I clearly spend far too much of my time thinking about the way in which my appearance affects the way in which others see me. Given the fact I spend every other week writing about it, I probably should be master of my own first impression by now. But the fact of the matter is that despite my best efforts—all the careful consideration I put into every facet of the way I look—I’ve learned recently that these efforts have somewhat backfired. Apparently people have been getting a message from my clothing that I never meant it to send, namely that I’m a self-possessed bitch.
When discussing this newfound issue with a friend, she ascribed it society’s tendency towards a sort of tribe mentality based on ways of dressing. She claimed that, in the US especially, we use clothing as a way to identify a ‘tribe’, meaning people like us. As a society, we have decided that a similarity in the way we dress and carry ourselves hints at something more than a similar color palette or an affinity for a certain type of fabric. We look at someone and figure we have a pretty good shot at guessing what books they read, music they listen to, etc and whether or not we will be able to find something in common with this person. We use ways of dressing as a sort of tribal markings allowing them to tell us with whom we should and shouldn’t associate.
We often decide that musical preference can be guessed at by tribe membership, but people also seem to firmly believe they can guess at unexpected things based on this fact alone. The more immersed in fashion I’ve become, the more I’ve fallen into the tribe of girls who care about the way they dress. Little did I know that some people have decided that one of the fundamental attributes of the tribe of girls who care about the way they dress is that all they care about is the way they dress. If that is not one of your defining characteristics, then you aren’t worth talking to, according to this tribe. I had always thought that by not being a bitch people wouldn’t think you were a bitch, but apparently this impression is determined solely by tribe affiliation. Apparently society has decided that the tribeswomen are stupid shallow and only worth as much as their Daddy’s credit card, but this tribe considers themselves to be above everyone who doesn’t consider the mall their mother ship.
Friendship is clearly based in common-interest. Obviously I love to talk about clothes, and I do see a really fabulous watch as a potential basis for a conversation in a way people who don’t care if their watch is fabulous might find excessive. But that 1-doesn’t mean I think a conversation about watches is better than a conversation about anything else (though I suppose the glee with which I discuss something I consider a truly great purchase might tell you otherwise). 2- it doesn’t mean I, or anyone else belonging to such a tribe, can’t talk about things besides fabulous watches. I sat next to a girl on a bus and a friendship was quickly ignited. Clothing was never mentioned. We spent the entire bus ride discussing the fact that we were both harboring a secret obsession with Panic! At the Disco long past the point when such an obsession was socially acceptable. It took her looking through my ipod and seeing how extensive my collection was (I even had the Live! In Chicago album) and actually getting to know each other as human beings (or at least as Panic! fans) to mutually discover the depths of our mania. We all clearly ascribe to a certain mode of dressing, and that does give the world a message about who we are. But no one wants to think that they are nothing but their tribe, and don’t have little hidden attributes no one would expect. (I’m looking at you, condescending bitch of a saleswoman at Land’s End. Just because I don’t wear smartwool socks to the mall does not mean I’ve never been on a hike before.) I like to think everyone’s a little more complex than that.
Hate to do it, but I gotta bring it back to my Germans. As in the philosophers. Kant’s obviously my boy. And in the Critique of Pure Reason (Critique of Pure Fashion, get it? Haha?), he separates the world into what he calls the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds. We access the world through our senses, and this is the world he calls the phenomenal world. The noumenal world is the world as it really is. This is the world we can’t access through sight feel or smell, it is the world of the thing-in-itself. All we know is the phenomenal world we can’t access the thing-in-itself, as we only gain knowledge of the world around us through our senses. But that doesn’t mean that the noumenal world isn’t there.
Kant probably never meant for this to be applied to the world of fashion, but that’s how I think of it. Yes, we do have access to a surface view of any given person, and yes, this impression is valid. Appearance is a part of the limited access we have to a person. Sight is a fundamental way through which we gain knowledge of the world. However, I like to think we all are people beyond this—we all have the noumenal worlds of our own brains that no one else will have access to because they can’t get inside our heads. Fashion and appearance is a way of controlling the phenomenal world the rest of humanity has access to, and maybe give some type of insight into the noumenal.
Tribes are a natural way of seeing the world, and categories make life easier. People are so varied, we want to find something basic to cling to. Putting people into tribes or categories helps us make the world and social relationships a little easier to navigate. It’s a lot less scary to enter into a conversation with someone that we can reasonably anticipate finding things to talk about with, and we obviously make this judgment based on things we find at the surface. But we also have to be aware of the fact that the surface isn’t all that’s there, and our tribe categorization doesn’t give us a complete peek into someone else’s mind.