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What’s Your Kibbe Type?

David Kibbe is hardly surprised that his method for enhancing one’s beauty has stood the test of time. “There’s nothing like this, and there never has been,” he said.

An image consultant trained in the 1980s era of beauty classifications, where every woman had a “season” and knew her face shape, he created the Kibbe body-typing system as a corrective to what he called “fear-based” style advice that told women they needed to minimize their features.

Rather than advising short women on how to look taller and thin women on how to fake an hourglass figure, he aimed to help them understand and embrace their silhouettes, which he’d categorized into 13 types. Instead of the literal lexicon of “straight” and “curvy,” he used aspirational language to emphasize the beauty of each body type.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the Kibbe system was, if not groundbreaking, a welcome rubric for dressing. Mr. Kibbe appeared on “Oprah” and the “Today” show, was profiled in People, and became an expert source in lifestyle coverage, including in The New York Times.

But today, the book in which he codified his system, “David Kibbe’s Metamorphosis: Discover Your Image Identity and Dazzle as Only You Can,” is out of print and almost impossible to find. (The cheapest copy on Amazon is listed at $464.95.) The advice shared in online excerpts feels dated: “Dramatic” body types are advised that “shoulder pads are essential in every garment you own, without exception,” and “romantics” are encouraged to buy “elegantly slim briefcases.”

Despite all this, the Kibbe method has been gaining traction with a new, digital audience. On TikTok, videos tagged #kibbebodytypes draw hundreds of thousands of views. The Kibbe forum on Reddit has grown from fewer than 5,000 members in early 2020 to more than 30,000.

In beauty-focused corners of the internet, you may find someone identifying as a “flamboyant natural” looking for advice on dressing her “blunt” bone structure, or a video analyzing the “Euphoria” star Alexa Demie’s “yin” and “yang” balance. There’s also an array of online quizzes that aim to elucidate one’s type.

Seeing such interpretations of his work has been “wonderful, and alarming,” Mr. Kibbe said over lunch at Cafe Luxembourg on Valentine’s Day, dressed in an orange coat, a patterned blue tie with matching pocket square, and a mustard yellow velvet blazer. (He’s a theatrical romantic and an autumn, he said.)

He worries that some of the principles laid out in his book have been taken out of context. It bothers him when TikTok influencers profess to know other people’s types.

“To do this for someone else, you need to be trained,” he said.

Growing up in a small town in Missouri, Mr. Kibbe, 66 (though he “disconnected” from numerical ages “years ago”), was fascinated by screen divas like Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn, who helped form the basis of his body-type schema.

The Kibbe system relies on Old Hollywood archetypes and a balance between what he calls “yin” (softness, curve) and “yang” (sharp angles, edges). If you’re all yang — tall and lean with sharp shoulders, like Katharine Hepburn — you could be a dramatic. If you’re all yin, with soft curves like Marilyn Monroe, you’re probably a romantic.

Naturals (yang-dominant but “blunt” rather than sharp, often with broad shoulders, like a ’90s supermodel), classics (think Grace Kelly) and gamines (petite and high-contrast) are somewhere in the middle. The types are modified using adjectives like “soft” (Sophia Loren is a soft dramatic, for instance) or “flamboyant” (Audrey Hepburn, a flamboyant gamine). For each one, there is a set of guidelines on how to dress to look one’s best.

“Glamour is an important thing,” Mr. Kibbe said. “It’s appealing. And everyone wants to be appealing.”

Merve Emre, a professor of English at Oxford and the author of “The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing,” said that the language of typing systems can help to “externalize what feels interior, what feels private, what feels invisible, about your sense of self.”

The Kibbe system, like the Myers-Briggs test, also has a social component: Finding out that a celebrity shares your type may help you “feel a connection to another person, a very glamorous and visible and beautiful kind of person,” Professor Emre said.

The various types illustrate a slightly more expansive notion of beauty than is often presented in women’s magazines, where even today tall, lean women remain the standard.

“When I discovered Kibbe, I realized, ‘Oh, you don’t have to be that to be a woman, to be beautiful,’” said Ellie-Jean Royden, 20, of Norfolk, England, a style consultant and self-described soft classic who posts frequently about Kibbe types on TikTok. She said that adjusting her style to be more Kibbe compliant — swapping out jeans and loose T-shirts for softly tailored dresses — wasn’t difficult. “It gave me permission to surrender into what I like, which is quite classic styles,” Ms. Royden said.

That’s not to say the system is without flaws. The specificity and complexity of Kibbe typing can prompt women to obsessively analyze their appearance. And because of the original system’s reliance on thin, white actresses, many popular online illustrations of the 13 Kibbe types are lacking in diversity.

Brenttany Edwards, 27, a content creator who lives in Manhattan, was moved to make a TikTok video on Kibbe archetypes for Black women after another video on the platform had failed to represent a diverse group. “I thought it was really important for Black women to see the different archetypes on a face that looks like theirs,” Ms. Edwards, a flamboyant gamine, said.

Still, in a rapid trend cycle accelerated by fast fashion, Kibbe fans are grateful for a consistent reference for styling themselves. “I think people are drawn to it because they no longer feel stuck in the loop of trend after trend, and they’re getting cemented in actually understanding themselves,” said ChloeAntoinette Santos, 19, a costume design student who lives in Corona, Calif. Once she decided that she was either a soft classic or a romantic, she ditched high-waisted pants for mid-rise ones.

Mr. Kibbe is happy to see his work reaching an online audience. He himself often participates in the Facebook group Strictly Kibbe, which admits new members on an application-only basis. (Each applicant must affirm that “David’s work is the only work that counts in the Strictly Kibbe universe” and that “David’s word is law because it is his work.”)

He is ambivalent, however, about the emphasis and urgency most online communities place on finding one’s type. He sees his system as a journey best suited to the one-on-one consulting sessions that still make up the bulk of his business. He speaks with earnest animation about his past clients, including a low-income transgender woman he worked with for free and a wealthy Silicon Valley couple looking for professional polish: how gorgeous they all were, how passionate, how special, how unique.

“The image identities are like the country you live in, but you’re an individual, a city or neighborhood in that country,” he said. Beauty, he added, “comes from individuality.”

But, he insisted, style does not come from personality. “When people try to dress their personality without having technique, they look kind of eccentric, to say the least,” Mr. Kibbe said. He believes that personality, or “essence,” can be enhanced by following his advice on shape and texture, but that one cannot dress well on essence alone.

“You remember ‘Great Expectations’? Miss Havisham has been there for 40 years in the same outfit,” he said. “That’s what people look like when they try to do that.”

Yet the Kibbe system itself often conflates personality with physicality. One entry from Mr. Kibbe’s 1987 book states that romantics, defined by a curvy figure, “possess extraordinary human empathy” and that logic is secondary to their “innate experience of a situation.” Gamines might have a “bubbly energy,” Mr. Kibbe said, and a soft dramatic, with her blend of yang and yin, is both “bold” and “receptively accommodating” according to his book. “The key is the integration of the inner and outer,” Mr. Kibbe said.

Some may take issue with the essentialism of such logic. While Mr. Kibbe sees it as analogous to astrology, the system nonetheless suggests that something true and inherent about a person can be gleaned from their bone structure.

Mr. Kibbe is sanguine. “You look the way you do because that’s part of who you are,” he said.