Like it or not, your clothes say something about you

by David Holub

In talking to this issue’s cover phenom Heather Narwid last week, it occurred to me again just how fascinating clothing is. Some people throw on the first thing they see, maybe sniffing it to make sure it’s not too repulsive, while others are obsessive and meticulous. Each of us make choices about clothing daily, and it’s a decision we share with everyone we interact with. But what accounts for these choices?

Clothing, fashion and style get more complex the more you peel back the layers, delving into human psychology, history, societal norms and artistic theory, to name a few. And you thought that vintage buckskin vest you scored at the Humane Society thrift store was nothing more than a huge bargain. Whether you like it or not, the clothes we wear say something about who we are and perhaps who we want to be. And that goes for the guy who doesn’t try as well as the guy who tries waaay too hard.

As a college professor for five years, one of my favorite topics of discussion with students was identity and, specifically, the accoutrements we attach to our bodies that either explicitly or implicitly project to the world information about who we are or who we want to be.

Tattoos, piercings, facial hair, makeup, hairstyles, jewelry and clothing: These are all ways that we share information about ourselves. We cultivate our images daily, projecting our values and concerns through the things we wear. And the things we don’t wear. A woman who wears crazy tons of makeup is just as interesting as the woman who wears none.

I would always press students to examine what they were “saying” with their style. The stylish students, or, the students who paid particular attention to fashion and how they put themselves together, found this an easier question to answer. They were protagonists when it came to letting their style speak. Others were more passive or ambivalent with fashion and style. Many times, students’ responses would be that they weren’t saying anything with their style or that they simply didn’t care. They didn’t put much thought into their clothes or accessories. My response would always be that not caring IS saying something.

The beauty of it is that we’re constantly saying stuff about ourselves even when we think we’re not. The guy who wears the same shoes every day until they wear out is saying something. The woman with the T-shirt a couple sizes too small is saying something, as is the guy who has meticulously crafted the perfect I-don’t-care look, complete with the disheveled, unwashed hair, just-dirty-enough jeans and four-day beard. The women who wears 5-inch heels, or the woman who never wears heels, they’re both saying something.

People are always going to look at others and make assumptions based on their appearance. We all look at strangers and immediately begin assessing who this person is, what their values are, who they might associate with. It’s human nature to do so, something deep within our tribal and clan-ish monkey brains. We look at each other and try to make sense of the equation, to fit strangers into recognizable forms, familiar shapes, patterns, archetypes and stereotypes we’ve seen on TV or on the streets. It’s only natural.

When it comes to how much we care about our clothing and style and how much emphasis we place on controlling the message, we all sit somewhere on that spectrum. Like it or not, we’re all looking around, trying to interpret and make sense of each other.

I wouldn’t venture many guesses as to what people I don’t know are trying to say or what they’re attempting to communicate or not. I would, however, love to talk to them, you know, just to see what they say.

David Holub is the editor for DGO. [email protected].

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