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Jul 7, 2011

Fashion and Self-Expression

Readers, do you know the couples counseling truism that goes (and I'm paraphrasing), that choosing to say nothing at all (i.e. remaining silent, shutting down) is still a form of communication?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the meaning of how we dress each day, and if our clothing choices are always expressing something whether or not we're trying to communicate anything consciously.

Even though I love to sew my own clothes, clothing (or fashion) is not the primary way I express myself.  I mean, I like to look nice and all -- clean (or cleanish), poised, gentlemanly (remember those Allen Edmonds shoes?).  But I'm not trying to make a strong statement through the way I look. 

A long time ago, I wrote a post called "Are you a Sticker-Outer or a Blender-Inner?"  I'm happy to be a blender inner, albeit in shoes so good that someone else who appreciates good shoes might notice, like a secret signifier of good taste -- the worst kind of elitism, right?

Anyway, I think our choice of clothes -- even the most ill-fitting, lounge-around-the-house-or-drive-to-Walmart clothes -- is a form of self-expression, conscious or not.  The slob is saying, I am someone who doesn't define myself by my appearance.  Or perhaps, I look offensive to you and I know it and I'm not going to do anything about it, so there!

The world is full of fashion rebels eager to stick it to the establishment.

In days gone by, when fashion was dictated by a few powerful designers, fashion magazines, and (for men) traditions, it was easier to rebel against the status quo.  Anything outside the narrow scope of acceptable fashion would be considered rebellious.  Today, on the other hand, when anything goes, it's harder to express a rebellious, or anti-establishment position through one's clothing choice.

If anyone isn't sure what I mean by "establishment" -- it's not a term in wide use anymore -- see the definition here.

I've been spending a lot of time lately trying to make sense of the return of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit look.  This was the somber uniform men rebelled against for decades -- from greasers to hippies to punk rockers and beyond.  And yet in a perverse form of poetic justice, the staid establishment look has, in the first decades of the new century, come to represent hip rebellion.

Friends, I speak of the Mad Men look, coming soon to a Banana Republic near you!

Wise readers, help me here.  Is this ironic dressing?  I'm not so sure.  At a time when America is experiencing a steep economic decline, is this a form of nostalgia for an era of unchallenged American supremacy?  

Or is it just, ho hum, another swing of the pendulum between more formal dressing and more casual (the last swing being the 1980s)?

Or, simply due to the popularity of a television show?

When we put on clothes we're making a statement about who we are.  It's a statement we make not only to others, but also (and maybe most importantly) to ourselves.

If we dress like our favorite rock star, the Japanese kids on Harajuku street, or the CEO of Goldman Sachs, we're expressing our allegiance to an attitude, a set of values, a belief system.

Do you agree or disagree?  

And if the former, what does the way you choose to dress say about you?  (Be honest, it won't go beyond these four walls.)

Jump in!


  1. Great post, Peter! I agree that all clothing choices are expressive/communicative on some level. When I relocated to the Southwest from the Northeast, I purposely avoided turquoise and denim to communicate that I was "not from here" (and hence better).

    Sometimes I shudder to think at what my current clothing signifies to others--a lot of it's made by me, so perhaps "I don't care if this sleeve dips?"

    I'm okay with blending in, I just don't want to stick out in a crazy cat lady kind of way.

  2. You know, I hardly ever see stuff in the stores that I really want to wear. And I'm usually not wild about the colors (screaming yellow and black?!) I think I'm in between wanting to blend in and wanting to stand out. I guess I prefer to stand out in subtle ways. Today I'm wearing olive green linen pants (Burda); a black, scoopneck t-shirt; and red shoes. I like the little touch the red shoes make. I guess that hint of bright colors is sort of my signature.

    I do get tired of the jeans/t-shirt combo and the all-black uniform. Those are the blend-in types.

    Life's too short to spend it dressing for a funeral.

  3. Peter - I think for young men, it's rebellion against their dads and perhaps some nostalgia for the guys they feel their grandfathers were. For guys who are in their 20s now, their dads are Boomers, who rebelled against THEIR dads and grandfathers and threw suits, hats, 'good shoes' etc. into the ash heap of history and are STILL wearing (or trying to wear) the same clothing they wore in their 20s (which is why there are 'easy fitting' blue jeans in waist sizes that would have made today's boomer guys laugh their heads off when they were in their 20s). I think young guys look at their fathers wearing golf shirts and blue jeans or Dockers(tm) and saying to themselves, "that's old guy clothes; I want to look sharper than THAT!" I think that's why there is all the attention on the internet with the men's style blogs because you have a whole generation of young guys who a) don't want to dress like their dads and b) were brought up in a dress culture where there was no one to take them to a men's store and show them how to buy a suit that fits correctly, what makes for a good shoe, how to put together sport coats/shirts/ties, etc. At the same time, most of those men's stores in small towns across America died out with the generation of the last owners, so even that resource is gone for most. They are left with walking into JC Penneys and talking to some kid in a badly fitting suit who only knows what he was told by person he replaced. The amount of sheer men's clothing knowledge that has been lost is staggering. So you have all these young guys who've decided that Dad is a schlump and who want to look sharp and who are looking for knowledge. They don't want to blend in. It will be interesting how this all develops out.

  4. For me, a lot of it is situational. I work in the magazine industry and am surrounded mostly by thin, beautiful and really clued-up fashiony people. I can't compete in that game so I just opt out by wearing very anonymous clothes. Oddly, when I worked, briefly, in my home town, I felt more comfortable wearing more 'expressive' clothes, as I was less afraid of being judged. Maybe it's all in my head, but there's nothing like running into a fashion editor in the elevator to make you feel crap about your outfit.

    Also, often when I get dressed, I just want to be comfortable. I don't mean sweatpants or anything - that's a few steps too far - but it does usually mean black or dark navy jeans, and flat shoes. Those clothes don't represent my 'ideal' self, and a dress would be a more flattering silhouette on me, but that would require heels (I don't like the way dresses look on me with flat shoes) and I want to be able to walk everywhere, and not feel restricted by my clothing or, particularly, my footwear. That's hugely important to me - on the rare occasions I do wear a dress to work, I always regret it. So I guess that outweighs my need to express myself via my clothing.

    What I am TRYING to work on is a wardrobe that does both, but it's tricky.

  5. Very interesting post, I'm definitely a blender inner but I always try to look niceish... even if I am just going to Walmart haha!

  6. Over time, I've become a blender-inner. I used to wear whatever appealed that day, whether it was hotpants and tights or a long peasant dress. I used to turn skirts into jackets and curtains into blouses.

    I heard "You're so creative!" one too many times. I began blending in in t-shirts and jeans.

    I recently started sewing again after a long absence, and I am making clothes in red. When they aren't red, they combine multiple fabrics, and some of the fabric came from upholstery departments.

    I dress for comfort and ease of motion first. Then I dress according to whim.

    Do men have a need to create uniforms for themselves? I've been in offices where one man showed up in chinos and an oxford cloth shirt, and the next week, all of them were wearing it. When the seasons changed, they wore gray flannel slacks and a navy blazer.

  7. I agree - when we dress we are projecting an image into the world and trying to create an impression on those that see us. Hence why I have a set of clothes for work, a set for weekends, a set for exercise. There's very little blur between them as I'm trying to do or achieve different things in each.

    Work is smart and starting to veer towards a more vintage silhouette in serious colours because my job is serious! Jewellery or shoes add a splash of personality or levity. Weekends may be the same pattern but in a lighter coloured fabric with feminine prints. Accessories are minimal though. And exercise wear is bought and is comfortable. It's also coloured to blend - I don't want to draw attention to the fact I'm hot and sweaty!!

    I agree with Toby, a lot of knowledge on how to dress well has gone. My Grandmother would never have gone out with out her hair being set, powder and a scarf on her hair whilst out doors. And would NEVER have answered the door in her nightie!

    I think the more formal, sharp direction fashion is taking is in part a rebellion to casual boomer parents and the never ending desire for children to mark themselves apart from their parents. But as it's a popular look, they're not setting themselves apart from their peers.

    My ultimate goal for my wardrobe is to look grown up and sophisticated and as is often the case we take our cues from history, hence the resurgence of mid 20th century styles.

    Thank you once again for a thought provoking post - I love that you make me think about why I do things or make certain choices.

  8. That will be five cents, please...

  9. OMG, I am so old I forgot that people in their twenties might rebel against their parents...MY generation.

  10. Oh, Peter... I dress to hide my arms, to hide my tum, my bum, my legs... A burka would be a good choice for moi...
    I buy $0.50 clothes for a bod that I don't think deserves more... My 30's bod (41-23-34) was VERY WELL clothed, I'm 'a-tellin' ya...
    I am a sensuous woman who loves classy touch-me fabrics... I wear polyester and 65/35--what else do you get for $0.50??
    :( :( :/

  11. I think that some of the sticker-outers are just slobs--too lazy to clean up for a more pleasant social impression on other people, and comfortable in their sweats and t shirts. The Depression generation dressed partly to look like their life situation was better than it was--my mother paid close attention to appearances, even when she was very poor. Maybe our culture doesn't see any lines any more between private life and public life, and can't adapt to the tiniest discomfort for the sake of appearances. Kristina in Ohio

  12. I really don't think anyone who is shopping at a mainstream store like Banana Republic is trying to "rebel". I think it's more likely that BR put out suits themed from Mad Men for people who normally buy suits there. All the young men I see are still wearing their skinny jeans and flannel shirts.

    I like to wear vintage and thrifted clothes or things I've sewn over buying things new, I don't wear fur, leather, wool or silk, etc. I don't know if people can tell that I'm a vegan hippy liberal or not.

  13. Kristina, I think in the Depression the message was "I may be down but I'm not out." It was important not to look too downtrodden.

    Today, I don't think it's much of an issue, not in the same way. A pair of khakis and a button down shirt and you can look like Bill Gates. Clothes does not define the classes the way it once did.

    Reilly, I'd argue that the origin of the contemporary Mad Men look came out of a rebellion, if only generational. It's more mainstream now, but is still thought "cool." Or so BR believes...

  14. I definitely think it's just another phase of fashion styles. 20 years from now jeans will be the way to go again. Personally I'm excited to start seeing people dressing up again and bringing back the old styles. I think I should have been born in 1936 so I could have enjoyed the 40s and 50s. I hope this new sharper style will get everyone else out of the "leggings for pants" phase. I cringe every time I see it...

  15. Very thought provoking.

    Whether the Mad Men trend is because of the TV show, or nostalgia or a rebellion may depend on one’s age.

    For those of us over 50, it may be nostalgic longing for Camelot. As a woman, I don’t want to go back to the way women were treated back then. But through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia, those days always seemed to be sunny. Take a spin around the cable channels and note the proliferation of JFK-related programs. It’s no accident. We were a strong nation. We had strong leadership. The economy was strong.

    All the ladies, including my mom, wanted to dress like Jackie Kennedy. Today, I want to dress like Jackie Kennedy did then. Many of the clothes she wore during her First Lady years would be in style today.

    I think clothes do speak volumes about us. As the Anonymous poster mentioned the way Depression era people dressed, my mother never had any money but she also took great care in how she looked. She had a lot of pride and it was important that she not look like someone who was “poor.”

    Back in the 1980’s most companies had a dress code, whether it was in writing or not. One dressed for business and I blended in. I was usually in a suit or a blazer with a skirt or “nice” pants. I felt like a business woman. Today, people show up for work in t-shirts, sneakers, flip-flops, khakis, whatever, and nobody cares – about anything.

    When that trend first started, it felt good and I blended in again. I was tired of being super conservative; tired of having to wear pantyhose on the hottest of days. But it went too far and I think people in my age group are starting to say enough is enough and are regaining some pride in their appearance. I dream of Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe.

    I hope we can enjoy a long “middle ground” before the pendulum swings back to being too formal, ‘cause ya know I’ll need to blend in again.

  16. Peter, check out "Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things" by Marcel Danesi.

  17. I guess I fall in the middle of the road. I wouldn't mind sticking out, but I've gained a bit of weight since I turned 45, and not as confident in clothes that call attention to the midsection.

    However, I have to say, leggings should never have been invented for any reason. NOTHING could ever make me wear such an unflattering garment. I don't believe anyone anywhere has the figure for that look. UGH!

  18. It is terrible, but I always end up dressing in a way that I know will be appreciated by those around me! Therfore my wardrobe is a bit on the multiple personality side.

  19. I fall in between the boomers and the twenty-somethings, and I think Gen X ended up split down the middle in the sartorial sense. Half the people I know dress like their parents and the other half dress like they are ten years younger. And much of it looks pretty terrible, if you ask me. I'm no better. I got stuck in the punk/goth phase and I haven't figured out yet how to dress like an adult. I'm starting to accept that I can't wear teen clothes anymore, but the adult clothes out there are boring, hideous and unstylish. A lot of my friends have given up and dress mainly to cover up their bits and get their jobs done.

    I think the only way left to rebel is to embrace elder culture. John Waters wrote a wonderful essay for Sassy magazine back in the nineties, talking about this exact topic, "Here's how to horrify me so it will work." People should start deliberately letting their hair go gray, wearing leisure suits and granny pants, and accentuating their wrinkles. Have plastic surgery for pointless reasons -- reverse your ears for the sheer hell of it. In this youth culture, that's the last way left to shock people.

  20. I'm an art student at a small, tiny university. All the arts are housed in one building; theater, comm. arts, music, and studio.
    We don't need to talk about the theater people, of course. Comm. arts are always clean and tidy. They're probably lining up for Mad Men looks as soon as they graduate. Even the sports broadcasters show up in clean, new sweat pants. Annoying. The music people look like art students, and the visual arts people look like stevedores; very plain and durable, for the most part. I wear a black shirt and loose-fitting jeans, and brown shoes. Every day.

  21. People care about clothes and appearance much much more here in Campania -- a rather poor part of Italy. You never see women out in sweatpants and t-shirts unless they happen to be going to a gym (not a common pursuit here). You only see them in flipflops and shorts at the beach. I don't always try to meet the standard -- I'm too fond of "I'll wear what's comfortable, and what of it" attitude. Yet most of the time, I do try harder here than in my previous abode of suburban Virginia. One thing I've really come to admire is that women here wear bikinis and tight clothes no matter their physique. I admire their comfort with their bodies as they are. I hear all the same compunctions I have at 48 with a 3-kids paunch among many posts here. Indeed that keeps me from even sewing for myself . . . and taking on the easier task of sewing for my daughters. But even now, I have my sticking out days and I always feel better for them. Brava for every woman who struts her stuff to say it's great to be alive. Clothes can be a carpe diem statement. Thanks Peter.

  22. I've lived all over the country, and I can see regional differences, too ... Portland is notoriously casual, many of us are self-employed, and we wear too much black. Between the schlump factor and the no color factor, it can get a bit depressing!

    I've finally had enough and am sewing some colorful clothes.

  23. I grew up in the generation where women had to wear skirts every day to school. Stockings and girdles in middle school and onward. High school began to see the wearing of pants to school, but not exclusively, and most of my wardrobe was dresses. College was the same, mostly. I dressed and sewed to fit in. When I found work after college, the dress code was casual, and I spent my career in cute gym shoes and sporty clothes. So I can say I dress for comfort. These days that means slip dresses in the summer and comfortable cotton everything I can manage to find. Retro really doesn't appeal to me. I had to wear it the first time. The fabrics didn't stretch, and binding in unpleasant places was only outdone by bagging in the seat and knees of every thing. I don't miss the wrinkles across the front of a cotton or silk sheath dress after sitting down. Knits, and lycra in cotton are the best thing ever.

  24. There's another aspect of clothes-wearing: how the clothes make you feel. Putting on clothes is something like an actor putting on a costume for a performance. Even if you're a blender-inner, there's still a certain aspect of that when you get dressed in the morning.

    I like dressing nicely. It helps me feel more put together, more focused. And it's fun. And people treat me differently. I know it's not PC to say that, but its true. I could imagine that guys are finding the same dignity through dressing in a gray flannel suit.

  25. I have to agree with Steph. I feel better when I dress nicely and that doesn’t necessarily mean “dressed up.”

    It sounds terrible but I DO receive better treatment when I’m dressed well. I get better service, whether it’s at a store or a restaurant. I’ve worked in both retail and food service and I know how grueling it can be to service the public, so I’m not one to ever make a fuss or make demands.

    When I have a business meeting I dress for the part and try to look as polished as I can. If I don’t, I am not taken seriously. I don’t want to be ignored or have to repeat myself.

    Recently I stopped by a store where I’ve shopped for years, but I’m usually in jeans or sweats. This time it was after I had a client meeting so I was dressed to the nines (as best as I could). The guy in the store didn’t recognize me and welcomed me to his store and offered all kinds of help. Clothes really do make a statement, whether we like it or not.

  26. Appearances do influence perceptions. And, since I know I stick out personally, my look is less a challenge and more an opening statement. Besides, I've always been fascinated by psychology and why people choose their most intimate environment - their clothes.

    Also, whether it's nice or not, people are judgemental for all kinds of reasons and I do believe people dress to advertise their tribal allegiance or affinity for one.

    And comments regarding generational rebellion?My mum is an intellectual hippy who gave up tailored dresses and pearls years ago. I typically wear tailored items and yeah, I've got pearls. But she looks right and so, I hope, do I.

    The only time my clothes say "I could care less" is when doing yard work.

    Because indeed, I do care.

  27. Haha, this subject opens a can of worms/thoughts for me! We're totally living in a post-post-irony period. Seems like American culture overdosed on irony for about 15 years, and maybe people are getting tired of being angry at The Man (or so I hope--He is present in Mad Men, too).

    Seems like there is a lot of sincere revisiting of the past to try to understand it; there's so much change and turbulence afoot in the world that nostalgia is understandable. But I also agree with vickikate that the more formal grooming trends definitely seem like a reaction against the Boomer informality. (Ha, they asked for it!) And the whole 90s Gen-X non-fashion. (Guilty! My mother went through trauma watching me in flannels.)

    But overall, kids are so self-aware now, ridiculously more so than I was as a teenager; I tend to think that many are quite conscious of what allegiances they're expressing through fashion, even if it's a non-allegiance. As for me, going into my 40s, I've suddenly lost interest in most fashion mags which I've devoured since I was 13, and am really wanting to find a new type of personal expression that's more sophisticated and classic and less about allying with this or that. I'm pretty aware that I want to express and be seen as a mature woman. But the performer in me also likes to throw in a few surreal schticks a few days a week, especially with shoes.

    Great post, Peter, and I loved all the comments it inspired, too.

  28. Great post. I'm not sure I agree 100% with your last statement about what clothes say about you. I work in a corporate type environment, while everyday is casual, on client days I have to dress like the boys and girls at Goldman. I do this because how you dress in the corporate world is often how you are judged. I abhor what they do by the way. Other days I dress to represent me: quirky, eccentric, classic, with a love for all things rich and luxurious. I love formal attire and am sad that we as a society have let that go. To me, dressing well is a form of respect. In my case, to my employer, my friends, and my family. I certainly don't follow trends, but everyone notices and comments on how I dress. It's good to be an example sometimes :).

  29. A few years ago, I was working in the garden when my dog was hit by a car. I took him to the vet immediately, wearing dirty old clothes and bare feet. It was a large vet surgery, and the vet who saw us didn't know me. The dog was severely injured and the vet wouldn't even discuss treatment, just euthanasia. Because I was in shock, I didn't immediately figure out what was going on- he thought I wouldn't be able to pay for the dog's treatment. I pulled out my American Express card and told him the card had no limit and he needed to do everything possible for the dog. The dog recovered, but a poor wardrobe choice had almost been fatal! I found a new vet.

  30. To Paula who couldn't figure out why leggings were invented... I figured it out: It was cold here the other day and I had to wear a dress to work. I wore it with leggings underneath and boots with nice thick socks. The leggings acted as tights to keep my legs warm, and avoided the problem of wearing tights under boots where the sole of them slips and gives you grief that you can't easily fix without taking the boots off to sort out. Oh, and I like the look of leggings with a long enough blouson enough shirt so you can't actually SEE the size of the wearer's thighs.

  31. I certainly agree, that your sense of self is expressed through clothing.

    I recently had a period of illnes in my family, and therefore a lot of stress. During that period, I had absolutely no energy left over to consider clothing. If I could keep warm and was not indecent - mission accomplished!

    By now, things have calmed down, and I find myself thinking about clothing again. My priorities: It must be comfortable, flattering in colour and shape, and not be boring. To me 'not boring' means having some kind of pattern, preferably loud :-)Plaids just are not interesting enough!

    So my message is twofold: By showing an interrest in your looks, you signal control over your life and circumstances.
    The way you dress shows the way you think of yourself and your body. To me, acceptance is linked with wanting to dress comfortably, and not be pinched or restricted all through the day.
    Dressing in a way that suits your personality, shows an insight into yourself and a willingnes to show that self to the outside world.

    Seems I am NOT a blender-inner :-)

  32. One of the pictures (you will know which one in just a sec) reminds me of the web site

    bwa ha ha ha ha ...

  33. This is great. I think about it a lot being a costume designerish sort of person. In school we learn about conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, and there's a great new one, conspicuous concern.
    I find it fascinating that growing up in a rural community in Oklahoma, I adopted the whole Preppy thing hook line and sinker. (1982)
    As I look back now I realize that look was the most rebellious, punk thing I could've done at the time.

  34. The Mad Men craze is so depressing to me. I think the TV show tends to be great and the styling tends to be great. But it is a pretty unflinchingly dark look at the sexism, racism and homophobia of the era, isn't it? I find it practically despicable how it's become a hot, mainstream fashion "trend" -- not the clothes per se, but clothing the whole thing in a TV show that's mostly about how screwed up, boozed up, provincial and mean we were as a country in the sixties. I do think that it's more retrograde than cyclical that, in a time of economic malaise and a no-win war in the Middle East, people are hoping to retrench to what looks like a simpler time with simpler values. Simpler, fairly despicable values, as portrayed in Mad Men.

    To bring this back to fashion, it is fascinating how personal and cultural values get expressed through clothing choices, often relatively subconsciously by the wearer.

    Thanks for an intriguing post with great illustrative photos!

  35. I want clothes that make me smile when I see myself in the mirror. I want bright colours and fun prints - but not kid clothes, so it's a bit of a balancing act. I usually wear a skirt or a dress. A lot of people seem to like my clothes, I get a lot of nice comments. Colourful, feminine, not sexy - I think my clothes send out a very harmless message, inoffensive. I used to wear more provocative stuff when I was younger, and it's really relaxing not to. At the same time I don't feel I dress to blend in - I just stick out in a way that seems to be generally acceptable.


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