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A question of fashion

Peter Wicks | Thursday, October 16, 2003

I am not boasting when I say that I dress better than I dance. It would be hard to imagine more damningly faint self-praise. The last time that I made an ill-advised foray onto a nightclub dancefloor, a complete stranger wrestled me to the floor and injected me with insulin. My friends, many of whom had seen me dance on previous occasions, agreed that it was an understandable mistake, although it did have the unfortunate consequence that my blood-sugar level now goes through the roof whenever I hear even a few bars of “Come on Eileen.”

My experience with clothes has only been marginally better. In my mid-teens I used to dress in the abstract expressionist style. You could have approximated my look at the age of 16 by going into a clothing store with a semi-automatic rifle, opening fire, and then wearing whichever items of clothing ended up with the most holes.

Nowadays almost everything I wear is black. Some people wear black as an outward sign of inward angst, and a tortured yet profound spirituality. I do what I can to encourage such misapprehensions, but in my case the real reason is far more mundane. When it comes to the Elements of Style, I still haven’t mastered anything beyond proposition 1.1: black doesn’t clash with black.

Although personally I do neither, I think it’s important to distinguish between dressing well and dressing fashionably. Dressing well need not be competitive, but for the fashionable Gore Vidal’s dictum applies: it is not enough to succeed, others must fail.

The fashionably dressed wish both to be admired by the crowd and to stand out from it. This requires that their clothes be tantalizingly out of reach for most people. Good clothes may be expensive; fashionable clothes must be necessarily. A good test of whether you are motivated by the desire to be fashionable is to ask yourself before buying an item of clothing “Would I still want this if it cost significantly less?”

The frenetic speed at which fashions change is just as necessary as the expense of dressing fashionably – to which, of course, it contributes. Again the point is to guarantee that while many try to keep up with the trends, only an enviable few succeed.

In the ninth century Charlemagne passed the sumptuary laws that decreed that a person must dress in accord with his place in the social hierarchy. Of course the hierarchy was much more static than our own, but there is a long history of people going bankrupt trying to dress according to their station. I suspect that if Congress passed a law which obliged citizens to wear Star Trek style jump suits, color-coded according to tax bracket, a substantial minority of people would be secretly pleased. After all, such a system would have all the advantages of conspicuous consumption without the financial cost, not to mention the sheer effort of keeping track of which brands are in vogue.

But fashionable dress signals more than just wealth. It is also a way of showing skill at anticipating trends, an enviable skill in a modern market economy. There is much money to be made by being ahead of the curve just as (and partly because) there is much money to be spent trying to get there.

Clothing is just one arena in which the urge to be fashionable is made manifest. Cars, foods, jobs, even ethnicities are subject to the whims of fashion. Of course, one cannot change ethnic group, but one’s ethnicity does affect one’s ability to set trends in dress, speech, and music. In America the day of the WASP is long gone. These days major clothing brands test market amongst blacks in the inner cities, which reveals interesting things about both the nature of modern marketing and about the complex state of race relations in this country.

In most contexts the urge to be fashionable is a venial sin, but in the realm of opinion its effects are more serious. What disgusted many people, myself included, about the anti-war rhetoric of Hollywood celebrities was not the position they took, but the unshakable feeling that they were choosing their stance in the same spirit that they decided what to wear to the Oscars.

But to be free from the lure of fashion is a difficult thing, and I wouldn’t be the first person to note that being anti-fashion can itself be an exercise in vanity, placing oneself above the multitudes. Similarly many people are too quick to congratulate themselves on holding “unfashionable” opinions.

The ideal must be to be not against fashion, but blissfully oblivious to it, a blessed state very difficult to achieve. Why even try? Well, perhaps the best reason to ignore the lure of fashion in clothing is as a training to ignore the same lure on matters of belief. But I would say that; I dress almost as badly as I dance.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in philosophy. his column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Observer.