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Ah, clothing: that old standby of social catagorization. When all else fails, when we are thrust into a room (or college) full of strangers, we can always gravitate to the people whose outfits seem more familiar than their wearers. From this we can start a conversation, be it with the “I have that sweater in green” approach, or the more casual, perhaps slightly confrontational (for the males among us, to avoid looking foppish) “You saw [favorite band] at [local venue] last year? [Expletive]!”
For this reason, time spent investing in our clothes seems like time well spent. Although it can border on the ridiculous—my sister likes to start ripping her jeans at soon as she buys them; my friend Rose will hem and tuck at a shirt until it is completely recast—these efforts pay rich dividends. We end up cultivating a unique style, one that accentuates our good features, hides our weak ones, and communicates to the world—particularly to the individual subculture to which we feel connected—all of our loves, hates, regional ties, interests, and politics. Right?
For all the thought we put into our clothes, for all the steadfast self-images that we cherish (“Today I look casual/sporty/intellectual/offbeat”), we are sometimes given a rude awakening as to the importance of our appearances, and as to how much anyone is really paying attention. Last spring I went to dinner with an aquaintance who is an Eagle Scout. I was wearing an old t-shirt I had picked up at a (admittedly trendy) consignment shop in South Philly. It has a picture of the White House and underneath it reads: “Girl Scout Troop #114.” I was never a Girl Scout, but when I found the shirt in the store bin my mind immediately began racing with ironic possibilities: “The girl scout idea belies my age... The White House implies a diabolical connection to this independent organization, not to mention the contrast between this image and my own politics... Brilliant!”
When my friend and I sat down in Annenberg and I unzipped my sweater, he stared at the t-shirt and his face twisted in confusion. Finally he said,
“Are you a Girl Scout?”
“No.” He paused again, troubled.
“Did you kill a Girl Scout?”
Perhaps this is the common downfall of the English major. I still wear the shirt—it’s comfortable, and it fits better than most of the t-shirts I own. And I still think there’s much rich irony to be had, although perhaps in unexpected ways. But I have modified my views on style a bit since that dinner conversation.
I still believe that what we wear is an important choice (although my appearance lately may seem to contradict that opinion, thanks to my course schedule this semester). I’ve come to see, though, the limitations of clothing as communication. The idea, however attractive and fun it may sound, that we can view our clothes as a means of forging identity, as a way of expressing our complex personalities to the world, tends to fall short in practice. Style may gesture towards an affinity for a particular group or culture, but the goal of truly individual expression gets swallowed up by our tendency to stereotype, a lack of attunement to the details that my sister, for example, so carefully works into the angle of the rips in her jeans, the placement of various pins onto her purse, to make her style not just “counterculture,” but unique.
I’m not quite ready, however, to give up on my clothes and view them as nothing more than practical necessities. I like to develop relationships with what I wear. Clothes are what we live in, and when I’m breaking in a new sweater, making it my own, I like to think of the Irish patterns I used to knit when I was younger. I read with fascination about the history of these cable patterns: each one belonged to a particular clan. They wore these patterns not to much to display their family identity—although doubtless that was part of it—but primarily to feel connected to this larger community, to this family whose marks literally made up the material in which they were living and working.
The purchase of a garment signifies many decisions, some of which we may not even be considering: what markets we are going to support and reject, how important status is to us, how genuine the expression of this garment is, and if it is genuine, whether our agreement with it is, as well. These represent larger, life decisions that dictate how we live and why, what we believe is important and why. These are things that are done, not to advertise to others how we live, but for our own sake, to satisfy our own sense of what is right and what is right for us. This is how I’ve come to view the old standby of social categorization, and why I still believe that—if done thoughtfully—time and money spent on clothes is never wasted.
Catherine L. Tung ’06 is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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