A Scientist’s View of Style


After reading a post on Already Pretty about whether style is an art or science, I was intriguied by a comment of Kristophine’s, and asked her to write me a post from the perspective of an actual scientist – I hope you find it interesting a perspective as I do!

How To Shop Like a Scientist by Kristophine

I am a geek. A big, raging, Star Trek-loving, Asimov-reading, robot-hugging geek. This may have caused or resulted from or in some other way been related to my inability as a teenager to dress myself. I constantly wore clothing that was nowhere near my size. For me, the biggest problem was pants: I wore pants of whatever size I encountered, with no thought for fit. I didn’t know how they were supposed to fit. I assumed that if they didn’t fall off or give me wedgies, that was good enough. I bitterly resented fashionable girls who always looked put-together. It was, from my perspective, an unbridgeable divide.
The revelation came at Macy’s in San Francisco. I tried on a pair of pants in the summer after my senior year of high school. They were a radically different size than anything in my wardrobe, and they fit better than any pants I’d ever worn before.
The next few years involved a process of slowly refining and winnowing—figuring out what in my closet worked for me, and what didn’t. During the same period of time, I went from believing that I was hopeless at math and science to discovering that I could, and would, totally rock at both of them. Science wasn’t some scary monolithic institution run by stern men in white coats, squinting at test tubes and standing by machines that go beep. Science was, in fact, a vital part of many of the fields I studied, from the obvious (Chemistry and Biology) to the less so (Linguistics and Psychology). Science has applications in every aspect of our lives. And, as I started to become a better and better scientist, I also began to apply the things I learned in science classes to my clothing choices. Not in the sense of color wheels, etc.—the ladies at Academichic do a fine job of that—but in a more basic sense.
So what is science, if it’s not all about men running cute little white mice through mazes? Science is a process. You probably had to hear about it in seventh grade: theory, hypothesis, test, lather, rinse, repeat as needed. You start with a theory—a way that you think things are, based on your previous experience. You create a hypothesis, which must be falsifiable: you must be able to demonstrate, with your testing, if you are wrong. (Freud, as great as he was, didn’t like falsifiable hypotheses—which is a big part of why modern psychologists aren’t required to read him.) You conduct a test. Then, based on the results of that test, you’ve gathered evidence that is confirmatory, disconfirmatory, or inconclusive. (You have never, ever, ever proved something. “Proved” doesn’t happen in science. You can provide decades of confirmatory evidence, you can have a theory that you would literally bet your life on, but you do not prove things. Ever. It’s a one-word fallacy.)
It’s the process behind most of the medications, plastics, and electronics on the market today. It’s the process that made your television, your microwave, your cellphone, and your vaccination against polio and smallpox possible. It’s what keeps women from dying of childbed fever, and it’s how we made polyester.
And you can make this process work for you.
1. Set up your expectations for a piece of clothing.
In science, this is where you come up with “operational definitions.” As an example, let’s say I want to study mating behaviors in human beings. (Always a popular field!) The first thing I’d have to do is define what I mean by “mating behaviors.” Is giving somebody your phone number a mating behavior? Or do I only want to count smooches? You wouldn’t respect a scientist if their operational definitions were muddy; you would know, intuitively, that the muddier the definition, the more room there is for fudging the unvarnished truth. Don’t expect less from yourself. Clearly define what you want an article of clothing to do for you.
2. Define your budget.
If you think scientists don’t work on a budget, you’ve been watching too much Eureka. (Hah! Just kidding. There’s no such thing as too much Eureka.) We know, when we go to write a grant application, that we’d better have a very good argument as to why we should get that money, and not Sally in Genetics down the hall. You should be able to make the same kind of argument. How much money do you have, total? How big a share of that money is this purchase? If you want to buy a shirt, why that shirt and not some other shirt? Why not a skirt? Do you need that shirt? Why? Is it for your job? Do you have an upcoming event? How many times do you envision wearing it? Is it a durable fabric? Grant committees like proposals that give them the biggest bang for their buck—multi-use equipment, for example—and so should you.
3. Hypothesize.
So, from steps 1 and 2, you know you want a such-and-such, and you know about what you’re prepared to spend for it. Before you look at merchandise, you already have a long history with clothing. You’ve worn lots of it. You’ve probably liked at least some of it. You have, whether you know it or not, a theory about what looks good on you, and as you browse, you’ll look more closely at pieces that catch your eye. Often, it will be because these pieces resemble others that you know you like, whether in color or cut. You may find yourself gravitating toward something unusual for you. Don’t worry so much, at this stage, where the appeal is coming from. Your brain has a lot of things to process at any given time, and it may not feel like giving you a flashing neon explanation of what it is about that dress that it thinks is nice. Just trust yourself, try it on, and freak out as needed.
4. Test.
There’s only way to test whether a piece of clothing will look good on you: try it on. Apply your operational definitions here. And do it stringently. You want it to fill a gap. Does it do that? Be completely honest with yourself. If you went in looking for a navy pencil skirt and this is a gray wool jumper, you do not need it—definitely not right now. You want it to look good on you. You should already have defined “look good,” and you should have that definition somewhere in mind while you look at yourself. Does it fit over your breasts? It should be a smooth line: no gaps or bagging between buttons, no pulling or straining, no (dare I say it?) double-boobing. What about your waist? You probably have one. Does this garment make a realistic presentation of it? Again, there should be no straining, but there should also be no tent-like hanging. Your body is awesome. Don’t punish yourself for your perceived flaws by burying yourself in unflattering fabric.
Don’t talk yourself into buying something that doesn’t fit, no matter how great the fabric is or how close it is to what you kind of almost wanted. If you’re standing in front of the mirror fidgeting with seams and tugging at it for more than about thirty seconds, this is not the article of clothing you were hoping for. Dump it.
Scientists have to do this all the time—we have to relinquish a theory that was beautiful and concise, a theory that we loved, because the evidence just doesn’t support it. When I came to grips with that, I got a lot better at leaving behind clothing that I loved but that just didn’t fit me right. And beware the instinct to get something with the belief that you’ll mend it later. Unless you can tell me in three seconds where your needle and thread is, whether you have the right color of thread, and what your plan of attack is, that piece of clothing is going to languish in a guilty, unloved heap. Possibly for years.
5. Modify your theory, if necessary.
So maybe that shade of mustard-yellow that the magazines are hawking this season doesn’t work for you. Well, you learned something, and all it cost you was the time to try it on, and maybe a little bit of your dignity. Laugh and move on.
The beauty of science is that, in the end, because it is unsparing and uncompromising, it slowly uncovers more and more of the truth. You can harness that power in your clothing decisions if, and only if, you are willing to be uncompromising with yourself. You need to be able to say, and stick to, the mantra, “I already have clothing with which to cover myself. I want clothing that I love.”
Another beautiful thing is that you can apply these same concepts, this same demand for stringent restrictions, to the other areas of your wardrobe. You can use this to decide what to get rid of. Try things on. Look at them. Consider not only your unvarnished emotional reaction to them, but also the way that they interact with all the other pieces in your wardrobe. Periodically have a dress-up day where you try on new acquisitions with old favorites, and include some combinations that seem totally off-the-wall. They may not work, but you’ll be learning. It’s worth mentioning that every new clothing acquisition exponentially, not linearly, increases your outfit options. (I would blather about factorials and draw a “wardrobe web,” but I think you get the point.) I don’t say they’ll all be good options, but you won’t know until you try.
Anybody can be a scientist—all it takes is the process.
Check out Kristophine’s blog Science Fiction Style.


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  • Great reading! My daughter is a scientist, and yes she knows how it goes in the scientific world, but buying clothes/or anything else for herself, is a very emotional experience, and even with all the knowledge she has, I think that she finally lets her inner her to decide what/if to purchase something. I think that this is only human.

  • This is awesome! I tried to think of how being an analyst affects my shopping – and I realized I use spreadsheets. Perhaps this holds true to all professions! 🙂

  • I love this post! I'm a scientist, and this has made me realise where I was applying this kind of thinking to what I wear, and where I could also benefit from applying it (as in, what do I really need?)

    Your blog just keeps getting better! And I've subscribed to Kristophine's blog now, too!

  • awesome post! I love doing things scientifically but I never really thought about my shopping process in scientific terms.

    Should apply as well to my wardrobe clean out that I've set up for the weekend.

  • I love this analysis! Even though I am an artist, I have a methodical approach to how I work and it makes a lot of sense to approach fashion this way!

  • So happy I'm not the only trekkie that can have a hard time getting dressed sometimes . . . : ) Love the 'scientist's view'.

  • Wonderful post. Thank you.

    Without all the scientific background, I recently made a similar decision.

    In his book Van Gogh Blues, Eric Maisel puts forward the concept that the depression that artists deal with is different than other forms of depression in that it's caught up in making meaning. He suggests that instead of asking what does my art mean, that the artist define it in advance by stating my art means _____ and then create with that mindset.

    Three weeks ago, I retired from a career in the arts and after twenty years, I am returning to fashion sewing – something I'm very good at, love, and have missed.

    I've often heard myself ask "what's the point" in relation to my art and to fashion sewing (I am dressed) which is exactly what Eric is talking about.

    I want to really enjoy the process of creating garments as a form of entertainment, self expression, and creativity and have decided to define those objectives in advance and then enjoy the journey.

    It is purely for entertainment with the (possible) bonus of clothing to wear. I will only keep pieces that fit and flatter and make me feel amazing. The rest can move along.

    To find those pieces, I'll need to sew and try a lot on and analyze their affect. That makes my process very similar to what is described in the post with – if you love to create fashions – the entertainment factor included which to me is win-win.

    – Myrna


  • Nice post – this is pretty much my own method…not a surprise to me since I'm mentally a scientist (not by trade, though my dad was).

    However, I can see that I don't do enough pure science/experimentation with the reagents that I have. Got to do that more.

    PS, husband (computer geek) and I love Eureka. 🙂

  • I'm a mathematician. My shopping thing is getting distracted and/or excited about the compounding percentages off when things are on sale. It drives me nuts when a clerk says "It's 50% off and today we have an additional 20% off, so that's 70% off!" Um, no, it isn't.

    The really good part about being a mathematician is that we CAN prove things. 🙂

  • This article speaks to me in spades, especially because I'm a bit (a bit? maybe 8 bits) of a geek/bookworm.

    For the longest time I took a very utilitarian approach to clothes: anything that wasn't inconvenient, hard to launder, or uncomfortable was automatically wearable.

    I love the way you structured your advice, because the scientific method is very clear and understandable for me, and I'll remember the advice because using the scientific method is an excellent metaphor. 🙂

    Most of your advice is more psychological than practical, but I like it this way. Right now, it's important for me to change the mindset of how I buy clothes and how I refresh my wardrobe…

  • Kristophe: and don't forget peer review: you may love it but if your trusted friends say it makes your butt look big, maybe it does.

  • I love you guys! So many things in these comments that make me giggle/happy!

    @ metscan: I have definitely been in the logical thinking/emotional buying place. My problem was always that I was TOO emotional about buying; I didn't leave any room at all for logic in my decisions. I think I felt that it would be betraying the spirit of shopping, or something.

    @ Sal: Thank you so much! I saw myself in your round-up, and it made me so happy!

    @ Duchesse: So true! I can only say 😀 😀 😀

    And Eureka is totally the cutest sci-fi cliche parade show ever. I watch it while squealing with glee.

  • That's so cool, Kristophine. Love the approach to selecting the best stuff. Love your name! Wish I could go back and rename my daughter! LOVE IT!

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