– “Oh, it’s just what was hanging on the chair this morning.”
The answer comes out of my mouth almost as a reflex when my colleague asks about my outfit. It is the quick nature of my response that draws my attention to it, as I so often feel my other replies come frustratingly slow. It seems wit was never my game. As I scrutinize my answer it is clear that it is not entirely true, but also not an outright lie. I had not spent much time thinking about the outfit this morning, and technically, there is no chair to hang yesterday’s outfit on, waiting for the new day. But I also know that the garments that hang behind the bedroom door do match up to a look I feel comfortable in most days. Yet, as my colleague noted my look with something that sounded like a compliment, I had to answer something. Somehow, I felt I needed to play down that I do care about my clothes. Why this knee-jerk reaction? It can’t only be the pretense that academics don’t care about their looks, no?
The quick lie made it obvious to me that in the language I use about my own dressing practices, I, most often unconsciously, wrap my words in thin veils of dishonesty. They are lies that seem to be targeting myself as much as to my peers. What do these lies tell me about fashion? As they always seem to slip out of so fast that I hardly notice them, they are surely connected to my unconscious emotions.
As the lies are so habitual, they also reveal how dressing comes with a sense of persecution. Indeed, we are forced to appear before others, it is nothing we can choose to do or not, as fashion scholar Susan Kaiser underscores. I myself had learned in middle school very clear lessons that dressing is at all times tied into the risks of humiliation: but are these lies simply about emotional scars from the school yard?
The urgency of the inquiry into these lies seems clear to me. If honesty and self-awareness is at the heart of self-knowledge, unpacking the lies we tell ourselves and others must be a key to better understand our everyday engagements with fashion. Fashion does not seem as shallow if we start to put our attention to our own hypocrisy. This habitual need for deception betrays how much our self-esteem depends on appearances.
– “It’s second hand.”
This lie offers a generous interpretation of second-hand, as I had bought the shirt at an outlet, but still at the higher range of my budget. Sure, it is not new new, but not really second hand either. The person asking politely about the garment quite obviously made a flattering remark, yet a lie once again slipped out of me. Perhaps the response was to counter some basic shame that the cost of the garment would make me appear all too vain to my colleague.
Under closer scrutiny, I surely frequent some second-hand stores, but are the garments I purchase there really the ones I feel on top of myself in? Some purchases may have an air of understated luxury or a patina of frequent use, but they are seldom the garments that make my heart skip a beat. There is only little promise of change residing in the old.
If I examine the situation closer, the pants I wore that day were bought second hand, but this only obscured the fact that I only a week ago had myself brought a bag of gently used garments to the local vintage store to ease the congestion in my wardrobe. Yes, offering a second life to garments that no longer “spark joy” is good for both the wardrobe and the planet. Even so, these garments were of so little value that the store next to Parsons had refused to take them for reselling, and I had to donate them to charity. Sure, there are some second-hand garments in my wardrobe, but they are teamed up with all the rest in there on their collective journey to be landfill. With time, it is all waste, but I was not going into a long discussion on that topic, just because a compliment on that shirt.
It seems to me every moment of appearing before others presents a difficulty. We know all too well our peers love to judge, gossip, slander, and denigrate, not least because we are drawn to do it ourselves. Such powerful social tools are hard to give up, even for the most gentle and self-conscious person. Pointing the attention to a small everyday faux pas, an unbuttoned fly, or a stain, immediately creates a hierarchy between two people, and independent of their status, it is clear who is the victim. And clothes offer such an easy target. Under the shallowness of fashion, a comment appears to be about clothes when it is really about the person. “Come on, fashion is shallow, it’s just a joke.” All of us know the stain on our pants is easily removed with detergent, while the blemish on our self-esteem is almost impossible to wash away.
– “It’s nothing really, I bought it on sale.”
I spoke the comment with a sincere conviction that almost surprised me. It suddenly appeared to me that all my clothes are bought on the cheap; paradoxically serendipitous-while-also-well-planned purchases. It didn’t require much introspection to notice how the answer was a generous modification of the truth. When I was depressed a while back, I stayed up too long at night in a blurred on-line shopping frenzy, compulsively ordering a steady stream of cheap garments and shoes that never fit. They piled up in the wardrobe together with my shame. Most of this overstock I managed to give away to friends, blessed souls who politely relieved me of bags I had stuffed with an uneasy sense of guilt.
I know I am not alone. We lie about all forms of addictions, and the pleasures and sense of temporary control we get from shopping for clothes is just one of them. Telling that the garments came from the sale also diminishes the importance I place on dress. It is a safe way to show I don’t care too much about the realm of appearances. It is the defense position of any academic. Yes, I have to wear clothes, but at least I wouldn’t pay full price for this low world of uneasy frivolity. After all, everybody in academia knows fashion is a capitalist conspiracy and all that.
But times change, and today the sales are tainted by a new paradox. On one level, the small lie that I got the clothes cheap emerges from the depths of historic frugal virtues, but in times of environmental crisis this safe spot has become stained by climate shame. If I got it from a sale, it probably means I don’t care enough about it as I would if I had spent a fortune on the same garment at full price. And what about the worker salaries? Buying full price is surely more ethical and sustainable, no? I stand guilty as charged.
The crisis is apparent; I need new lies to tell why I don’t care about fashion.
– “I don’t care much about fashion.”
Even if generously interpreted, this lie is so common it should, in most cases, be interpreted as an attempt to make fun of someone. Examining it more closely, it seems I tell this lie especially to people who do not encounter me in my role as a fashion scholar. Perhaps I tell it as a way to ensure them that even if I work with fashion, I am not judging them. On a general level, this is probably the most common lie we make about clothes. Few ever pick garments at random. Far more common is the use of lies to denigrate our own unfulfilled desires.
Sure, we put in different efforts when it comes to dress. Caring matters. We learn the same skill at academic seminars: we always find the safest cover behind the barricades of cynicism. It can thus be quite uncomfortable to acknowledge that clothes say so much more than who we are; they reveal who we want to be. Fashion is a vehicle for aspirations. Garments expose our emotional journeys as much as our professional ambitions. Yes, clothing is surely functional, but almost all of us strive for more than mere survival and warmth. Even uniforms are washed, mended and ironed, or not, and all such details reveal something about the wearer. My sport outfit says something about my aspiration to take control over my body, more than my actual gym routines. My knitted turtleneck gives a lead to the everyday sophistication I try to give my life, even as it also keeps my neck warm in the chilly winds. Nevertheless, this time I still felt a need to cover up my turtleneck with a lie.
Clothes as well as lies are interfaces, shaping out interactions. Humans are social, we are wired to connect. With connection comes the risk of failing to do so. As children, most of us quickly develop an acute sense to measure social dissonance, and shaming is the fallback tool for social regulation, used from earliest childhood to make sure we conform with the expectations of our family and peers. The everyday lies about fashion point us to the continuous risk of embarrassment that comes with appearing before others. Everyone has experienced side-looks, snubs and humiliation. We all know it hurts, and it hurts badly. We quickly learn it does not strike randomly, but its impact is related to how much expectations and aspirations we invest: every endeavor and statement creates a vulnerability, a fragile position, a potential for affliction. If we don’t climb to the top trampoline by the pool, we also escape the possible shame of not daring to jump. Our expectations determine what we judge as triumph of failure, and the best way to save self-esteem is to play safe with understatements.
It may seem ironic that fashion is blamed for being a form of illusion, as it seems it is me that we do much of the lying around fashion, not the garments or the industry. It seems to come down to something like this. Fashion provokes a lot of emotions I struggle hard not to notice, and the lies and self-deception I engage in is a way to safeguard the little self-esteem I have gained over the years. Yet, the everyday is all too abundant with failures, and I cover up my missteps the best I can, trying to hold on to a sense of control. Balancing the risks and rewards, the lies reveal how precarious the gamble of dressing is. Even amongst friends, the lies point out that the persecution never ends. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, under constant trial, I still grasp onto a sense of being free.
And by the way, I really don’t care that much about fashion.
Otto von Busch is an Associate professor of Integrated Design, School of Design Strategies