A Sartorialist's Defense of Dressing Like You Care
Originally Submitted to Blueprint Magazine (Unpublished). 2014
The first impression is almost always a visual one. Just by stepping out of your door in the morning, you are putting yourself up for evaluation by all those you pass. Style and its hyperactive, dysfunctional cousin fashion are the products of the unspoken understanding that, regardless of whether or not you even speak to a person you pass on the street, you and they will each go away with an impression of the kind of person that you are based on your appearance. And while it is the province of many a stuck up and depthless sneerer to bemoan the horrors of modern styling, I believe that such complaints are actually based in something important that must be addressed directly if it is to be addressed at all. That obscured basis I speak of for all good dress is care and a sense of individual identity, which amongst the majority of people appears to be severely lacking.
Now these claims immediately smack of an inflammatory arrogance on my part as the authour, so I hope that the following case study of my own journey from teenage uncertainty and stylistic purgatory, to my newfound sartorial affinity and poise will vindicate my claims. In fact I can say with a fairly great degree of certainty, that if anyone I had known in high school were to see me today, they would be hard pressed to recognize me. Back then I was the picture of generic and unreflective teenage rebellion; logo tees and baggy jeans, hoodies and unkempt shoulder length hair, cheap fedoras and a Bond villain goatee. Nothing I owned could be considered remotely stylish or well fitted, and my constant demeanor of haughty, self assured superiority over my peers was well served by my uniformly black closet. Overall they ironically communicated everything they were supposed to; that I didn’t care about my appearance, that I was better than such aesthetic and shallow considerations. Ultimately I could not have been more wrong.
As I entered into University, things began to change. Highschool was behind me, and the rift between those I had known then and those I knew now in university grew wider as the weeks and months between visits home dragged on. But the people here were still the same as those I had left, still easily pigeonholed into jocks, preps, rednecks, etc by their attire. Like an unconscious uniform worn to denote the social classes we gravitate towards through likes and dislikes, new categories and sub categories emerged as I became more at home with Laurier; business students, music students, etc. Only the science and arts students seemed diverse enough to lack any distinct style nucleus around which to revolve. It was amongst these groups that I first encountered the phenomenon of the hipster. Immediately I took a strong dislike to the culture as a whole. Something about the distillation of the human experience, clothing included, for the sake of fashion irked me in a way that other subculture’s comparatively inoffensive attitudes did not. It seemed so strange to take a stance that was purposefully banal, and offensive to me because of how deeply I cared about my own ideas, positions, and projects. I confess it wasn’t until I began my present phase of style that I realized what their look said about them, and why it was such a perfect case study for the problem of modern fashion.
The cultures of modern dress, across all social and economic lines, make claims towards an aspect of representation. People who dress in black with chains and skulls will be categorized as surely into punk as those who dress in ties and suits will be lumped into the category of business people. This immediately conveys more than a simple aesthetic, it is meant to say something about them as people. The hipster therefore represents an incredible contradiction. While it is hard to find people who are less obsessed with fulfilling the dictates of a vaguely defined social dress code, meticulously accessorizing themselves with the latest and hippest means of expression, beyond this the hipsters attire says nothing about them. The hipster is a being utterly and fanatically antithetical to the established ‘mainstream’ of popular culture, and thus fosters an image that is appropriately deconstructive. However, they offer nothing by ways of identification, nothing of positive value in the place of that deconstruction. By attempting to subvert the establishment, the hipster has created a new establishment that serves no purpose, and leads to the dissolution of the individual for the sake of ironic self reference. The point of being a hipster is to be an existential pack-rat. They collect bits an pieces of other identities and cobble together some harlequin entity that is meant to be all original, and yet fails completely to be anything but a mess.
Thus style in popular consciousness finds itself with two distinct methods of addressing itself in the modern era. The first is that of the uniform, and the second is that of deconstruction. And for a time I existed within a sort of purgatory between these two worlds, one the one hand loathed to becoming part of an easily identified uniformed group, but recognizing the flaws of the deconstructionist approach. I wanted to be something that communicated something genuine about me. I wanted to be real to me. My old methods of dressing left me the sad little phantom I had been throughout highschool, only now I had realized just what a wretchedly pointless existence it was. And being one without identity was being no one at all. But then I stumbled upon an answer a rather unlikely place for one of my disposition, and it all began with that most classic-but-now-tainted of accessories: the fedora.
The fedora’s story in many respects parallels the rise and fall of the era of elegance in mens clothing. From its initial beginnings as a stage piece worn by the female protagonist in the Sarah Bernhardt play of the same name, it in many respects epitomized the romanticism and smouldering, suited self assurance of the heyday of menswear through the mid 20‘s all the way to the late 60‘s and early 70‘s. However, the fedora along with this era of pinstripes and pocket squares would soon find itself in ill repute, as the world of proletariat politics saw such attire as the starched straightjacket of the capitalist aristocracy and rebelled accordingly. While youthful fashion had admittedly deviated from tweed and fold-down collars in the 40’s and 50’s, by the 70’s the majority of adults also wished to be as unassociated with suits as possible. Thus the era of t-shirts, jeans and casual jackets was ushered in and has remained with us since. The designer Thom Browne said once that he believed that the world of t-shirts and jeans had become a “really horrible new establishment,” while suiting was the new anti-establishment. But I still believe this is wrong, because while it may be true that those preferring the comforts of Harris number far fewer than to those who favour Mr. Echo, it is not the style of the clothing that matters, but a unique attitude that is particularly required of those who pursue the sartorial arts.
The difference between a suit and a hoodie is simple; one requires care and attention to be worn well, while the other does not. Anyone can pull a hoodie off of a rack at a department store and look at least passable. A suit off the rack simply cannot be worn with the same natural flow of motion and sculpted elegance as a properly tailored garment. Thus a person looking for a suit must invest both time and money into finding a good tailor, learning how to flatter their body, how the clothes behave on them as they move. They learn more than a fair bit about colour and shading, proportions and the dynamics of different cloths. They learn about shoes and belts, braces and ties, bars and links, notched lapels and pant cuffs, and many more things besides. And from these pieces an identity begins to evolve, one that speaks through cut, lapel, and colour of the disposition of the person wearing the clothes. They become recognizable, both in signature, and in subtler ways. Their personality and mood become apparent through their choices in the morning, bright or subdued, monochrome or flamboyant. The investment in learning and caring about the way you dress and look provides new avenues of expression that are relative only to you and the way you operate, rather than the way that others expect to or believe you should be perceived.
I began dressing in suits and classic menswear 3 years ago, and since then I have learned a great deal both about myself, and the way that I interact with the world based solely on my appearance. This is not to say that in order to create an effective, lasting self image one must eschew all other forms of clothing for tailored garments. In fact, Jay Kos of New York put it best when he said “I get excited when I see anyone on the street dressed in something they own... [because] if they own it, if the really own it, it doesn’t look like they’re trying.” New Era’s fantastic ‘Wall of Stories’ advertisements for their baseball caps further reinforce this point; be it a cap with a stitched city letter, gothic chain pants, or even a t-shirt and jeans, the point of style is to express something fundamental about you that cannot otherwise be conveyed without a long conversation. In an era of easy, ready-to-go, 24/7 communications, people are often too obsessed with their ability to communicate to consider whether the content of the message is worth communicating in the first place. So with the average person tragically unaware of their own message, it cannot be emphasized enough that there is a special place in all our lives for cultivating a sense of style that is truly personal, and treating it with the respect it deserves.