As many of my long-time readers may recall, I did a deep-dive into the Kibbe style system a while ago on the blog. At the time, I really enjoyed looking at the nuances of the system, and exploring the ideas through the lens of modern-day sewing patterns. However, many comments on those posts and general contention over that system on the internet at large left me thinking about how a system that doesn’t work for everyone (or isn’t allowed to be adapted to fit everyone) is maybe not the best system. So when I saw a recommendation for this book about Individual Style (either on the Miss Celie’s Pants blog or on her Instagram stories… I can’t remember which), I knew I had to check it out. While I think there are aspects of Kibbe’s style typing that still have merit, I think that The Triumph of Individual Style takes the underlying concepts a bit further and really creates a style “system” that will work for anyone.
The Triumph of Individual Style is a style-guide book that uses the concepts employed in fine art to analyze the lines, colors, shapes, and textures of the body, and provides recommendations based on reader’s individual results. What makes this system unique is that it really breaks down the body analysis into very detailed and specific component parts, using drawing, paintings, and sculptures to illustrate its concepts. While other systems seem to emphasize looking for an “overall” shape or appearance, and therefore try to get everyone to fit inside of a pre-designated box, this book emphasizes that nearly all aspects of an individual’s appearance can be a mix of lines, body shapes, or textures, which is precisely what makes everyone, well, individual.
The book starts by going through the properties of line, specifically the appearance of line in the face and body. It looks at the difference between skeletal, moulded, or muscular body types, and blends of these lines in a body, as well as how straight, curved, vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines give shape to the face. Unlike other systems, rather than using the overall combination of these lines to put you in a category, the book simply tells you to echo the lines you see in your body in your clothing. For example, if you have skeletal shoulders, but moulded hips, you would use straighter lines and stiffer fabric on your bodice, but softer shapes and fabrics on your lower half.
To discuss the body’s basic shape, the book uses a similar system to the one that the Big4 pattern companies employed for a long time – rectangle, oval, figure eight, hourglass, triangle, and inverted triangle. As with the chapter on line, the general understanding is to follow the shape of the body with the shape of the garment, however, the book does go on with ideas of how to mimic other body shapes using the illusion provided by clothing. Of course, I think this would have been easier in the 80s styles that they use as examples; modern clothing really does seem to have lost a lot of the structural elements the book recommends if the desire is to try and create the optical illusion of having a different body type. One important idea that this book presented that I hadn’t seen anywhere else was the idea that a body could be different types from the front and the back. I think I found this particularly interesting because my back has always been more of an hourglass, whereas my front is clearly a triangle. The book discusses how to combine recommendations for each type to create an overall look that is harmonious with the entire body shape.
The next major topic of the book is regarding length proportions. It discusses visual length ratios that are pleasing to the eye (the golden ratio as an example), and how we can mimic these in the creation of outfits. It also shows how to determine if a body has short or long legs, rise, or waists, and how these features can be visually balanced using other parts of the outfit. Why do I love the way 3/4 length sleeves look on me? I didn’t really know before, but apparently it visually balances out short legs! The book also spends a lot of time discussing first and second balance points, relative to the face, and how these can be used to determine optimal necklines or necklace lengths.
To add a bit more detail into the mix, the book’s next chapter looks at “body particulars,” which are things like square shoulders, full bosom or derrière, or full calves and arms. This section in particular felt very relatable as a person who sews, because it’s basically acknowledging that all of the adjustments we make on patterns are normal body proportions that have been around hundreds of years. The really great thing about this chapter is that is gives you ideas for how to either camouflage or highlight these areas of the body. For example, I’m not a personal fan of my upper arms, but I don’t mind showing off my protruding breast bone, so I might want something with fuller sleeves, but perhaps a draped open cowl neckline.
The next section about the bone size and apparent scale is where the book seems to more concerned about an overall appearance rather than looking at combining different components. The book shows examples of small, medium, large, and extra large facial features, and discusses how to replicate the scale of these features in elements of a garment to create an overall harmonious appearance. This seems to be particularly important in regards to jewelry, hair, and accessories.
The next major component of style as discussed by the book is personal coloring. It discusses pigment color theory, the concept of cool vs. warm colors, but also relative cool vs. warm colors within a category (for example, turquoise is a warmer blue than indigo). It goes through the important aspects of color – hue, temperature, value, and resonance (ie, washed, tinted, shaded, toasted, or muted colors) and the effects these different treatments of colors can produce. Next the book walks you through using their color charts to identify tones in your skin, hair, and eyes. Unlike other color systems I have seen, the book encourages you to pick out multiple colors for each category (for example, if you have dark brown hair with some grey in it, both the dark brown and the light silver would be part of your color palette). The book also encourages you to look for as many colors (even subtle ones) as you can, so that you have a bit more to work with in terms of understanding color harmonies and contrast. The book also discusses what it calls “personal intensity” and how that might also impact the types of colors a person feels good wearing. I find this very interesting because there are some people who write a lot about color systems on the internet and this idea of “personal intensity” might help explain why some people look good in higher contrast colors than might be expected by their personal coloring.
Finally, the book looks at a body’s texture qualities, mainly focusing on the skin and hair, and how this can be echoed in the fabric choices of the individual. The book wraps up by talking about the four stages of creativity (preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification) and the different types of wardrobes that can be created using this principle. The book says there are basically two ways to approach this sort of wardrobe creation – either by making one-look outfits, or by using the adaptable basics approach, which is the recommendation of the book. For the adaptable basics, the recommendations are pretty minimal (suit jackets, sweaters, blouses, under tops, suit skirts, trousers, dresses, coats, and jackets) and instead focuses on having a larger collection of accessories to be able to dress these items up or down. While I would argue that this is maybe not exactly how people are typically dressing in the 2020s (as opposed to the 1980s), the idea of having a bunch of mixable basics that can go to the office, theatre, or grocery store just by changing jewelry or shoes is definitely in keeping with the minimalism trends of recent years.
In general, I think this might be one of the most versatile style systems I have read about, because it’s not exactly a system. It’s simply training your eye to see things they way an artist sees them – in terms of line, color, texture, contrast, etc. and applying that in considering and forming your own sense of style. I think this book also showcases more diversity (especially considering the time period in which it was written) than any of the other style books I’ve read from that time period. The book especially cautions against using any sort of color system that types all people of darker skin tones as “winters” because it ignores so much about individual coloring and the relationships of those colors in the body. The book also showcases global art from multiple cultures to explain its concepts of line, color, and texture. As such, it might feel like a more inclusive type of style book than many of the others that are commonly referenced from the period of the 1950s-1990s.
I will say that while racial diversity is both highlighted and celebrated in the book, it does use very gendered language and focuses on what is typically described as the female form. While I would argue that the system itself does not need to be gender-specific in that way (there’s no reason you couldn’t apply the concepts of line, color, and texture to any body type to understand how to construct an individually tailored wardrobe), the book does not showcase or address these features for anything other than what it term as a woman’s form. Also, I would say that the introduction and conclusion get a bit spiritual about life and the idea of beauty. I think the general message of body-positivity and self-acceptance are good, but the specific language being utilized in these sections is very dated and might be a bit cringe-worthy to anyone who is used to more modern vernacular.
And, since I did do a deep dive of the Kibbe system, and reviewed his book as well, I thought it would be good to do a comparison of the systems here. I would say that Kibbe’s system is a bit more typical in that he is trying to fit you into a category, and then has a bunch of recommendations based on where you fall. As such, it’s helpful because it provides a lot more specifics in terms of what to look for in terms of garment styles, prints, etc. when building up a wardrobe. However, if you can’t figure out which image ID is yours, it can be a difficult or confusing. Conversely, while The Triumph of Individual Style utilizes categories throughout the book, you can belong to multiple, even within the same segment! It also doesn’t try to impose any sort of style image onto you based on your body shape; there is no stereotype of “boho for naturals” and “punk rock for Flamboyant Gamines” possible with the Triumph approach because it doesn’t discuss specific garments or aesthetics at all in that way. It simply gives you new tools to let you examine your own shape, and understand how or why certain elements will work when they are then incorporated in your clothing. While I would argue that the underlying principles of both systems (looking at straight vs. curved lines) and the ultimate goals of both systems (creating a unique body-positive sense of style) are the same, the direction the two books go couldn’t be more different. Kibbe encourages the idea of the one-look head-to-toe outfit, The Triumph of Individual Style definitely argues against it. Both books tend to get a bit flowery in the introduction and conclusion, and both certainly have some language that dates them to the times in which they were written, but I think both have valuable insight to offer readers who want to look beyond some of the surface 80s-ness of the publications. In general, I would say that if you felt that Kibbe’s (or another well established) style system really worked for you and you liked his approach, or if you really want someone to give you a list of clothes to looks for when planning out a wardrobe, then that system is probably a quicker translation into a finished wardrobe. I think that The Triumph of Individual Style would be a nice addition to help you perhaps refine the another style system’s recommendations a bit, or perhaps give you some more detailed insight on styling using the principle of balance points and proportion. However, if you find that other style systems drive you crazy because you don’t really fit into any of the boxes and they are far too restrictive in their recommendations, then The Triumph of Individual Style might be the perfect system for you. It really gives you the freedom to do anything you want, but also the tools to make informed choices while doing so, so that you don’t spend as much time and money on experiments or style-induced wadders. It won’t be the perfect system for someone who wants help generating a shopping list to take with them immediately upon finishing the book, but it is perfect for anyone who rolls their eyes at the ubiquity of the camel colored trench coat in modern style guide recommendations.
Overall, I think this is a really unique and interesting style book, and it’s a valuable addition to a sewing resource library. Even though many of the clothing styles used as examples feel very dated, the underlying concepts and principles discussed in the book will never go out of fashion since they are the same principles that govern the foundation of art. While there is a crazy high book price on the Amazon secondary market at the moment, it would definitely be worth trying to find in a library or perhaps at another secondhand book outlet. I feel like I was able to gain some valuable personal insight from this book that just wouldn’t have been possible in any other style recommendation system. I also think I have a lot better understanding about the way that line, color, and texture can work together in a garment to create harmony in the overall look of an outfit. It is giving me a more individualized look at some of the recommendations made in other style systems and appreciate why certain recommendations work and others don’t. Recently, I have been posting in my Pattern Reviews if the garment works are part of the Kibbe recommendations, but in the future I think I will ask, “Is it a triumph of individual style?”