A witty but acerbic arbiter of fashion once suggested that you can learn tricks to develop style, but taste is something you’re either born with or you’re not.
I disagree. There are principles of good taste that can be learned and adapted. One way is to educate yourself about the elements of visual harmony found in good art, the kind that has withstood the test of time. It’s worth perusing art books to develop an eye for it. You’ll start seeing how the juxtaposition of colors and components in a painting or sculpture bring balance to the piece as a whole without upstaging each other. People with good taste seem to know this intuitively and apply it to what they wear.
In fashion, something that expresses that tasteful harmony doesn’t have to shout or flaunt to get attention. It combines reserve, refinement, and quality with a strong dose of personality. Truman Capote’s “swans” (Nan Kempner, Gloria Guinness and Slim Keith among them) were prime examples of women who did that well.
Carolina Herrera is a contemporary example. The way she styles her iconic white blouses are the definition of tastefulness and chic.
Although neutrals make up a large portion of a tasteful wardrobe, color, worn strategically, can also be tasteful. Just make sure that the colors of your clothing harmonize with each other and with that of your own coloring in terms of their temperature (the amount of warmth or coolness, or yellow or blue undertone) and value (the degree of lightness and/or depth you can wear.)
Tasteful dressing can appear very casual and even effortless, but it’s never sloppy or badly wrinkled. Linen, of course, gets a pass since wrinkles are its pedigree, after all. Speaking of textiles, although there are some great synthetics and synthetic blends available these days, many with a hefty price tag at that, natural fibers or fabrics with a majority of natural fibers are still considered a better choice. Polyester doesn’t scream “good taste.” Also, the hand (the way it feels against your skin) and the structure of the textile should complement your personal “essence.” The same is true for prints. They should enhance who you are and not eclipse you.
The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize. – Clairee Belcher, Steel Magnolias
As for tasteful accessories, they may be bold or refined, but unless you’re wearing multiples of one type (bracelets or necklaces, e.g.) they shouldn’t be numerous. You’re not likely to see someone with good taste wearing big earrings, an oversize handbag, and a huge cocktail ring worn together. In fact, a really tasteful outfit can become just a backdrop for one or a grouping of spectacular accessories.
Good Fit = Good Taste
And, of course, good fit might just be the most essential element of good taste. Anything that’s too tight, too revealing, or too big isn’t considered tasteful. In that sense, tastefulness is something that is also “in good taste.” Proportion is equally important. In fact, designer Donna Karan felt it was the hardest thing to get right. For example, if you are wearing something intentionally large on the top of your body, you’ll look more visually balanced and harmonious by wearing something fitted on the bottom and vice versa. That’s where the artistic idea of visual balance comes in again.
Just don’t mistake good taste for playing it safe. Tastemakers all have a unique image. That image often includes something out of the ordinary, or slightly quirky that speaks of their unique brand.
But, still, as former Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland once said, “I don’t mind bad taste. A little bad taste is like paprika. It’s no taste that I abhor.”
No doubt Vreeland would have loved Dolly Parton, who although has violated multiple rules of taste, has always done it with intention. As Dolly puts it: “Know who you are and do it on purpose.”