Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lauren Winner on Clothes

From a theological (though also practical) book with a scandalous title:
The power of dressing is also the power of narrative. For our clothes tell stories, and it would be naiive and irresponsible to pretend otherwise. [...] That is why we enjoy clothing so much, of course--because we reinvent ourselves and our narratives when we try out a new look. So the question for the Christian is not an absolute one about skirt length, but rather something about communication. What kind of stories do we want to tell ourselves and others through our choices of clothing?
(Lauren Winner, Real Sex, p. 77)
I've thought before about the fact that clothing is a message, but I'd never phrased it as a narrative, which is a more meaningful notion. Yes, a love letter is a message, and the gospel is a message. But a stop sign is also a message, and the recording on your phone is a message, and the words repeated over and over again by the bored train announcer, "Mind the gap," are a message. A message can be utterly trivial and mundane. A story cannot. A story has to have some person or people who do something: characters, action, conclusion. It can be a bad story, a pointless story, but the minimal story is more complex than the minimal message. The false story that the Tooth Fairy comes still means more than the true message that the toothpaste contains fluoride. If my clothes are a story, not just a message, they matter more than I want to admit they do.

Because, in fact, I don't like to think about what my clothes are saying. One day I want to just put on the first thing in the drawer, whatever fits most comfortably; another day I want to dress up and look good, for no reason. I don't want my clothes to give away stories about me, to tell my secrets. When I'm wearing an old t-shirt and unflattering shorts, I don't want people to decide I don't know how to dress, or think I'm lazy or childish or careless or unaware. When I'm wearing a fitted shirt and an interesting necklace, I don't want people to assume I'm dressing up for someone, or that I'm overly concerned about my appearance, or that I'm looking for attention.

I don't want my clothes to say anything. I just want them to be fabric sliding across my skin, curtains covering me, colors reflecting the light, patterns for my eye to wander across, shadows and shapes.

I don't want to be judged. I want to slip by on the sidelines, fade into the forest. I want eyes to slide across me without sticking. I don't want the whistles, and I don't want the whispers.

But at the same time, I want the acknowledgment and affirmation of the people I love. I want you to see I'm ready to face the world. I want you to see I just want to lie on the grass and climb the trees and absorb the sunlight. I want you to see me as an adult. I want you to see me as beautiful. I want you to see me.

I'm afraid to believe I'm inventing a story of myself every time I dress. I'm not responsible enough, conscientious enough, to decide what identity I ought to convey. I know myself, but I don't know myself in a way I can summarize. I know myself the way I know California: I recognize city-names, I've driven up and down the state, I feel the pull of home when I see the golden hills and the fog-covered sea; but I couldn't draw you a map or tell you the population or the distribution of economic activities or the specifics of the government. I don't have the kind of declarative knowledge it takes to distill a self-portrait, much less transmute it into a style of dress. I don't want people to decide who I am based on the story I make up for them: I want them to watch how I live and figure out who I actually am, because I don't trust my capacity to tell them what they need to know.

1 comment:

Ren said...

Thus continues the irresistible pull of fashion.

People wonder why I'm so obsessed with how I look--especially when it comes to clothes. You summarized it pretty well. Fashion is identity. Fashion designers talk about narratives in their clothing all the time. If a line doesn't convey a story, it will not succeed on a runway.

Identity crazed individuals are drawn to something that will allow them to project their personality for the entire world to see. And really, your likes and dislikes are so primal that fashion almost shows true identity.

I don't think it's wrong to not care about how you dress. But I think not caring is a statement in itself, and in this world, that statement is very poorly received.

And also, I think worrying too much about identity is pointless at our age. We are who we are. Influences come and go, but I think we will always be the same at the core. Change is hard on humans, after all.