The tyranny of fashion

As clothing comes to signify less and less about a person, I wonder if I should bother getting dressed at all.

Erin J. Aubry
June 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The older I get, the more my mornings become apoplectic. Getting up and out of bed is increasingly a trial, though not because I suffer from any age-related maladies, or because the weight of years is psychologically oppressive (not yet, thank God). It's that I can't seem to get dressed anymore.

Clothes, once my best of friends, have become polite strangers; not inherently threatening, but unknown. The gap between breakfast and shower has bloated up with so much clothing indecision that I make J. Alfred Prufrock seem like a man of heroic action. Each day, as the minutes tick toward 11 a.m. and the morning is in danger of disappearing altogether, my bedroom floor is littered with shirts, shoes, skirts, more shirts, tried on and discarded in fits of dissatisfaction. The clothes I used to rely on to look attractive, if not stellar -- white t-shirts, turtlenecks -- have faded into a chasm of fashion uncertainty. I am unable to distinguish anything except maybe a pair of Nike running shoes and only because I know exactly how and when to wear them. But a suit? A blazer? Who knows? Could I get away with wearing it with the Nikes? Do people even use the word "blazer" anymore?


Thinking about possible outfits during breakfast makes me break into a light sweat; a good half of the anxiety is over the fact that I feel anxious at all about something so completely trivial. I understand that many things in the '90s have grown needlessly complicated or have been deconstructed beyond recognition: the shape of racism, political intent, soul music, communications technology. But why render incomprehensible something so socially insignificant as choosing my shoes?

My problem is that I don't know how I want to look. Part of this concern is a function of age. I'm 36 and wonder, a little uneasily, how many more good miniskirt years I have left. Part of it is the utter devaluation of clothes as a measure of years, or taste, or style, or individuality. What, after all, does a 36-year-old woman dress like? More to the point, what does it mean to be 36, or any age, as far as a suit's concerned? As markers of meaning vanish almost daily, it is perfectly ironic, and perfectly befitting this age of Orwellian logic, that we expect the slightest of things to provide us with a connection to the deepest. Not that it's impossible -- but fashion has been recycled and fragmented so many times over the seasons it's lost its sense of adventure. Once the signifiers of everything from social status to political ideology, clothes are now side players to our overwhelming postmodern, pre-millennium angst; they make us nothing anymore except dressed. We have more retail options than ever now -- from Gap to Barney's to Gucci outlets -- but that only seems to have diffused the power of fashion and further sapped it of its meaning. A million channels on TV and nothing's on.

I don't admit this to too many people, but I once set my fashion compass point to Madonna (the older, cheeky one, not the inner-peace guru of late). No offense to baby Lourdes, but I've been Madonna's child for the last 10 years or so. The high priestess of presto-chango appealed to a lot of things in me: a lifelong theatrical bent and love of costumery; a spiritual wanderlust that seemed to be losing out to homing-pigeon tendencies, which grew stronger as 30 loomed. I wanted to be the divine Miss M as she appeared in "Desperately Seeking Susan": coolly hip but humane; sporting dark glasses that acted as a one-way mirror, through which she saw the world perfectly while no one could see in; rolling around on an unmade bed snapping Polaroids of herself with a mixture of bemusement and solipsistic glee that I found engaging, and on point.


Madonna was trademarked with those rubber bangles and head ties but never married to them, inhabiting fashion moments fully and then slipping out of them like a snake out of old skin. Of course, the Material Girl could afford different outfits every day, and I could not; but that didn't stem my desire to be, on a fairly fixed budget, as chameleonic as possible. I became a mall-troller, hitting the stores a minimum of once a week to hunt for those elusive wardrobe items that were current but not ridiculously so, eye-catching but not garish, substantial but cheap. In short, among the countless hangers I shoved apart over the years I was really searching for an equipoise in myself, which I believed needed only the right outfit to leap into definition. I figured I'd know that balance when I struck it, and so spent many hours in dressing rooms with my head twisted over one shoulder and eyes squinting, closed almost to a slit, willing the plaid to harmonize with stripes but clash enough to make a statement, hoping the elastic at the waist would hug, but not too much.

In this quixotic search for soul, I turned up no revelations, just stuff aplenty -- shirts, scarves, trinkets -- all of which served me well for six months, a year, two at the outside. Invariably I grew bored with it and packed it into shopping bags and sold it off to friends or sisters. I learned never to hoard these little worn items because I always needed ready space to accommodate the new clothes and baubles that speedily appeared. Now I seem to have finally run out of replacements, and it's distressing. I haven't bought shoes in forever (boots, sandals, yes, but no shoes) because, with loafers a sad lug-soled parody of themselves in every shop window, they have nothing left to say about me.

In his recent essay on loyalty, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that our virtues have no face anymore, but that doesn't mean we don't still yearn for that face, some visible assurance that we still stand for something. The considerable burden of maintaining a personal image falls to clothes -- understandably, since they have always borne that burden to some degree. The irony is that as our belief in image has declined, fashion has amiably followed suit, to the point that clothing today has no more moral import than a politician's campaign promises.


As lines of difference blur and everybody says everything, so everybody wears everything. Red patent leather shoes were once strictly for little girls and worldly women; now kids wear rollerblades that color. Lycra, after moving out of dance studios and into the street, was almost exclusively for disco queens and other diva-fied spirits who dared to bare themselves in shrink-wrap relief; now Lycra is the very soul of conformity, as ubiquitous among corpulent housewives as it is among the super-fit. As moral entropy reaches further and further into public space, we become less able to know where, or how to look anymore. Clothes reflect that myopia. They have lost their clear ability to shock, to affirm, to demarcate; it is increasingly difficult to determine from glancing at an outfit if the wearer is rich or poor, young or middle-aged, hip or hopelessly out of step. (Is she a Melrose hawk or did she merely refuse to take those bell-bottoms off 20 years ago?)

So the search for the right ensemble is not simply the search for the right thing to say -- the '60s and '70s took care of that nicely, with blue-jean patches and T-shirt slogans like "Hang ten," and "Have a nice day." It's also a search for the right thing to be. And it used to be that what you said was what you were: Surfer boys "hung ten," humanists suggested that you have a nice day. But these are meaner times, and the compulsion to share a personal philosophy with the world by wearing it on your sleeve -- or your car bumper -- is dead (unless you assume that the people wearing the "Shut up bitch" T-shirts down on the Venice Beach boardwalk are actually advertising a philosophy, and I'd rather not).


The '80s gave fashion a whole new cynical spin: Instead of clothing advertising people, people started advertising clothing. The point of dressing was no longer to convey message or style, but to act as style's messenger: Guess? Members Only, Calvin Klein, Chanel, Polo, Louis Vuitton. If the label didn't show, neither did you. The conspicuous consumption trend eventually died out, but not its grounding notion of exclusivity; Gap and Banana Republic may have proliferated in the '90s with their just-folks ad campaigns, but they proliferated most in the cologne-scented pages of Vanity Fair and W magazine. Sharon Stone wears a Gap shirt with a ball gown to an Academy Awards show and we laud her for her insouciance. In our hearts we don't really believe that we can get away with the same thing because we, after all, are not movie stars. Sharon Stone is being clever, subversive; you are merely tacky. The enduring truth of fashion is that it can only be democratized to a point: The other half of clothes is always who's wearing them.

Which leads me back to the original question: Who, as far as the world is concerned, am I? I should have started out by saying that even as I deliberate every morning, I know that famous people are not supposed to matter. I am supposed to be my own best role model. The latest, neo-leftist clothing ad campaigns insist that it is enough to be oneself, be an individual, break color lines, recognize it's a free country, think different -- certainly they all implicitly warn against herd-mentality activities, like reading billboards. Forget it. When self-actualization becomes the stuff of Madison Avenue campaigns, conformity starts looking awfully attractive. I hear Madonna's look has gone Eastern this year -- gauzy midriff tops, sari-like wraps, vacant stare. Contempo Casuals already has it all on the cheap. With about $50 and regular advice from my 13-year-old niece, I should, at least for a moment, be able to get into the groove.

Erin J. Aubry

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