I have this hat. It’s wide brimmed, black, and floppy, and when I’m wearing it, I feel like the 5’2” Jewish Jane Birkin, though some of my friends have called me -- lovingly, I’m sure -- “rodeo JAP.” I usually wear this hat for excursions into Friendly Territories: Lower East Side dive bars, Williamsburg roof parties, ambling around SoHo and the like.
The other day I wore my Rag and Bone floppy hat into Hostile Territory: a Manhattan biergarten full of men in the standard post-frat uniform of plaid shirts and boat shoes. I regarded the other women there -- none of whom were stupid or brave enough to adorn their heads with a satellite while looking for dates -- with a mix of jealousy and disdain.
On the one hand, I thought these women were beneath me. Look at them all dressed exactly alike, I thought as I scoffed and applauded myself for my commitment to individuality. On the other hand, it’s quite possible these women didn’t feel they were giving up their identities to “dress for men,” so to speak; maybe they were simply being practical.
I construct my identity around a few seemingly mutually exclusive labels, and therein rests the conflict. Can I be a feminist if I alter my appearance for men? Can I be sartorially inclined if I don’t stomp into a restaurant or bar fearlessly sporting coats that give me the silhouette of a tropical bird? Can I be a boy-crazy college student if I refuse to play the mating game?
I want to be the kind of person who can genuinely say, “I dress for me.” I also want to be the kind of person who goes on dates. I feel guilty for even indulging this line of thinking. There are bigger feminist issues than whether my vampy lipstick is simply too much for your average straight male, and we’re not going to win them by marching into biergartens with our snapbacks and shoulder pads.
Is my identity so flimsily constructed that the choice whether or not to don a hat or a spiky necklace actually affects me? Actually, it does.
While no one would dare to tell you to pick a new career -- or even pretend to like shellfish -- to appease a love interest, they would certainly tell you to put away the harem pants. It’s just clothing, and clothing can be changed.
Fashion isn’t too frivolous to deserve loyalty. Fashion, perhaps to a greater extent than, say, music taste, immediately tells people who we think we are. Caring about personal style is not just for those with too much time and money on their hands.
Feminist philosopher Karen Hanson explains, “Dress, stationed at a boundary between self and other, mark[s] a distinction between private and public, individual and social.” Clothing, then, is an essential aspect of self-presentation. While every woman would contend that she is more than her clothes (or her job, or her sexual orientation) their role in social interaction can’t be denied. Fashion is actually liberating in that it gives us some autonomy over how we present ourselves and how others see us.
We have control over what we wear in a way that we don’t for much else about our appearance -- height, which has shown to influence interpersonal as well as professional relationships, for example.
This idea has been around for a while. Sociologist Erving Goffman, in his book, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," famously likened human social interaction to a theater performance, a huge part of which detailed the importance of costume choice. We are not what we wear, but what we wear can tell a lot about who we think we are. From Vivienne Westwood’s London punks to Miley Cyrus’s crop tops and pasties, clothes signify our identities.
My taste for edgy pieces and my desire to engage sexually with someone that probably doesn’t understand the genius of Comme Des Garçons are not irreconcilable. That’s the great thing about fashion: it allows for a fluidity of the public self. Unlike a lot of identity-defining choices we have to make -- hello, careers -- with fashion, we don’t have to be one thing or commit to one version of our selves.
So, no, fashion is not frivolous. How we dress is not who we are; it is an expression of how we want to be perceived. A commitment to headwear isn’t any less important than a freakish admiration of Radiohead. But like real identities, which are never static, with fashion we have the freedom to change what we wear depending on what we want. And in that way, by leaving the hat at home, like the wise women of the biergarten, I’m not any less myself. I’m just accessing a different part of my personality and expressing a specific desire: to be asked on a date by a sartorially confused, accessory-fearing man.