Outside In


CLOTHES DO NOT make people look good, people make clothes look good But people can also make clothes--and themselves--look preposterous, by dressing with the wrong goals in mind. Fashion Victims seem to hang from three kinds of racks--that of the Trendy, the Statement Maker, and the Dress-for-Success-er.

Every generation indulges in fashion and cosmetic trends which render it laughable to posterity. Today's college students were innocent by standers during the age of the perilous Platform Shoe, but they were willing (albeit junior) accomplices during the reign of Discowear and the Farrah-Do. Their historical reputation will be further pockmarked by the city dwellers who insist on dressing like cow punchers, cattle wrestlers, and bronco busters.

This age group is relatively fortunate, however; it escapes blame--by a margin of several babysitters--for the Nehru collar, Bell Bottoms, paper dresses, peace symbol neckties, and chalk-white lipstick.

A trend, like satire, can't succeed with an ignorant audience. During the early 70s, for instance, when citrusscented toiletries were the rage, some un-with-it shoppers exasperated cosmetics counter workers by whining, "But I don't want to smell like a lemon!" Likewise, future generations will scratch their heads over today's Heavy Metal chic, which makes its wearers look like walking chain collisions.

The Trendy discards individuality and even personal comfort in an effort to identify with the celebrated. President Theodore Roosevelt '04 once wrote to his sister from his ranch in the Dakotas:

I wear a sombrero, silk neckerchief, fringed buckskin shirt, sealskin chaparajos or riding trowsers; alligator hide boots; and with my pearl-hilted revolver and beautifully finished Winchester rifle, I shall feel able to face anything.

At first glance, T.R.'s costumery relegates him to the status of a turn-of-the-century "Texas Ranger" Trendy; but he was not a Trendy, because his wardrobe reflected a way of life which he actually pursued. While wearing his frontier get-up, the statesman not only posed for publicity stills, but also hunted down horse thieves as well, T.R. was no mere Rhinestone Cowboy.

A more clearcut example of trendiness is the Sid Vicious reincarnation stationed between the stacks in Lamont. The Punk and Ivy League lifestyles are not only incongruous, they are also mutually exclusive: No genuinely sordid and cynical Punker worth his razor blades would spend four years on the grounds of an alligator stronghold studying towards a Bachelor's.

On the subway last summer a Trendy, presumably inspired by the Flashdance heroine, had yanked her narrow-necked jersey so far down off the shoulder that she was left with only one useful arm. This self-imposed handicap--which prevented her from grabbing the handrail while boarding--was not only discomfiting to witness, but puzzling as well: the charm behind the Flashdance look is supposed to lie in the freedom of movement which it affords the wearer.

SOME PERSONS try to avoid trendiness by relying entirely on their wardrobes to project distinctiveness Ironically, though, outstanding or outlandish fashions usually end up wearing their owners. The majority of showy dressers look more like inhabitors than creators of style, because they channel all their efforts at self-improvement into surface area: Fashion becomes a questionable vehicle for self-expression when it is wrapped around a hollow tube.

The concept of fashion as social or political statement is as dubious as that of "sartorial individualism," because clothing is an unreliable barometer of ideological sincerity. Why shouldn't a Marxist wear a three-piece suit? Or a feminist, spiked heels and false eyelashes? Would dressing like a Prole or a Libber automatically authenticate their convictions? And, aside from the shock value, what was really so meaningful during the sixties about hippies wearing United States flags on their bottoms? The professional anti-Establishmentarian Abbie Hoffman--who did precisely that--held as archaic a view of women, for example, as any flannel suited corporate redneck.

Like the Trendy and the Statement Maker, the Dress-for-Success-er undercuts her personal image through a misuse of fashion. The careerist who feels insecure about her prospects within a man's world, and depends on a "Successful Person's" wardrobe to foster respectability, mocks her own professionalism. Her appearances at even minor occasions (say, a career seminar and Kennedy school panel discussions) with a surgically precise manicure; anchorwoman-perfect makeup; and topiaried coiffure, only magnify her self-consciousness. The incongruity between the Dress-for-Success-er's actual and contrived selves transforms her into a caricature of the Working Woman.

The Trendy, Statement Maker, and Dress-for-Success-er all belie the expressive significance of fashion, and fall short of possessing genuine style, because they are working from the outside in. It is paradoxical that so many clotheshorses who cherish the notion of fashion as individual "signature" execute forgeries on a regular basis, aping styles without regard to their consonance with personal physique and temperment.

The same outfit can communicate panache or pathos, depending on the nature of the hanger: When attire reflects strongly developed character, the wearer can get away with anything from Preppyism to transvestism, and perhaps (ironically) even inspire a trend in the process. But when fashion becomes an expression of identity crisis, the result is impostership, which only makes the individual look worse for wear.