Thoughts on clothes
I was so tired and unmotivated yesterday that I decided to up and go for a walk around the community we live in. Said community is home to many shops, and like many women with a closet full of nothing to wear, I couldn't resist the huge display signs of "SALE! 50 % off!" Here's what happened.
First shop I went into had the sales racks in the back, and because I never pay full price if I don't have to, that's where I zoned in on. They weren't very busy during lunchtime, so a friendly sales assistant brought lots of stuff back for me to try, too. I must have tried five tops and three pairs of trousers, but nothing really fit nicely. This is why I hate shopping, it takes so long to find something that fits properly, is comfortable, chic, yet not too pricey. Five tops and three bottoms isn't that much, I hear you say? Well, I've no patience for the stuff, and don't even get me started on the lighting and the mirrors.
And then I tried on the dress. Knowing after countless trials and errors that I don't really have the body for a dress (I think I've worn maybe three dresses in my lifetime), when I slipped it on and it felt good that was the strangest sensation. Stepping out of the booth into the changing area with the big mirror, I still didn't hate what I saw in the reflection. On the contrary, thoughts of "statuesque" and "nice figure" came into my mind, and that's not something I've ever associated with my reflection or dress sense.
What I'm trying to express a little clumsily is how beautiful I felt in that changing room area with that dress on. As if it had some fairy dust on it to magically fills the nooks and crannies of my self-doubt with feelings of peace, love and balance. For the first time, I bought a piece of clothing because of how it made me feel. Yes, another thing I feel right now is silly sharing this, and I also wonder if it'll still feel the same the next time I put it on, and whether everyone's going to think "what hype, it's just a dress, and no it does not look good."
So I got to thinking: what influences the clothes we wear? How many billions of dollars are made and spent each year in the fashion industry? Do people really spend the better part of their lives pondering this stuff, like was explained in "The Devil wears Prada?" There must be a wide audience, otherwise what's the need for television series like "What not to wear" and "How to look good naked?"
I asked my twitter peeps, "When was the last time you dressed in clothes that made you feel awesome/sexy/professional/fill-in-your-adjective-of-choice?" to mixed replies. Michael said, "Today (three out of four ain't bad I guess)!" and Jerry said, "Never. Do people do that?" Curiosity piqued, I inquired further as to the purpose of his clothing. "Keep me warm. Prevent sunburn. Hide my skin to spare others." And this, dear readers, reminded me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs and motivation, masks we wear, and the emperor's new clothes.
According to his theory, all people have needs and are motivated differently according to which of their needs
have been met. He identified five different levels: physiological, safety, belonging, ego-status, and self-actualization. In very short, once your physical well-being is ensured through adequate housing, food, clothing and sex, you're free to worry about needs of the next higher order, safety. Once your health is taken care of, and you have a sense of stability and security, you can turn your attention to your needs of belonging. Once your social needs for relationships are met, you may be motivated to pursue fulfillment of the needs of your ego for prestige and accomplishment. The highest order of self-actualization motivates people to realize their potential through personal development. Like every theory, this one is being debated and criticized, but let's just go with the basic premise.
Applied to my clothing question, I can look at it from at least two angles. One, clothing is functional and serves a specific basic purpose, namely keeping us warm and protecting us, like Jerry said. Ever since our forefathers (careful, evolution talk now) started walking upright, built caves and lost their fur, bodies had to be shielded in other ways. Depending on the continent, our skin might have developed different pigmentation, but skin alone has not been sufficient to weather the elements since before the Puritans covered it all up.
Two, who's to say that functionality is all there is to clothes? I remember seeing brooches and belts in museums, documenting vanities from centuries ago. It appears to me mankind has started looking for ways to enhance basic clothing and looking to express their individuality many years ago. Wonder who the first cave person was to add a bone to their hair, and was it just to keep it out of the soup or a fashion statement? Just think of indigenous tribes and their tattoos, or piercings, colored feathers, teeth of animals slaughtered that are added as adornments. Clothing, then, must have become an expression of personality along the way, showing off status with how many hides you wear, and communicate an image of how you want to be perceived.
If your confidence and sense of self does are not influenced by how others see you or what image you communicate, you may grab whatever's in your closet and that will do the job and fulfill your basic physiological need. You may even go ahead and play with stuff and wear banana boots or zebra suits like my favorite Scotsman. However, there's a dress code for your hobbies, especially if they're sporty ones (Golf! Oh my God!), another for your job, yet another for Sunday afternoons lounging or going out with friends, and we haven't even touched on special occasions like funerals or weddings. Even though you may express your individuality and personal style through the clothes you wear and accessories you add, you're still part of the bigger picture, and that takes us back up the needs ladder to "belonging." A banker may not be taken seriously in jeans even on a casual Friday, and your geeky buddies may be less inclined to discuss the latest Star Trek movie with you if you show up in designer shades wearing gold chains and other "bling."
The way I see it, we're oscillating between the different levels of the pyramid, fulfilling needs of a higher order by embellishing the basic clothing one. What else could our sense of style imply?
I'm going to go out on a limb and say every culture has them. I'm thinking Africa, Asia, native Indians, even Europe with the Venetian carnival comes to mind. Whether beards and make-up also qualify I'll leave up to you. The purpose of masks are many, to deceive, to represent, to hide behind. Today, the clothes we wear function as a mask, sometimes to portray a certain image, sometimes to aid our self-esteem, sometimes to separate our private personality from our public persona, and in that respect we're not that different from the cave man with the saber tooth around his neck.
Business men wear suits, why? Because banks and other conservative establishments expect it. Suits communicate you're taking care of your appearance, and you're happy (oh well) to conform to the norm of your field. Some suits are better than others, but basically they're the armor of the contemporary manager. Personally, dressing in a suit influences the way I carry myself, not only as dictated by limited range of motion, but by what the suit represents. I walk a little taller and straighter, I'm a little more aware of what I'm wearing and how it looks, and yes, wearing one makes me feel more confident, professionally.
Women have been known to feel more confident or brazen depending on which underwear they put on. Silk feels sexy. Lace is uncomfortable if you ask me, but it looks nice. Anyway, well-fitting undergarments provide flattering curves, and flattering curves gain attention, and the confidence men and women exude used to directly influence their ability to procreate. To a lesser and more subtle extent, that's still the case today. Research has shown that strippers make more tips and are perceived as more alluring and beautiful during ovulation, and that's not even wearing but taking off their clothes, so I digress.
Creative types don't wear suits, and I'd probably count IT-ers into this category, too. Sneakers, t-shirt and jeans are fine! No programmer wears a suit, why? They mostly sit in front of a computer and have little outside contact to clients. In this case the image communicated through clothing is, "we're relaxed and comfortable, easy-going!" Work in the army, police force, firefighting or in health care and you're expected to wear a uniform. Your particular contribution, though highly appreciated and valued, serves the group and therefore the greater good. As part of a team you need to be easily identifiable as to position or rank, but your personality doesn't necessarily play into it.
Do you remember the punk movement of the 70s and 80s, people with spiky green hair scaring pedestrians all over Europe? Or the grunge phase where suddenly it was cool not to wash your hair for weeks? Rebelling against the establishments or their parents turned all of us self-proclaimed individuals into herds of sheep wearing the same things, looking alike. Not wanting to belong to one group makes every generation create their own, and sometimes that persona is put on with a lot of help by peer pressure. Which brings me to,
The Emperor's new clothes
Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale tells the story of an emperor who was conned by two tailors with a sense of humor into streaking (nude walking) through the streets of his empire. They promised him garments of such brilliant material that only fools and unworthy folk wouldn't recognize their beauty. Not wishing to admit he didn't see anything for fear of being named stupid or unworthy, the emperor faked enthusiasm when he received - nothing. The tailors mock-dressed him, and he walked unencumbered until a child pointed out, "but - he's nekkid!" and the people realized it was the truth.
Another time I may go into more detail on how clothes represent cultural preferences, as they are one of the explicit manifestations of culture visible to the naked eye (as opposed to cultural values that are implicit and invisible if you're not trained to look for them). Once I actually find an occasion to wear the above mentioned dress, I might even let you know how it goes. For now, I leave you hoping whatever you wear makes you comfortable, and if your self-esteem isn't where you'd like it to be, I invite you to experiment with different clothes to see how they make you feel. See if a new pair of whatever can help you "fake it til you make it," without going into debt of course!
Til next week, have a good one. :-)
Top photo by Allegretto
Maslow's hierarchy as seen on skooloflife