Carol Saller and Maria Pinto Credit: Courtesy Chicago Humanities Festival

For the Chicago Humanities Festival panel Style Matters, fashion designer Maria Pinto and Chicago Manual of Style editor Carol Saller will join other style experts to discuss “how we should dress, write, and live” in a series of conversations. Pinto will talk with fellow designer Rachel Roy; Saller with New York Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler (SAIC Fashion Resource Center director Gillion Carrara will be talking with journalist and graphic-design expert Jude Stewart). Intrigued by the possible parallels between editorial style and fashion style, we asked Pinto and Saller what style means to them, what the rules are, and when it makes sense to break those rules.

Julia Thiel: What does style mean to each of you, as it applies to your profession?

Maria Pinto: That’s kind of a trigger word for me. I think there’s an implied sense of what style should be by trends and fashion dictates. That’s not really the path I encourage my clients to take—I think that style should really be about personal expression.

Carol Saller: People know what fashion style means, but when you say editorial style sometimes you get blank stares. So let me just say what that covers: the way you style a manuscript is by applying punctuation, capitalization, hyphenation. Those rules aren’t the same for every publisher, so there are different style guides that lay out different rules. Writing style also has to do with personal expression, like Maria said. But there are more rules; grammar and usage come into play. In informal, creative contexts, the author can break all those rules. But I’m a representative of a rule maker.

How do rules apply to fashion and writing? How strict are they, and are they made to be broken?

Pinto: I think all rules are made to be broken. But there’s a time and place. If I have a banker [as a client], I’m not going to encourage her to wear biker boots with her sheath dress, because I know that’s not going to be appropriate. Someone who’s creative, I might try to get her to express that creativity. Clothing is a great tool, because we do judge a book by its cover.

Saller: You’re using a writing metaphor. The parallels are uncanny: the context of writing has to be judged in the way that the appropriateness of clothing is judged, because the way we speak conveys something about our person, just like clothing.

Rules, yes, are made to be broken, and it’s something that editors can facilitate. I went to a conference recently where someone, her name is Sarah Grey, said something great: “We are word professionals. Sticklers are amateurs.” I think what she was getting at is that sticklers have a limited bag of tricks. They haven’t gained the writing skills that professional writers and editors would use to manipulate the rules successfully. Rules, by their very nature, are oversimplifications; there are many exceptions to them. Sometimes it’s those exceptions that make the most elegant writing or give a writer a unique voice.

Pinto: That’s so cool, Carol. It reminds me of something—I have several friends that English is their second language. I always find it really intriguing how they might use a word in such a different context that it kind of brightens the meaning of it in an interesting, strange way.

Is it also true that in the fashion world, it’s the amateurs who really want to stick to the rules?

Pinto: Fashion designers, I think, are always really trying to break the rules. I’m not sure they’re always doing it successfully. A set of words I use a lot with this new collection [M2057] is “deconstructed couture.” Couture is all about rules, understanding and knowing your craft. And then it gives you permission to really start looking at it and deconstructing it. When I work with my technical team—like a pattern maker, who is very technical, and she knows exactly how something should be done—it’s really fun to challenge them and put ideas in front of them that help them take that set of rules or knowledge to another place. That’s where the deconstruction comes in.

Do you see other parallels between fashion and grammar?

Saller: When people online post comments on language sites, there’s often a lot of nitpicking and shaming that goes on. There’s a very popular book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, where Lynne Truss seems to promote pointing out, or even defacing, signs that have the wrong apostrophes—grammar shaming. I feel that this is inappropriate and rude, and there should be civility and respect for people’s expression. When it comes to clothing and fashion, does this kind of thing go on too?

Pinto: Oh yeah, look at the red carpet! These brilliant actresses or writers, and all they’re doing is ripping them apart for the dress they had on, or the bad hair they had. I’m finding it really intriguing how many parallels there are. The whole fashion thing, I take it very seriously, but a lot of people—it’s not their first thing. They might do things in a way that would be considered wrong or not as well put together. There’s an authenticity that we should be looking at as well. I don’t judge people that harshly. But [other] people do. My brain moves so quickly that I’m accused of going from one to six; I can’t express myself in a more poetic, thoughtful way because I’m trying to move so quickly. Should I be judged for grammar that’s not always perfect?

Saller: When you talked about deconstructed couture, I thought, that’s what poets are doing. They’re taking language and deconstructing it. Or reconstructing it. But it’s a whole creative process, taking components of something and putting them together in different ways. You start with fabric, and I start with words.

Following the rules doesn’t make you inauthentic. There are people who have a great facility within the rules—and in some contexts, such as scholarly writing, it’s very rule oriented. A lot of eloquence and great arguments take place within those bounds.

Pinto: It’s very personal. It’s important to understand the rules. Alexander McQueen learned from the masters and totally deconstructed every aspect of it, but still maintained a lot of the rules around how to construct a well-tailored jacket. Our culture today, we’re not investing time—we want to go straight from school to being at the top of our game. There’s no room for you to really develop your craft.

Saller: That’s an interesting distinction, between craft and art. I tend to think of editors as craftsmen. We take what the writer has done, we hone it. In fact, I used the metaphor of a couturier in the preface to my book [The Subversive Copy Editor]. “Knowing how to tinker with a broken piece of prose until it hums is a source of contentment known by all who have mastered a worthy craft. The midwife works with a laboring woman to produce a healthy child. A seamstress or tailor finishes the couturier’s garment until it’s a perfect, flattering fit.” Someone who follows the rules more closely because they’re not in charge—they’re working to help craft a finished product. Whereas the rule breaker maybe takes art to a higher level. Both are worthy, authentic pursuits.  v