Our public clothing style is a critical component of our lives in cities. “But wait,” you say, “I’ve never cared how I look. I wear whatever is clean.” That’s a style. “I have to where a uniform in public to do my job,” you say, “That’s not how I dress for myself.” Fine, but it is still a style. It’s typical, maybe even required to have more than one. What is important about these is that they are readable. This lets others interpret the messages we send about who we want to be, and what groups we affiliate with. This makes fashion, the aggregate of these various styles, a scene that is not only interesting to watch, but also to talk about with our fellow city dwellers.
Some people talk about clothing as if it were a language, but this is not accurate. Clothing is iconic, not linguistic. It lacks the flexibility to generate new meanings on the fly, the feature of language that separates talk from barking. Clothing is more like barking. All of the meaning is built into the garment to begin with. This meaning can only change over time as the garment becomes dated. Thus, the two biggest categories of public clothing are the “new” and the “used.” Like many areas of design, the same formal relationships can mean different things to different generations and groups. We once tried to avoid the used and maximized the new. Only the new enabled our group’s aspirations. Only the used proclaimed our solidarity with our parents’ group. With the rise of Thrift Shop Chic this has become more complicated. Now, clothing with used iconic value is freely mixed with new garments from the hottest stores and the latest magazines.
The conversation about fashion takes place on two levels. There is the message of the public style itself. These a messages we send to strangers through our clothing. If you don’t already follow Bill Cunningham’s video diary of New York Street fashion, you should check it out. Cunningham makes this group affiliation part of the conversation visible.
The second part of the conversation is about how an ensemble for the street can best be put together. What makes one ensemble a more effective means of saying what we want to say than another? This requires learning about clothing sources, fabric, color, drape, ease, and shaping. Media, like magazines and television are obvious places to start. Ultimately, these ensembles are local constructions meant to be interpreted by a restricted group of people: classmates coworkers, friends, etc. The conversation must begin with those friends and family who provide the social mirror of how one looks. ( I’m reminded of a book about conversations between mothers and daughters by Deborah Tannen titled “You’re wearing THAT.”) But the conversation doesn’t end with a particular ensemble. How easy it is to recreate our common history as urbanites through fashion. All we have to do is look into our closets and gaze at the clothes we haven’t worn for years.
What other conversations, like fashion, have evolved in our shared lives as urbanites to help us identify each other as part of the same local experience? What scenes have I missed? Leave a comment if you have identified another one.