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How to Understand Fashion

Choosing our fashion is a relatively new luxury, and this ability to choose has endowed us with more power than we know. Even just a thousand years ago, lipstick was considered scandalous and different fabrics reflected not just art but hierarchy. Fashion is more than fabric; it’s a language that immediately communicates who we are, or sometimes, who we aspire to become.

Fast forward the clock to the time of the Nixon versus Kennedy debate. History loves reminding us of Kennedy’s beauty, his picture-perfect wife and picture-perfect family representing the ideals and dreams of America. And then we have Nixon: not nearly as glamorous and young, but indeed was said to have a much stronger debate and presidential posture. Still, the cameras turned towards Kennedy, and so did the people.

As if the fabric of our clothes were imbued by mystical powers, the swagger in your suit or the way you walk in your dress either enchants or disenchants the audience. I think it’s worth understanding why.

Lewis Lapham—curator and editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, Fashion edition—said the following about fashion:

…Prior to the ages of scientific enlightenment and democratic revolution, clothes served as statements of function and rank within societies grown accustomed to a presumably God-given distribution of wealth and privilege. Clothes didn’t make the man, they signified the man already made, usually at birth—as king or commoner, tinker, tailor, soldier, beggar-man, prostitute, priest.

In the past, a commoner masquerading above his or her class was severely fined or punished. Nowadays, if you have the finances, you have more leverage in how someone perceives you or how you perceive yourself. If you walk into a board meeting with jeans and a black turtleneck, you’re communicating one thing; if you walk in with a tailored suit and a Burberry trench coat, you’re saying something else. Not only are you telling yourself a story, your audience is also telling themselves a story about you, for good or for ill.

Emily Post—acclaimed American author famous for writing about proper social graces—said in her book Etiquette,

Clothes are to us what fur and feathers are to beasts and birds; they not only add to our appearance, but they are our appearance. How we look to others entirely depends upon what we wear and how we wear it; manners and speech are noted afterward, character last of all.

But why else does fashion play a part in our social and cultural game? Beauty impacts the way we treat others, but why is it so difficult to look beyond a price tag or a brand name? Scottish philosopher and pioneer of political economy, Adam Smith, once said,

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely, or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred.

Perhaps the fastest ticket out of a world of loneliness and status anxiety and into one of acceptance and belonging is through fashion. William Hazlitt, in an essay written almost 200 years ago called On Fashion, captured the social nature of fashion and why we all, even today, are to some extent compelled to play along in this game:

Fashion is an odd jumble of contradictions, of sympathies and antipathies. It exists only by its being participated among a certain number of persons, and its essence is destroyed by being communicated to a greater number. It is a continual struggle to keep up with each other in the race of appearances, by an adoption on external and fantastic symbols as strike the attention and excite the envy and admiration of the beholder . . . .It takes the firmest hold of the most flimsy and narrow minds, of those whose emptiness conceives of nothing excellent but what is thought so by others, and whose self-conceit makes them willing to confine the opinion of all excellence to themselves and those like them.

Another way of saying how fashion takes hold of “flimsy and narrow minds” is, I think, that people desperately want to belong, feel seen, and be heard.

It reminds me of a growing tribe—called sneakerheads—that use brands like Nike, Air Jordan, and Adidas to convey status, worth, belonging, exclusivity, and bravado. Some collectors purchase these sneakers as trophies for collection, some purchase them to turn a profit, and others use them to communicate to the world about who they are or what they represent.

Rapper Kanye West collaborated with Adidas to create his signature Yeezy Boost sneaker last year. Box price is $200, but because of the emotional and cultural associations tied to this shoe, they resell at 10 times the box price on eBay and through third-party sellers.

Try to understand that for a second. The material and quality of these shoes don’t even compare to that of an expensive and notable brand like Louis Vuitton. But the shoes sell out fast and people are willing to pay 10 times the amount they’re worth. They’re not paying for utility or durability—they’re paying for the emotional and cultural connection that they give. They’re paying to belong, to be envied, to subtly say, “People like me can acquire things like this.”

Miguel Cane said it well:

Elevate man to eminence and you will see his spirit expand, as if being up higher makes him feel larger. Put an ugly dress on a beautiful girl and you will see her character taking on much of the dress that covers her. Fashion is like heat; it penetrates and animates.

There is nothing inherently wrong with fashion. Hazlitt was correct when he said that fashion exists only by its being participated among a certain number of persons. But to be disillusioned by a well-tailored appearance, to be blinded by the halo that beauty creates, is to lead your life with one eye willfully closed. The job candidate that you interview that wears a Burberry trench coat is no more intelligent or capable than the person who walks in wearing Levis and a North Face. Fashion is just a game and participation is not mandatory.

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