Thursday, November 1, 2007

On Style

So there I was, in Boutique du Designeur, with a rack full of likelies. The date for my friend's wedding verged on the imminent, and I was verging on desperate. Wedding guests were to include an ex-boyfriend of mine, and even though the split was the most amiable in my experience and had even already blown out its first birthday candle -- because breakups are just like children -- I wanted something devastating. Dress as artillery. This meant going a little bit out of my comfort zone, which is how I ended up in a vaguely Grecian deep V-neck babydoll dress of flamingo pink tulle.

It looked, in a word, exquisite. Truly red-carpet material. I could have stepped at once into any fancy shindig you'd care to name: my body, which I normally viewed as either a cumbersome means of carrying my intellect around or a processing system for pot pies and German Riesling, now appeared to consist entirely of translucent skin, perfect boobs, and endless, slender legs. The color, shocking and outrageous, looked fantastic with my photophobically pallid complexion. The saleswoman was all a-twitter.

I did not buy the dress. I am not a pink-tulle-babydoll kind of person.

And this, though perfectly reasonable at the time, now strikes me as very strange indeed. The dress was flattering, perfectly appropriate for a summer wedding, and on the cutting edge of fashion. And yet I declined the purchase because -- and this is a peculiar thing, really -- I did not feel the effect of the dress was something expressive of my, for lack of a less annoying term, personality. As they say: it just wasn't me.

The ostensible initial purpose of clothing, to hear God tell it in the book of Genesis, was modesty. Clothing was coverage, a hiding of shame, a general social agreement that as long as no one's naughty bits aren't showing, we can all pretend they aren't there. And yet, even as we purport to hide the body, we expect those same coverings to express some even deeper fact about a person, about their social status or aesthetic sense or cultural influences or general social attitude. Surely this is just as intimate in some sense as one's physical exterior?

Ideally, then, one's entire wardrobe would consist of bespoke clothing, designed for/by the individual who would be wearing it. For instance, I would love to be the proud owner of a sleek, elegant, dark green velvet double-breasted smoking jacket, but have not yet found one in the real world that meets the high, one might say Platonic, standards set by the smoking jacket of my imagination. Beau Brummel had the right idea: spend hours with your tailor, arguing about the precise line of every last seam and the precise fold of every snowy cravat, and then surely your clothes would be not only individual, but reflective of the individual who impelled their creation.

Of course, this requires money, and time; even in the good old days of the Regency in England, although Brummel was able to bring his sartorial dreams to notorious fruition -- polishing his boots with champagne! -- that option was hardly available to say, your average London streetsweeper or longshoreman or tavern wench (alright, *you* come up with a list of 17th-century urban British professionals). Fashion has always been related to financial assets -- specifically, the more you have of the latter, the more you can generally afford of the former. This is why there was an initial bias against mass-produced clothing when it first cropped up, and why "off the rack" counted as an insult. You weren't getting actual clothing: you were buying a uniform.

But nowadays few of us are intrepid enough to make our own clothes, and even fewer actually succeed in such endeavors. The rest of us, poor peons that we are, are forced to shop; we are no longer encouraged to design clothing, or even to envision clothing that does not yet exist, but rather are encouraged to shop, shop vastly and shop frequently. Individual style has exchanged creativity for consumerism. And I'm not entirely sure we're better off.

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