Picture the scene: you’re popping out to your local Krispy Kreme store to celebrate your world-renowned, buzzy beauty brand’s latest launch. Naturally, you decide to dress up: let’s say a strapless red Ermanno Scervino mini dress, open-toe stiletto heels and a pair of custom strawberry Alessandra Rich earrings. Your husband of five years has other ideas, following you to the donut shop wearing a grey tracksuit and a baby pink Nahmias baseball cap (inexplicably styled over a hood), with yellow crocs and socks.
Sound relatable? Ok… maybe not. But this is a much-memed and analysed moment acted out by Hailey and Justin Bieber last month, dressed in wildly different outfits at a Rhode event in New York. It’s not the first time the Biebers have appeared as if they’re dressed for different occasions – see Justin’s pink beanie and sunnies vs Hailey’s strapless ivory Saint Laurent gown at the 2022 Grammy Awards, or Hailey’s sculpted vintage Mugler and Justin’s hoodie for a recent date night in London.
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Still, there was something undeniably jarring about how different their styles appeared in that moment. Alongside an explosion of memes and internet discourse (one tweet read ‘Their stylists don’t even have each other’s phone numbers’, while a viral meme labelled Hailey ‘me at the office’ and Justin ‘me on zoom’), the mismatched looks have made us consider couple style, and what it means for us mere mortals as well as the A-listers.
For some, aligned style reflects relationship harmony – an outward sign that a couple is a good ‘fit’ (pun intended). There is something irresistibly cute about matching fashion choices, from a complementary colour palette to a shared piece (see former couple Cara Delevingne and Ashley Benson in coordinating blazers). And then there’s full-on twinning, which can feel like the ultimate ‘couple goals’ – see Zendaya and Tom Holland, Rihanna and A$AP Rocky, or the Insta-famous Young Emperors. It can also earn a lifetime spot in the internet style archives, à la Britney and Justin in matching double denim at the 2001 American Music Awards.
Off the red carpet and in the real world, some couples enjoy showing their unity through clothes, like 29-year-old stylist Rosie and her 30-year-old husband Joe, who works in fashion photography. “There were definitely things that we already aligned on before we met – like wearing a lot of black and having a slightly punk-skater vibe,” she says. “We’ve worn matching looks and have matching Vivienne Westwood tartan suits but we also quite like to do coordination without fully twinning – a little nod to each other’s look. You can tell people are well-matched or there’s chemistry by the way they mirror each other’s body language – this is the sartorial equivalent and a public declaration of our allegiance to each other. And the key is that it’s always something we both actively want to wear.”
Joe agrees: “A truly successful couple match is hard to pull off – you can’t just chuck on the same clothes and look good. We incorporate our own individual style alongside matching elements; our outfits look great alone but together it elevates to another level.”
As psychotherapist Ella McCrystal tells Cosmopolitan UK, this subtle form of conformity signifies empathy and understanding, reflecting a healthy relationship. “The phenomenon can be seen as a non-verbal expression of affection: a way of saying, ‘I value your preferences and choices’. Just as imitation can be considered a form of flattery, mirroring each other’s style can communicate a deep appreciation for one another.” Outside the romantic realm, this can also be true for friends, family (just look at the Olsen twins, whose shared pared-back aesthetic led to luxury fashion label, The Row) and even colleagues – similar choices can indicate a cohesive team putting in the same amount of effort.
Then again, difference can be key, and preserving a sense of individuality is vital to any healthy relationship. While aligning looks and feels good, changing our personal style – which is so wrapped up in identity and the way we present to the world – or morphing into something else can only be negative.
“My previous boyfriend was the same size and shape as me and we used to share clothes all the time. It was fun (and a good way to save money) but I often felt that our styles were merging into one and we were lacking originality,” says 27-year-old junior doctor Ollie. “My new boyfriend and I tend to dress quite differently. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s just that we have very different styles that suit our body types and skin tones. I definitely prefer having my own individual look, although I’ll always be found stealing a few sprays of Le Labo or a cute accessory – don’t tell Nathan!”
Shifting style is natural, of course, but only if it’s authentic. In contrast, look at the way Kim Kardashian transformed while with Kanye, or how Kylie Jenner is in her so-called ‘Timothée era’, changing to a more relaxed, romantic aesthetic versus her overtly sexy looks when she was with Travis Scott. While change may happen organically, it’s important, even beneficial, to disagree, as Match dating expert Hayley Quinn points out. “Equally important as having things in common is feeling safe to disagree, to want to do some activities independently and to keep wearing an outfit that your partner doesn’t like,” she says. “Provided communication remains respectful, small differences actually help to sustain desire within long-term relationships.”
For some couples, it simply doesn’t matter much. “I don’t think we should be worried if our style doesn’t match our partner’s,” says sexologist Madalaine Munro. “I’ve never seen similar styles as a deal breaker for securely attached couples who have emotional intimacy.”
32-year-old marketing manager Katie and her long-term partner are a case in point, despite diverging sartorially since moving out of London. “When we lived in the city, I felt like we had a similar style," she says. "Since moving out to the countryside, I’ve clung onto my former looks (elevated basics and subtle prints; a lot of Sézane and Reformation), whereas my partner has fully embraced the rural aesthetic (Patagonia and Birkenstocks) and I can’t remember what he looks like in a shirt and jacket.”
But, she explains, it hasn’t affected their relationship adversely: “We’re aligned on most other things, or at least our approach to them is similar, so it doesn’t seem to matter... aren’t opposites supposed to attract anyway?”
It seems that despite the visuals, clashing couple style is not the red flag it can appear to be, so long as it’s not an outward symbol of deeper misalignment or conflict. The best sign of relationship harmony is when both parties feel comfortable enough to dress as they like – whether that matches or not.
Words by Jessica Burrell
*This story originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by Cosmo.ph editors.