Learning how to find your personal style can feel like a daunting task. But Allison Bornstein, wardrobe stylist, brand consultant, and overall style guru, is a master at making the process approachable. She uses a principle called the “three word method.” Basically, you identify which three adjectives are signifiers of your unique look and apply them to your whole wardrobe. On TikTok, she has a popular series where she identifies celebrities’ three words: Dakota Johnson’s are ‘70s, modern, and classic. Zoë Kravitz, by contrast, is, sexy, effortless, and edgy. Kim Kardashian is exaggerated, fitted, and sculptural. Bornstein even did the Friends characters! But the method’s not just for famous people — it’s so easy to figure out, and apply, this system to yourself.
Bornstein’s overall methodology is a combination of slow fashion, style math, and repetition: knowing your preferences intimately, whittling down your closet to what you actually wear using a strict closet editing system, and finding and expanding your “uniform” (which also means repeating outfits without being boring). She believes that fashion is wellness, and favors buying high-quality staples over trendy, disposable items. Anyone can benefit from her process, particularly if they have a bunch of clothes but feel like they have nothing to wear. Personally, the fashion expert has helped evolve my style immensely.
Bornstein has always used social media to educate her followers, including breaking down celebrities’ outfits on Instagram. But she got onto TikTok because she saw a lot of quick and easy style fixes and clothing hacks worth sharing on a larger scale. Bornstein emphasizes that the most effective long-term strategy to honing your look is investing in items you’ll endlessly wear — i.e. “shopping your closet” — and she’s constantly posting videos with tips to help you get there.
As she helps clients evolve their style, Bornstein always tells them to find their own three words — but it’s a bit of an abstract concept. So she turns to style icons that lots of people know, starting with the icon: Jane Birkin (three words: simple, casual, sexy) because “even without me showing the photos of her looks, I feel like we can all call up how we would describe her,” she says. This series doesn’t just function as a fun analysis, she explains; it can also help inspire your own look. The styles of celebrities can act as your inspiration, and you can use their three words to help identify yours, too.
Bornstein has videos on how to find your own three words, but here’s the general idea if you’re starting from scratch. Think back to outfits that felt wholly, essentially “you” — or, better yet, take pictures of yourself when you feel most stylish. Isolate which clothing items you wear all the time. Write down words that come to mind; Bornstein has a big list of words you could use, but feel free to be as creative as you like.
The words can contrast each other; in fact, says Bornstein, that’s part of what makes a person’s style feel uniquely theirs. If you Pinterest, see what looks you’re attracted to and include them in your assessment. Then, isolate which three words apply to all your best, favorite, most you looks. Now, you can use those three words every time you get dressed.
When I chatted with Bornstein in May, I had two of my three words: French and ’90s. French was easy; I’d been in love with the country’s quintessential casual stripes and structured bags since I’d first spent the summers there in the early 2000s. My favorite Instagram account, Parisiens in Paris, is where I go when I need to build a base outfit that works.
My second word, ’90s, was easy, too — I once told a friend I could trace most of my style back to an old Delia’s catalog. I’m a fan of bootleg denim and tiny sunglasses, graphic tops, and chokers. I actually fought against it for a while, but with Y2K in ascendance again, I realized that those pieces are essential to who I am — and I’ll wear them even when they’re not “cool” anymore.
When we met over Zoom, Bornstein and I went through the photos I’d been taking of myself for the past year since the last time we talked. She asked whether “graphic” might fit — even when I’m dressing in a tonal look, I add a little visual interest through a different-colored shoe, bag, or belt. Graphic can be as literal as a graphic tee or be as subtle as a contrast in colors. “Styling-wise, it’s less of a descriptive and more of a prescriptive word: when you’re getting dressed, you think, I need to make a little bit more graphic. How can I mix this up a little bit and make it feel more like me?,” explains Bornstein.
If you’re farther along in your style journey, you may already have a word or even all three. But this exercise is useful in that case, too: you might wonder why you feel well dressed sometimes and not others, or you might feel like your look needs an evolution. Ultimately, the three-word method works as a checklist before you buy anything new or decide what to keep or purge from your closet.
Your three words may change, or one word could occasionally swap out with another; Bornstein’s word “elegant” sometimes fits for her style, and sometimes she replaces it with something else. The key to not looking too costume-y is to integrate your words together as a cohesive whole, sometimes in subtle ways. Also, that’s why it’s important to have three words: one or two might not be enough, and any more than that will feel busy.
A word can mean something different for each person who uses it. One of my words is “French” and, to me, that means effortless but not sloppy, a “uniform” street style that’s chic every single time. For someone else, “French” might mean a literal red lip and a beret, or an expensive (contrasting) bag and shoes. Different items of clothing can also apply to different words: an Oxford shirt could work for “oversized,” “classy,” and even “undone,” depending on how you use it.
These words can also apply in subtle ways. For instance, I have a thin gold choker I love that doesn’t scream ’90s but channels that vibe quietly. Or, I can throw on my Doc Martens and balance them with a lace top if I want a more vivid look. If I’m looking to buy something new, I check in with myself: does it fit my three words? Will it work for my style? Will I wear it for years?
In other words, I have a system, an ethos, and a methodology for looking the most like myself. It’s so, so much easier to build outfits now, and I love diving into my closet every day to see what new way I can use my three words.
If you’re feeling lost about this work, Bornstein schedules in-person and remote sessions to help you get started. When in doubt, though, “Think of the future you, the you in a few months,” Bornstein suggests. “What do they look like? What’s different about them? Then you can work towards that.”