This post is a part of my Personal Development Project for May 2016.
I can’t believe I’m writing an article about clothes. Really, truly, I’m embarrassed. But bear with me because I have something to say. About clothes.
You are what you eat. Your words reflect your character. The things that we love tell us what we are. Insert more cliches and proverbs about how our essence is reflected in our actions here. But most obviously, our clothes give others an idea of who we are. What’s that old saying about first impressions? Yeah. You are the first thing that people notice, not necessarily your words or works. How you look and what you wear matters.
Keeping good hygiene is important. Maintaining a nice haircut can go a long way. Taking care of your skin is rewarding in both the short term and long term. Stand up straight. Walk with purpose. Not only will you look different, but you’ll feel a lot different if you make the tiniest adjustments. You’ll feel better, stronger, more confident. It’s worth the initial discomfort of breaking bad habits and setting aside time to take care of yourself.
But there’s something there in the clothes themselves too. Something subtle, but important.
Clothing signifies our tribe, and thus clothes reflect our values.
Being aware of how you look doesn’t mean you have to go to the grocery store in a suit and tie. That’s ridiculous. And actually, I promise that I personally will never even work at a place that requires me to wear a suit to work everyday. Why? Because clothing is often symbolic. Clothing “back in the day” was used to identify not just social status, but also which tribe you belonged to. And I don’t want to be in the same club as people who wear suits to work everyday. I don’t want to be associated with that lifestyle.
People who wear suits to work are usually businessmen. They’re serious, intentional, hard working, there’s no doubt. But there’s also a generalization that businessmen are materialistic and rarely have time for meaningful relationships. Whether or not that’s actually true doesn’t matter — the stereotype already exists. And I don’t want to be associated with that tribe of people.
There’s this show on TLC called What Not To Wear that I used to watch when I was in high school. It was pretty entertaining. Basically, these two “fashion experts” would confront people with really bad senses of style and take them on a shopping spree to improve their wardrobe. In my opinion, not all of the people on the show had terrible clothes. But some of the adult women on the show dressed like 15 year olds. It was unsettling. And it got me wondering how exactly we identify clothing as “childish” or “hippy” or “serious”.
To use architecture as an example, how do I categorize these buildings, exactly? I look that the first one and think, “Oh, that’s classical.” I look at the second picture and somehow know that it’s gothic, and the third is obviously baroque to me. But I don’t know how I know this, I just do. The associations are untraceable. They’re subconscious.
My first thought about the classical building is that it’s the columns that cause me to associate it with Greek and Roman classicism.
But here are some other buildings with columns. They’re obviously not classical. The columns in the first picture seem Moorish or Byzantine. They’re distinctly Islamic. The columns in the second picture look Chinese. I have no idea how I know this or how my brain makes these associations. It just does. And why it happens isn’t important in this article.
So getting back to clothes, certain styles and items of clothing can give the impression that you belong to a specific group. They rouse associations whether you like it or not. Wearing a polo gives off a different vibe than wearing a loose-fitting tunic. Wearing dress shoes causes different associations to be made than wearing boat shoes.
A personal anecdote
Every couple years, it’s time to update the wardrobe. Some stuff gets destroyed in the wash, other stuff doesn’t seem to fit anymore, and there’s always that one shirt with the mysterious stain that you should have thrown out by now but choose to wear anyway. I’ve been putting off buying new clothes because I’d rather spend my money on pierogi, art supplies, and weekend trips to fun nearby cities. But it’s really past time to get new clothes, so I’m going to spread out the wardrobe update over the course of the next few months.
So this week at H&M I got a new dress and pair of pants to start with the phasing in of the new and throwing out of the old. And when I put the clothes in my closet, I noticed something interesting. My two new articles of clothing stuck out like sore thumbs among the rest of my clothes.
The difference was really obvious to me. I got a pair of patterned harem pants (think “hippies and Aladdin”) that contrasted starkly with my skinny jeans. And the dress I picked out was bright chartreuse, loose and formless, and shin-length. It looked really weird hanging next to my quiet colored, short, form-fitting dresses.
I was confused for a few minutes. Why did I pick out these clothes exactly? I didn’t seem to notice at the store, but they were totally not “my style”!
Or were they?
I really liked the new clothes, and for the reason that they were loose and flowing. They were breathable. I felt not just pretty in them, but free. When I thought about it, I realized that I’m actually kind of tired of skinny jeans. They’re uncomfortable.
And the most interesting thing that I realized came when I put on that new dress the next day. I looked a lot like one of my best friends who wears lots of formless and flowing clothes. I want to say it’s coincidental. But I don’t think it is. It seems obvious to me now that I will at least subconsciously emulate the people I hang out with and look up to the most. It’s pretty hilarious though that I went to the store, bought the clothes, put them in the closet, and didn’t realize where the inspiration came from until I put them on. The entire process was subconscious. And this process of impression and influence that my friend has apparently had on me must have begun months ago. I only noticed now because I’m apparently dressing like her.
So it seems that I’m identifying with this friend and her tribe. I’m tossing out my skinny jeans and wearing that loose, new age-y stuff. I think it’s important to ask myself, “What associations exist around this tribe? Do I really want to be seen as a member?”
Openness, empathy, flexibility. These are qualities associated with “new age hippies”. So far so good, right? That all resonates well with me. But I think that indecisiveness and apathy are also associated with the tribe (“Yeah dude, whatever is good for you is good. It’s all relative anyway, you know? We’re all one, you know?”), two qualities that I’m certain I don’t possess. I’m an advocate of taking risks and making mistakes. I believe in putting 100% or nothing at all. You should do things right, you should do them well, you should do them fully.
There is a downside to every upside in life. For every pro there is a con. Every strength casts a shadow that we call weakness. And ultimately, there’s no right or wrong answer to what you should wear today and tomorrow and the next day. Your exact choices in clothing probably aren’t going to impact your life by a lot. But it’s still important to be aware of the little things we do that have little impacts on our lives. A bunch of little can add up to a lot.
So I’m going to keep wearing the clothes that resonate with me today, and tomorrow I’ll do it all again. And all the while I’ll be silently analyzing the inspirations for my choices in style and what they might convey to the people I come into contact with. Awareness is freedom. Awareness is empowerment.
Why clothes matter
It’s interesting to think about our personal style and clothing choices. It’s valuable to ask the questions “who am I?” and “who do I want to be?”. And it’s possible that clothes can help us (and the people we interact with) answer these questions.
Think about what your clothes imply about your values. Who and what do you want to be associated with?