Posts Tagged ‘clothing’

I wrote last spring about clothing as a representation of identity. There’s an interesting dialogue going on now about clothing and other status symbols as they relate to class in the United States, begun by the essay “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” by Tressie McMillan-Cottom. Of course, this is not about exploring identity through appearance and presentation, as I was talking about, and much more about what it means to be able to carry off different signals of class and education through appropriate attire, speech patterns, and the like. This is a world in which whether you wear a cotton tank top or a silk shell under your blouse can mean the difference between being hired and being dismissed as not right for the job, regardless of any other qualifications.

This summer Theodora Goss wrote about the Lady Code:

“So dressing, for a woman, is a complicated affair. When you look into your closet in the morning — and even before that, when you buy your clothes in a store or online — you are making a choice about what you want to communicate. You are speaking in a coded language.”

This is, I think, why I am so interested in clothes, because I do see them as a means of communication. I didn’t learn the lady code or any of this sort of communication at home; my mom was completely not interested in matters of clothing or personal appearance. So I’ve had to learn it gradually as an adult, and I remember how much I still don’t know when I read some of Theodora’s posts. I don’t know the right kind of dress to wear to the ballet. I didn’t know that professional women don’t wear nail polish. For that matter, I didn’t realize the important distinction between a silk shell and a cotton tank top.

I’m fascinated that this coded language exists. Some people are unaware of it; some people don’t care about it (although when that is the case, it is usually because they are in a position in which they don’t have to care). Some people have trouble saying what they’d like to with it, either because they don’t know the language well enough or because they don’t have the financial wherewithal. That’s why historically if you were going to be introduced into society, you’d usually have some kind of sponsor, someone who could teach you all the intricacies you’d need to know to send the right message with your appearance and behavior.

John Scalzi talks about his go-to clothing choices (Levis, polo shirt, casual brown shoes) and how they represent “the basic uniform for a middle-class male.” Where I live, in the Silicon Valley, even a polo shirt for a man represents a certain amount of effort. Some men here tend to deliberately ignore style, which is a code in and of itself. Wearing random ill-fitting blue jeans and a free swag T-shirt from your company of employment? Probably a software engineer. Getting to wear those clothes is one of the perks of that position, at least if you’re a guy. I see that uniform less often on women around here, and even when I do see it, the clothing items tend to have a better fit, but I’m not close enough to the industry to say whether this is true across the board or not. I’ve also seen software engineers have to spruce up their wardrobes when they’re after certain promotions; they need their clothes to say something slightly different at that point. (But not too different. It’s a fine line.)

Look closely to see the little dog in this photo....

Look closely to see the little dog in this photo….

Today I’m wearing a black turtleneck sweater with metallic detailing, a ribbed blue shirt that peeks out from the bottom of the sweater, and stylish blue jeans. I’m wearing sneakers because I was out walking the dog this morning, but I’ll probably change shoes before I go out tonight. I’m not wearing any makeup, and I deliberately have a low maintenance hair cut. No jewelry today, although I’d add a necklace if I wanted to try harder.

All of those facts mean something in the coded language of dress and appearance. What are you wearing today? What messages do you think you’re sending? (And if you’re wearing a Halloween costume, I want to hear about that too, and especially what you think your choice of costume says about you.)


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I have something of a clothing habit.

I was thinking about why this might be the case the other day, because if I could get rid of my clothing habit, it would be better for my space constraints, not to mention my budget. I know I can get quite nostalgic about my clothing, but that’s not all it is because I gave away whole heaping bags of nostalgic clothing a few months ago, and yet my clothing habit still exists.

But I realized that for me, what’s exciting about clothing is its representation of possibilities of identity. There’s a reason there’s a stereotype of teens being obsessed with clothing (and really, appearance in general) right at the same time that they’re exploring and experimenting with who they are. And I have all those possibilities of who I could be hanging in my bedroom to be pulled out at any time.

This is me needing to get a lot done at home.

This is me needing to get a lot done at home.

Of course, appearance and other markers such as vocabulary and accent are used by people to categorize each other. And as much as we might not like that this is true, it is true. How we present ourselves to the world matters. People will treat us differently based on the assumptions they’ve made about us, and some of those assumptions are based on what we’re wearing and how we’re carrying ourselves.

But what’s really interesting to me is how we can use things like clothing and hair style and posture to change ourselves from the outside in. If I’m wearing a cute skirt and blouse and boots, I feel very different from when I’m wearing a fitted T-shirt and jeans, which feels very different from if I’m wearing extremely baggy clothing. So my closet becomes about having access to the choice as to how I want to feel today. Do I want serious practical “I’m taking on the world today and getting stuff done” clothes? Or do I want active sporty “I might actually exercise today” clothes? Do I want “I am elegant and refined and fascinating” clothes? Or “I am sick and just want to hide out at home all day” clothes? If I’m wearing a Disney T-shirt, that says something very different from if I’m wearing a black shift.

Whereas this is me wanting to go out to eat tapas and have conversation about what it is to be an artist.

Whereas this is me wanting to go out to eat tapas and have conversation about what it is to be an artist.

It’s not just clothes either. A few years ago, thinking it would improve my writing, I read The Definitive Book of Body Language, by Barbara and Allan Pease. After reading the discussion on posture, I decided to experiment on myself. I tend to cross my arms in front of me (or do a half-cross like in the above photo), which isn’t a very open posture. So whenever I thought of it at parties or conventions, I would deliberately put my hands behind my back in a more confident posture. Once I got past the initial awkwardness, I began to feel more confident as a result of standing differently. And now I stand that way more often without thinking about it. Pretty neat, huh?

Unfortunately, this train of thought did not lead to me ditching my clothing habit. But it reminded me that sometimes playing with our identities, even if it’s only in small and outward ways, can help us both learn more about ourselves and change ourselves. It’s a way to honor the fact that our identities are often complex and multi-faceted. And it is a way to remind ourselves of how much of life is really making believe and playing pretend, just as it was when we were children.

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