Thursday, 10 June 2010

On Clothes and Identity, again

As I was ready to check out from a second hand bookstore yesterday (after having acquired another old book on mental diseases, more on that another time), the minder of the store, a man in his 50s, came up to me and asked "so, do you travel extensively in Europe, or are you from there?". I told him I was from Finland, and he went on to say that my clothes gave me away the moment I walked in. "Girls here don't have style like yours." So much for my trying to discredit the link between clothing and identity!

That anecdote aside, my previous post on identity and clothes has attracted many insightful comments. It turns out that some of you are just as annoyed as I am about the assumed power of clothes in relation to our identities, and some reminded me that whether we like it or not, our appearances do matter in the way others see us. I guess it comes down to asking what we mean by identity - is it "I" as the subject, or "I" as the object, or are those two inseparable to begin with? Clearly we can't choose the way others see us, but can we choose the way we see ourselves? Or in other words, how much does the perception of others shape the way we portray (and see) ourselves? Do we have a say in the matter?

I don't think about defining my style all that much these days. I used to be interested in having a more compact style, and especially in terms of colour, I'd stick to my favourites: pale pastels, grays, and blues. Shape-wise, anything drape-y and flowy was attractive to me. Why, I don't quite know. I'd specifically look for certain types of items when I went shopping, because I assumed they were very "me" - and they were. I admired women who had practical, well-defined capsule wardrobes, and was interested in efficient clothing - but somehow I never got there. I was a little too fickle for that. I still admire women whose closets are less crowded and more in sync than mine, but these days I like to try out new colours, prints and shapes. It's fun. There is more room for adventure now. I don't think my style has changed all that much though. People who know me well, like my sister, are still able to pick out clothes for me, clothes that I love. No matter how many colours I'd wear now as opposed to two years ago, my guess is that my friends would still see me as the same quirky dresser. The clothes are different, but somehow the style identity remains the same.

What does this mean? I guess it could mean that our identities do shape the way we dress, and if our identities are strong, they shine through our clothes. The way others see our style can help us be more at ease with what we like and wear. In some cases, the clothes don't really matter all that much. Confident style icons like Kate Moss or Charlotte Gainsbourg could wear a garbage bag, and they'd still ooze effortless cool. But put shy and awkward Kristen Stewart in a Proenza Schouler look straight off the runway, and she looks completely out of place and costume-y. And then you have someone like Debrahlee Lorenzana, who wore well-tailored suits and turtlenecks to work and got fired for distracting her male co-workers. Her 32DD curves made it practically impossible for her to control the way others saw her, and she lost her job. So what matters in the end? Our personalities? Our choices? Our sense of self-esteem? Our figures? The eyes of others? Or my personal favourite, all of the above?

I still think it is essential to wear what one loves. The type of style identity that shines through is the one that revolves around what we like and cherish. Trying too hard shows. Being comfortable in our own bodies matters an awful lot, too. Even if my clothing gave my nationality away yesterday, I still hesitate to say that people can tell who I am on the basis of my clothes. Add my accent, the way I carry myself, and the strange book purchase, and perhaps then we might be getting somewhere.

Top: Max&Co.
Jacket: second hand / Fida
Skirt: second hand / Downtown Thrift
Tights: H&M
Shoes: Steve Madden
Bag: MaxMara Weekend
Scarf: giveaway from a cat of impossible colour


Eline said...

Ooh yes, people often think I am a very exuberant, social fun-loving girl. And though I love all things fun and am a girl, I am socially inept and very introverted... And I've noticed this contradiction scares people away (or maybe it's my terrible social skills? hah)

But on the other hand, my taste in clothes are intrinsically linked to my personality. I have a penchant for kitsch, cutesy things and of course everything bright and colourful (and also ridiculous). But that's more my personal taste rather than my personality.

I kind of hate how people judge me on what I wear, but I've come to accept it. Most people are open to getting to know the true you behind your clothes anyway. Also, I am lucky that I'm an art student and I'll be even luckier if I get to pursue a career in this field too! I don't know what else I'd do in these clothes, hah.

Modesty is Pretty said...

hehe well I must say you look so lovely today! Love the look, now regarding style and identity I had been thinking about my own style, you know how you get those "define your style with one word"? I could never come up with a single word, maybe weird? hahaha looking at the outfit pictures I've taken I really don't stick to a certain style, it's like a combination but I just cannot pinpoint what's my style like. Maybe earth friendly since most is secondhand. I've always loved to dress in a way that makes me happy, even if it's not in or is too colorful as my sister would say. Just yesterday I walked into a store and I was getting a cold drink I saw the girls at the counter staring at my outfit through the glass door. It was pretty funny. It's good though (I think) to want to dress for yourself regardless of what other people are wearing, it good to show who you are through the way you dress. That skirt is beautiful by the way.

Lady Cardigan said...

Americans are, I think, very conformist, and learn early on that we'll be punished for standing out. I was physically attacked once at school by someone who didn't like what I wore! So I think it's not that your clothes necessarily define your identity. It's just that they show you HAVE an individual identity. Americans face social pressure to blend in. It's hard not to give in to that pressure.

Franca said...

How funny! I have a somewhat related story: I've just got back from Barcelona and a girl in a bar asked me what the time was *in German*. It was really noisy so I doubt she had heard me speak so she must have based it on the way I look. I also think she asked me the time to work out if I was German because she was there with lots of people who could have given her the time if that's what she actually wanted. Very bizarre.

I think it's a very good point that it's not just clothes. It's the way clothes interact with all the other parts of oneself.

Skyline Eyes said...

Oh wow. Your tights and shoes are wonderful. Lovely outfit. I've been wanting brogues like that for ages! (:

Christy said...

it's an interesting question, how much your clothes and identity are connected. One of my friends was complaining to me the other day that it's unfair to judge someone based on their clothing choices because some people (her included) didn't have enough money to buy the clothes they think would express their personality.
just a thought.

nice outfit also :)

christy from Dress Rehearsal

Becky said...

I definitely agree with wearing what you love, and really you cannot separate your identity from the clothes you wear. My style ranges all over the place, from sweet and simple to girly to goth to punk to runway and everything in between. I can't pin down one style because I think I'm just not one-style kind of girl. It's annoying to be judged by what you wear, but it can be kind of fun too to play with people's perceptions! I enjoy wearing skirts to go hiking and the like. It's fun to remind people that clothes don't define a person.

Chloe, Butterfly Cupcakes said...

I think my personality is is very evident in my style. Oh and I love the jacket.

Rad_in_Broolyn said...

I meant to respond to the earlier post, but I clicked over the Times articles and then clicked back. First, let me say that I love your style (and this outfit is lovely). It is certainly unique but I don't know if it reflects "you" or your personality, without actually knowing you. How we dress only reflects how we value and understand style. I do think some folks use style as key form of self expression and identity, but others don't. Which is probably why I shouldn't judge or make assumptions about people based on their dress. My little sister is very creative, quirky, and shy. She feels the need to express herself with bright and quirky clothing, because she can't speak to strangers very well. But I am not shy, although I do feel awkward at times (because I spend many days cooped up with books and articles, not interacting with people), and for a long time I wore very plain, simple clothes. I don't think of myself as plain or simple. Over time, my sister and some of my friends have encouraged me over the years to be more playful with my style. My personality has not changed, but my concern about what impression I make (at least in certain contexts) has changed since I was a student.
That said, I realize how important dress can be. I forced my husband to go shopping for something a little more formal for an upcoming evening wedding, because we want respect wedding norms. I pack both stylish and conservative clothes when I visit my parents. I've changed the teaching wardrobe to include more heels, because my female students compliment any shoes that are higher than 2 1/2".
In response to Lady Cardigan, I don't think Americans are any more conformist that folks in other countries that I've visited. In fact, the plehtora of styles represented by the different US-based style blogs that I've read suggest the opposite. I think folks tend to conform to the style norms within their communities, whether it's suburban mommies, small towners, lawyers, hipsters, state university students, anarchist/freegans, etc. And the lovely thing about the United States is that it is so big, that there is alot of room for choices.