David Kibbe’s out-of-print style guide from the 1980s has unexpectedly spawned an online fandom.
For most of her life, Rita Chudnovskaya felt like she didn’t know how to dress. She read style blogs, watched fashion videos, and followed the latest trends, but the clothes she purchased rarely seemed to fit her body, at least not in the way she imagined they would. Chudnovskaya, 31, is curvy with, as she puts it, “a full bust and big butt.” The general fashion advice she received throughout her 20s, from friends and fashion forums alike, was to accentuate her curves through fitted garments. Still, she couldn’t shake how those slinky outfits felt — and looked — wrong.
In 2019, Chudnovskaya was introduced to the Kibbe (pronounced “kibbie”) system in a YouTube video. It was the first time, she said, that she encountered online styling advice that was detailed, specific, and applicable to a range of bodies and sizes. This intrigue was enough for her to venture further “down the Kibbe internet rabbit hole.”
The Kibbe “image identity” system is the brainchild of Manhattan-based stylist David Kibbe, who established the concept in his 1987 book David Kibbe’s Metamorphosis: Discover Your Image Identity and Dazzle as Only You Can. There are 13 body, or “image identity,” types in Kibbe’s 1987 system, grouped into five broad families: dramatics, classics, naturals, gamines, and romantics. While the book has long been out of print (a used copy sells for hundreds of dollars today), the internet has brought renewed attention to Kibbe’s theories and expanded his reach.
Entire YouTube channels, TikTok accounts, Facebook groups, blogs, and subreddits are devoted to analyzing the technicalities of the Kibbe system. Fans congregate to share outfits, styling tips, and mood boards, and they help newcomers determine their type, or “image identity.” If you spend enough time on Kibbe forums, certain phrases like “dressing for your lines,” “creating a harmonious look,” and “yin and yang balance” start to become familiar.
These Kibbe-isms lend a pseudoscientific credence to the method, even though Kibbe’s styling process is fluid and, depending on whom you ask, imperfect. Styling is a subjective art, and Kibbe’s methodology — and its emphasis on geometric harmony — was inspired by his arts-oriented upbringing. Some critics take issue with how the system is based on Old Hollywood (and therefore Eurocentric) ideals of beauty, which does not always account for body diversity across gender and race. The image references provided, too, are mostly of thin, white female celebrities. Kibbe converts, however, believe that these problematic aspects don’t necessarily negate the system’s helpfulness. In this regard, Kibbe is essentially a fandom. You get into it or you don’t.
Kibbe’s contemporary influence on internet women’s fashion discourse is surprising — most of all to David Kibbe himself. His book was published over three decades ago and could’ve easily faded into obscurity, especially with the rapid-fire pace of today’s fashion trends. Instead, Kibbe’s cult following has only grown. “I used to be on television a lot, but the internet has supercharged everything,” he told me over a recent lunch in Manhattan. “Years ago, I came across 23 Facebook pages that were using my name and posting all this stuff. It was crazy.”
The only “Kibbe-approved” forum on the internet is Strictly Kibbe, a private Facebook group with nearly 8,000 female members from over 100 countries (Kibbe did not start the group but exists more like a guest of honor alongside his wife, Susan Slavin). There are many other unauthorized Kibbe discussion spaces, such as Freely Kibbe (5,000 members), r/Kibbe (31,000 members), and respective Kibbe groups for specific image types with thousands of members. Still, these numbers might not provide a comprehensive tally of people who’ve encountered Kibbe-related content or successfully applied the method to their wardrobes.
For those who do manage to decode the system, your image identity can become a sort of signifier in Kibbe-adjacent online spaces — much like how your astrology sign, Hogwarts house, or Myers-Briggs personality type can be a means to identify and relate to others. No one body type is better than another, of course. But this line of thinking can still be a slippery slope, wherein people are placed into self-selecting groups predicated entirely on appearance. This, as you might imagine, can be a huge problem for those who struggle with their body image.
Still, these downsides don’t seem to affect the system’s growing popularity. People like Chudnovskaya might have left behind the fandom aspect of Kibbe, but many consider it a baseline guide to styling themselves or others. And perhaps that’s a testament to what Kibbe offers — an imperfect solution to women’s styling woes, one that the body type quizzes of fashion magazines past have failed to provide. What does it mean, after all, to dress for your body? And is scrutinizing it a prerequisite for something as subjective as personal style?
A brief introduction to the Kibbe method
There are five distinct families of Kibbe types (dramatics, classics, naturals, gamines, and romantics), which are assessed on a spectrum of “yin” and “yang.” (Yinyang is a concept found in ancient Chinese philosophy, and is often reductively applied to fit Western contexts.) “Yang” refers to features that are more angular, sharp, long, or blunt, while “yin” features are more rounded, curved, short, or soft. “Yin” and “yang” are neutral descriptors, according to Kibbe. These metrics are not based on weight or bust and butt measurements, which he says are a common misconception of “curve.” Instead, most people have a mix of yin and yang features.
Some are more “yang-dominant” by virtue of their height, shoulder width, or angular frame. Dramatics (Keira Knightley, Tilda Swinton) have more “yang” than natural types (Tracee Ellis Ross, Jennifer Lopez). Classics (Grace Kelly, Jackie O) have the most yin-yang balance, while gamine types (Audrey Hepburn, Lucy Liu) have a petite “yin” frame with sharp “yang” features. On the other end of the “yin” spectrum are the curve-dominant romantics (Marilyn Monroe, Mila Kunis), who have little sharpness.
Unless you’re fluent in Kibbe, these are not clear or objective classifications and reveal very little about the aforementioned celebrities and their style. (There’s also the much-debated topic of a body type’s “essence,” or vibe.) Yet the Kibbe fandom often treats determining the correct image type as the end-all, be-all — for themselves and certain celebrities. This is, in some ways, revealing about our desires. We want to fit in but only in categories we consider desirable or aspirational.
Most fans first learn of the Kibbe basics through style blogs, YouTube and TikTok videos, or forums like r/Kibbe, r/femalefashionadvice, or r/DressForYourBody. For some, this baseline guidance can be eye-opening. Chudnovskaya began constructing outfits to accommodate her height and broad shoulders instead of her curves. As a flamboyant natural, she opted for more flowy silhouettes — skirts and tops that draped loosely — and bolder colors and styles. She poured hours into researching the system, consulting Kibbe groups and blogs, and eventually created her own educational videos on the subject.
“I don’t have the intuitive ability to dress myself, unlike some people,” said Chudnovskaya, who scheduled a consultation with David Kibbe months after her immersion into the system. “The Kibbe approach helped me take into account the lines of my body to style an outfit that makes sense as a whole.” Today, Chudnovskaya says she no longer ascribes to every Kibbe tenet, but still applies some of his concepts in her side hustle as a style consultant. Chudnovskaya peppers her YouTube channel and blog with Kibbe references, and has created her own styling system that “focuses more on personality, rather than body,” as a complement to Kibbe’s approach.
A brief history of body typing: Why some people love to self-categorize
The female body, across millennia, has been subject to countless figurative comparisons, from flowers to fruit. By the 1980s, women were encouraged to categorize their own physiques, according to vague shapes in fashion and beauty magazines. Did their bodies resemble an apple, a pear, an upside-down triangle, or, rather inexplicably, an hourglass? With this assessment in mind, they were then advised to dress in a way that conformed, or even disguised, their bodies to the ideal figure.
The practice of “body typing” wasn’t established by women’s media, but magazines were in part responsible for publicizing the (now-disproven) academic concept of body types, which has ties to early-20th-century eugenics. Many modern body stereotypes, or somatotypes, have some roots in work by psychologist William Sheldon. Sheldon’s work theorized that a person’s physique was reflective of certain personality traits. This notion has been roundly debunked by modern scientists and scholars, but remnants of Sheldon’s ideas linger in popular culture. In fact, certain fitness communities still reference his three body classifications — ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph — as they relate to building muscle. This impulse isn’t just specific to bodybuilders: It’s everywhere on the internet.
Vox’s Rebecca Jennings has called this phenomenon “the Buzzfeedification of identity,” in which people are driven to form micro-identities based on content they consume. These “self-selective processes are natural for human beings,” Jennings wrote, “and they can obviously be quite useful on the internet, where some amount of gatekeeping is necessary to foster a certain environment.” In the Kibbe fandom, this tendency applies to how you dress — and to your body.
David Kibbe is not the first or the only person to have created an in-depth personal style system, although his framework is arguably the most popular today. A cottage industry of professional style and color consultants existed decades before the internet made this information widely accessible — all with their own subjective theories and rules.
In the 1940s, Suzanne Caygill developed a theory that sorted women into “seasons’’ based on their unique coloration, which she believed should inform their personality and style. Joan Songer, a student of Caygill’s, launched a style consulting business in the 1960s that borrowed from Caygill’s color theory.
John Kitchener took over Songer’s business in 1999 and adapted his own essence, color, and style system, modernizing the ideas of his predecessors. In her 1963 book Art in Clothing Selection, Iowa State University professor Harriet Tilden McJimsey attributed the concept of “yin” and “yang” body types to Belle Northrup, a textile design professor at Columbia University. McJimsey has been credited with naming the various archetypes that Kibbe has popularized, including dramatic, classic, natural, romantic, and gamine (she spelled it “gamin”).
These theories would be repackaged in later decades into self-help style books, such as Carole Jackson’s 1981 bestseller Color Me Beautiful, which introduced color theory to a mainstream audience. Most of these early- to mid-20th-century texts are out of print or hard to find, so it’s tricky to determine whose ideas came first or were the most influential.
Thanks to the internet, most people don’t need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a style consultation. A personal analysis can be done informally at home, sometimes with the help of online style hobbyists. Some of these self-appointed consultants — like Chudnovskaya of Style Thoughts by Rita or Merriam Amani of MerriamStyle — were introduced to style methodology vis-à-vis Kibbe, before going on to develop their own detailed typing framework. As a result, people have a host of style systems to choose from, depending on their needs.
The Kibbe approach, however, largely continues to withstand the test of time, and serves as a sort of North Star for online style aficionados. The practice of typing has become a game for fans. The problem is, people can’t seem to agree on certain Kibbe “rules” because most information about the system, as Kibbe himself has pointed out, is from second- or thirdhand sources. Kibbe and his wife are currently the only verified experts qualified to type people, and very few people have copies of the book (which, mind you, is outdated).
That hasn’t deterred Kibbe hobbyists. It seems like “the difficulty in finding clarity from the original source,” as Emily Jensen observed in Mel Magazine, “is precisely what draws so many deeper down the Kibbeverse.” Online forums have made it easy for people to type others, whether a celebrity or a stranger seeking guidance on the r/Kibbe subreddit.
On YouTube and TikTok, it’s common for people to borrow from Kibbe’s theory to explain a celebrity’s type based on red carpet or paparazzi shots. This tendency to type others, according to David Kibbe, runs counter to his own style philosophy. His system was created for personal use, he said, not as a basis for judgment. As with most things, the internet has taken Kibbe out of context. So far, though, he’s done little to correct the record.
David Kibbe believes style is a journey. Kibbe fans often want concrete answers.
David Kibbe is a very offline man. Rather than wade into the discourse about his decades-old system, he has opted for a relatively quiet existence on the Upper East Side, where he continues to take clients for style sessions. His strategy has been one of disengagement and mystique, though he is both grateful for and critical of the internet. He is appreciative of his global reach, while frustrated by the many misinterpretations of his theory that he won’t try to rectify.
“What’s hard about the internet is that people take excerpts from the book or interpret it without understanding the philosophy,” Kibbe said. “Style is a journey. It’s a journey you should go on your entire life, but you also have to learn technique.”
Technique is what Kibbe aimed to offer in his book Metamorphosis, which was published during an era when self-help books were in high demand. He was approached by an agent after his business was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. It was then that he began writing down his theory, or technique, of dressing.
Publishers at the time knew the subject matter intrigued female audiences, and books were marketing tools to publicize a stylist’s work and philosophy. Most of the style advice at that time was horrible, Kibbe said. His intention was never to type people or dictate what they can or cannot wear. He wanted to “give women techniques to understand how their bodies are, to accept their lines,” and work with what they’ve got.
To that end, Kibbe has acknowledged that some information in his book is outdated for modern readers. The physical descriptors of his 13 “image identity” types haven’t changed, but he has since narrowed them down to 10. Kibbe has also revised his own rules over the years, sometimes to the ire of die-hard fans, but he maintains that most of his original theory still stands. “It’s all about your own experience with clothes,” Kibbe said. “People shouldn’t close themselves off to the potential of what they could wear.”
Fashion, too, has changed since the publication of Metamorphosis. Popular clothing silhouettes were once dictated by designers and department stores, regardless of whether these styles flattered specific bodies. By the 1990s, the common use of stretchy fabrics changed Kibbe’s definition of a silhouette: “Today, a silhouette is often a combination of your body and the clothes, instead of it just being about the clothes.”
Clothes don’t have image identities, Kibbe said. Most pieces are versatile; it depends more on how the wearer styles them to suit their body. Kibbe typed me as a flamboyant gamine (I have a petite, angular frame with minimal curves); the general advice for my type is to avoid oversized, unstructured garments. Instead of purging my closet entirely of chunky sweaters and long, flowy tops, however, I can add a belt for more structure or tuck in my tops for a cleaner line.
For newcomers, this can be a headache to figure out. There is no official quiz to determine a person’s image identity, and Kibbe has bemoaned fans’ desire to take shortcuts to figure out their type. The only definitive way to know is through an in-person “makeover” with Kibbe himself, which can range anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. So most enthusiasts end up analogizing their bodies to that of “verified” celebrities, whom Kibbe intended to be “lodestars” or “image guides,” not figures for limb-to-limb comparison.
“You can’t analyze yourself,” Kibbe said. “You’re never going to be objective. Nobody is. The goal is for you to go from subjectivity to intelligent subjectivity, where you understand technique, to enlightened subjectivity, where you’ve experimented enough with clothes and silhouettes to know what works for you.”
This process of self-discovery can be a hard sell, especially when people are attuned to immediacy. Chudnovskaya pointed out that those who seek out styling advice might already be frustrated with their bodies. “People who gravitate toward Kibbe, like myself, don’t feel like they can just put something on,” she said. “It’s already a sensitive, self-selecting group that has been searching for answers on how to dress and feel good.” It doesn’t help that modern shoppers have an endless array of styles and aesthetics to choose from, both new and old. The Kibbe approach offers some styling guidelines, provided that you can figure out your lines.
People either give up or eventually narrow down their type and apply this knowledge to their wardrobes. Others stick around in the Kibbe fandom for the curated image identity mood boards, outfit inspiration, or celebrity type speculation. But, as in most online communities, toxic behaviors can arise.
Style and self-improvement forums “tend to attract people with body dysmorphia who really fixate on certain aspects of their body,” said Martha Heavlin, who was formerly a moderator of a Kibbe-related subreddit. “There are certain people who get really obsessive about bodies, whether it be their own or a celebrity’s, and the perceived ideal.” Kibbe and his followers claim that certain descriptors, like “width” or “fleshy,” are neutral terms, but as Jensen has pointed out, “it’s nearly impossible to assign adjectives to women’s bodies that are entirely free of negative connotations.”
People have biases, and biases can have consequences — especially in a fandom devoted to scrutinizing the minutiae of strangers’ bodies. Recently, a user in r/Kibbe posted about the concerning rise of “eating disorder culture” on the subreddit, with people posting “body checks” and using the Kibbe system to validate disordered body ideals.
took the kibbe body type test just to be called fleshy ive had enough
— leslie (´∀｀) (@idoIrock) February 5, 2022
The fandom also grapples with offering diverse image references across size, gender, and racial lines. Some of the most visible Kibbe hobbyists are thin white women who might be biased about what a certain image type should look like. Still, Chudnovskaya and Heavlin agree that Kibbe is generally a “body positive” system. It encourages people to understand their body proportions from a place of self-acceptance. This, according to Kibbe, is unrelated to modern beauty or fashion standards, but the subjective notion of “dressing harmoniously” is still, in some ways, related to existing norms. The Kibbe method might not capitulate to trends, but it doesn’t necessarily liberate people from style expectations.
It is also hard to be neutral about your body because, as Kibbe himself has said, we all have biases. It is arguably harder to be “body neutral” on social media, where society’s worst biases are brought to the fore. And that’s the paradox of the Kibbe fandom. It’s much more fun to theorize about personal style and body types with others online, but the experience can be incredibly demoralizing and even triggering for those with a history of body issues.
Heavlin’s advice is to log off once you’ve had your Kibbe fill. “Learn as much as you can, then just walk away,” she said. “The small things about your body are not worth obsessing over online.” And if you ask David Kibbe, he doesn’t really care what you wear, so long as you’re happy with yourself. “It starts with what you want for yourself,” he told me. “Are you going to dress for yourself or try to be someone you’re not?”