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Fashion Can Be Hard/ Fashion Can Be Fun

I get that this stuff is hard. I really do.

When I wrote my recent pieces on fashion and style, I seem to have stepped on some very raw nerves. When I wrote that fashion could be seen as a sort of language, and that what we wear expresses something about ourselves, and that we can make that expression conscious instead of unconscious… a lot of people pushed back, and pushed back hard. And a lot of people did this in a way that made it clear: This was a sore spot, a frustrating and irritating and even painful issue.

If fashion and style are like a language… then for a lot of people, they’re a second language. And it’s one they don’t understand, and don’t feel comfortable with. They feel like they woke up in a world where people are speaking French, and they don’t know how to speak it, and they’re constantly saying “My hovercraft is full of eels” when they’re just trying to say “Please direct me to the railway station.” They feel intimidated. They feel self-conscious. They feel like people are judging them, or laughing at them behind their back, or jumping to conclusions about them that they feel aren’t fair at all. (Which does sometimes happen. There are mean people in the world, and they do, in fact, suck.) Or else they just don’t care about this particular form of expression… and they get frustrated and irritated by the expectation that they should.

And when I wrote that what we wear expresses something about ourselves, and that we can make that expression conscious instead of unconscious… they felt like I was lecturing them, or scolding them, or being the bitchy mean fashion girl making them feel stupid and ugly.

So I’ll say right at the outset: That was not my intention. If that’s how it came across, I sincerely apologize.

And I want to try having an actual conversation about it.

See, here’s the thing. Some people responded to these original posts with some very worthwhile points. They acknowledged that fashion and style are a form of expression and communication… but they questioned what it could communicate. How much it could communicate. How precisely it could communicate. How likely it was that it would be misunderstood. How much it’s reasonable to read into it. How fair it is that people are expected to use this form of communication. I didn’t agree with a lot of what they said… but they made me think, and re-think, and look at these ideas in a different way.

But other people responded to these posts with some serious extremist stupid. They put words in my mouth that I hadn’t said and didn’t agree with. They argued against absurd, all-or-nothing straw-man versions of things I was saying. They proposed absurd, extremist, all-or-nothing solutions to problems of degree and nuance.

The thing is, I got so irritated and upset with the extremist stupid that I got sucked into arguing with it. (I know. I’ve been doing this since 2005. I should know better.) And I didn’t have time or energy left for the people making interesting and nuanced points. Plus I had my back up at that point, and I knew I couldn’t say anything more on the topic without getting defensive and pissy.

Which makes me sad. I really would like to have the conversation about degree, and nuance, and why this stuff can be upsetting.

Because I get it. I really do.

Fashion and style are a second language for me, too.

I’ve gone shopping and left the store near tears. I got made fun of in junior high and high school for how I dressed. I’ve shown up for events and realized that I was ridiculously underdressed, or overdressed, or in some other way out of step with what everyone else was wearing. I’ve dressed for events where I thought I looked awesome, and have seen photos of myself later and felt mortified. I’ve been shamed by store clerks. I’ve had evenings — many of them — of staring at my closet trying to get dressed for a night out, near tears or actually in them, feeling like nothing I owned was going to make me feel beautiful, and wondering why I felt beautiful and glamorous in that dress two weeks ago but feel ridiculous in it today, and wondering what on earth I’d been thinking when I bought these clothes and thought I looked good in them, and deciding that I might as well just put on the safe boring thing that at least made me feel minimally presentable, and wondering how I could ever have been so deluded as to think that I could look beautiful in anything.

I’ve had these moments. Lots of them.

And even though I feel a lot better about this stuff now than I have in the past, it’s still hard sometimes. To give just one example: I’d thought that my anxiety about my body and my appearance would disappear when I lost weight, and a fair amount of it has… but a fair amount of it has just been replaced with anxiety about my age. (Which, unlike weight, is something I can’t do anything about, and is just going to keep going up no matter what I do.) I’m turning 50 this year, and I’m having some semi-serious freakouts about how I’m going to use the language of fashion and style to say, “Woman in her ’50s who is confident and gorgeous and comfortably sexual.” Not because the vocabulary isn’t there… but because the concept itself is one that our culture doesn’t acknowledge. To hammer the language analogy into the ground: Because that’s a sentence our society thinks is nonsensical. (A topic I’ve explored in the past, and one I plan to explore more in the future.)

I get that this stuff is hard. It’s hard for me, too.

And that’s exactly why I wrote these pieces.

Because for me, these ideas have made this much, much better.

For me, this analogy of seeing fashion and style as a language? It’s made getting dressed in the morning waaaaay easier. Not just easier — liberating. Joyful. Defiant. Playful. Comfortable. And above all else — fun.

I freaking love getting dressed in the morning. I love getting out of the shower and thinking, How do I feel today? Do I feel elegant? Lively? Authoritative? Friendly? Sexy? Masculine, feminine, balanced between the two, brazenly genderfucked? Do I just want to throw on jeans and a racerback tank? And if I do… do I want to femme it up with a bit of jewelry? Butch it up by slicking my bangs back? Kink it up with a necklace and bracelet that imply collar and wrist cuffs without overtly saying it? Go the “hip professorial” route with a tweed blazer? Keep it simple and tough and athletic? How do I feel?

And how do I want to feel? Sometimes fashion and style are expressive… and sometimes they’re aspirational. You know that thing when you’re trying something new, and you act the part until you feel confident with it? “Fake it ’til you make it,” and all that? Fashion and style helps me hugely with that. If I’m giving a new talk that I’m anxious about… wearing a sharp suit helps me feel authoritative and confident. If I’m going to a party and have to make small talk with a bunch of strangers… wearing a kick-ass glamorous dress helps me feel outgoing and engaged. Etc.

Sure, it’s sometimes fraught. But I can now usually see the fraughtness, not as a crisis or a failure, but as an interesting challenge. A puzzle to be solved.

Seeing fashion and style as a language has made it a joy.

It’s also made it easier and simpler, on days when I don’t have the time or energy to think about it too much and just want to go easy and simple. It’s made it more comfortable: it’s made my clothes feel like a second skin, and has made me feel more at home in my first skin. But more than any of that… it’s made it a joy.

And I want to share that, with anyone who’s interested.

And if you’re not interested?

That is totally, 100% fine with me.

I said this about a million times in the comment threads on the original posts, but I’ll say it again: You can care about this, or not, to pretty much whatever degree you want. Yes, there is a degree to which fashion and style are a metaphorical language… and yes, people are going to come to some conclusions about you based on what you choose to wear. (And yes, that’s not fair to the people who aren’t good with the language. I’ll bet that people who aren’t good with actual verbal language feel like it’s unfair that they’re expected to communicate in it, too. Something that those of us who are good with verbal language can sometimes forget.)

But you don’t have to learn the language, or care about it, to the degree that I do. I love this stuff, and I have fun with it, and I love putting time and thought and personal flair into it. But you don’t have to. You can, if you like, learn it well enough to be reasonably presentable in the social situations you’re likely to find yourself in — and leave it at that. That is an entirely reasonable choice. Again, to hammer the language analogy into the ground: You can learn the language so fluently that you become the world’s leading translator of Proust… or you can learn it well enough to converse comfortably with the people you work with at the Paris office… or you can learn it well enough to say, “Please direct me to the railway station,” without accidentally saying, “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

And if you’re comfortable and happy with what you’re wearing and what it says about you — either because you feel that your clothing suits who you are well enough, or because you don’t care? If you feel reasonably presentable in most social situations, and don’t care about dressing with any more complexity or nuance than that, and prefer to express yourself in other ways? That is fine. That is awesome. You should feel free to read my ideas on atheism and sex and politics and philosophy and food and cute cats… and ignore my ideas about fashion.

But if you think this topic is interesting? If you agree that fashion and style are a form of expression and communication… and you want to discuss what it can communicate, and how much it can communicate, and how precisely it can communicate, and how likely it is that it’ll be misunderstood, and how much it’s reasonable to read into it, and how fair it is that people are expected to use this form of communication?

I would totally love to have that conversation.

I’ve calmed down now — and I would love to have that conversation.

But I’m going to set some guidelines, to keep it from going south again.

First and foremost: Please keep your comments non-hostile. Cut some slack to people you disagree with. Don’t automatically jump to the worst possible interpretation of what people are saying. As always, I welcome dissent and disagreement in my blog, and indeed encourage it. But this is an emotionally loaded topic, and I want us to try to treat each other with a bit of kindness and civility. (Guidelines I generally want people to follow in my blog anyway.) If you can’t discuss this topic without the understanding that reasonable people may disagree with you… please keep yourself out of it.

More specifically: Here are some ideas I’d be happy to see us to explore in this conversation — and some ideas that I think are dead ends, and that I absolutely want to stay away from.

A proposition I’m happy to discuss: Fashion/ style is an imprecise form of communication, unusually vulnerable to misunderstanding — and therefore we should place less emphasis on it than we do.

A proposition I do not want to discuss: Fashion/ style is an imprecise form of communication, unusually vulnerable to misunderstanding — and therefore we should ignore it completely.

A proposition I’m happy to discuss: Fashion can communicate some things — but it can’t communicate everything that you, Greta Christina, are saying it can.

A proposition I do not want to discuss: Fashion can communicate some things — but it can and should only communicate exactly as much as I personally think it can, no more and no less. (E.g.: “Of course you should dress appropriately for a job interview — but any attention to appearance beyond that is irrational.”)

A proposition I’m happy to discuss: There are aspects of fashion and style that are politically and culturally problematic: sexism, classism, consumerism, labor issues and economic exploitation, etc.

A proposition I do not want to discuss: There are aspects of fashion and style that are politically and culturally problematic: sexism, classism, consumerism, labor issues and economic exploitation, etc…. and these would be best solved by ignoring fashion and style entirely, and never reading anything into it.

A proposition I’m happy to discuss: Fashion and style can have elements of status- consciousness, competitiveness, materialism, conspicuous consumption, etc.

A proposition I do not want to discuss: Fashion and style are inherently superficial and shallow. Because… well, they just are. It’s obvious. Even though they can and do convey cultural symbolism and personal expression, they’re still about appearances — so they’re shallow and superficial. Q.E.D.

A proposition I’m happy to discuss: I have a hard time with fashion and the expectation that I say something about myself with it, and sometimes I get frustrated and wish it would just disappear.

A proposition I do not want to discuss: I have a hard time with fashion and the expectation that I say something about myself with it, and I sincerely think it should just disappear. This would be a reasonable solution to this problem, and I am seriously advocating that people adopt it.

ADDENDUM/UPDATE: A proposition I’m happy to discuss: Fashion/ style is not literally a language: there are important differences, places where the metaphor breaks down — and those are worth discussing.

A proposition I do not want to discuss: Fashion/ style is not literally a language, and there are important differences — therefore, there are no important similarities, and the metaphor is entirely useless.

I think you get the guiding principle. Nuanced ideas about differences of degree are welcomed and encouraged. Rigid, extremist, all- or- nothing solutions to problems of degree and nuance are not.

If your ideas on this topic fall into the “not happy to discuss” category: Your points have been made amply in the original discussion. If you feel a compelling need to say these ideas again, please say them in the original threads. This conversation is for people who think that this is a complex, nuanced issue, and who want to discuss those complexities and nuances. Please respect this. Thanks.

(Oh, and I would have thought this was obvious, but I guess not: If you’re going to personally insult me to my face in my own blog? I’m not going to be interested in anything you have to say. On this topic, or any other.)

Comments that violate these guidelines will be met with a “Thank you for sharing.” Other commenters, please, please, please ignore them, and carry on with whatever else you’re talking about. Thanks — and let’s start the conversation!

 

P.S. And yes, I know that “My hovercraft is full of eels” doesn’t mean “Please direct me to the railway station.” It means, “Matches, please.” “Please fondle my buttocks” means “Please direct me to the railway station.” The joke  just seemed to work better this way.

Comments

  1. Daniel Schealler says

    Hmm… Here’s one.

    Just thinking aloud here.

    When you first wrote about this I started out thinking of how the metaphor of fashion as language starts to break down once you get differences in how audiences interpret clothing.

    A big one was between myself and our previous Sales Manager (who has since moved on) in a professional context.

    To that Sales Manager a suit, tie, neat haircut, clean-shaven jaw, expensive watch and polished shoes were all indicators that said: “I am someone who is serious and can therefore be trusted, and I expect you to take me seriously too.”

    To me, that exact same style of dress communicates: “Not only am I attempting to fool you into thinking I am more trustworthy than I actually am – I also think you’re dumb enough to fall for such a simple trick.”

    So for me when I attempt to exude trustworthiness, I would go the other direction: Jeans, comfortable shoes, maybe a few days between shaves, understated watch. To me this says: “I am a genuine person, and am presenting myself honestly – you can trust me.”

    But to the Sales Manager? It said: “I do not take myself seriously, I do not take you seriously as my audience, therefore I am not trustworthy and you should not take me seriously either.”

    I started out thinking that just this example of the clashing ideas about what language says broke the metaphor…

    But then I got to thinking.

    The word ‘spiritual’ rubs me up entirely the wrong way, for very similar reasons.

    When I hear it, it’s just white noise – emphatic discourse on the level of ‘umm’ or ‘hey’ or ‘fucking ow!’. To me it plays on emotions but otherwise carries no semantic information… So to me, ‘spiritual’ says ‘I am trying to manipulate your emotions and therefore am not being honest with you and quite probably not honest with myself either’.

    But to someone else, they are trying to say (perhaps) something like: ‘I think that there are uplifting and noble reasons that we should treat each other well in life that go beyond enlightened self interest’.

    Of course, everyone uses the word differently, so the two examples above aren’t representative.

    So the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that the vagueness of fashion doesn’t actually break the ‘fashion as language’ metaphor at all.

    To the contrary. On reflection it seems fashion is more like language than language precisely because of the possible clashes in interpretation.

    Which doesn’t make it any less frustrating, of course… But then again, language is frustrating too.

    Or at least, it is to me.

    Maybe other people don’t have as hard a time as I do trying to just communicate ideas.

  2. azkyroth says

    P.S. And yes, I know that “My hovercraft is full of eels” doesn’t mean “Please direct me to the railway station.” It means, “Matches, please.” “Please fondle my buttocks” means “Please direct me to the railway station.” The joke just seemed to work better this way.

    For starters, there’s a fashion vocabulary for “please fondle my buttocks.” >.>

    I think the language metaphor is a fruitful one. All the explicit guides I can recall finding for either fashion or verbal language tend to be dripping with so many unexamined problematic assumptions (especially classist, but not limited to it) that they almost physically repelled me. And a lot of the problems I have with “fashion” as I’ve encountered it seem to be analogous to, for instance, people who doggedly insist that a sentence never be ended with a preposition no matter how gobawfully awkward it is otherwise. Or people who insist that no one who ever uses “swear words” (back to the classism – and if not racism, at least ethnocentrism, since most of English’s swear words are descended from the “normal” Germanic-derived terms for the things they refer to, as I understand it) can possibly have anything worthwhile to say. Or people who insist that the difference between “you’re welcome” and “no problem” is a matter of crucial importance.

    (On the other hand, I will never accept “sick” as a positive adjective and people who say “downfall” when they mean “down side” make me cringe. I could get used to this…)

  3. says

    Fashion can communicate some things — but it can’t communicate everything that you, Greta Christina, are saying it can.

    This. I’ve been, off and on, trying to look at what people’s outfits are saying, and I’m seeing very little. I also think about what it is I’ve tried to express with my clothing choices, and frankly, not much — with the exception of occasions where I’ve deliberately chosen a T-shirt with words on it (like the one I wore when I met my then-girlfriend’s [now wife's] parents: picture of Grumpy Dwarf lounging with his feet up in front of a tv, popcorn and video game controllers lying around, and the caption reads “who were you expecting? Prince Charming?” I didn’t want high expectations, because who can really match a father’s expectations for his baby girl’s boyfriends?).

    When you spoke at the Minnesota Atheists, I tried figuring out what you were trying to say with your outfit, and got next to nothing. The red contrasted with the black, and you were dressed up, but not too far up — about right for that gathering. Beyond that, I couldn’t see any further nuance. So what were you saying, and how exactly were you saying it? How can you say any of the incredibly nuanced statements you claimed were possible in your previous post on this subject?

  4. Dan M. says

    (Excuse me, I appear to have produced a wall-o-text. Sorry about that.)

    The first step to having a useful discussion of what fashion and style communicate would be to jettison the entire language metaphor. It’s a bad metaphor. It’s misleading, both in making fashion seems more precise than it is, and in making would-be users of fashion appear more culpable for their failures to have the result they want.

    Okay, so fashion and style, severally or together, can communicate things. That doesn’t make them a language, even a metaphorical one. If we’re saying “My hovercraft is full of eels.” when we mean “Where is the railway station?”, then with some direct instruction and some practice we could do something very similar to saying “Where is the railway station?”.

    And I don’t mean metaphorically, that a fashion-illiterate could be taught to communicate through fashion; I mean that if fashion were even slightly language-like, there would be some action that most people could take, that in the case of the fashion-defective, would be identifiable as an attempt at what the fashion-abled were doing, and in the case of the fashione-abled, would actually cause people to tell them where to find the nearest railway station. Fashion and style are not a language, and they don’t resemble one in any significant way.

    You point out that you can’t say (to paraphrase for brevity) “sexy 50-year-old” in fashion because the culture considers that a nonsense idea. And that’s entirely unlike language. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Complete nonsense, and anybody who known English can say it, and tell you what each part means.

    The communicative capacity of fashion is more like that of hand gestures. I can tell you by pointing and waiving that I’m going to walk around the block. “Going” is a common concept and it fits naturally with moving one’s hands. And walking is easy to pantomime. And you can just plain guess the scope of how far I’d be indicating using gestures. But that doesn’t make waving my hands a language, and it doesn’t mean that I can choose exactly what I want to say by waving my hands, and it doesn’t mean you’ll always get it, even when I’m just trying to indicate that I’m going to walk around the block.

    Now, you’re right that this fashion stuff seems to be able to convey a fair range of adjectives, and even a couple nouns. (So, maybe it can rise to the level of a trade pidgin; linguists don’t call those languages.) But there’s no syntax, only vocabulary. You can’t say “An abelian group is a group that is symmetric in a way that allows it to be used for more things.” (This is an approximation of some math whose content is entirely unimportant here.) because you can’t say important things like “allows”, and you can’t connect one piece of vocabulary to another, and when you introduce new vocabulary, you can’t constrain it to be defined by a complex combination of other vocabulary. Basically, you can’t say “sexy 50-year-old” not because you can’t say “sexy” (duh) and “50-year-old”, but because mashing them together doesn’t turn them into “sexy 50-year-old”, it just mashes them together.

    And that’s why it’s so frustrating for the fashion-“illiterate” to be told that they can communicate with fashion. Because if it were really a communicative medium, you could clarify what you meant to say by saying more stuff.

    I don’t think it’s entirely wrong to think of fashion as providing a vocabulary, but vocabulary is a tiny tiny portion of language. I think it would be more useful to say that fashion is like a facial expression. There’s a huge gamut of choices, and which one you choose to wear can affect your attitude, and there are several that are unambiguous to a viewer, but really, the details are lost on the viewer. Your closest friends might be able to see the difference between, for example, “I’m laughing at this dumb creationist because it’s absurd.” and “I’m laughing at this dumb sexist so that I don’t punch them right now.”, but most viewers would only get “funny”, and somebody who’s socially observant would get “laughing, which means either humor or stress”.

  5. TrineBM says

    I’ve followed the fashion debate with interest. I’m a skeptic, an atheist, work with languages (as an editor), I’m very interested in clothes and looks and I.so.agree. with the language metaphor. The thing is … in this lanuage you can’t shut up. You are talking and communicating even if you don’t want to or mean to or care about what you’re communicating. You are still sending a message. And that is infuriating to a lot of people, who think that they don’t use this language at all. (I’d find it infuriating too!) I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject this past week, because we’ve been having an election here in Denmark. We’re now having a change of government, and our first female prime minister (yeah!) … and what happens: the whole world comments on her looks (nicknamed Gucci-Helle. Her name is Helle Thorning-Schmidt and she’s a goodlooking woman) and on the fact that she’s female … and not so much the fact that she is … like … a politician, with viewpoints, power and brains. pphhhnmmmAARGGHHH!!!!! Why is it not possible to look good, be female and not get nicknames. Sigh. Anyway – google her, she’s an interesting woman.

  6. says

    Unfortunately, far too many women have to deal with men who sincerely believe that our cheerfully-intended “please direct me to the railway station” clothing DOES mean “please fondle my buttocks.”

    I’ll leave it at that; this is a discussion of fashion and style, not street harassment.

  7. anfaith says

    I also agree with the language metaphor in that both language (spoken and written) and “fashion” (by which I also mean all aspects of visual ornamentation including tattoos, piercings, etc…) convey meaning to others about either our ideas or ourselves or both. They can both be easily interpreted many ways and convey meaning at multiple levels for those who care to pay attention.

    Some are better than others at reading, some are better than others at communicating. And sometimes the message we send is intentional, and sometimes not. Whenever I meet someone I place my own filters, based upon my background, prejudices, experience and inclinations on all of these people based upon how they dress. We all do. When we meet someone we look for any indications of what kind of person they are. We respond to outward appearance as well as behavior. Anyone who tells you that they never have any judgement about someone until they get to know them is lying or delusional.

    Now, rational and reasonable people will hopefully reserve keeping too much of the initial judgement and be willing to be open-minded about someone until these judgements are born out through behavior, but we all initially have to use something to guide us until we have a sounder basis upon which to act.

    Language is the same. And just as with language, the more experience we have with people who speak or dress differently from us, the more we can be accepting of differences and the less it tends to color our judgements. Go work in a creative environment, and you’ll see both a wide variety of outward appearances, as well as some very similar patterns, both of dress as well as speech. The same is true of a highly technical environment.

    I’ve worked in academic, creative, business and IT environments and each has their own subtle, common patterns of both speech and dress that tell you something about the person, their views of themselves, their views of their surroundings, and ofttimes what they want you to think about them as well.

    What I’m wondering is if the word itself, “fashion” is part of the reason for such strong reactions. it’s really about personal adornment, and the choices we make around that, including the choice to not care much beyond socially acceptable/legal (or not) levels of coverage without caring about much else.

    Perhaps if we used that term it might remove some of the stigma or defensiveness from those who feel fashion as a phenomenon, as an industry is inherently bad for whatever reason.

    Just a wordy way of saying “I agree with you”. (I wonder if my personal adornment highlights my wordiness?)

  8. geocatherder says

    Oh, dear, I’m hopeless.

    Typical (lowland California) morning:
    Pants? -> fieldwork? yes, jeans. No -> check max expected temps; city shorts or capris. Top? -> whatever’s clean and goes with the color of the bottoms. Jewelry? Love to make it, seldom can stand to wear it. Shoes? -> fieldwork? yes, boots or light hikers. No -> backless flats that accommodate my orthotics.

    I am lost, fashion-wise.

  9. Ariel says

    Fashion is a language where all I really know how to say is “hello, I am a scruffy nerd.”

    Yes, I know that problem!!! Fortunately, there is a traditional and respectable institution which solves this difficulty for me. It is called “a Wife” :-)

  10. jamesp says

    Fashion is a language where all I really know how to say is “hello, I am a scruffy nerd.”

    I would tend to agree, but then I got thinking about it. How much of the result (looking like a nerd) is the result of my lack of fluency and how much is a result of fluency? What I mean is this, I self-identify as a nerd or a nerdy-(something). Nerds are stereotypically inept at these things. I am inept at these things on a conscious level. Does my ineptness follow from self-identifying as a nerd or does my nerdiness follow from my ineptness at fashion-as-a-form-of-communication.

    I do not know which is the result, or if either are. I know that I was once socially awkward, but got over that, which would seem to point to being fashion-stupid first and a nerd second, or perhaps both first. This allows for improvement, though. Although, if I am aware that on some level I go for the ‘scruffy nerd’ look on purpose, then this must be what I intend to project for the world.

    Confusing stuff.

  11. Greta Christina says

    On reflection it seems fashion is more like language than language precisely because of the possible clashes in interpretation.

    Daniel Schealler at #1: Interesting point. And looking at the examples you give, I’d add to it: It’s possible, in both fashion/ style and actual verbal language, to deceive. I don’t agree that a suit and tie necessarily conveys “I’m trying to fool you into thinking I’m trustworthy”… but it certainly can. (Think Goldman-Sachs…)

    When you spoke at the Minnesota Atheists, I tried figuring out what you were trying to say with your outfit… what were you saying, and how exactly were you saying it?

    NathanDST at #3: The main message was the one you got: Dressed up, but not too far up. Serious and authoritative, but approachable and accessible. Anything on top of that is finer points.

    If you’re curious about the finer points: I often wear skirts or dresses when I give talks, since I want to convey that, contrary to common social expectations, femaleness and seriousness are not incompatible. When I wear red and black together, or other very strong, eye-catching colors and color combinations, I’m trying to convey that I’m not afraid of attention, and in fact welcome it. And I find that I’m drawn to wearing red when I give my “anger” talk.

    Of course, I’m now realizing that, since I’ve started writing about this topic, my public fashion and style choices are going to get parsed more closely. :-) Oh, well. I can live with that.

    Dan M. at #4: I agree that the “fashion is like a language” metaphor is imperfect, and does break down in significant ways. (One of those ways certainly being that it’s less precise.) But I disagree that they don’t resemble each other in any significant way. I think you’re just focusing on the differences, whereas I’m focusing on the similarities. (Which is fine — it’s worth pointing out the differences.)

    However, I think I wasn’t clear about the problem of trying to use fashion to convey “sexy fifty- year- old woman.” I certainly could dress in a way that says “This fifty year old woman thinks she’s sexy” — just as I can say in literal words, “I’m a fifty year old woman who thinks I’m sexy.” The problem isn’t that this message won’t be understood. The problem is that the message itself is considered to be nonsense.

  12. Greta Christina says

    Oops, forgot I wanted to respond to these as well:

    The thing is … in this lanuage you can’t shut up. You are talking and communicating even if you don’t want to or mean to or care about what you’re communicating.

    TrineBM at #5: True. Although, to some extent, that’s true for literal verbal language as well. If we don’t speak at all and remain entirely silent in situations where we’re expected to speak, people will make assumptions about us and what we’re trying to convey. (Example: If your friend says, “So how did you like my new boyfriend?” and you remain entirely silent… that’s going to communicate something pretty specific.) If you want to remain neutral, you have to say something neutral. Just as with clothing, if you want to remain neutral, you have to wear something neutral — since wearing nothing at all is, in most situations, seen as expressing something rather specific.

    We’re now having a change of government, and our first female prime minister (yeah!) … and what happens: the whole world comments on her looks… Why is it not possible to look good, be female and not get nicknames.

    Seriously. And if she didn’t dress well, she’d be chastised for being frumpy. It’s one of the most sexist things about this issue. When women do put thought into our appearance, we get dismissed as shallow and vain, and our appearance gets focused on at the expense of anything else. When we don’t, we get dismissed as frumpy… and our appearance gets focused on at the expense of anything else. m-/

  13. Wes says

    Fashion can communicate some things — but it can’t communicate everything that you, Greta Christina, are saying it can.

    As you might remember, I haven’t been on board with the “fashion as language” metaphor from the beginning. Above, Dan M. points out a few very relevant ways in which fashion is NOT like a language, but he biggest way for me is this:

    To be a language, words much have agreed-upon meanings. Fashion does not have these.

    A “language” is “a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.” I know this, because I looked it up in the dictionary, which is something you can do with a language. Not every language has an official dictionary, of course, and English has several dictionaries, which all slightly disagree with one another. But the key difference is that, with a language, word meanings are accepted enough to make compiling a dictionary possible. Dictionaries are useful, because the words we use more or less mean the same thing to every speaker of the language, so we can make lists of what these words mean in common usage.

    We can’t do that with fashion. Not because we’re not fluent enough, but because there is no general agreed-upon meaning for anything. I’m currently wearing a light green button-down shirt. This shirt could mean any of the following:

    (please forgive the stereotypes, these are just illustrations)
    business casual, to a professional;
    square, to a hippy;
    effeminate, to a macho man;
    sexy, to someone who likes it;
    unsexy, to someone who doesn’t;
    trying too hard, to an anti-establishment type;
    not trying hard enough, to a wall street banker;
    etc. etc. etc.

    Of course, some words have multiple meanings, but any word that had such a divergent range of meanings would cause enormous problems in communication, and with fashion, EVERYTHING has this divergent range of meanings.

    I don’t understand what it means to become more fluent in the language of fashion. Who decides what things mean? If Glamour says that stiletto heels are trashy, does that make it true? Is that a lesson that I should internalize? Would that make me more fluent? Are people who think stiletto heels are sexy just not as fluent as me, then?

    Wouldn’t someone who is truly “fluent” in fashion realize that any article of clothing can mean anything, depending on where you are and who is watching?

    I agree with Dan M. that fashion is much more like facial expression or hand-waving, but I would combine them and say it’s like “body language”:
    – It can communicate certain relatively simple messages to most people, but that anything complicated needs to be expressed in a different way.
    – you can’t get away from it. No matter what position you’re in, you’re sending some message.
    – it’s open to interpretation, and the only real way to get better at knowing what someone is saying is to get to know that person better.
    – it can be done deliberately to create beautiful piece of art (i.e. dance and other movement-based artforms).
    – what it is communicating is often unconscious, but people can better control the messages they are sending by paying more attention to it.

    I think body language is a better metaphor, and, I think, points out some of the problems with your suggestion that people simply become more fluent if they want to better control the messages they are sending.

    Also, I’m hoping at some point that you will clarify your position on the value of fashion in general. I.e. if you think that using fashion for communication is valuable enough to justify the problems it causes, or if you feel that it’s simply an unfortunate fact of life that people judge you based on your clothing, and that people should pay attention, but I realize that’s not what THIS post is about.

  14. 24fps says

    We all choose our clothing, well, most of us do. Even if there’s someone else helping you, there are things you will or won’t wear. And whether you like it or not, you are absolutely speaking a visual language, just as you do in the way you walk, the demeanor you have – people read all of these barely tangible things that colour all our other communications.

    There is syntax, there is class expression, just as surely there is syntax and accent in our verbal communication.

    Choices are nuanced. Okay, so you wear jeans. But there’s no such thing as “just jeans”. There are “mom” jeans, skinny jeans, boot cut, cropped, dark wash, distressed, western-style… and then you add nuance by what else you put with them. My husband’s jeans and t-shirt say something entirely different than the t-shirt and jeans of the young man two doors down, who is 20 years younger, whether either of them gave any conscious thought to what they were putting on when they rolled out of bed that morning.

    I think one of the things GC is getting at is intention and conscious choice of message in style – and I prefer to call it style rather than fashion. Some people are resistant to the idea of conscious communication in this way. I, personally, embrace it. I will consciously choose my expression most days. I remember the first time that conscious messaging in clothing and presentation was clear to me – I was in my first year of theatre school. I had been given an assignment to “find” a character I had been assigned by dressing her. She was a very rich, upper-class woman. I had grown up in a very working class environment, so I chose elements that I thought communicated this. I didn’t do well. I will never forget a fellow student’s tear-down of my work – she’d grown up in very priveleged environs and just shredded my interpretation. And the fact is, I really didn’t get it. Although it was a cruel lesson (the class aspect of it really did surprise me), I learned something from it, then embarked on a mission to figure it out. I’ve learned in the years since how to present myself effectively in a lot of different situations. I’m a filmmaker and producer now, and I have to tell you that every aspect of character I put on screen communicates to the viewer, from the hair to the makeup to the clothes. The same thing holds true when I introduce myself to a broadcaster or funder – their impression of who and what I am and the sensibilities I hold is very important in their assessment of whether I am someone they want to work with. Of course, a character is a pure construction, while for presenting myself, I want to communicate my own personality and style.

    One of the most cool things in my life right now is teaching my daughters about the language of fashion. My teenager just made the brave choice to cut her hair off in a pixie cut, very unlike her friends. She and her younger sister love to play with colour and pattern and clashes and such. They’re developing the ability to express their personalities through small choices like clothing and this, I hope, will help them learn to express themselves through the larger choices, too. Meanwhile, dressing up was never so much fun!

  15. azkyroth says

    It occurs to me that there’s another way fashion is unlike language: the cost of learning new vocabulary words is a few seconds on the internet and less than a micro-kilowatt-hour of electricity. The cost of clothing is OMGWTFBBQHOWFUCKINGMUCH. Such a high price barrier to entry seriously distorts what can be said and by who.

  16. Wes says

    @azkyroth –
    I think a lot of things can be “said” with clothing on the cheap, either through just wearing different combinations of what you already have, buying things at thrift stores, or borrowing from friends.

    However, there are a LOT of things out there that you can’t “say” unless you pony up some cash. This has no real equivalent in language, unless you look at something like British accents, where no matter what actual words you use, your speech says something about your social class.

  17. Wes says

    Also, for an example of something aside from language that’s very language-like, check out Victorian fan-flirting! I think they have something similar for gloves, and maybe parisols. This is very language-like in that specific movements have specific meanings, and they even published little guidebooks so that members of high society could learn the rules:

    http://www.squidoo.com/fan-flirtations

  18. jamessweet says

    This is only tangentially related to the topic of this post, but it’s enough related that I think it’s interesting in this context. So let me share:

    If fashion and style are like a language… then for a lot of people, they’re a second language. And it’s one they don’t understand, and don’t feel comfortable with. They feel like they woke up in a world where people are speaking French, and they don’t know how to speak it, and they’re constantly saying “My hovercraft is full of eels” when they’re just trying to say “Please direct me to the railway station.”

    Oh, do I very much fall in this category. And I’ve decided for the most part I’m just not going to give a shit about it. You are right that how we dress communicates something, and we have a choice about whether the message we send is conscious or unconscious… but I’ve sort of decided it’s just too damn hard for me to maintain doing it consciously, so screw it. Not everybody has to be good at everything, and moreover, since I’m a man, the consequences of not worrying about how I dress are pretty modest — lucky for me.

    This being the case, some may find it surprising my wife convinced me to watch Project Runway with her for a few seasons… and I actually found that I could “get it”. Fuck me, did I have to concentrate pretty hard to “get it”, but eventually I did. I started to be able to tell what the judges were going to like, and why, and to appreciate that aesthetic. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me, though — as a man who likes to think of himself as a feminist, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that the pieces I personally found most visually appealing were invariably the ones that got criticized for looking too “trashy”, heh… But nonetheless, I started to be able to recognize why those outfits were pretty uninteresting despite having a basic level appeal, much the same way one might differentiate between the appeal of an Oreo cookie vs. an expensive blue cheese. An Oreo can taste good and still be boring from a culinary perspective; an outfit can look sexy and still be boring from a fashion perspective. I “got it” — but I admit it never came naturally.

    Take that for what it’s worth. I think it was worthwhile for me to do that… to understand that there is “something there”, even though it is difficult for me to grasp it most of the time. Math comes very easily to me, and I realize it comes to others with much much more difficulty — but I still think those people would be edified if they tried to understand it at least a little, to understand that there is beauty and order and sense to it, that it’s not just made-up bullshit. By the same token, I think people like me, well, we don’t have to do “do fashion” if we aren’t good at it and don’t really get it, but it’s worthwhile to understand that there’s something there too.

    Although I must maintain fashion does still rely heavily on made-up bullshit, i.e. “what’s hot this season”, but the really interesting part of it, where the real expression is, is what is done in relation to the ever-fluctuating made-up bullshit. And it’s worth it for people like me to extend themselves a bit, to understand that, to appreciate that it’s not nearly as “shallow” as it might initially seem to someone who doesn’t know a damn thing about it.

  19. Glynnis says

    So, I’m going to jump in and share some of my ‘fashion as language’ stories, as I totally agree that it is a language.

    I have had a particularly hard time figuring out how to speak this language over the last three years. I spent two years in the Army, and any clothing that was not a uniform was not really as important as the uniform. I had some horrible moments trying to relearn the vocabulary when I got out.

    When I went on my first job interview after getting out, I literally tried on every single article of clothing I owned, and then broke down to my mother, and made her pick out an outfit for me.

    Last year, when shopping with my little sister, I tried to scurry off to the juniors section and got a stern lecture from her, as I was 24 at that point, and that meant now I couldn’t shop in that section anymore.

    I’m finally getting to the point now where I understand myself well enough to know what I want to communicate and can make my own decisions without doubting myself (too much, anyway). And, I’m finally understanding that putting care into my appearance does not make me superficial. I spent my whole first year of college wearing nothing but plain t-shirts and blue jeans, because I didn’t want people to think I was one of ‘those girls’, which is rather ridiculous in hindsight.

    Overall, I would really like to thank you, Greta Christina, for writing about fashion. I’m still struggling with the idea that I can be fashionable and intelligent and a feminist, and it helped a lot to read these. Please keep discussing it!

  20. Greta Christina says

    azkyroth at #16: Yes and no. Clothing doesn’t have to be expensive: you can shop at thrift stores, vintage stores, learn to make your own clothes, do work/barter with people who are good at sewing, etc. But yes, unless you’re willing to wear whatever you get for free on the street or through charity, you have to spend at least some money. And yes, there are some forms of expression that are literally unavailable to those of us who don’t have lots of money. And there is more than a little classism in the fact that people will sometimes get judged negatively if they spend less on their clothing.

    But there is a parallel here with literal verbal language (although it’s not a perfect one). How we speak is also, to a great extent, a function of economic class. And there are forms of language that are… well, they’re not impossible to use if you don’t have money and weren’t brought up with money, but it certainly takes significant effort to learn them. And people will make unfair negative judgements based on that as well.

    Wes: Thank you for sharing.

  21. Rejistania says

    Did I leave such a bad impression on you in the FB discussions (saying that I wish we would wear unisex uniforms)?

    Okay: My issue with using the metaphor is that it devaluates the idea of language. A language (appart from the IMHO as misnamed body “language”) must have the ability to express things which are not about yourself. If you do not accept that, then to me, there is nothing from stopping someone to state that chameleons have a language as well (changing color in respect to the feelings). If chameleons do not have a language, how does that differ from clothes?

    Also, regarding strawmen, at least for my position of a fashion hater, nothing of what you said what someone who does not get fashion supposedly perceives and thinks applies. I do not feel uncomfortable for fear of being incorrectly dressed. I feel uncomfortable because of all the seams and the itchy cloth. I do not feel uncomfortable for not understanding fashion, I feel as if everyone else spends his life wondering how many angels can dance on the top of a pin. Also, I generally do not fear that people misrate me. They would misjudge my behavior and expressions as well, so meh.

    What annoys me is that clothes still after all these years of technological development feel itchy, have tags out of what seems to be sheer spite (and cutting these things off makes the clothes itch MORE on that place), expose people (especially women) to the elements instead of protecting them and especially in the case of shoes is actually harmful for your body. Why can’t there be clothes which do not feel as if you are wearing sandpaper? Why are all the clothes which are actually warm so negatively perceived?

  22. Pete says

    One thing that’s frustrating about the way all of this is being discussed is that fashion/style is only being seen in terms of the way it *looks*: what does my look say to others, what am I trying to express with the way I look, etc. I see virtually no discussion about the way things *feel*, which is a vitally important aspect of clothing, I would say. Not, feel as in emotionally, but physically.

    People sometimes wear clothes not because they want to look a certain way to themselves or others, but because a particular pair of pants are comfortable, or a given shirt isn’t too tight, what have you. I think this complicates the whole fashion-as-language argument. It’s not just that what people are trying to “say” is hard to pin down, it’s like you can’t even identify the subject or the object with any reliability.

    Now, I will say that my views on fashion definitely lie on the things-Greta-doesn’t-want-to-discuss end of the spectrum, so I won’t pollute too much, but I did want to get in just a little on the fashion as superficiality argument.

    That said, I don’t think all fashion-consciousness is superficial. But I do come out of a subculture (punk/indie/hipster) where fashion choices sometimes serve as shallow shorthand for a more complex idea. For lots of people in this world, “looking the part” is seemingly more important than actually “living” the part. There are people who think you can’t be a genuine punk if you don’t dress or accessorize in a certain way (and thus people show their individuality by all looking alike…).

    Obviously this is a generalization with many exceptions, but I would submit that in some cases, the language of fashion can be used to undermine what I would consider to be much more significant aspects of the life of the mind.

  23. Greta Christina says

    Rejistania at #24: I’m realizing that I should have added another set of “propositions I’m happy to discuss/ propositions I do not want to discuss.”

    A proposition I’m happy to discuss: Fashion/ style is not literally a language: there are important differences, places where the metaphor breaks down — and those are worth discussing.

    A proposition I do not want to discuss: Fashion/ style is not literally a language, and there are important differences — therefore, there are no important similarities, and the metaphor is entirely useless.

    Am updating now to include that. Should have said that earlier. Sorry.

    As for the chameleon analogy: Sorry, but that’s not a good analogy. Chameleons do not, as far as I’m aware, make conscious choices about their coloration. People do make conscious choices about what they wear. Therefore, it’s reasonable to think of what they wear as a form of expression.

    And again: If you, personally, don’t feel comfortable for fear of being incorrectly dressed, or for not understanding fashion, or for feeling that people misrate you — then that is awesome. There are people who do feel that way. They’re the ones I was primarily addressing.

  24. Greta Christina says

    “don’t feel comfortable” above should have been “don’t feel uncomfortable.” D’oh!

  25. says

    I haven’t delved into the comments/discussion on the last two posts, but think this topic is very interesting. I have quoted you to at least one friend. I am trying to change my style, which has mostly said lately that I’m too poor to shop anywhere but Old Navy. I will take this concept to the store with me.

    I used to watch What Not To Wear (I only liked the British version) and enjoyed it, although they sometimes wanted everyone to look the same, imo. If they had put it in these terms, I think it would have made more sense. I have noticed a distinct regional dialect difference in moving from the midwest to Seattle. Here, outfitting oneself entirely in REI clothing is acceptable. Although my personal interpretation of that is you spend money frivolously, but that might be envy talking. I honestly don’t know. Toe shoes are great, but perhaps not to the symphony is what I’m saying.

    I have one firm fashion belief. If your shirt or jacket fits in the shoulders, it’ll look like you care. It’s very simple, but very few people do it. I think this one thing is like knowing what a noun is. But maybe I’m taking the metaphor too far.

  26. says

    A proposition I’m happy to discuss: There are aspects of fashion and style that are politically and culturally problematic: sexism, classism, consumerism, labor issues and economic exploitation, etc.
    Lets not forget racism. My sons are not allowed to wear certain colors, hoodies, bandannas, baseball caps(especially in certain colors) and other articles of clothing.I don’t want the cops/teachers/parents in little suburbia assuming just because they are wearing red while being young Black males must mean they are in a gang and should be watched in class or followed when walking home from school.So,to avoid any misconceptions I dress them as neutrally as possible.

  27. Greta Christina says

    Lets not forget racism. My sons are not allowed to wear certain colors, hoodies, bandannas, baseball caps(especially in certain colors) and other articles of clothing.

    Hell, yes. Wasn’t there some case a few years back where a fairly famous African-American celebrity, got arrested — not just pulled over (which would have been bad enough), but actually taken into jail — because he was wearing a blue bandanna while driving a BMW, and was therefore assumed to be a drug dealer? My memory is telling me it was LeVar Burton, but my memory may be faulty. Does anyone remember the incident I’m talking about? Anyway. Fucked up.

  28. Dan M. says

    Thanks, Wes @14, you’ve improved on what I was getting at.

    Part of the reason I find the language metaphor so unreasonable is that it fails to even meet the barest standard of having intersubjective agreement on meaning of pretty much anything.

    And the claim that fashion has a syntax is just plain false; the fact that you can mix things together is parataxis, not syntax. And that’s exactly the sort of error that’s encouraged by talking about fashion as language.

    It’s not that there are no similarities between language and fashion. It’s that those similarities aren’t unique to real language, and the differences are really important. You can get a lot of the same similarities covered with a better metaphor (like body language) and not drag in all the complete nonsense like fashion having syntax.

  29. mck9 says

    Any analogy will break if you lean on it hard enough. The analogy between fashion/style and language doesn’t take much leaning to break, for reasons others have already mentioned. Still, if you find it useful or illuminating, there’s no reason not to go with it, within reasonable limits.

    I find it more useful to see various fashions and styles as badges of affiliation — ways to identify yourself publicly as a member of this or that social group.

    The most obvious example is the use of uniforms to identify members of the military, the police force, the nursing staff, and so forth. A uniform, of course, is generally selected by someone other than the one wearing it. The affiliations are more ambiguous when we pick our own outfits. Nevertheless, someone in a three-piece Brooks Brothers suit probably belongs to a different social group from someone wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.

    In the late 60’s in the US, a guy with long hair marked himself as a member of the counterculture and/or political left, even without ragged jeans or a tie-dyed T shirt. That identification may not have been completely reliable, but the association was universally recognized. A few years later, long hair was common among a very different demographic: construction workers and other blue-collar types. As a badge of affiliation, it no longer had the same meaning.

    I suspect that the badge-of-affiliation theory works better for men than for women. Women’s clothing offers a wider array of options than men’s clothing, and the options change more rapidly, making it harder to establish a recognized set of markers for a given affiliation.

  30. Rejistania says

    @34 I do agree with that. There is not really any leaning required for it to break down and even after reading all these articles by the author there are very few similarities. But I do understand that Greta Christina put a lot of emotional capital onto that proposition and won’t argue it. I do think though and this is something we should be able to state here, that the better is the enemy of the good and as such, we need a better metaphor for what clothing is and does. Does anyone have suggestions?

    (I guess I do overreact to certain metaphors… like I do not say sunrise and sunset since it is not the sun which moves.)

    @Greta: Why does the consciousness matter? Besides: are people actually conscious about its implications? I certainly am not. Clothing is there to provide warmth and protection against the elements and views of others. I can quite literally select an outfit based on nothing than the place of the clean laundry pile it is on (needs to be on top :) )

  31. Joey says

    Fashion is a visual mode of expression used to convey information. It is a form of communication, like verbal language, which revolves around semiosis – the notion that a sign has a meaning predicated on a theory of other minds. There arguments I’ve seen thus far seem to revolve around issues pertaining to verbal languages, not language in general (but then, there were a lot of comments, I might have missed something). There are all types of nonverbal “languages”. Since body “language” is 70% of what is communicated in any face-to-face dialogue, I’m going with the notion that it constitutes a language – one that often gets misinterpreted. Body language has signs that refer to signified aspects. When my pupils are dilated, chances are I’m physically, emotionally, or intellectually aroused. When my arms are crossed, I’m conveying that I’m not happy or comfortable. Leaning forward is a way of signifying engagement or aggression.

    The discrepancies between denotation and connotation, what is said and what is meant, and layers of meaning/tone easily misconstrued suggest that language doesn’t require a uniform understanding to adequately function. Language is imperfectly constructed, used, and understood.Hence, the ubiquity of the question, “what did you mean by that?” Consider the differences in generational connotations of “gay” and “gay”, or the regional/dialect differences in “whack”, the proper way to diagram the sentence “Fucking A,” the issues surrounding slang in general, the decline of spelling and orthographic competency, or the many ways one can interpret the response “fine.”

    Fashion is nonverbal dialect and/or slang. It varies from neighborhoods, states, regions, climates (though somehow Uggs still made it to FL), social classes, social events, etc. I’m feeling good and looking for a little fun, but I’m not going to wear the same thing to say, The Citadel, as I would going to an art show in North Beach even though my intent may be the same in each location. The other minds in each place will be operating out of radically different dialects. I can vastly improve my chances of desirable interactions by using my fashion choices to do a good bit of groundwork for me.

  32. Josh E. says

    Yes, but… The fashion vocabulary one is permitted to use can be quite restrictive, which seriously hinders its utility as a language; this is most especially true for males.
    For example, as a young professional I am compelled to wear the following on weekdays: long pants, dress shirt, dress leather shoes, sometimes a tie. Though certain details may be varied – the spread of the collar, the width of the tie, the cut of the pants – the basic shape is the same for every one of my male colleagues (one can choose to mix and match different colours, whatever that is worth). So, for me, my clothing mostly says, “Society requires a man in my line of work to dress thusly.”
    Women tend to have a wider vocabulary available to them (many of the options you considered above are simply not available to men); however, all of us are, most of the time, restricted by what an individual in our particular position is expected to wear. We can be said, then, to express something about ourselves through fashion, but it cannot, in my view, communicate anything terribly profound.

  33. Paul W., OM says

    I have to weigh in mostly on the nay-saying side.

    I don’t think that “fashion is a language” communicates much that’s true beyond what almost everybody already knows—that it’s a medium of communication with a vocabulary. It’s a medium of expression with some signs/symbols, whose significance may be learnable.

    Unlike actual (natural, spoken, human) languages, fashion does not have much syntax.

    For something to be interestingly a language, syntax is important. A syntax and an associated scheme of semantic intepretation is the main thing that disambiguates combinations of signs, allowing you to say vastly more things than you could with just symbols and no syntax.

    For example, “John betrayed Bill” means something very different from “Bill betrayed John” even though the individual symbols are the same. (And “John betrayed Bill with Jill” means something very different from “Bill betrayed Jill with John” or “Bill betrayed John with Jill” or “Jill betrayed John with Jill” and so on.)

    Syntax is tremendously important because it constrains the interpretation of combinations of symbols. A single combination of symbols (e.g., “betrayed,” “Jill,” “Bill,” and “John”) can be used to express many different distinct ideas.

    Syntax is also important because it helps us cope with ambiguities in the interpretation of individual symbols. We can usually tell what an individual symbol doesn’t mean by how it’s combined with other symbols.

    For example, if I hear “John killed the process,” even out of context, I can guess that the kind of “killing” involved was not likely the actual killing of a living thing. Maybe John aborted the run of a computer program, or somehow put an end to an administrative/legal proceedings. If I hear that “the process killed John,” that’s different. Maybe John actually got killed, or maybe he found some experience traumatizing and demoralizing.

    Given a few shreds of larger context, we can usually disambiguate a whole lot more. If we’re discussing computer programs, “John killed the process” has a very clear meaning. and if we’re discussing capital punishment, “the process killed John” does too. Syntax is crucial in keeping a system of somewhat ambiguous signs from compounding its ambiguities exponentially and being a hopeless goo that just gets smeared around.

    A good syntax lets you express an infinite number of distinct concepts with a finite number of ambiguous symbols.

    Without it, a “language” is irretrievably ambiguous—there’s only so much you can express clearly, because any element you add to make your message also adds more ambiguity, making it less clear.

    I think that’s a huge problem with fashion.

    A couple of other posters have likened fashion to facial expressions and “body language,” but I don’t think that tells us much we don’t all know, either. (And again, taking it further than that mostly goes wrong.)

    Facial expressions have a huge biological component which standardizes them. There’s a handful of distinct, basic, prototypical facial expressions (joy, amusement, disgust, fear, interest, puzzlement, and a few others). The biological regularities are so strong that dozens of standard combinations easily recognizable around the world. (There’s a parallels in vocal “cries” as well—there’s a useful standardized vocabulary of sounds and modulations of sounds that normal humans make.)

    Fashion has neither the kind of disambiguating syntax that spoken language has, nor the kind of strong biological innateness that facial expressions and cries have. It’s the worst of both worlds.

    IMO, fashion “vocabulary” is mostly like a pile of slang and jargon and buzzwords, with neither a disambiguating syntax or a very useful standardization of the most basic terms.

    Beyond what we all already know—that it’s a medium of communication—it’s not like real language at all. It’s not even like facial expressions or vocal cries.

    Fashion has another big weakness as a medium of expression. It’s generally not sequential.

    Even without much grammar or a large vocabulary of unambiguous signs, you can express a lot by sequencing the ideas that you do express, and counting on people with brains like yours to understand them as a narrative. That helps them disambiguate what story you’re telling, almost like a grammar. It’s why Marcel Marceau can get a whole lot out of a limited vocabulary of visual signs that people in our culture intuitively understand.

    Fashion isn’t pantomime. Trying to express something interesting and precise with fashion is like making Marcel Marceau pick a pose and stick with it.

    As a language, fashion a hopeless mess. As a “language” that we’re forced to use—because “not using it” sends important signals too, it’s a disaster.

    That doesn’t mean that it can’t be art, or can’t be fun. It just means that it isn’t interestingly language.

    It’s not even full of sound and fury, like facial and vocal expression. Because it lacks all three of the most useful means of disambiguating combinations of symbols, it too often signifies everything and nothing.

    Worst “language” evar.

  34. Laurence says

    @34

    Arguments from Analogies are one of the easiest types of arguments to make, and they seem to really come natural to humans. They can never be logically valid and can only rely on the strength between the two concepts used in the analogy. I think that you and others are right that this analogy breaks down pretty quickly.

  35. brjun says

    One thing that occurs to me from reading this, is that while fashion is definitely a language, it seems less like ‘french’ and more like ‘facial expressions’.

    Most people probably can’t get Hamlet across in facial expressions. Most people probably can’t read facial expressions exactly, especially on tired people. Just because they are easier to misinterpret though, it doesn’t mean that facial expressions don’t communicate. If I come to a job interview and spend the entire time glaring with hate at my future boss, well, I might theoretically still get hired, but it probably wouldn’t exactly help. Like fashion though, your face always says something, and you can’t really avoid that.

    Facial expressions are intuitive for everyone either — I know some non-neurotypical folks who had to just go and learn from a textbook, and body language certainly differs by culture. But I don’t think that anybody will seriously argue that they don’t communicate.

  36. Greta Christina says

    Why does the consciousness matter?

    Rejistania #35: Well, it matters for a couple of reasons, which are related. First, as I said in this piece: For me, the metaphor of seeing fashion and style as a language (or, for those who really hate the language analogy, a form of culture-specific semiotic communication that we make choices about), and realizing that I could be more conscious about what I wanted to express in it, made my own decisions about it both easier and more fun. I want to share that with others.

    And second: There’s a phenomenon that I’ve seen in other people, where they either don’t understand that they’re communicating something by how they dress, or they do understand that but don’t get what they’re communicating. I see it a lot on the TV show “What Not to Wear”: women who wear sweatsuits to the office and don’t understand why they’re not being promoted, women who wear latex catsuits to the PTA meeting and don’t understand why they’re seen as coochie mamas.

    For a lot of people, this issue is frustrating and baffling. And for many of them, this metaphor of fashion and style as a language (or, if you prefer, a form of culture-specific semiotic communication), and realizing that they can make conscious choices about what they want to express, makes it clearer and easier to deal with. But like I said in this piece: If that’s not true for you — if you’re comfortable with how you dress, either because you’re comfortable with what you’re expressing with it or because you don’t care — then that’s cool. There are people who aren’t, and for many of them, this metaphor has proven useful.

    Besides: are people actually conscious about its implications? I certainly am not.

    Yes, I think people are conscious of its implications. And I bet that includes you. If someone showed up to a job interview in a clown suit; if someone showed up to a lunch date in a wedding dress or a latex catsuit; if someone showed up at a wedding in a dirty, stained sweatsuit… I think you would make some inferences. If you insist that you wouldn’t, I think you’re being disingenuous. And if you agree that you would, then we’re just arguing about differences of degree: not whether fashion and style can communicate, but to what degree. That’s a conversation I’m willing to have — but if you’re not willing to acknowledge that there is any symbolic expression whatsoever in what we wear, I’m not going to want to spend much time trying to talk you into what seems to be a very obvious position.

  37. Greta Christina says

    Josh E. #37: Yes. It’s true that men don’t have as much leeway in this metaphorical “language” as women do. That’s more true in work situations than it is when you’re off the clock, and it’s more true in some workplaces than others. (The hippie/ anarchist/ punk rock book distributor where I work, for instance, probably gives more leeway in dress to men than Bank of America.) But yes — that was actually one of the main points I was making in my original piece on this subject, Fashion is a Feminist Issue — that fashion and style are very few art forms/ languages/ forms of expression in which women have more freedom than men… and that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s an art form/ language/ form of expression that’s commonly seen as shallow, trivial, and vain. So yes, men don’t have as much freedom of expression in this form of communication as women — and yes, this is unfair. It’s unfair to both women and men — to women who don’t care about it, and to men who do, or who would like to.

    Laurence #39: Are you really trying to argue that we should never use metaphors or analogies? If so… I hope you’ll forgive me if, as a writer, I choose to decline this advice.

  38. Esther says

    First time commenter here :)

    #14: words do not mean the same to everyone: #1 already mentioned the word ‘spiritual’. Another way of looking at it is the meaning of the word ‘home’ which has a different meaning to all of us.

    I think another way in which fashion is like language is that it has dialects and sociolects. Just as the way you say things shows whether you come from the States or England, or whether you are from a working class background or an upper class background, the type of education you had and the sort of work you do, etc., etc., and just as some people in the States haven’t got a clue what a lift is (elevator on your side of the Ocean), so too your clothing shows background and can be misunderstood. More importantly, just as people make assumptions about people based on their language, so too assumptions are made based on clothing.

    Whatever you want to call it, we are constantly processing everything around us, including everything about the people we meet. That includes not only what they say with words, but also with their body language, and yes, also with their clothes. So what you are wearing is part of the expression you are creating for other people. I would call that a form of communication and therefore a form of language. Call it something else, but the effect is the same.

    The fact that the term ‘language’ itself seems to have different meanings to different commentators already implies that just because fashion doesn’t state things unambiguously doesn’t make it not a language. Another thing, though. Why are we restricting language to verbal languages only? Why are we so worried about whether fashion has syntax and grammar and vocabulary? Next the linguists are going to worry about whether you can derive new words in this language and whether Chomsky was right after all with his language universals. That’s not the point! Nobody is arguing that fashion is a language like French or German or Swahili (right?). It’s a language because it communicates stuff. It doesn’t do so as clearly as some might like (neither did whatever we started out with speaking, I suppose) and it can be bloody hard to learn (so are the finer point of all human behaviour, when you get right down to it), but it is a form of communication and therefore in English usage the term ‘language’ is absolutely appropriate.

    I am looking at dictionary.com right now, because my dictionaries are in my office and I am at home, but I find that the use of ‘language’ to denote a system of words is only one of the definitions.

    I will not argue that fashion IS a language. I am quite happy to let it stand as a metaphor, because both are ways of expressing ourselves, both have a lot of things in common. As metaphors go, I would say it is a strong one. Of course you can poke holes in it – you can poke holes in any metaphor. But the point of the metaphor is to enable us to discuss and come to terms with a complex topic. And at the end of the day – that is exactly what it is doing.

  39. says

    If only to go warm were gorgeous,
    Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
    Which scarcely keeps thee warm.

    I wear sloganed T-shirts quite a lot, which I suspect has something to do with my lack of understanding of style. It doesn’t communicate much to me. I’m getting better, though, at noticing when T-shirts are actually falling apart. I now stop wearing them before the seams come completely apart.

    Recently, I bought Into the Grey by Celine Kiernan for a friend. Before posting it off, I’m reading it. The book begins with a house fire, where the family lose all their stuff. The neighbours do a whip-around to give them money for new stuff. And the twin fifteen-year-old boys go shopping for clothes for the first time in their lives, and discover, to their surprise, that they both have a sense of style. And very different styles, at that.

    I’m familiar with the idea of not shopping for clothes. That’s how we were dressed as kids. The big black sack comes to the house. You pull out clothes that fit you and you like the look of. You add clothes you’ve grown out of. And you pass the sack onto the next family. There’s not much room for personal style in that.

    I suppose, now that I’m twenty-eight, I should begin to develop a personal style. But, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered. Give me a T-shirt with a nice slogan and I’m happy.

    TRiG.

  40. says

    If only to go warm were gorgeous,
    Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
    Which scarcely keeps thee warm.

    ***

    I wear sloganed T-shirts quite a lot, which I suspect has something to do with my lack of understanding of style. It doesn’t communicate much to me. I’m getting better, though, at noticing when T-shirts are actually falling apart. I now stop wearing them before the seams come completely apart.

    Recently, I bought Into the Grey by Celine Kiernan for a friend. Before posting it off, I’m reading it. The book begins with a house fire, where the family lose all their stuff. The neighbours do a whip-around to give them money for new stuff. And the twin fifteen-year-old boys go shopping for clothes for the first time in their lives, and discover, to their surprise, that they both have a sense of style. And very different styles, at that.

    I’m familiar with the idea of not shopping for clothes. That’s how we were dressed as kids. The big black sack comes to the house. You pull out clothes that fit you and you like the look of. You add clothes you’ve grown out of. And you pass the sack onto the next family. There’s not much room for personal style in that.

    I suppose, now that I’m twenty-eight, I should begin to develop a personal style. But, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered. Give me a T-shirt with a nice slogan and I’m happy.

    TRiG.

  41. KG says

    IMO, fashion “vocabulary” is mostly like a pile of slang and jargon and buzzwords, with neither a disambiguating syntax or a very useful standardization of the most basic terms. – Paul W.

    I think that’s a very exact parallel – and of course, slang, jargon and buzzwords are an important part of language! (But only a part; I agree with what has been said about fashion’s very restricted syntax.) Slang does convey much the same range of meanings as fashion – what sort of person the speaker/wearer is, who or what they are affiliated with, what their work is, etc., although it is more flexible because its use can be adopted or dropped at a moment’s notice according to circumstances. Like fashion, it changes rapidly, change for the sake of change, and it’s important to get the exact degree of novelty right to make the impression you want. Both are (at least potentially) very useful to social scientists because they allow the study of innovation/imitation dynamics in the near-absence of functional constraints – although change in fashion is pushed by external interests (fashion houses, garment manufacturers and retailers) in a way slang is not (or not to anything like the same extent).

    So, I find fashion interesting as a potential object of study, but personally (like almost all of popular culture), of no interest whatever. Fortunately, as a man in a nerdy job, I am usually not much constrained as to what I wear, and I choose for comfort, not style. My clothes are always clean, and not too obviously threadbare, but that’s about the limit of my concerns. Of course I’m aware that this “sends a message”, but it’s not one I’m making any effort to send – which is why I get faintly pissed off when fashionistas (not Greta Christina) pretend that there’s really no difference between them and us non-fashionistas; I doubt I spend more than $100 a year on clothes, or more than a total of a day a year choosing them, either when I buy them or in the morning when I decide what to wear. That’s a lot more time and money for things I find more important and/or rewarding.

  42. RealityEnfocer, Roaming Bear, terror of the Boy Scouts says

    I was wondering, are there any good resources for learning about communication with/in clothing? Links? Books? I would like to learn about it, but I don’t really know how.

  43. Laurence says

    @Greta Christina:

    No. What I am saying is that we should recognize the limitations of Arguments from Analogies. By their very nature, they can’t be logically valid which means that they can’t be sound. They can either be strong or weak. The strength or weakness of an Argument from Analogy relies on the strength between the connection between the two concepts being compared. They are very useful because people can usually easily comprehend them, but they are limited because it is very easy to point out the differences between the two concepts.

    Metaphors are… just metaphors. They can be useful tools for getting your point across, but they aren’t really arguments.

    I often use Arguments from Analogies to get my point across, but when the connection between the concepts is questioned, I have to reevaluate my argument if the connection isn’t as strong as I originally thought. One Argument from Analogy that always comes to mind for me is one the tried to argue that the business world shouldn’t be held to the same ethical standard as our everyday lives because business is like a game (like poker) and in games there are different rules. But this analogy quickly breaks down because of all the obvious differences between business and games.

    I think that your Argument from Analogy is pretty weak because of all the differences between language and fashion mentioned here by others (and way better than I could every hope to accomplish). But, if you and others feel it is a useful metaphor to think of fashion, then that’s great for you all. But my main concern is this line of thinking gives fashion much more power than I think it should have. And I do agree that this line of thinking might be practically useful in our current society. But there are other things in our current society that are practically useful that I think you and I would hesitate to adopt.

  44. says

    I’m in theatre, and although I am not a costume designer, I’m passingly familiar with the trade, and I tend to think of dressing myself for the day/event as being in costume — it’s just a costume for myself. Am I in a bright mood? Then I’ll wear that pink tanktop. Am I feeling directorial/professional/in charge? Then I’ll wear that great 3/4 sleeve black shirt with lace cut-outs.

    I think the problem most people run into — and I probably think this because I have an intense love/hate relationship with “What Not To Wear” — is that manufactured clothing just doesn’t fit right. It’s not about what size you are — if you’re too tall with slim shoulders, or short and rotund, whatever, manufactured clothing is manufactured to that company’s idea of ideal sizing, so it’s not made specifically for your body type. And, it puts most of us in a frustrating position, especially if you’re female and your sizes are inspired by but not directly related to actual measurements in inches or centimeters, of being different sizes based on different manufacturers (dElias thinks I’m a size 13, and Levi’s thinks I’m a size 6, both for pants. And my dress/skirt size is *always* one size below what I am for pants, in general, regardless of my weight. Go figure). I think the best confidence-booster for anyone would be to get a custom-fitted garment, if only we could all afford it. But to have something actually made to compliment your body and *who* you are (fabric and color reflecting your tastes and therefore part of your personality) would be a huge improvement on how we see ourselves, and how we view the ridiculousness of the garment industry, because in many cases the problem with clothing is not actually a problem with the consumer, but I think a lot of us internalize it that way.

    So clothing can and should be fun, but the life is being sucked out of it by manufacturing schizophrenia and the constant guilt-tripping this culture forces on us. That’s what I think. And I think if we stopped taking that crap too seriously, found something we did that would help us enjoy our bodies as well as our minds, and relaxed about our body type so that we could accept appropriately-fitting clothing at any size, we’d be much better off.

  45. Greta Christina says

    Laurence @ #48: See, here’s the problem. You, and a bunch of other people keep saying, “Language isn’t literally a language! There are all these differences!” And I keep saying, “Yes, I know. Fashion/ style isn’t literally a language. There are important differences. But there are also important and interesting similarities.” And then people keep responding, “But it’s not literally a language! There are all these differences!”

    Yes. I know. Point taken. Point never disputed. Fixating on the word “language” is missing my point.

    The point I’m trying to make is this: Fashion/ style is a discrete combinatorial system of volitional, culture- specific communication in which individual elements are assigned meaning in a way that’s effectively random. (Or, to be more accurate, mostly discrete: there are some elements of fashion/ style that communicate through shades of gradation, such as length of hemline and shades of color.) So is language. Which is why I think it’s a useful and interesting metaphor/ analogy/ shorthand to compare the two. Discrete combinatorial system of volitional, culture- specific communication in which individual elements are assigned meaning in a way that’s effectively random… they’re not exactly thick on the ground. There aren’t many. It’s therefore interesting to look at the few that exist, and compare them. And looking at the similarities has helped me understand fashion/ style better, and helped me communicate in it more effectively.

    Now, if you don’t agree that fashion/ style is a (mostly) discrete combinatorial system of volitional, culture- specific communication in which individual elements are assigned meaning in a way that’s effectively random… I’m interested in hearing why. I’m interested in hearing why you think seeing fashion/ style this way gives it too much power. I’m even interested in talking about how fashion/ style and language are different, and how they communicate different things more or less precisely. But if the point is “They’re different, and therefore it’s pointless to talk about the similarities”… I don’t think that’s a particularly interesting conversation, and I’m not going to spend much time on it.

  46. nm says

    If fashion is a language (and I’m willing to agree that the analogy works to some extent) then it’s a language with an associated industry that literally takes some words and phrases out of circulation periodically. By which I mean that certain cuts, materials, and colors seem to become nonexistent for years at a time. Which can be difficult for those of us who enjoy them.

  47. Daniel Schealler says

    @nm

    I think that if people had to purchase words before using them, we’d probably get exactly the same behavior in language.

    Even without that, people still try to legislate language anyway.

    L’Académie Française

    The body has the task of acting as an official authority on the [French] language; it is charged with publishing an official dictionary of the language. Its rulings, however, are only advisory; not binding on either the public or the government.

  48. naath says

    I have a problem with the way the “language” of fashion which I am assumed to be speaking (whether or not I wish to – verbally if I started speaking Klingon people may not understand me but at least they would KNOW they didn’t understand me) has an enormous amount of vocabulary that consists of items of clothing that I simply find to physically uncomfortable to wear (high heeled shoes for instance). When I restrict myself to the subset of clothes that I can wear without discomfort to go about my daily life there are a lot of things I can no longer “say” (like “I am a smart, motivated, professional woman”).

  49. Paul W., OM says

    naath:

    I think that’s largely a consequence of two more basic problems with fashion as a language:

    1. It doesn’t really have much semantics (straightforward meaning) at all. There are almost no words or phrases with an unambiguous meaning. Think of “red” applied to, say, a short form-fitting dress vs. a men’s suit and tie. What it does have is mostly ambiguous terms that combine in ambiguous ways and a few stock phrases, and even the stock phrases (think “schoolgirl outfit” or “sailor suit”) don’t have unambiguous meanings—a whole lot depends on context and current trends. You can playfully refer to stereotypes, but it’s usually not clear quite what you mean to say in terms of those stereotypes.

    (E.g., does a “schoolgirl” outfit mean that you have a thing for older men who’ll treat you like a “bad little girl?” Or just that you think it’s funny and titillating to playfully joke about such things? Or just that it’s a look that people “get” that has lost most of that charge, and you think it looks good on you?)

    Partly because of that, fashion is very self-referential in two senses:

    2. It’s generally assumed to be about fashion, not mostly about anything else. Even a “schoolgirl” outfit (or a “sailor suit”) is not generally taken to signify that you have strong feelings either way about private schools or boating. Maybe you do, and you’re playfully mocking private schools, or playfully alluding to your hobby of sailing sailboats.

    But maybe not. Maybe you’re just expressing a certain degree of playfulness or daring—e.g., wearing a “schoolgirl” outfit when it’s not the usual thing to wear but not terribly unusual, but not wearing a sailor suit because you know nobody wears sailor suits anymore and you’d look like a dork.

    3. Because there are so few clear meanings of things—ways of saying what you’re really talking about and what you’re really saying about it—it is usually assumed that you’re doing the normal thing and talking about yourself. Unless you wear an “I’m with stupid” shirt, it’s assumed you’re trying to express something about yourself. And it’s generally assumed that you’re trying to say something positive about yourself, in some sense.

    Fashion generally isn’t a means of saying whatever you want to say about whatever you want to talk about. It’s a means of saying positive things about yourself, or failing to.

    Mostly people want to say that they, personally, look good and maybe that they know how to look good. And they want not just to say it, but to be believed, at least within a tribe with certain norms. Even if they’re trying to say something else, everybody knows that’s what fashion is generally about and interprets their attempts to say something else as failures to convincingly say that one thing.

    That is a very weird kind of “language.”

    Consider some of the “vocabulary” elements like colors, hemlines and so on. What do they mean, and do they mean the same things when different people apply them to themselves?

    Consider, say, Heidi Klum in a short, form-fitting red dress. What is the meaning of each of those terms (short, form-fitting, red, dress) when the evident “subject” (topic) is Heidi Klum?

    Now consider such a dress on a very pear-shaped woman with too-small tits and a too-big ass. (By whatever standards prevail among whoever’s looking.)

    What does that say? To a lot of people, it says “I look good,” but it’s apprently false. It may also say “I don’t understand the setup well enough to know I can’t get away with dressing like this.”

    Fashion is an impoverished language because it lacks means to do very basic linguistic things, like using simple and clear terms, combining those terms in simple and clear ways, disambiguating the ambiguities—or even changing the fucking subject.

    Fashion designers have it much easier in one respect—they can “change the subject” in one sense by choosing their models. Even so, they generally can’t change the subject away from whether the model looks good in their clothes.

    For most people, fashion is mostly a matter of making do and damage control—playing to their strengths while trying not to overdo it, hiding their weaknesses while trying not to be self-defeatingly obvious about it, and exploiting what little wiggle room is left to look a little better in various ways.

    IMO understanding fashion as a language doesn’t change that–it makes it clearer how it’s true, and why it’s hard to change. The lack of clear terms and well-defined ways of combining meaningful elements explains why even fashion designers can’t do much to change the subject.

    You can’t use clothing to say “this is not about me” or “this is not about whether I look good,” or “this is not about my fat ass” or “this is not about the prevailing fashion norms” and move the hell on to something more interesting.

    In fashion more than anything else, the medium is the message.

    The message is largely about you, and about whether you look good, and about your fat ass (or bald head or beady eyes or scrawny legs with knobby knees), and about whether you know how varied people interpret a “schoolgirl” look, or a shaved head, or a given amount of mascara, right now.

    I think that’s largely inevitable precisely because fashion sucks as a language. It just defaults to those particular things because most people are somewhat interested in those things anyhow, and fashion lacks the linguistic expressiveness to clearly refer to anything else, or to invoke other standards of judgment.

  50. Dan M. says

    It looks like the people who don’t like the language metaphor can describe a lot of details that make the analogy break down. But there’s definitely parts of Greta’s thesis that they mostly haven’t argued about, such as how being conscious of one’s choices is helpful.

    Could somebody who finds fashion highly communicative weigh in with a positive example? Greta gave a lot of examples she thinks can be said with fashion, but only a little bit of what particular outfits say any of those things. I think the claims of understand ability would be a whole lot more convincing if somebody could link to a picture of somebody dressed communicatively, and explain what they find to be communicated by it. Nevermind intersubjective agreement on what an outfit means, I’d like to see even one complete “translation”.

  51. Wes says

    @Dan –

    I think people have been pretty convincing with the idea that wearing a conservative suit, nice black shoes, and generally a “professional” appearance to a job interview can send the message “I take this opportunity seriously.”

    I think this is largely because there is a general consensus in corporate culture of what “professional” dress is (moreso for men than women). There isn’t exactly a “phrasebook,” but if you google “professional dress” you can instantly get a number of sites that can tell you exactly what to wear for an interview. To go with the “language” metaphor, one can operate under a reasonable assumption that the vocabulary is largely understood by everyone involved.

    The issue, I think, is that there are not a lot of contexts like this. There are not a lot of situations where a person can reasonably assume that everyone involved is going to have the same understand of what your appearance “says,” which is why I don’t really think the language metaphor is very useful.

  52. Dan M. says

    Ah, you’re certainly right that for that particular setting, men have an option that’s pretty unambiguous. I find it rather telling that it’s necessary to use such a strictly constrained example, than the only thing that is unambiguous is the most conventional option, and this this appears to only work for men.

  53. says

    Could somebody who finds fashion highly communicative weigh in with a positive example?

    Yes, please. The previous thread had one provided by Daniel Schaeller, regarding a supervisor he was familiar with, but I didn’t find it all that effective. It simply seemed another variation on the “dressed up but not too up” theme.

  54. Wes says

    In the other threads, a few people gave examples of outfits and their translations. Gilell said:

    I’m sexually available, but I’m choosy, and if you treat me with disrespect you don’t stand a chance.”

    A low cut shirt with the print “sex-positive feminist”

    “I expect my position of authority in my field to be recognized, but I’m approachable and friendly and happy to hang out and have a beer.”

    Somebody who wears the usually exceped buiseness clothing but mixes them with something unusual, let’s say a funny necktie with Homer Simpson on it, or the usual skirt-jacket combination for a woman in denim jeans?

    Daniel went way more descriptive:

    “I’m sexually available, but I’m choosy, and if you treat me with disrespect you don’t stand a chance.”

    Calf-high matte black boots with a pointed toe and a squared heel – shiny black buckle (nonfucntional) on the outer side of each boot (hidden zipper over elastic hinge does the actual work of holding the boot on.

    Dark brown stockings with a subtle weave – nothing too over the top, just a hint of pattern.

    Short dress – cutting in just a little bit above the knee. Dress is a dark color, but not black. I’m thinking deep purple or maybe green – whatever works well with the woman’s coloring.

    Dress has a little bit of fabric to flounce, but not heaps. Dress is cinched in at the waist with a belt, causing it to flare out a touch over the hips and hugging the overall sillhouette in to an hourglass shape. Buckle on the belt matches the boots.

    Dress comes up over the breast – low cut with a hint of cleavage but not plunging – titilatting without overt exposure. Dress comes up wide with half-sleeves that barely cover the shoulders. Understated white-gold necklace with a semiprecious stone necklace – color should complement the dress (I’m bad at complimenting colors, so someone else would have to correct me on the color of the stone).

    Left wrist has some kind of bold statement jewelery. A set of eclectic and clashing bracelets seems like the obvious choice, although I’m sure people here could come up with a better idea.

    Right hand is holding a tiny, long, and very shiny leather clutch-purse. Only adornment on the purse is the clasp and the brand logo. As I don’t know what brands are worth owning, I’ll leave that up to the discretion of others more learned than I.

    Hair is up at the back, but with some carefully-managed spikiness involved in the styling – I can picture this in my head but don’t know how to explain it.

    Drop earrings that match the necklace.

    Makeup is mild foundation with some very slight bronzing over the cheeks. Strong lipstick that matches the dress, and barely-detectable eyeshadow in a lighter shade of the same color. Subtle eyeliner and eyelash volume-izer-whatsit.

    Calf-length half-trenchcoat in a wool/polyester blend. Well fitted to the overall silhouette. Worn open to show of the rest of the outfit (of course).

    Finish with a glass of white wine in the left hand and an aloof, almost scowl-ey facial expression. You’re boring me, little boy. Try harder.

    He had a second example:

    “I expect my position of authority in my field to be recognized, but I’m approachable and friendly and happy to hang out and have a beer.”

    Pointed shiny brown leather boots under denim jeans with a very short heel. Brown leather belt with fancy buckle. Expensive women’s shirt with French cuffs. Silver and black cuff-links. Grey coat that comes down just a little bit past the waist. Understated woman’s watch – chrome, small dial face, narrow black leather strap. Wedding ring on left hand (gold, decent-sized diamond). Thumb ring on right hand (no stone, silver or white gold – pattern in inlaid gold on the face of the band). Stud earrings. No other jewelery.

    Hair worn down just past the shoulders, brushed back over the ears. Slight wave. Makeup is limited to a soft red lipstick and some very light bronzing over the eyes. Maybe light foundation… But the woman I’m thinking of is lightly freckled and lets them show through.

    The problem with these examples, to me, is that while they might be accurate with respect to what the wearer is saying, there is no way to tell that by the outfit alone. Each one of those outfits has a wide range of possible interpretations, none of which are reasonable as a conclusion, but all of which are reasonable as a known possibility. To me, that’s why the language metaphor is not useful. The usefulness of language comes from the reasonable assumption that the speaker and listener agree on the meaning of the words being used. I’ve gotten into enough semantic debates (see, e.g., my argument with Greta in the last thread) to know that this isn’t always the case, but there is enough agreement to make real communication possible. When it comes to appearance, there is almost no agreement outside of a few rare circumstances (such as a job interview).

  55. Dan M. says

    The problem with these examples, to me, is that while they might be accurate with respect to what the wearer is saying, there is no way to tell that by the outfit alone.

    Yeah. I’ve expressed my request poorly. We all agree that you can create for yourself an outfit that you intend to communicate something. What has not been demonstrated is that more than one person can look at an outfit and come to a shared conclusion of what it means, other than in a strictly regimented context where the meaning that’s agreed on is conformity.

    Can somebody take an outfit of somebody else, say this (I grabbed the first Google image for “outfit” that wasn’t an advertisement), and tell us what it means. And can three people independently come to the same conclusion? What could this person change to change the meaning?

  56. Wes says

    Can somebody take an outfit of somebody else, say this (I grabbed the first Google image for “outfit” that wasn’t an advertisement), and tell us what it means. And can three people independently come to the same conclusion?

    No.

  57. Dan M. says

    I’m not sure whether you’re asserting that it isn’t possible (in which case, this can’t be called communication), or are telling me that you won’t do work just because I asked, which is certainly fair enough.

  58. Greta Christina says

    Wes: Thank you for sharing.

    Dan M. @ #55:

    Could somebody who finds fashion highly communicative weigh in with a positive example? Greta gave a lot of examples she thinks can be said with fashion, but only a little bit of what particular outfits say any of those things.

    Sure. Here are a few specific examples.

    If I want to express authority and seriousness, I wear a suit jacket with a dress or skirt.

    If I want to express authority and seriousness, and add a strong element of queer identity and genderfuck, I wear a men’s suit.

    If I want to express authority with a more casual or youthful air, I wear a suit jacket or tweed jacket with dark jeans.

    If I want to express gender fluidity and defiance of gender roles, I mix traditionally male and traditionally female clothing: pants and jacket of a men’s suit with a feminine blouse, for instance, or a skirt with a muscle tank top.

    If I want to express flirtatiousness and playfulness, I wear a shortish skirt or dress in light, bright colors.

    If I want to express flirtatiousness with more strength/ intensity, I wear a shortish skirt or dress in dark or vivid colors.

    If I want to kick the flirtatiousness up a notch into “sexual availability,” I wear a shorter skirt, higher heels, and/or more cleavage.

    If I want to express elegance, classiness, and comfort with my middle age, I wear a sleek tailored dress with distinctive but non-flashy jewelry, high but not too-high heels, and strong but not garish makeup.

    If I want to express elegance, classiness, and comfort with my middle age, and then add a stronger element of sexuality, I add black patterned stockings and wear higher heels.

    If I’m going to the opera and want to express my appreciation of the art form and the culture, I would wear a cocktail dress with hose and heels and jewelry.

    If I’m going to the opera and plan to protest the lack of response to the AIDS crisis among the moneyed elite, I would wear jeans, combat boots, and a T-shirt with a bloody handprint.

    If I don’t want to express anything in particular and just want to blend into the urban background, I wear clean jeans and a T-shirt.

    I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks, btw, if you’re interested.

    Now, I realize that not everyone will recognize or understand these meanings. Not everyone speaks French, either, and some people speak French just well enough to say “Please direct me to the railway station.” (I do think many people who insist that they don’t understand fashion/ style and don’t get any meaning from it glean more from it than they acknowledge; but I also realize that this is a difficult proposition to falsify, so I won’t press it.) So here are some less subtle examples from people other than myself, ones that I think most people would recognize and understand:

    A standard business suit on a man: “Business guy.”

    A mohawk haircut, torn dirty jeans, leather jacket, chains, multiple facial piercings: “Fuck society.”

    A burqa: “Muslim woman.”

    A very short, tight dress and very high heels: “Wanting sexual attention.”

    A clown suit, if worn at the circus or other event where clowns would be expected (fashion/ style is context dependent, as are most other forms of communication and expression): “Clown.” If not worn at an event where clowns would be expected (i.e., at a job interview): “I am making fun of whatever event/ situation I’m in.”

    Hope this is helpful.

  59. Greta Christina says

    I think the problem most people run into — and I probably think this because I have an intense love/hate relationship with “What Not To Wear” — is that manufactured clothing just doesn’t fit right. It’s not about what size you are — if you’re too tall with slim shoulders, or short and rotund, whatever, manufactured clothing is manufactured to that company’s idea of ideal sizing, so it’s not made specifically for your body type.

    Nicol @ #49: Yes. There’s truth to this. I mean, to some extent it’s not just about mass-produced clothing — when I shop at the local designers boutique, I still have to buy off the rack and deal with a lot of stuff not fitting my particular body type — but yes.

    That being said: Getting stuff tailored is always an option. Most people can’t afford to get clothing custom made from scratch — but a fair number of people can afford to buy off the rack and spend $5-$10 getting the sleeves shortened, the waistband taken in, etc.

    I was wondering, are there any good resources for learning about communication with/in clothing?

    RealityEnfocer, Roaming Bear, terror of the Boy Scouts @ #47: The most practical intro level course I can think of is the TV show “What Not to Wear.” “Project Runway” is more interesting and more fun, but it’s more about the process of creating clothes rather than deciding what to wear, and is often more focused on the more avant- garde high-fashion aspects of this than what ordinary people wear in their everyday lives.

  60. Greta Christina says

    Paul W., OM @ #54: Your comment seems to veer very close to “Fashion/ style is an imprecise form of communication, unusually vulnerable to misunderstanding — and therefore we should ignore it completely.” Which, as I’ve said, is an all-or-nothing response to a question of nuance and degree, and is therefore not a response I’m interested in getting into. But you make an interesting point that I think is worth addressing, so I want to address it.

    Is fashion/ style only capable of expressing things about one’s self?

    I don’t think so. I think fashion/ style can also express things about society. Examples: An appropriately- gendered business suit says, “Social norms are acceptable.” A Mohawk with ripped jeans and chains and multiple facial piercings says, “Social norms are beneath contempt.” Fashion/ style can comment on gender, class, sexuality, etc… and can even express meta-ideas and meta-commentary about fashion/ style itself.

    But I would also say: Even if this were true, and fashion/ style could only ever express things about ourselves… why does that make it worthless? No, you can’t use fashion/ style to say, “Neutrinos may be able to travel faster than the speed of light.” Yes, that makes it limited. But why does that make it “impoverished”? Is it really so valueless to express who we are?

  61. Dan M. says

    Greta @64,
    Here’s the problem. All of those things you listed in your first section are what you wanted your outfit to mean, not necessarily what your outfit actually meant. Of course, the breakdown of communication can be on the recipient’s end, but if nobody can understand the message, it probably means there’s no message.

    Absolutely, there are completely unambiguous messages that can be sent with an outfit. If you’re a male professional in certain fields, such as sales, you can say “I am the model of this profession.” perfectly clearly with a business suit. And some of your later examples are almost as clear. (Though some of them seem just plain wrong, too. Dressing like an 80s punk stereotype is a way of conforming to youth society, not a way of rebelling.)

    But don’t you think there’s an important disconnect between those two groups? In your first section, you’re described nuance about degree of authority and conformity and several other dimensions. In you second section, you’ve got choices that are about as articulate as choosing a single sit-com vignette and either giving it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

    Or are you seriously arguing that somebody who “speaks fashion” will be able to tell exactly what distinction you’re making between a tweed suit and a tailored suit? Not just agree that they mean different things, but actually agree that one of them means one particular thing which you meant to mean, and the other means a different particular thing that you meant to mean?

    To use your example of some people not knowing French, I don’t know French myself, but I’ve actually seem people have conversations in it, and each conversant seemed to actually understand the other.

    You make a strong case that you can intend to say things with fashion, and it’s pretty clear that there are lots of things people infer from others’ fashion. I just haven’t seen and indication that the two are related at all except in very regimented contexts. And some previous comments have indicated that even those are not very safe.

    (Meta: I do appreciate you taking time to respond to comments on this, especially given how argumentative I and others have been. I’ve been a long-time lurker because I normally find your posts to be so obviously right as to not need elaboration.)

  62. Greta Christina says

    Dan M. @ #67: That’s a fair question. I’ll answer as best I can. First, I should say: I think what I’m saying here is true (obviously), but I acknowledge that it’d be somewhat hard to prove. If there’s good, scientific research on the effect different clothing choices has on different people and different people’s ability to accurately comprehend signals being sent through it, I don’t know about it.

    So. That being said.

    1) When I make choices about what I want to express through clothing, and try to convey subtle shades of meaning with it, I think there are some people who get much or most of the message more or less accurately; a good number of people who get the general gist and at least some of the finer points; and some people who will not have a clue (or who will only be able to glean the most obvious points). I’m okay with that.

    2) That being said: I think that, even among people who say that fashion doesn’t affect them and that it’s an entirely ineffective form of communication, it affects them more than they’re aware of.

    Let me put it to you this way. If you were at a social event, and you met a number of women (I’ll stick with women for now, since we do have more leeway in this area than men) whose basic physical attributes and mannerisms were more or less the same, and they were wearing: a stained and dirty sweatsuit, a severely cut women’s business suit, a peach polyester pants suit, a flowy pastel floral-print pre-Raphaelite dress with sandals, a closely-tailored cobalt blue dress with boots, an Indian print top and a floor-length tie-dyed skirt, a short tight shiny low-cut mini-dress with very high heels, a leather jumpsuit, a men’s suit… I strongly suspect that you would not see them all the same way. Even if you didn’t think so consciously. I’d even venture that some of the subtler shadings — how short the dress is, how bright the colors are, how high the heels are — would influence your opinion about them… consciously or un-consciously.

    I’m trying to find the comment and can’t right now, but someone in one of these fashion threads is a costume designer for TV and movies, and they pointed out that costume is a vitally important part of conveying a character. If everyone in a TV show or movie dressed identically or near-identically, huge shades of characterization would be lost. (Unless, of course, it was a movie of “1984” or something like that, where identical dress was part of the point.)

    I do agree, however, that while a Mohawk and chains and multiple facial piercings does convey “Fuck mainstream society,” it also conveys “membership in a particular subculture.”

  63. Wes says

    Dan @67 –

    I was under the impression that your point was that, in Greta’s example of the differently dressed women at the party, you were saying that you WOULD look at them differently. It just wouldn’t necessarily have any relation to the message that they intended.

    Greta seems to be saying that, if this is the case, it is either because you, or they, are “bad at fashion.” And that if the group of you became more fluent in the language of fashion, you would all be able to understand one another better.

    Do you agree with this interpretation? I do, to the extent that you’re talking about a certain subset in our culture, which people have been referring to as “fashion mavens.” In high fashion, as I understand it, certain styles have certain meanings, and fashion mavens can effectively send messages to other fashion mavens with their appearance.

    However, the reason I don’t like looking at it as a fluency issue is that this only applies to a small subset of the larger culture. Other subsets have different meanings for the exact same thing. Because one chooses one subculture’s meaning over another’s does not make that person “bad at fashion.” In essence, it’s a matter of opinion. It’s the difference between seeing a business suit as “serious about zir job” and seeing it as “corporate sell-out.” Neither of those are “wrong,” per se. They are just different meanings assigned by different people. Phrasing it as “some people are more fluent than others” implies that if only people were more educated in the language, they would all agree on what the message is. I imagine that would be kind of insulting to someone with a non-mainstream fashion sense.

    And it gets more confusing when you realize that these are not the only two possible interpretations. There are as many interpretations as there are people. Looking at fashion as a fluency issue is, in effect, saying “this interpretation is correct, this one is incorrect,” which I’m not comfortable doing when something is a matter of opinion or preference, like fashion. The only way to be “correct” is to derive the actual message being sent, which is only possible if both “speaker” and “listener” belong to the same subculture, which you can’t know without an overt signal (or, you know, talking to that person).

    This is why I see fashion as incredibly useful as a tool for expression, but (like many artforms) less than useless as a tool for communication, outside of a few discrete situations where all involved can reasonably be assumed to have the same fashion sense.

    What do you think?

    P.S. Greta is giving me the silent treatment, so if you’re interested in hearing her opinion on any of what I’ve said, you’ll have to bring it up with her yourself.

  64. Lynet says

    I found an example of a fashion communication that I couldn’t help but want to share:

    As the pink hijab generation gradually chisels away at centuries of restrictions, the young women are also redefining what it means to wear hijab—as a declaration of activist intent rather than a symbol of being sequestered. The change is visible in virtually every Muslim country. The young are shedding black and gray garb for clothing more colorful and even shape-revealing, albeit still modest. Pink is the most popular hue. Women in their teens, twenties, and thirties also flavor their faith with shades of pastel blue, bright yellow, and rustic orange, occasionally trimmed with sparkles, tassels, or even feathers.

    The statement is, as far as I can see from the article, something like “Yes, I’ll wear hijab. But I’ll wear it my way.” It contains all sorts of undertones that I don’t agree with, of course. In particular, the article makes it explicit that young activist women who wear the hijab do so partly as a way of proudly stating their faith — and then leveraging that to gain greater respect for their cause.

    Obviously I don’t agree that people of faith are worthy of extra respect. But it’s hard to dislike the way the women in the article are using that notion to improve the status of women in their communities. I cannot dislike the way they’re using fashion to do it, either! I find it thrilling in the same way that SlutWalks are thrilling. Indeed, perhaps that’s an underappreciated aspect of SlutWalks — participants are encouraged to make fashion part of their statement, whether it’s a baggy T-Shirt or a bustier. It’s wonderful to wear your message with your whole body, passively but unflinchingly displaying it to anyone who sees you.

  65. Paul W. says

    Greta Christina,

    I’m not saying that we should ignore fashion. Fashion exists, and you ignore it at your peril. People do clearly judge others by their physical appearances, including stylistic choices, a lot.

    Like it or not, fashion is rather important. That doesn’t mean we have to like it, or don’t have good reason not to like it—or just to have strongly mixed feelings about it, as I do.

    IMHO, to the extent that fashion is like a discrete symbolic language, it’s a very limited one.

    I also think that when people take fashion seriously—in a sense other than “fashionably” following trends—it’s mostly not like verbal language. It’s not about discrete combinations of meaningful discrete symbols in discretely meaningful ways.

    It’s abstract visual art, like Abstract Expressionism and Impressionism and Cubism. It’s about using form and color and texture to create interesting irreducibly visual effects.

    When we say that somebody is good at fashion, and we don’t mean that they’re obsessively trendy types, that generally means that they have a good “eye” for color and form, and can tell what “works” visually. They can achieve various distinctive, coherent visually aesthetic effects, in ways that are exceedingly difficult to even approximate in verbal language.

    We don’t generally mean that they are good at using clothing and jewelry to symbolically say the sort of things that could be said on a bumper sticker. They may throw that sort of thing in, too, and it may be worthwhile and cool, but it’s not the main thing.

    Most people don’t want to use their attire mainly to express something that could be more clearly expressed in a very few words on a bumper sticker. (E.g., “gay” or “male but not macho” or “straight male but artsy” or “straight but not narrow” or “hippie but pro-war” or “libertarian” or whatever.)

    They want to create an interesting and cool non-symbolic visual effect.

    That aspect of fashion—the abstract visual art part—is not mostly about combining meaningful discrete symbols in locally meaningful ways to create larger and more complex symbolic meanings, as you’d construct phrases, sentences and paragraphs.

    (I should probably clarify that “abstraction” in art isn’t at all like semantic “abstraction” in language. The former largely assumes the systematic avoidance of the latter; if you can say it on a bumper sticker, you’re doing it wrong.)

    There is no useful vocabulary or grammar of abstract visual art, because abstract visual art is not generally language-like in that way.

    For example, consider one of Picasso’s Cubist paintings with a guitar in it. What does the guitar mean, symbolically, and what role does that “word” meaning play in determining the meaning of the painting?

    Cubism isn’t generally about that kind of meaning, or not mostly. People can disagree a whole lot about what the guitar element means without disagreeing as much about the painting as a whole.

    Some people may think that the presence guitar is a symbol of music, maybe specifically the sound of a guitar, or specifically Spanish music. Some think that it’s just a way of suggesting Spain as a location where the painting is set. Some think it’s about Spain in a different way—it’s an acknowledgement of Picasso’s own Spanish origins. And some think it’s mostly a gimmick—it’s just a Picasso trademark, used to maintain a recognizable brand in the art world.

    Stil others may think it’s none of those things—it’s a symbolic representation of the female form, or mainly that, and a little bit of some mix the other things. Some may see the Cubist guitar as a statement about femininity—or even doing symbolic violence to the female form. (Seriously. Both art noobs and critics sometimes say shit like that. Go figure.)

    Still others think the guitar is mainly just a particularly convenient visual motif for Cubist riffing—it’s a particularly subtle but clearly recognizable shape, which makes it a good shape to start from when doing Cubist variations on form in space, and the art is mainly not about the obvious theme at all, It’s about about the variations. If you’re looking at it as a guitar, you’re missing the point. Or if you’re looking at as a guitar at the wrong level in a complicated multilevel analysis, you’re still getting it wrong.

    (Think of stylistically varied still lifes of plates of fruit, vases of flowers. They’re not mostly about vegetation and water vessels. Not in any obvious sense, anyhow.)

    Fashion isn’t any one clear thing, such as “a language.” It’s a bizarre mashup of functional engineering, overt symbology, covert non-symbolic signaling, and aesthetic visual composition, and none of those things are independent.

    Different people will read different aspects of your clothing in different ways, and they will often reveal or seem to reveal things about you, which you didn’t mean to say.

    To somebody who “gets” something aesthetically cool out of your outfit—which may be different from what you put into it—you may seem interesting and creative, or like or unlike them in some way significant to them. To somebody else who doesn’t get that, it may just seem dumb and impractical—you’re some kind of tribalist rebel, or just a conformist fashion victim.

    For many of us, it pays to understand fashion language and fashion art mainly as a form of camouflage—we want to know how to say as a little as possible in such a fraught combination of “languages,” so that we won’t be judged by varied goofy standards we don’t want to be judged by. We might like to express ourselves interestingly, but it’s more important to pass where we need to pass.

    For some people, fashion is largely about display. For others, it’s mainly about camouflage. The same principles apply to both.

    I am somebody you might think would love fashion. I’m fascinated by language, I like and sometimes do abstract visual art—I had some stuff in an art show a while back—and I like creating costumes for parties and such. It’s fun!

    You might think that I’d find fashion to be a fabulous mode of expression.

    Sadly, I don’t. It seems to me to have all of the drawbacks of things I appreciate, and lose most of the advantages by combining them in horrendously limited, ambiguous, loaded ways.

    I know enough about social psychology to have a pretty good understand why that makes fashion a minefield. Whenever there’s ambiguity, people tend to judge other individuals harshly, and other groups harshly, and to favor the physically beautiful over the ugly.

    My outfit is vibrant, but yours is garish.

    Our outfits are daring; theirs are foolish.

    If I you don’t “get” my outfit, visually, it’s because you don’t have an eye for composition. If I don’t “get” yours, that too is because you don’t have an eye for composition.

    If I choose to express myself visually and symbolically with my attire, it’s because I have taste and style. If you choose to, it’s because you’re shallow and vain.

    If I choose not to express myself vividly in that way, it’s because I’m clued-in and sensible enough not to take stupid risks with small benefits, and am confident enough not to feel obligated to play a mug’s game. If you choose not to dress vividly, it’s because you’re clueless and/or boring, and too insecure to rise to the challenge.

    And if you dress well and are just pretty, wow, you seem like an all-around cool person in many ways. But if you dress well and still aren’t pretty, hey, it’s that’s a nice outfit. Good try; shame about the face.

    An even more general theme in psychology is that when things are ambiguous, people are subject to confirmation bias, and the more dimensions and levels of ambiguity there are, the stronger the bias is likely to be.

    I know that my/our outfits “work” because I/we have good taste and judgment. Your outfits don’t because you (and yours) have bad taste and judgement. I/we know that because our outfits work and yours don’t. QED.

    Of course, these are not strict rules—people do often manage to appreciate others style, taste, and identity—they’re just biases. But the biases are there, and are not going to just go away.

    Fashion is rife with two-edged swords, for basic psychological reasons having a lot to do with semantic ambiguity of the language (or languages, plural) involved.

    Of course, verbal languages are plagued by these problems as well—people often read too much or too little into what people say, or the right amount but the wrong things, and misunderstand things in circular, self-serving, and othering ways. But at least in English or Swahili you can try to explain yourself, or to make a compelling argument. In fashion, you generally can’t.

    Fashion is hard in many of the same ways verbal language is hard, without being easy in the main way verbal language is easy.

    I don’t mean that as strongly or damningly as it sounds, though.

    Because fashion is so hard, the standards are somewhat lower. Most of us get the idea that within certain limits, fashion is largely “a matter of taste,” i.e., subjective in an aesthetic sense. Most of us also get that it’s largely “a matter of taste” whether to be much interested in fashion, or even certain aspects of fashion. (E.g., making a mainly aesthetic impression vs. making a largely tribal or sociopolitical statement.)

    Still, it’s pretty fraught stuff, and it’s not unreasonable to be daunted or discouraged about the ways that it’s fraught.

    I understand loving fashion and thinking it’s fun. I also understand hating it.

    If I were female, I might be a whole lot more enthusiastic about fashion than I am, because the range of permitted expression is so much broader for women. But I might not, especially if I wasn’t especially “pretty,” because the stakes and standards are correspondingly higher—and no matter how you slice it, it’s fraught.

    I, for one, do appreciate your examples of things you can “say” with fashion. (I may say more about conflicting senses of “saying” something in another comment.) That’s good stuff to think about, even if I think they’re generally rather more ambiguous than you let on. (And I do. I can give some specifics if you want.)

    I hope you don’t think I’m just a fashion-hater, who hates people who love fashion. That’s really not true. (And I <3 U, particularly, as I have for years.)

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