“Nice shoes, pal!” The snarky comment from one of the cool jocks echoes over the school cafeteria, as he sits on the table with his feet on the bench, playing with his shades. His friends turn and grunt in something that seems like agreement. The dry tone has made everyone know how the sardonic opinion should be understood. It is a comment aimed seemingly at me and my shoes, but more to the rest of the crowded canteen. Answering a quick and ironic “thank you” is my only response, to hold up a tiny shield against the vitriol spouting from the table of the popular kids. Navigating the stormy seas of aesthetic relationships in high school, I try to steer a steady course towards another table. Because, in the cryptic language of teens, the subtext of the remark translates into something like “don’t come and sit with us,” and perhaps also, “Hey loser, who do you think you are?”
Everyone hearing the comment knows, don’t they? It’s never really about the shoes, but about who is in control. The utterance takes aim at my desire to just, for once, be the pilot of my own life, and dress the part, and that is not taken lightly.
Teen angst and obsession with minuscule details in dress make good material for parody and uncomfortable laughs. Anxious adolescence is also easy to dismiss as a unique time of youthful vanity, social uncertainty, and emotional drama. Yet similar worries appear to most of us when dressing for social events such as weddings, funerals, job interviews, or dates: what is too little or too much? Seeking what is “just right” for the event, we stand lost before the wardrobe, as if facing the dark squall of a harrowing storm. Lacking an all-purpose sartorial life jacket, it may feel safer not to go out at all than being forced to appear unprepared.
Even though we are told not to judge a book by its covers, we know appearances matter. Looks speak. While fashion may help us express our ideas of self, and suggest ways of being in the world, it does so in a silence that creates a provocative vacuum. The silence of clothes opens a gap in communication that draws judgment to it like a magnet. It may be an explicit remark, a side look, or a rolling of the eyes. Or it may be the devastating silence that marks utter failure, like that cruel absence of a response from your partner after you present your new haircut. The horror, the horror.
At times of risk, we seem infinitely attuned to decipher even nanoscopic cues from our peers, the slightest looks of approval or snubs. These minuscule signals stick to some deep part within us—small spikes lodged deep into our soul, like metal shavings that cling to a magnet after grinding. Almost impossible to notice with the bare eye, the shavings cut your hand when you try to brush them off.
Fear and anxiety lurk in the seeming shallow waters of fashion, and the perennial possibility of humiliation haunts our everyday relationship with clothes. Thus, in the gamble of dress, most of us play our cards close to the chest. We stay unassuming, blend in, and try to get on with our lives without much friction. Sometimes we put in special effort, in hopes that we can give shape to an aesthetic self that can influence an audience, wrapping the scarf around our neck in a fold that shows we want to put that little extra flair to our everyday. Perhaps we dress up for an event, trying to be our best selves before an important meeting or date. But we may also dress down, for example, when new to a job or visiting an unknown place. When burdened by uncertainty, we seek comfortable camouflage that passes without looking like we gave too much concern to our looks. We don’t want to hear that snarky comment again from the high school canteen. Instead, we may hear the familiar exclamation that keeps returning throughout life, that undying phrase of peer-policing: “Are you going out in that?”
This is the type of aesthetic regulation that seems to happen in most families. The comment accentuates how clothing is a social interface where the aspirations and expectations of two parties clash. It may be a comment most pronounced with parents keeping watch over their teenagers, as they challenge the unspoken rules of appearance. In adolescence, following the latest fashion can be an excuse to escape family dogma to instead foster a paradoxical sense of freedom and independence by imitating one’s idols.
Regulating looks is just one of many front lines in a family’s psycho-social struggle, all too often resulting in raised voices, slammed doors, and hurt feelings. As such occasions highlight, there surely is an emotional depth to the everyday choice of clothes. Often it is potential shame that drives the regulation: “what will people think?” But we should not forget the feelings are often mutually shared: the teen is often just as ashamed of her parents, these dinosaurs who have no clue what is going on in the world that really matters.
The comments may also be those of a spouse who tries to keep a partner from appearing in public with a combination of patterns or colors that perhaps work at home, but not necessarily when appearing before the gossiping neighbor’s critical gaze. “I know you don’t care too much honey, but the neighbors surely do.” The intensities of such aesthetic confrontation may escalate even further when exchanged between intimate partners. This is also where the intonation changes just slightly: “Are you going out in that?”
When the comment is expressed from a partner, it seems to address not the significant other but an emerging stranger residing within someone we thought we knew. A bit more dressed up than usual, or just accentuating a new style, an outfit can become suspicious. Suddenly putting in a bit of effort in dressing is a threat or a challenge to the status quo.
Perhaps the comment translates into something more like, “Is that another you I see?” From a simple comment on a look, the remark shifts to point toward an otherwise untouchable depth, an abyss opening beneath what before was considered well-charted waters. Not only could this signify unwanted ambitions, but the emergence of a new facet of a confidant that now reveals a new orientation of attention. Someone we thought we knew sets out on a new direction, toward an unknown destination. It may be understandable that it causes a bit of distrust. After all, the usurping pilot may be a pirate.
Regulating the looks of one’s peers is a subtle way to preserve the status quo. A biting comment towards someone else is a way of avoiding unpleasant social disruptions that may shake one’s own self-esteem. The pruning back of inner growth among one’s peers can maintain a bottom line of self-respect.
But such comments may also reveal an undetermined presence emerging within an intimate relationship. A partner may ask, who is this person starting to express themselves inside someone I thought I knew? Why is my partner is dressing up, and why don’t I know about this new coupling of attentions? In the cryptic language between loved ones, these remarks can translate into something like “hey lover, who do you think you are?”
It requires delicate steersmanship to avoid the sharp rocks of spite veiled in the crushing gale of passions. The reason we treat fashion as shallow is perhaps because we all know that among the rocks other shadows lurk beneath the surface, murky cavities that open to the depths of the ego, to dreams and longings too wounded and delicate to ever see the light. So many smothered selves buried at sea.
Even the smallest remarks call out the importance and anxieties hidden in the lining of everyday dress. It reminds us of just how fragile are the selves we carry. The intimate regulation in the look between lovers exposes the existential dimensions of appearances and the shared balance of self-worth. Words are tainted by memories and frail self-esteem. Clothes remind us who we are to each other, but also the Plutonic presence we cannot know, that we all have to navigate what part we may or may not share or make visible to others. The sea is always changing, the unlit waves a bit eerie, but who is really the pilot behind those dark Ray-Ban shades?
Otto von Busch is associate professor of Integrated Design in the School of Design Strategies at The New School. He is part of the Fashion Praxis Collective at Parsons, and his collected research can be found at selfpassage.info.