A unified theory of fashion.

Just what the world needs: another person weighing in on the meaning of style, right? One reason we’re all obsessed with how we cover our bodies is that, generally, we all (full-time nudists excepted) cover our bodies. There are certain parts of the body — which differ culture-by-culture — that are sacred enough to conceal, and how we choose to shroud those parts is a signal, a clue to who we are and how we perceive ourselves, as tempered by our circumstances. Bodies are generally adorned with things. Naturally, we’re interested in those adornments.

Essentially, every outfit is an autobiography.

There are as many ideas about fashion as there are heads in which ideas percolate, but those I’m interested in unpacking concern the negative elements of the industry, i.e., “slaves to fashion” and the consideration of style as self-representation, to wit, how do clothes help us understand ourselves, alter our perceptions, and affect our circumstances?


fashionista: “enslavement”

Above all, those on this side of the argument contend, clothes are functional; they’re nothing more than a form of individual shelter from environmental forces like sun, wind, rain. Thoreau warned, in Walden, to “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes…” He recommends becoming a new person in order to fit the old clothes of a simpler world.

Valid points are made when considering what is called “fast fashion”, the multi-season cycles of clothing lines which rotate in and out of retail stores and sites, as if they’re on one of those sushi conveyor belts. Oh, and also like those sushi belts, don’t worry, the same piece will come back around again soon. The biggest problem with this kind of clothing is that labor is outsourced to markets where conditions are poor and worker safety is unregulated (which is to say, labor is cheap), so that retailers can keep up with the frenetic demand for disposable fashion. Robin Givhan states, “…we have created this idea of what a bargain is and we want things so cheap that — at some point along the way — somebody is suffering…” Luxury is defined as anything you don’t need, but, maybe a bit like Veruca Salt, you want to have it. Of course, this could be as innocuous as a chocolate bar or as toxic as a factory of women shucking  them by the thousands to find you a golden ticket.

It’s also true that, for some, identity goes no deeper than the red sole of a pair of Manolo Blahniks or the interlocked Cs on a Chanel handbag. The fashion industry’s lifestyle fantasy, with its origins in the 1920s advent of advertising as a trade, is a fiction. It doesn’t exist except under those many layers of artifice, like a stack of mattresses with a pea at the bottom, an arbitrary way of separating the princesses from the commoners. Cintra Wilson dubs this lifestyle branding: “Fantasies for people who have forgotten to have any of their own,” (313).

But the beauty & fashion industries can’t duplicate the delicate nuances of a style that really represents a person in the world — the best they can do is to maneuver the Venn diagram of desire and advertising to influence consumers in such a way that sells the fantasy to the highest bidders. Wilson reminds us that codes of dress, whether in the HR handbook or on the glossy foldouts in magazines, are at their core, restrictions, whereas style is permission that you give yourself to press beyond those boundaries, surpassing artifice for art. “Even if we can’t afford the painting in the museum, we love looking at it. No debate about fashion can exclude the priceless value of joy,” (Patner).

And joy, I think, is something we overlook if we think of clothing as merely functional. If one occupies a place of privilege that allows a consideration of pleasure in the wearing of garments, one should embrace that delight. Shred the do/don’t lists and wear what brings you the most happiness. Some of my most successful outfits have been mainstays on all the “don’ts” lists for fat women, e.g., don’t draw attention to “problem areas”, don’t reveal body parts that you’re not proud of. The day I wore a hot pink tulle skirt that failed to hide my hips and stomach, I tallied more than twenty emphatically expressed compliments from women who appreciated the whimsy inherent in my choice of skirt, ranging from “you’re so badass in that skirt!” to “that skirt is SO. BEAUTIFUL.”; I was even stopped by a street fashion photographer for an impromptu photo shoot. Another example? My biceps are not toned, in fact, they’re pretty flabby. But I wear sleeveless dresses and blouses all the time, when it’s hot outside, and I feel just fine about it. I don’t feel a single shred of shame about the shape of my bare arms.


Which brings me to my own theory of what fashion is for…

fashionista: liberation

Personal style fosters self-awareness. When I stand in front of my closet to pick an outfit, I ask myself: what’s on my agenda today? how do I feel today? and, more importantly, how do I want to feel today?  The outfit I choose for any given activity reflects more than what looks back at me from the mirror: it can be a kind of weather vane for inner atmospheric conditions.

Most people have fashion “tells”. For instance, if I’m not feeling well — if I have cramps, or am hungover, or woke up late & I grabbed literally the first thing within reach to put on as I scurried out the door — I wear casual pants, either jeans or those crepe sweatpant-style pants we’re all wearing these days. I wear heels most days because I like the kind of stomping confidence I get by being a few inches taller than I am in sock feet. And when I’m leading a tour or teaching a class, I wear what I think of as my “congresswoman” outfits — high necklines, conservative hemlines, and a dash of personality, via a pin, scarf, or blazer of some kind. Of course, this theory only goes so far — I mean, sometimes what we wear is determined largely by whether we were able to get to the laundromat this week or not. It’s wise to remember that above all, style is highly personal, and always subjective. But in general, and as Cintra Wilson states it, “…fashion consciousness isn’t about fashion as much as it is consciousness,” (312).

This consciousness manifests primarily in how fashion changes your mood, and also in how that — mood combined with style — can change your circumstances. In short, we become the characters we create for ourselves. Capital-F Fashion’s modus operandi is to manufacture a culture of desire, but lower-case-s style can be a humanizing, connective force, a gathering to yourself all the pieces you’d like to assemble in the puzzle of who you are constantly becoming. When you discover and refine style, you can use it to become the person you want to be. It’s that trope about dressing for the role you want: the development of one’s visual interface with the world, a kind of UX design for the self — how will others interact with you? how will you present yourself to them? In my job, where I could “get away with” dressing business casual at all times, people comment on my fashion choices often enough that it’s a thing: yes, I’m comfortable, no, I’m not trying to prove anything; I wouldn’t think twice about how differently I dress compared with my colleagues if it weren’t for the fact that it gets called out for me to consider. I wear the clothes I wear because I like them, and I like wearing things that I like. It’s that simple.

…But the truth is, I do end up projecting things at work and in the world, that reflect this person I’ve made myself into. People tell me I am friendly (when in colorful dresses) or scary (in spike-shouldered sweaters). I have been described as hard-working, organized, and prepared — and I think the reason for this is because I am those things. I’ve unconsciously developed a visual interface that represents hard-working, organized, and prepared to others because I follow my preferences when I decide what to wear. Dress for the role you want? Sure. But also, for the love of pete, dress to make yourself happy — and then you probably will be.

I presume there’s plenty to critique in this ragged little late-night, coffee-fueled manifesto on style — after all, it is difficult to see how one’s particular cocktail of privilege manifests itself — but every manifesto is (or, if not, should be) a work in progress. My favorite fashion diktat is summed up beautifully by the very revere’nd Cintra Wilson: “If there are no fashion rules, then it’s impossible to break them,” (243).

Easy enough: Anarchy 101 for fashionistas.




Fashion blogs:


Luciana has amazing style, and describes her blog’s animus as a cross between two concepts embedded in the name of her site. Anziehen means getting dressed as well as attraction. She interprets attraction as a function of attitude, self-awareness, and bold choices.


“Founder/blogger/photographer Scott Schuman began The Sartorialist with the idea of creating a two-way dialogue about the world of fashion and its relationship to daily life.”

Style lookbooks:

I Love Your Style: How to Define and Refine Your Personal Style by Amanda Brooks

Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen

The Truth About Style by Stacy London

Paris Street Style: A Guide to Effortless Chic by Isabelle Thomas and Frédérique Veysset

Fashion critique:

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline

Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style by Cintra Wilson

Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz


“The High Price of Fashion” by Josh Patner, 2/13/06 http://nymag.com/fashion/06/spring/15735/

“The Real Costs Of Cheap Fashion” with Michel Martin hosting Robin Givhan, NPR audio broadcast, 5/1/13 http://www.npr.org/2013/05/01/180304715/the-real-costs-of-cheap-fashion

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