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On Styling Tricks

On Styling Tricks


While I was visiting my parents over the holidays, I spent an evening flipping through an old Better Homes & Gardens decorating book, published in the early ‘80s, that I loved as a child. Suddenly, all the styling tricks were apparent to me: aside from the fact that every room had track lighting and a ficus tree, someone had gone in and added transient details to make the rooms look “lived in” before photographing them: an open bottle of wine or obscure European liqueur and two empty glasses on the living room coffee table; a bowl of green apples or several freshly washed heads of cabbage on the kitchen island. (The above is an actual image from the book.)

I could be wrong, but I don’t think the concept of the “stylist” rose to cultural prominence until the 21st century.

Partially aided by celebrity reality shows (oxymoron?), fashion stylists like Rachel Zoe and Kate Young became celebrities in their own right. Too, we have food stylists—the people who stick sesame seeds one by one with tweezers onto a hamburger bun, or arrange corn flakes on a spoonful of Elmer’s glue (real milk looks grayish-blue instead of white on film).


J. Crew catalogs have a whole world of styling tricks as well: long sleeves are always rolled up in such a way that the bottom of the cuff sticks out in a flourish of just-so sprezzatura; there’s always a strand of loose hair pulled the wrong way across a model’s forehead, like she’s been caught in a cross-breeze (this latter trick is so irritatingly consistent it feels fetishistic, like retail bukkake).

The point of all these styling tricks is to create the illusion that you have a personal style – that even though you shop from a popular catalog, you “make it your own.” I’ve been thinking about style in terms of writing, too—when you’re editing a manuscript, you become aware of your own “styling tricks” (something close to what, in the past, I’ve called “moves”). When making cuts, you question which poems and parts of poems are necessary to the whole. And it seems to me that a large part of what we interpret as style has to do with which unnecessary bits the writer chooses to keep—or, conversely, the types of unnecessary, or not strictly necessary, details the writer adds in the first place.

In fiction, one of the most clichéd styling tricks is the auditory detail used to create, paradoxically, a sense of quietude and a melancholy atmosphere: most classically, a dog barking in the distance, to the point that this now feels automatically fictive, and I was vaguely disturbed last year to see a news story about the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine include such a detail. At this point, dogs barking in fiction must be self-aware dogs. Note how Elizabeth McCracken subverts the trick in the short story “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey,” from her wonderful recent collection Thunderstruck:

Somewhere, a dog barked. No, it didn’t. Only in novels did you catch such a break, a hollow in your stomach answered by some far-off dog making an unanswered dog-call. Dogs were not allowed at Drake’s Landing. Still, surely, somewhere in the world a dog was barking, a cat was hissing, a parrot with an unkind recently deceased owner was saying something inappropriate to an animal shelter volunteer.

It’s in the nature of tricks that they only work for so long; through repeated viewings you begin to see the sleight of hand. So barking dogs are a no-go, we’ll soon need a new way to roll our cuffs, and my mother hates her track lighting.

Elisa Gabbert
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About The Author

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013) and The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2010). She lives in Denver.

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