Thursday, June 10, 2010


It was a slim book, bound in red cloth. Unassuming. I knew nothing about the contents of the book other than it had been referenced in a handful of articles I read in Fashion Theory when I was preparing my research proposal at the end of last year. The author's name cropping up here and there- Virginia Postrel. So, failing to find her on the shelves of my library, in to the State Library I went.
And. . . wow. Wow. So much of what Postrel wrote resonated deeply with me. She simply and forthrightly articulates ideas that have been turmoiling inside me for ages but that I haven't found expression for before. Basically, she argues that aesthetics are of fundamental value to human beings, that they are a source of deep pleasure, and thus she critiques the puritannical dismissal of style (of all kinds, not just fashion) as superficial or unnecessary.

To get to the heart of this for me, I will tell a couple of stories that Postrel writes into her argument. Firstly, she retells the story of a student called Liz Twitchell, whose sociologist father was doing research on luxury items. As an experiment, he took her out to LA's luxe shops and had her roleplay a spoiled bratty student whose father (him) was trying to bribe her to stay at grad school by buying her goods. The experiement was ostensibly to see what effect the luxe items would have on studious, clever Liz, who had no previous interest in such goods. Postrel records that the experiment had a deep effect on Liz who, at one point, rushed out of Tiffany & Co., father in pursuit. She wrote this about her reaction:

The stuff was just so BEAUTIFUL, and when I looked down at my Old Navy sweater, I couldn't help but feel a bit wanting. . . I wanted to leave Rodeo Drive for the same reason I often avoid fashion magazines: not because I don't care about such trivial stuff, but because I DO care, and when I look at these beautiful things, I'm left with an aching feeling of desire and a slight dissatisfaction with my current life. Luxury is incredibly powerful, and it gets to almost all of us, even when we're told it's meaningless.

I would argue that the intensity of her reaction- re-evaluating her self, the shame and longing she felt- demonstrates that it's not "meaningless"- if it was, surely it wouldn't provoke such a reaction. The luxury meant something to her even though she felt she couldn't relate to it the ways she desired. Postrel uses this story to critique the argument that people consume well-designed items to 'keep up with the Joneses,' countering that such an argument denies the existence or importance of aesthetic pleasure. She writes that "luxuries, in this view, offer no intrinsic appeal beyond their social signals. But only superficial people, filled with status-anxiety and insecure about their own worth, would care about those meanings. By circular reasoning, then, to be attached to such goods is to be a superficial person. So a serious young woman like Liz must avoid contacts with fashion magazines and luxurious clothes- not simply because she would ache at the unattainable, but because wanting those things would call her identity into question. Her desire would imply that she's the sort of superficial, insecure person who cares about "such trivial stuff." To affirm that she's a young woman of substance, she must ignore the appeal of surfaces."

This dichotomy makes me feel really sad and frustrated. Humans have delighted in beauty for centuries- and I'm not talking about physical beauty, but about art, nature, gorgeous clothing, lovely handwriting, beauty of all kinds. Beauty, harmonious design, aesthetics, whatever you'd like to call it, speaks deeply to the human spirit. In experiencing it, there is a sensual pleasure that makes the everyday more rich. I myself feel a sense of peace when I look at flowers arranged just so by a stack of books (the colours of the covers all working together, naturally.) The simple joy I feel from glancing at this sight in my home is not the most important part of my day, but a very enjoyable one. 

To take this experience into the realm of clothing, I feel a similar sense of peace when I am wearing clothes that seem to express how I feel. What I choose to wear is not simply a response to the functional demands of my day but also a reflection of how I feel about myself and about where I'm at in that moment. Again, it is a small way to feel harmonious, to feel comfortable in my own skin- but not one that I am willing to give up, or that I feel I should. 

To argue that to care about one's appearance in this way is superficial and meaningless is offensive and inaccurate- it's not meaningless, because it means something to me. It's not meaningless, because it communicates something to you whether you like it or not (consider the difference in what you feel when you look at what a goth wears, at what a bride wears, at what your girlfriend wears on your birthday, and then tell me that clothes don't communicate.)
And simply because a design operates in the realm of appearance and is, by definition, superficial, it doesn't mean that the person who cares about it is superficial as a person. That's what causes me a pang about Liz's situation- that she feels that she must ignore her attraction to beautiful things because to indulge it would be to undercut her intellect. Expressing yourself through clothing or make-up, or indulging in the pleasure of aesthetics should not write you off as a person of substance, and I find such a puritannical rejection of aesthetics absurd. Simply because you are inviting people to engage with your appearance does not mean that you are precluding them from engaging with the rest of you. Or that there is no 'rest of you' but simply a vacuous shell with a prettily presented exterior.

The second story Postrel tells that I wanted to share with you is kind of funny, at least for me, as a student and aspiring (future) academic. The following is the advice of Emily Toth, an English professor who was quoted in 'The Chronicle of Higher Education'. She's offering advice to aspiring academics about clothes and make-up suitable to the academy:

If you look like you spend too much time on your clothes, there are people who will assume that you haven't put enough energy into your mind. (Conversely) if you don't know how to dress, then what else don't you know? Do you know how to advise students or grade papers? The clothes are part of the judgement of the mind.

So, fellow students, be warned!! Does your moth-eaten cardigan betray your sloppy referencing? Do your crisp, hair-sprayed curls conceal a mind preoccupied with narcissism instead of Narcissus? For shame!

Jokes aside, this demonstrates that of course clothing matters. It's ironic that academics can't spend too much energy on dressing (they should be devoting all of their energies to learning!) yet if they expend no energy on dressing, they're in trouble (they're out of touch and inept!)

I wonder why we can't celebrate dressing as another arena of creative expression, one to be engaged with as a fun enterprise, one that comprises just part of a person's complex, interesting and nuanced personhood? Why are we so black and white when it comes to dressing, and why are so many people so vitriolic about their loathing of fashion, as if it represents all that is diseased with Western society? 

Postrel has obviously touched a nerve with me. If you've made it this far through the post, kudos to you! Let me know what you think about this tangle, all you thinkers. I know I'm not the only one who is passionate about dress, and maybe that's why I treasure the style blogosphere so much- thousands of kindred spirits who wear their selves daily. There's something glorious about such a creative expression, don't you think?

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