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Sociological Thoughts

What to wear: reflections on clothing and identity

By October 4, 2012No Comments
If you could dress in a way that perfectly reflected who you are on the inside, what would you wear?

This is a question that’s been on my mind lately.  In one of my classes, we’re talking about school dress codes, and how they reflect certain cultural values about what is and isn’t appropriate bodily presentation.  As one student described, most school uniforms make her think of England, and ethnically, they reflect a WASP identity imported to the United States from British boarding schools.  Another described them as white-collar or reflecting the social class of the rich and wealthy.  And school uniforms are often gender specific–girls wear skirts and boys wear pants–reflecting a set of gender beliefs as well.  Uniforms specify which body parts must be covered, supporting a status quo in regards to sexuality, as well.  In other words, school uniforms impose certain norms about ethnic, social class, gender and sexual identities onto students.

And yet, as one of my students pointed out, if you don’t learn how to dress in a way to conform to those norms, you’re probably going to be at a disadvantage in the world.  When someone tells you to “dress for success,” they have a very certain style of dress in mind, a style that excludes a whole range of possible cultural self-expressions.  There are no school uniforms that consist of baggy pants and wife-beater tank tops or short-shorts for all the boys and neckties for all the girls.

Me and my fedora

This morning I saw one of my colleagues walking to class.  In the early morning light on campus, it looked as if this lone figure might have very well walked straight out of the 1950s.  Not the 1950s of Mad Men, particularly.  His style is a little bit more academic than what Don Draper is likely to wear.  But it was complete with a fedora, and even a certain way of moving that spoke of a whole other century.


He looked good, I have to admit, but I couldn’t help but wonder, why?  Why would you so meticulously mirror the dress style of a historical period of which you have no actual experience, as this colleague was not alive during the 1950s?  Does your fedora express something about who you are on the inside?  Does it just feel right in a way that nothing from this century quite does?  If you could dress in a way that perfectly reflected who you are, would it include a fedora?

This Monday was a banner day for my own personal couture.  I was sporting a new shirt purchased at Chautauqua over the weekend–a tight-fitting, navy blue t-shirt with a screen print design of a tree.  This with a long, off-white skirt, my wine-colored Dansko shoes, and a gauzy green wrap purchased in Baltimore.  It was a good hair day, too, and I felt, in an especially magnified way, “put together.”  I felt competent and professional and smart and suave.  And maybe a little bit sexy, as well.  It was very hard not to wear the same outfit again the next day, so amazing did I feel in it.  So was that my very own, best outfit?  Was that particular combination of clothes the most perfect reflection of my internal sense of who I am?

Turning it inside-out

But I’m a sociologist, so I understand that the internal is the external.  And here’s where things get complicated.  I want to ask what you would wear to reflect your internal sense of yourself in a world free from all the cultural influences that inevitably shape the things we wear.  But no such world exists.  It’s no coincidence that my colleague’s sense of style perfectly reflects 1950s, American academia; it’s part of the cultural repertoire of clothing that’s available to him.  And I can certainly make no claim to having arrived at my perfect outfit in a cultural void.  The outfit felt so right to me largely because of my sense that it lined up in a manner comfortable for me with the particular set of prescribed norms about what is and isn’t fashionable in my particular corner of the world at this particular moment in time.  It felt good to me because there was almost a satisfying little click between my clothing choices and what I believe my culture tells me looks good for a professional woman in her late 30s.  For those few moments, I felt that I was dancing in sync with the zeitgeist.  What does that reflect about my own personal sense of who I am, except that I’m something of a sheep, feeling deeply satisfied in my own slavishness to fashion?

salwar kameez
Me in a salwar kameez

When I was in India, I fell in love with salwar kameez.  These beautiful outfits are common in Southeast and Central Asia.  In India, women wear them in a cacophony of colors and patterns and styles.  The particular versions of salwar kameez I purchased have pants so baggy and light that it feels as if you’re not wearing pants at all.  The tunic is long, and drapes down over the pants almost to your knees.  And then there’s a long, gauzy, matching scarf, which is most often worn draped around your neck, with the loose ends trailing down your back.

A salwar kameez is not a dress, and yet it is one of the most feminine things I feel I have ever worn.  There was something about the flowing material of the scarf or about the freedom of the pants billowing out.  None of my particular version of the outfit is form-fitting, and yet it felt sexy to wear a salwar kameez.  Salwar kameez were as foreign to my own cultural background as you could possibly get, and yet for those two weeks in India, nothing ever felt so comfortable and right.  And when I wore the salwar kameez, I was, in fact, different.  Wearing those clothes changed how I felt.  Wearing the salwar kameez changed who I was.

The tyranny of the pantsuit

“Dress lazy, act lazy.  Dress dirty, act dirty,” one of my students quoted at me in our discussion of school dress codes.  “The clothes make the man.”  But what would you wear?

pant suit
Hillary sporting the pant suit

The worst thing I ever had to wear were the series of professional pant-suits and skit-suits I purchased for my first go-around on the academic job market.  I disposed of these outfits as soon as I felt relatively safe in my job.  Over the years have gone along with them any other items of clothing that had once seemed to be necessary to the life of a professional woman, but had never really felt right.  I did not feel powerful or competent or intelligent or competent in these suits.  I felt like someone in a Halloween costume.  I was dressed up for the part, but it said nothing about who I was.  I gave the job talk, did the interviews, got the job.  And when I have to do something more formally professional now than teaching my students, I wear what feels right to me, because that’s more important than anyone else’s sense of what I should wear.

So I am not just a slave to what society tells me I should wear, after all.  There are limits.  There are places I won’t go.  There are shoes I won’t buy.  There are people I won’t become.

Playing dress up

The same sweater that made up part of my perfect outfit on one day felt like the garment of a frumpy old woman on a different day.  One day last week, I was walking down the hallway in my sweater, and a glimpse of myself in frumpy clothes flashed through my head, like one of those old non-descript women who are always being described in British mystery novels.  It was an image that made me smile, and want to go out and buy a very dull and shapeless tweed skirt.  I thought it would be nice to play at being that woman, at wearing those clothes.

For one Halloween, I dressed up as a dominatrix, complete with a bustier, dog caller, and whip.  For that night, I felt like I had been living my whole life as Clark Kent, and then suddenly, I became Superman.  I became someone else.  Someone very different from the person I normally was, but not really someone who wasn’t there all along, waiting for the opportunity to come out and play.

So am I a frumpy old woman inside, or a dominatrix?

The naked and the dead

If you could dress in a way that perfectly reflected who you are on the inside, what would you wear?  Would you just go naked?  Is your naked body the truest reflection of who you are, the outfit you wore into this world, but not the outfit you’ll wear when you’re leaving it.  We clothe the dead, and those clothes matter.  They are carefully selected, sometimes by the living and sometimes by the dead.  Is it the clothes we wear into the grave that best reflect who we were in life?  But what if someone puts me in a pantsuit?

Perhaps there is no one outfit.  Perhaps there isn’t even any one coherent style.  There are the atrocities you wore in your early teens.  The period in college where you experimented with men’s clothes.  The month you spent wearing the exact same white t-shirt day after day.  The long years of your life where you felt it was completely unacceptable and vaguely oppressive to show cleavage.  And then the realization that maybe there was a little less at stake where your boobs were concerned.

There are the days when you want to be a frumpy, English woman and the days when you feel you have reached the perfect moment in the development of your own personal sense of style.  And then you start all over again.  And every day is Halloween.  We dress up every day.  We put on costumes.  We try out what this shirt says about us and how it makes us feel.  We do so within constraints, but then sometimes, we find spaces of freedom where we can get closer to wearing exactly what we want.  And what we want to wear is quite complex and always changing.  Sometimes it includes a fedora.

If you could dress in a way that perfectly reflected who you are on the inside, what would you wear?  Everything.  Except a pantsuit.

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