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.