finding your life aesthetic

Posted on August 31st, 2012

A few weeks ago I was in Vienna for a day, as part of a 38-hour haul from Greece to Denmark. And I had a great realisation.

When I’m in a new city I get enveloped by the aesthetic – the hair, the shoes, the subtle mannerisms, the turns of phrases – and find myself wanting to covet it, while feeling overwhelmingly lacklustre in my own “rustic” get-up.

This lady was very “Vienna”. She was very much thrown when I asked to photograph her with her al-foil doggie bag.

It’s an evolutionary thing. When you find yourself standing out from the mob, you get a survivalist urge to “buy into” the dominant vibe.

It’s a travel thing. The smells, sights and accents all feel so evocative. You get swept up in the new.

Well. I almost did, there in Vienna. Then I got a grip of myself. Vienna’s a good place for this.

At first I did my usual. I looked at the prim men in their crisp striped shirts and dapper spectacles with their neat hands and expensive tan moccasins. And the women with their curt little plimsolls and small limbs and cardigans tied over little shoulders and the contained way they sip at their coffees and peck at their pastries. I got absorbed by the way the quirky girl who I stopped to ask for “the best café to sit in for a few hours” blinked tightly as she answered me, with her bright fuchsia lipstick. And her kooky Mary-Janes.

I imagined their nice, tidy, un-dusty lives, listening to Mozart, eating strudel, sitting in parks and talking with their smart friends.

And I suddenly felt grubby and rustic and unkempt and big and clumsy.

If I were a buying type I’d dash off to the nearest Benetton and get me a cerise pullover. Instead I just stare and compare.

In France I want a good scrub and a striped red and white boat-neck tee. And to know how to eat a salad without flicking oil on myself.

In New York, I want to walk down cobblestone streets in black stilettos. And read important books in loft apartments.

It’s a travel thing. I have friends who come back from Bali with fringed dresses.

The quaint-yet-supremely-dour Cafe Pruckel in Vienna

But in Vienna it was different. I stopped and realised that while this aesthetic fascinated, it wasn’t me. Respect to all Austrian’s out there, but I find Vienna mild. I might even say dour. I sat on a step and felt what I felt. It was a depression. I can’t do mildness. I have friends who love mild climates, and soft colour palates, and pretty landscapes and subtle, refined cultures. My mum, for example, likes places like Vienna.

I’d just come from Greece, of course. The contrast was stark and telling. In Austria, there are pretty fields with clipped borders, lovely buildings, neat town squares, precise (but dour) cafes. It’s pretty and the aesthetic has appeal, but…but…even when the sun is out the sky feels so very close. That’s what makes me feel depressed.

By contrast, in Greece (and Spain and the south of France) I was so comfortable. The heat, the dust, the dryness, the way I could put me feet up at the table, eat with my fingers, double dip, hitch a ride, go into a taverna’s kitchen to chat to the chef for an hour and ride my motorbike without a helmet if I want. No rules.

Cote D’Azur: on a hot walk around the cap

The way I could wear a bikini top, a singlet and my green shorts and thongs every day. And not wash my hair – just let the salt build things up into a rather workable style.

And the sky…it goes forever.

This I realised was my aesthetic. I’ve had it for years of course. I just haven’t accepted it. I lived in Melbourne for almost seven years. I love the place, but the flatness, the cold, the insideness…it doesn’t make my heart soar. And I’m just not very fashion.

My aesthetic, I realised, while I sat on the step, will never be prim and neat and sleek and blow-dried and all “Donna Karen” and well behaved. I will never be bejewelled or made up or able to keep my sneakers clean.

I’m dusty and ….brown.

I walk into a room and within minutes I’ve mucked it up and made it… not messy…always practical and functional…but rarely pretty and polished. I don’t know how to blow-dry my own hair. I colour in my grey hairs with mascara if I have to.

I can pull off the polished look and do tidy when I have to. And I’ve always had to – for shoots in magazines, work in TV etc.

But like a chef who takes off her apron at the end of the day, I unpeel this polished aesthetic.

Not an astounding realisation. But a sound one, especially as I’m touring about looking for my next home, my tribe, where I belong. I think I’m getting closer.

Sometimes you have to work out what you are not to get closer to who you are.

Have you found your aesthetic? Struggle to accept it?

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  • Svasti

    Self-acceptance has so many layers! I am like this, too. A little unkempt. Not for me the pristine home with everything looking all zen and minimalist-like. Sure, I don’t own a lot of stuff and I don’t want to, but what stuff I do have? You’re going to see it.

    My kitchen is practical and tidy, but its clearly a working kitchen, not one for a magazine photoshoot. Same with my house, my hair, the way I dress.

    I live in Melbourne right now and I know what you mean. This city that so many others love, depresses me at times. Too concretey. Too cold. Too staid, despite all the hipsters.

    I don’t think its a bad thing. I know we women are supposed to vainly want to look the prettiest, have the nicest clothes and homes and so on. But I like things… a little rough around the edges. A little dusty and off-beat. :)


  • Natalia

    Wow, you’ve been posting some amazing stuff. I’m starting to feel like a stalker but I have to comment on this. This really hit home with me. Just like you accepted your aesthetic, I had to learn to accept my way of being. I always felt a little down when I watched very put together women with their makeup perfectly done walk down the street. I would wow to be that like that, go buy all the stuff and clothes only to go back to my usual comfortable gear. I’ve accepted that this isn’t who I’m. Nothing wrong with either as far as I’m concerned but I seem to be missing the primp gene. This still makes my mom very sad sometimes. I’m much happier running around in shorts and tank top than strutting in a pair of stilettos. Believe me, I tried many time but it never worked. I used to think that I wasn’t feminine if I didn’t nice cutesy outfits with perfectly done hair and makeup; however, my opinion changed. I realized that it’s possible to be very feminine and adventurous regardless of what we wear. Great post Sarah!


  • Jess @ Sparow + Sea

    I suppose this explains why the clothes one buys when traveling never seem quite so great when you get home again!

    I have this feeling too. But not even just when traveling. Sometimes I go to parties or functions here, and as usual have put on the appropriate garb put still feel out of place. And for a little while, I feel envy that I don’t pull off polished glamour effortlessly, like (seemingly) all the other intimidatingly gorgeous creatures at said function. And I start to wish that I was the girl who had lovely finger nails and who got her hair trimmed at regular intervals and who was always on top of her eyebrow grooming…

    So then it is always a relief when, after a while, the initial pang of envy gives way to the realisation that i don’t actually *want* that. Like you said, it’s easy to get caught up in an aesthetic when you feel you’re the odd one out. But it is oh-so-liberating to realise that you are slowly discovering (or is it just accepting?) who you are and who you are not.


  • Jane

    My favourite line – “I colour in my grey hairs with mascara if I have to.”
    At 40 I feel more comfortable in my own skin than ever, it’s so freeing to be yourself. I thought of you last weekend when a friend sent me a link to a Brene Brown talk on TED.
    Brene has a PHD in vulnerability, literally. She says it is the birthplace of creativity and innovation.

    Love your vulnerability…


  • Mia Bluegirl

    How hilarious – I am the exact opposite in that I find vast skies oppressive! :) I’ve always lived in Perth but the Mediterranean climate freaks me out sometimes. The sky is… huge. Too huge and endless. I’d rather be indoors, snuggled in blankets, covered and deep. Needless to say, I adored Austria.

    Maybe its an Ayurveda thing. Kapha, maybe? Does it have something to do with being petrified of heights but more comfortable deep sea diving than on land, I wonder.

    I got called “proper” by an American the other day, as in posh, which unsettled me – til I remembered that I cover my tattoos for work, I match my high heels with my scarf/ lipstick/ cardigan, and I always wear glasses. I’m conservative on the outside. I always forget that. I blend in like a stingray in the sand and like to observe first, before I interact.

    Thank you for a really thoughtful post, Sarah! You’ve got me all thinky now. I can’t wait to read the rest of the comments too, the individuality in your readers always tickles me. :)


    Kate Reply:

    Ooh, yes, Mia Bluegirl, well put! I’m in Perth too and I totally get what you mean. Sometimes all that blue blue blue is just too too too much and I long for Melbourne where I could wear boots and a scarf and not feel guilty about staying indoors! I’m getting more Perth as I get older but it’s funny I’ve lived here for so long when it isn’t really my aesthetic.

    You’ve put into words what has just been a vague impressions and thoughts in my head until now. Wonderful post, Sarah!


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    I think it IS a kapha v vatta thing


    Chrissy Reply:

    I wonder what that makes me then? Because I live in Perth and LOVE all the things Mia Bluegirl describes – plus I totally hear you Sarah re the Mediterranean countries and being dusty and brown.

    I need to be warm. I need to be surrounded by aqua blues and sunshine. I need to not brush my hair (luckily I have long wavy blonde hair which looks great as “bed hair” as I cannot style to save my life). I need to have paint or linseed oil on my fingers and salt on my skin.

    Perth is close to meeting those – Ningaloo reef and Coral Bay come far closer


  • Lucy

    I feel like this so often! Great post Sarah, I love living vicariously through your travel stories! Keep up the good work.


  • Suellen

    Exactly, exactly how I feel traveling sometimes. Especially in cities where the people looked amazingly groomed and elegant. And I realize with my unruly curly hair and casual dress sense that I don’t fit until you find a place that you do…Croatia was my Greece.
    Enjoying your travels and posts.


  • Bridget

    Sarah, you’re like my modern day guru! You manage to capture the ordinary and write about it with such beauty and depth. I can always relate to your words. :)


  • casey

    Wonderful post that, like the others who’ve commented here, really hit home for me. I often feel out of place – not dressed well enough, I don’t spend vast amounts of money on beauty things etc. I lived in Melbourne for eight years and I never felt quite right there, which confused me because everyone else I know loves living there with a passion that I never experienced. I’ve been in Sydney for 18 months now and I feel completely at home for reasons I couldn’t initially figure out, since most of my friends don’t care for the city. These last few years I’ve begun to understand more about my ‘life aesthetic’ (such a great term) so this post was really wonderful to read at this point in my life.


  • lizzy

    thank you for this. every bit of it. enlightened in the embracing, simple in the continuity. i adored your observations of different aesthetics and i adore you for your cozy, practical, sun-lit ways. i’ve been battling myself for some time, berating myself for my lack of poise and polish. for not being girlish enough. this being defined by my lack of ease with make-up application, not having a modelesque figure or knowing how to dress myself into looking like one, my love for fancy, delicate clothing that is always overridden by garments i don’t have to fuss over–if i want to climb a tree or roll down a hill, i want clothing that will take it, on every occasion, because who knows when the most welcoming trees or softest hills will beckon. i listen to myself as i defend and berate myself amongst other women, how i dishonour my own preferences, my own messiness and warmth. so, thank you for the reminder to extend grace to myself, to ‘get closer.’


  • Naz

    I feel like I’m somewhere between these two extremes. Not quite prim and proper like those in Vienna and not so carefree like the people in Greece. I grew up with my mum dressing us up in frilly dresses and having to sit through many dinner parties hosted by my parents where my sisters and I had to be all proper and lady like… except that I always felt uncomfortable in those situations and couldn’t wait for the guests to leave so I could get out of my dress/skirt etc. On the other hand we also did things like hang out at the beach all day in our bathers and go home with sand everywhere.

    I grew up and lived in Perth for most of my life before I moved to Melbourne and now the U.S. Maybe that’s why I feel like I’m somewhere in between, not so fashiony like Melbourne and not so ‘relaxed’ a la Perth.


  • Joe

    “And I suddenly felt grubby and rustic and unkempt and big and clumsy.”

    I know that feeling whilst sitting on a park bench in Lake Como having a bit to eat. I think the homeless there were better dressed than me….. :-)


  • Steph

    I loved love loved this piece so much! I had to go to Italy to find my place, the aesthetic I knew was mine – where I could be physically elegant and emotionally messy. I come from Canada and I always felt out of place – in Canada one tends to be physically messy and emotionally neat. That’s not exactly what I mean, but I knew I needed the opposite of what I had.


    emily hope Reply:

    I’ve come back to this post again and again but somehow only just now noticed this comment — the physically elegant and emotionally messy bit really struck me, I love the idea of this combination.


  • Amber

    I loved this post Sarah. I feel like this a lot and it would appear that others do too! So enjoying your travels. Hope you are keeping healthy and well. x


  • Alice

    you just helped me realise something. and feel okay with it.
    i need heat.
    i need warmth, i need sun, i need raw and i need free.
    i’ve lived in melbourne since birth with bursts of living in spain, mostly madrid, and now i ache for it so much my heart hurts.
    your posts have been off the chain hitting home lately, like little nudges at my soul, it’s awesome. thank you xxxx


    Jayme Reply:

    I’m so amazed. Throughout Sarah’s post, I kept thinking that Madrid is the city that I ache for. The heat, the streets, the cement, the bustle. Then I read your comment and began to think – wow, she gets me, I wonder what her place is. That’s pretty awesome. Meet you in plaza de Santa ana?


  • Fotini

    Sarah your posts are beautiful and full of soul and emotion. Thank you for conveying the beauty and the passion of the Mediterranean and it’s people.


  • Lulu

    Great post – heaps to think about. Vienna is very ‘civilised’ in the true sense of the word – people go to live orchestral events weekly! And there’s no inch of land that hasn’t been retouched again and again and again – that also bothered me in London, I felt that the parks were an inch below street level as they’d been heavily trampled on for thousands of years. For me, it’s sea or sky – far horizons – which you often can’t get in city or landlocked country – you do get snow capped mountains tho in Europe (and NZ)! I love a bit of bush and certainly rainforests are gorgeous and smelly with their decomposing lifecycle evident to the senses but as far as climate and dressing… Mmmm, I like 4 seasons so I can wear all manner of things, albeit in a casual way – togs and jackets – whether on Bondi Beach, Melb cafe, New York Gallery, NZ tramp… Thanks for the post, I’m waxing lyrical now, lot’s to contemplate… PS. I loved seeing how stylish the Italians were – made me want to lift my game (and posture) in a really positive way!


  • Sylvia

    Whatever about Melbourne, that is where one gains the love of a sky that goes on forever :)


  • Karina

    I’ve been deep in conversation with myself about this same thing, and the revelations are fascinating. I moved to the country to get in touch with my hippie again after many years of city living. But here’s the thing. After all those years of veg gardens, roaming chickens and chopping wood, I’ve discovered that all the wonderful people I’ve met just aren’t my tribe. It’s a wonderful environment here, but I crave trams instead of incessant car travel, the theatre, South Melbourne market, a jogging track I can walk to and being close to my family. All the things I thought I could live without. And I nearly moved to a warm climate to get away from the cold. So you’re SO right. It’s about the tribe, fitting in to your environment, feeling as one. It’s not about climate or a beautiful outlook or roaming chickens. Go figure.


  • Grace

    I lived in north Germany for a few year and visited Vienna often. The order and way you NEVER break rules – like jaywalking, for eg, was a real challenge. My aesthetic, which felt fine if slightly arty at home in Oz, suddenly was BIG. Too vibrant, too loud, not enough nipped in at the waist coats and way too many flea market 70″s fake fur numbers. So, in short I get it! It took me time but being comfortable with who you are no matter where you find yourself is attractive to the outside world- even to the tight-lipped stare too long Viennese!