I remember about six or seven years ago when the "boho" look was in and it was all about flowy skirts and patterns and tunics and knee-high boots and belting things. I was awful at that. I never felt comfortable. Up until then I would dabble in trends as they appeared, but when the boho thing hit, I bought the first Oxford shirt of my wardrobe and I've pretty much not looked back since then.

    So now that this "borrowed from the boys," minimalist fashion is popular, I've had a much easier time. It feels comfortable, and feels like something I've been used to for a long time. That helps me feel confident that it's really me, and I'm not just giving into inspiration without analyzing it. If boho comes back, I'm going to stand my ground this time!

    1. I see exactly what you mean! It is true that I seem to find more of what I like within the "trends" of these days, like striped shirts, oxford shoes, peacoats etc. I've been wondering at some point whether I was following the trend or whether it is the trend that happens to correspond to me better, and I think the way I feel (comfortable, at ease) when I dress like that proves that it is the latter.

      I think your inspiration from your mother is probably similar to mine with my aunt. I loved her simple interior with white walls, wooden staircases and real fireplaces, I loved her simple, slightly tomboy black, white and gray style with simple silver jewelry. And I did feel more at ease in her environment than I ever felt in my own family house, too traditional and cluttered to my taste.

      As far as following past trends go - as your boho example - I don't remember following trends full on. I bought some items that were similar to other people, like the Converse or denim jacket, but I feel my style has always more or less been a way to "identify myself", or to belong in a group, when I was a young adult that is - I had goth years for example.

      I think that my style now kind of encompasses all these facets of my personality, as if I had borrowed and integrated little details from past preferences. The basis is, as you say, this type of tomboy aesthetics which makes things so much easier for both of us these days. But, as I felt more comfident, I started adding elements from past styles too - like past "selves", more than past trends though. Leather jackets from the goth days, silver & natural stone jewerly from my "ethnic" days... That's very interesting really, how knowing myself and my own basis better allowed to go back to older preferences. If it makes any sense...

  4. I liken "imitation" to dipping your toe in, testing the waters. When you feel confident, you take off on your own path.

    You also are less afraid of being judged.

    1. Yes, I guess imitation is a way to get started, dip into something, make experiments. As you say, with more confidence and knowledge about whatever you were imitating, it's time to carve one's own path. I agree with you. I guess it's also a way to help getting more confident on the long run.

  5. This post reminded me of my first year of university, arguing with my sociology lecturer that advertising in no way influenced what I bought. I was pretty adamant that there was no way to prove I liked the current gypsy skirt trend because I'd seen it in a magazine! In hindsight, he was probably right, at least a little bit. But I still like that style and it is most definitely not in fashion anymore, so why has my personal taste not changed with advertising coming from even more directions? It's an interesting idea to think about. I grew up with an artist for a mother so was always surrounded by a very different style of people to my friends, which I think has greatly contributed to my current love of bright colours. Minimalism has always been something I'd love to achieve, but it just seems so far out of reach for someone who is instinctively drawn to colours and sequins and crazy patterns.

    I remember once as a teenager deciding after a particularly inspiring episode of 'What Not To Wear' that my mother's flowy 'artsy' clothes had to go and we spent all night going through her wardrobe and pulling all of the crazy clothes out. She ended up left with just one outfit for us to go to shopping in the next day. Some of her old style has slowly creeped back into her wardrobe but she now also has a great selection of clothes that really suit her and that can be worn to any social occasion. I think the arty clothes she wears now are much more statement pieces, rather than just piling everything on like Edina Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous!

    1. My hypothesis about this argument you had with that teacher, is that advertising does influence us all, but only with things that we are drawn to. Maybe it is because you first saw it in a magazine that you started to like gypsy skirts, but maybe if it had been an ad for sneakers instead you wouldn't have been influenced.

      What I mean here is yes, advertising, and magazines, and blogs, and people in the street, influence us in some ways, but we are only influenced by what attracts us in the first place. Maybe that's why you keep liking gypsy skirts long after people stopped advertising about it. And I think that's how we create our patchwork of identity: by picking up things we are drawn to and reinterpreting it within our own mix and taste.