A caveat, before we begin: this piece assumes general personal freedom in the choice of clothing. Obviously, not everyone has that luxury, whether because of personal poverty or stringent cultural mores or simple lack of availability in appropriate sizing. A number of organizations seek to help with this, in addition to the often-private practice of clothing swaps, but for many people, clothing choices are badly limited. This piece is basically aimed at people who want a Look and have the social and relative financial security to make it happen.
An anecdote: in the warren-like back room of the Gap store I worked at (until it shuttered last year, a different topic for another time), a coworker was lamenting how much she spent on clothes because of working there. “How do you not spend all your money on clothes?” she asked me, as she continued to fold rayon shirts on a gray plastic cart.
“I have a very specific aesthetic,” I said, “and a crushing awareness of my own poverty.”
Recently, I wrote a little about aesthetics, in which I tried to convince the reader that aesthetics have real impact in the real world and as such ought to be carefully considered. More recently than that, a comment on our article describing the Millennial Metanarrative pointed out that one thing successful Millennials have is a personal style, some kind of look. While that’s not universally true (I cannot name one time any of the various Chrises in the Marvel Cinematic Universe wore something interesting on the red carpet), having a particular look can have its benefits, and developing a personal look is what I want to talk about now.
Full disclosure: I grew up with, and continue to have in my adult life, an emphasis on clothing as something important, something to be considered — though obviously, not to the point of vanity. But I worked for Gap, Incorporated for many years (and actually I’m still on the books there, but given that I have another full time job, I am not there frequently anymore), and besides that, my mother was a fashion illustrator and is still a gifted seamstress; my father had the singular experience of being explicitly taught how to dress by an older man when he worked for, I think, the International Herald Tribune. (He rolled up to his first day, I believe the story goes, wearing cowboy boots for reasons that can mostly be ascribed to it being the ‘70s; the older man informed him that this would not do and taught him what would.) I was weaned, as a child assumed to be a girl, on the “rules” of dressing — the array of trompe l’oeil techniques that say long legs should be visually shortened by cropped trousers, or that patterns should be scaled to the wearer. My years at the Gap only gave me more time to think about how clothes work and what they do. I have also, for a variety of reasons, had to teach multiple men how to buy pants that fit. Basically, this is my shit.
Leaving aside the poverty mentioned in the earlier anecdote — also another topic for another time — what does it mean to have a specific aesthetic? For my purposes, a specific aesthetic is one that is not only considered, but deeply personal. (For clarity: I’m talking about sartorial aesthetics. I don’t decorate my house the way I dress, or I would have painted a lot more of the apartments I’ve lived in.) As I mentioned in my earlier piece, clothing is how you communicate things about yourself to everyone else without actually talking to them, which obviously we would all rather avoid. I’m not just talking about modelling clothing choices on a celebrity, though that can be a good place to start; I’m talking about the vibes we put off, the visual energy we give to a place in our modes of dress.
For my money, more than the “rules” of style, which really only work if you like (1) the way our culture has decided bodies ought to look and (2) the clothes you put on (if you dislike a garment, even a little bit, it can be as “flattering” as it wants and it’ll still look worse than something you love), it’s important to have a guiding concept or two. Personally, my guiding concepts are “trash wizard” and “22nd century urchin.” Functionally, this means that I own multiple pairs of black jeans and a irresponsible number of dramatic cardigans, but it also means that when I go to a place that sells clothes, I’m not just throwing pasta at the wall. I’ve created some kind of rubric for my decision-making, albeit one that admits both bowler hats and sneakers that would not look out of place in the Outer Planets.
Note that, to this point, I have not mentioned comfort. Since we all have to wear clothes at least sometimes, personal comfort bears consideration. Personally, I just really don’t like the way 90% of synthetic fibers feel against my skin, so I don’t fucking buy them. For many, comfort is the sole consideration: at least anecdotally, many of the people assumed to be boys when they were young were taught little beyond that. Comfort is indeed important, both for personal reasons and for structural ones: clothing suited to people with physical disabilities is hard to find, and many people have sensory issues of one kind or another. But barring these issues, comfort does not and, I feel, should not be the sole deciding factor in selecting clothing. And comfort can mean more than just whether something feels good on the body: many people wear shapewear that is not physically comfortable but produces a visual effect that means the wearer is treated in a way that makes them more comfortable in society. (Talk to anyone who wears a chest binder and you’ll see what I mean.)
But there are still further types of comfort, and these also play into sartorial decision-making and aesthetic-building. How comfortable are we with the deleterious impact of fast fashion on the environment, or the many abuses it enacts on the people who make it? Where and how we get the clothes we wear is also a major part of building an aesthetic that embodies an ethic and a worldview — again, impacting how people perceive us, while also seeking to do less damage. Where and how garments are constructed and textiles produced is now and should be a major concern to people thinking about the environment in general, which at this point should be all of us, given that if it’s not, we’re all going to die, and well-dressed corpses are no less dead.
All of this is, of course, deeply individual. One person making clothing choices to support an aesthetic will not change the world, though I like to hope that it can at least normalize things like gender nonconformity. But as John Waters has pointed out, if you’ve just shut down the government, you should at least have an outfit for that. We can at least try not to disappoint.