Some things are etched permanently on the brains of anyone who was a tween in the early 2000s: The All That theme song, printing out MapQuest directions, and sending your first text from your flip phone. Among the less-than-pleasant entries on this list is “the first time you took a body shape test.”
Tucked away in the fashion section of some guide to the most stylish prom dresses or swimsuits of the season was a five-or-so question test that, at the finish line, promised to lay out all your insecurities in print. You’re pear-shaped? Better conceal those ample thighs with a strapless A-line gown. Carry your weight in your midsection like an Apple? Please hide that tummy with a nice tankini.
Those days were top of mind when I first noticed the resurgence of style systems—guidelines for how to dress based on one’s body, coloring, and/or personality—on social media. Across TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, content creators are using filters in an attempt to figure out their seasonal color palette and watching videos on how to figure out their style “essence”.
The last decade or so has seen a major upswing in body-positive content circulating on the internet, and it feels as though fashion is more rule-breaking than ever before. Yet style systems—such as the 7 Essences and David Kibbe’s Image IDs—are popping up right beside them with fervent fanbases.
So if we’re living in an era of anything goes, why do so many young people want to be told how to dress?
The 1980s was a perfect environment for style systems to flourish. The decade saw an uptick in image consultancy triggered, Kibbe tells me, by color analysis and Color Me Beautiful by Carole Jackson. (Kibbe, an author and image consultant, worked with Jackson for that book’s style section.) “It was the era of conspicuous consumption, the age of Dallas and Dynasty,” he says, a direct reaction to the free-spirited 1970s. As the Reagans entered the White House—bringing glamorous Hollywood friends and conservative politics with them—the culture took a more polished and buttoned-up turn, and shoppers were willing to pay image consultants to help them get the look.Another factor behind the rise of image consultancy was more tactile: fabric. Throughout the majority of the 20th century, the stiffness of the available fabrics (stretch fabrics weren’t regularly incorporated into everyday garments until the 1990s) and the most popular silhouettes, such as Christian Dior’s New Look in the 1950s, meant most clothing was more structured. And if a garment won’t conform to your body, that means you have to figure out how to make your body conform to it. You can see this in fruit-based dressing, Kibbe says, which is undergirded by the logic of “you’re not symmetrical, so how do we balance you out?”
Kibbe addressed this head-on with his 1987 book David Kibbe’s Metamorphosis: Discover Your Image Identity and Dazzle As Only You Can. If conventional modes of dressing were “starting by saying something is wrong with you—that you’re less than ideal,” he sought to help clients embrace their body as it was and give them the tools they needed to navigate the available fabrics and silhouettes. Though he had “always revolted against that idea” of conforming the body to the clothes, “what we had to work with was structured silhouettes.”
In Metamorphosis, Kibbe expounded upon existing concepts of yin and yang as applied to art and fashion, using them to formulate 13 Image IDs (he has since winnowed them down to 10). Each is illustrated by Golden Age stars who personify the archetype—think Bette Davis as the quintessential Soft Gamine and Joan Crawford as the prime Dramatic. Each ID is given style recommendations ranging from what shapes of skirts to seek out to which haircuts to avoid, with the goal of creating an exterior that works in harmony with the interior without reshaping oneself to fit certain fabrics or silhouettes.
If I can take a moment to briefly abandon journalistic objectivity: When I met with Kibbe over iced tea on a hot day in New York City, I was so quickly won over by his joie de vivre that I innately warmed up to his philosophy. Not least of all because, despite the almost scientific approach many Kibbe followers take on YouTube or Reddit, his own view of the system seems to most closely mirror fine art. “I was a classical pianist, and before you learn how to play, you learn technique,” he tells me. “You learn hand positions, you learn finger exercises for your dexterity and flexibility, you learn relaxation, and then you start to play. If you have technique, then you can do what you want—you can play classical, you can play jazz, you can play rock. Art is inspiration and technique.”
The argument that style systems are simply applying artistic principles to the way we dress might hold up strongest as applied to color analysis, arguably the most widespread and well-known “style system” of them all. The four-season system Jackson taught is the ancestor of the many 12-season systems found on the internet today. These systems take into account the hue, value, and chroma of one’s coloring—all familiar terms to anyone who has spent a few hours on Photoshop.
As with anything that reaches the Internet, Kibbe’s Image IDs—better known online as the “Kibbe Body Types”—have moved away from authorial intent. TikTok videos with the hashtag #kibbebodytypes have garnered more than 90 million views. Most of these hone in on physical elements at a micro level: What does it mean to have the “blunt shoulders” of a Natural, or how can you figure out if you’re “high contrast” enough to be a Flamboyant Gamine?
This has to do, in part, with the availability of the original information: Metamorphosis is out of print, with only the most devoted Kibbe acolytes owning print copies. “The book was written as a journey,” Kibbe says. “The beginning was more inspirational, about who you’re supposed to be before you even get to the quiz. But that’s not there—the quiz is there.” Lifted from the middle of the book, the Kibbe Body Type Test is the first thing that pops up when you search for Kibbe Body Types (and the second result for general Kibbe) and is often how newbies learn of the system.
That said, even within the original context, it’s hard not to immediately balk at some of the language. Those of us socialized as women often see ourselves not through our own eyes but rather through the mirror of the eyes of others. For those circling mostly Bs to discover they were banana-shaped in a magazine, reading that their bust can be characterized as “flat, taut, and small” could easily trigger anxieties that plague even the most body positive among us.
YouTuber Tiffany Ferguson, who specializes in critical deep dives into all things internet culture, has touched on these topics, among many others, in the videos she’s uploaded about Kibbe’s Image IDs and other style systems. In one two-part series, she and a few other content creators were given Kibbe Image IDs by a blogger who covers the system. (I should note here that David Kibbe does not endorse ID’ing others: “It needs to be a journey of self-discovery,” he says. “You can’t type somebody. It doesn’t work. And you especially can’t have someone who doesn’t know you type you.”)
While the Kibbe bloggers she collaborated with tried to stress the importance of finding the unique beauty in each ID, that wasn’t what she found on social media. “When I first did my series, a big thing Kibbe practitioners wanted to emphasize was that all the types are beautiful [and] that there is no hierarchy,” says Ferguson. “But on the [r/Kibbe] subreddit, there are certain types where people are like ‘I don’t want to be this one’ or ‘I thought I was this type, but I’m actually this one and I’m upset about it.’ So there’s definitely a hierarchy of desirability. It makes sense that whatever types seem to mirror the larger beauty standards are some of the more sought-after types.” As people travel further and further into the rabbit hole of the Kibbesphere, this can easily lead to a fixation with one’s body, especially in those who are prone to behaviors such as body checking to begin with.
With all this in mind, is all the scrutinizing of one's body—all the fabric draping to find your colors, the endless scrolling through videos with tips on figuring out how long your vertical line is—in the hopes of dressing “better” ultimately worth it? Can style systems actually help people better express themselves in 2023?
To be clear: What looks “good” is wholly subjective, and just as importantly, not everyone desires to look “good.” As Ferguson puts it, “At the end of the day, is it really gonna impact me if I’m wrong about this or if I’m dressing in a way that’s not harmonious?”
That said, if someone feels totally lost in the woods when it comes to their personal style, style systems do seem to provide some people with the tools to tweak their image in accordance with artistic principles of color and form. “This is about freedom, not restraint,” Kibbe says of his system. “But you can’t fly until you learn how.”
To be clear: What looks “good” is wholly subjective, and just as importantly, not everyone desires to look “good.”
Ferguson—who ultimately seems to take a “your mileage may vary” view on the helpfulness of style systems—has firsthand experience with folks for whom these systems seem to be working. “Based on the comments I’ve gotten on my Kibbe videos, there is the type of person who’s like, ‘No, this really helped me—I have no sense of style or what looks good, so having rules or guidelines helps me out,’ or ‘I like everything, but if I wear everything, I might look like a weirdo,’ so having a lane to follow can help,” she says.
And in the age of TikTok aesthetics, it’s not surprising that some people would search for a port in the endless storm of #CottageCore, #PrincessCore, and #MermaidCore. “The abundance of beauty that we consume these days is unparalleled in history … and it can become really overwhelming,” says Elyssa Robinson, an image consultant and YouTuber who created her own yin and yang–based style system. “I know it was for me—that was one of my driving forces toward this. I needed some sort of discernment; I needed to be able to navigate the seas of all of this beauty and fashion and to nail down something that was really my own instead of being ‘influenced.’”
Though I believe many are drawn to style systems such as Kibbe’s for reasons that have little to do with wanting to dress better—a societally driven fixation on how others perceive their bodies or even just an identity to add to their Enneagram/Myers–Briggs/star sign/Hogwarts house catalog—I also think that personal style can be intimidating. If you feel like you’re at a loss and just want some help putting together outfits, they can be enticing.
But I also believe that it’s important to check in with yourself: If you’re spinning out of control trying to figure out if you look better in the blue-based red or the orange-based red or if you find yourself zooming in on every photo you’ve taken in the last year to try to figure out if you’ve got too much width to be a Kibbe Romantic, it might be time to step back and do what feels best for you—even if that means running the risk of leaving the house in a less than “harmonious” outfit. After all, as Kibbe says, “The one thing you can trust that’s true is your experience.”