For eight years, I had to wear a uniform to school. While doing so, I never felt quite myself. The colors were boring, and the style expressed severity and conformity. Only when I made the uniform my own by adapting it to my tastes as much as I could did I begin to feel comfortable with it.
Almost everyone has felt something similar; wearing clothes you don’t like, that don’t suit your tastes, elicits a general feeling of unease and discontent.
This attests to the fact that clothes have more than a merely utilitarian role in life. If they needed to be only functional objects, providing protection, warmth, and modesty, then, as long as they did the job, it would make no difference to us how our clothes looked. But, obviously, it does.
Clothes communicate something about the wearer. As commentator and former fashion editor Caryn Franklin writes, “Fashion offers a dialogue rich with social and political meaning for those who want to unlock the language of clothes. . . . Way beyond functions of protection or warmth, we recognize the power of clothes to proclaim or augment individual and collective identity.”1 Throughout history, thanks to laws, social conventions, and cost, people’s clothes typically expressed their status and/or the values of the group they identified with (such as their religion or profession). But with the growth of industry and the withering of sartorial laws and customs, people increasingly turned to their wardrobes as a means of expressing their values.
How do clothes convey what’s important to us? Many people have trouble articulating why they’re attracted to certain styles, and they may even think their tastes are causeless. The effect of different styles is, in the words of Virginia Postrel, so “immediate, perceptual, and emotional” that often there seems to be no cause for why we like certain aesthetics but not others.2 But, as Postrel argues in The Substance of Style, “Aesthetics conjures meaning in a subliminal, associational way, as our direct sensory experience reminds us of something that is absent, a memory or an idea.”3 The associations we develop throughout our lives imbue certain clothes or styles with meaning, and that meaning causes us to like or dislike those looks. . . .
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1. Caryn Franklin et al., Fashion: The Definitive Visual Guide, 2nd ed. (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2019), 8.
2. Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), 6.
3. Postrel, Substance of Style, 6.
4. Postrel, Substance of Style, 103.
5. Postrel, Substance of Style, 182.
6. Karl Lagerfeld, The World According to Karl: The Wit and Wisdom of Karl Lagerfeld, ed. Jean-Christophe Napias and Sandrine Gulbenkian (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018), 56.
7. Bruce Block, The Visual Style: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media, 2nd ed. (Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2013), 106; Michael Rabiger, Directing the Documentary, 6th ed. (Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2015), 394.
8. Block, Visual Style, 109.
9. Franklin, Fashion, 8.
10. Postrel, Substance of Style, 108–9 (emphasis added).