Book excerpt: Translate my outfit
|February 29, 2012||Posted by Sophy Bot under Hipsterdom, Identity|
“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.” – Steel Magnolias fancy dress costume
Well, that and walk-in closets. After all, is there any better indication of the modern obsession with personal appearance than our need to have an entire room dedicated to housing our threads, kicks and baubles? There’s clothes for work, clothes for working out, clothes for going out, clothes for staying in, clothes for fancy occasions, clothes for going to the beach, clothes, clothes everywhere. Different types of situations require different types of clothing, and at a time when pretty much everybody around you is carrying a camera-enabled smartphone in their pocket, your poorly chosen outfit could very well follow you long after the day is over and the last of the wine has been poured.
More than just a carrier of social norms, what we wear is an outward demonstration of who we are. Before you even utter the words, “Hi, my name is,” your outfit has already sent a message. Clothing, in that sense, is not only a tool for covering ourselves up; it is a tool for communicating who we are. Wearing gold lamé to a funeral communicates just as loudly as showing up with a boombox blasting ABBA. Showing up to your office job dressed in hot pants and a tube top does the same. It’s loud. What we wear shows who we are and how we want to be perceived. No wonder The Container Store has become so popular; when clothing is communication, it’s important to have a closet full of the right things to say.
Provided you’re not living in a nudist colony, there’s a certain set of daily rituals you use to prepare yourself before leaving the house – grooming, dressing, preening, pruning and otherwise priming yourself for public appearance. Where you’re planning on going dictates the social norms required for your outfit, but the rest is up to you. Do you want to fit in or stand out? Are you going for classic chic or a modern conversation-starter? Underlying these questions is a basic fact of identity: how do I want to be perceived by others? Whether consciously addressed or not, how we dress is a way of telling people who we are and how they should think about us. But what happens when the signals get crossed and the meanings confused?
At a time when each of us is exposed to more cultural and personal options than ever before, misinterpretation of intent has become a common problem. I might think that this giraffe-print polyester vest shows that I’m open-minded and fun-loving, but to you it may appear childish and – dare I say it – hipster. Similarly, you might think those big ol’ diamond earrings you’ve got on show that you’re classy and sophisticated, but to me they might just be plain old pretentious. Though each of us is now exposed to more ways of dressing, more modes of fashion and more types of personal style in a single day than our grandparents were in an entire lifetime, the norms governing those different iterations of self-expression have not yet been agreed upon. You may know how to judge which type of blazer is appropriate for a tenured professor, but assuming that you know how to judge a particular type of mustache that has just reentered the cultural zeitgeist after years of obscurity is far less certain.
Just a century ago, nobody owned more than a few basic outfits for a few basic situations. Their options were limited and the message sent by each outfit was obvious and widely understood. Now that our options have increased exponentially – and on-demand 3D printing technology is on the horizon to increase those options further still – our clothing still talks, but we’re all speaking different languages. This is not the conformist, jumpsuit-wearing future once imagined by Star Trek and Logan’s Run. This is a full-on express-a-thon, only without the benefit of a Douglas Adams-inspired babel fish to translate what each of us is trying to say. We’re confusing each other in the name of expressing ourselves. Thankfully, the confusion can be easily corrected. All we need to do is recognize that our wires are crossed. We’ve progressed too quickly, picking up too many stylistic iterations and losing their meanings along the way. Until we can all agree upon what exactly it means to wear a pair of Wayfarers, we ought to just lay off of the judgment and realize that what I think it means doesn’t necessary match what you think it means, and let’s just agree not to even ask Auntie Mabel from Nantucket for her opinion quite yet. We’re confused enough as it is.
The above is an excerpt from my new book, “The Hipster Effect: How the Rising Tide of Individuality is Changing Everything We Know about Life, Work and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Image credit: Alaskan Dude