Cover Story: A Style Language.
Belted, buttoned, buckled and zipped—post-modern dressing leaps far beyond seasonal practicalities, status, traditional cultural identities, modesty, age, and gender distinction. Our obedience to old rules has given way to freer choice. Personal dressing has become daily kaleidoscopic displays of a dyed, woven, knitted and sewn visual language—a complex self-expressive communication project that among other things, is part masquerade, part new-tribe identity marking, part art, and part closing the gap between who we feel we are and who we want to become.
On the radio the other day, I heard ‘I’ve been under cover so long, I’ve forgotten who I am’. Clothes can and do cover more than body nakedness. They cover an inner-self nakedness too. Dressing becomes an opportunity for self-fictionalising, for creating cover stories through which we can either forget, disguise, or discover who we are. Loose, tight, tailored or funky—clothes can be hiding places that conceal shaky identities. Or they can reveal true expressions of who we feel ourselves to be. Or they’re auditions for selves we’re trying out. Clothes speak for us before we say a word. The shine of skin-tight zipped black leather speaks a different language to a soft loose sweater and blue jeans.
Influential twentieth-century French designer and sharp businesswoman Coco Chanel once said, ‘A dress is neither a tragedy nor a painting; it is a charming and ephemeral creation, not an everlasting work of art. Fashion should die and die quickly, in order that commerce may survive.’ Earlier, self-described genius and dandy Oscar Wilde declared, ‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months’. But even they would be astonished at the current global clothing industry’s churn rate. You can stand in worldwide retail stores like H&M and Zara, blink for a moment, and the entire floor stock has changed. Mass-produced fashion trends are fleeting now, hold our imagination less and are often made from fabrics not meant to last. And the finishing’s poor. Zips fail, buttons fall off, hems unravel, and loose threads aren’t removed. Durable made-to-measure clothing—once the necessity of an era when clothes were expensive relative to income—is now a luxury, unaffordable for most. Home clothes-makers and small-scale commercial tailors once smoothed and pinned tissue-paper patterns to fabric and bent over whirring sewing machines to assemble bespoke garments for ordinary folk. Now they’re made in vast factories on the other side of the world—why bother to sew our own when ready-mades are so inexpensive?
I’ve long been intrigued by personal taste in clothing—the inner template of acceptability or curiosity that’s always in readiness for an outer-world match. When you see something you like, you know it, even if it’s a departure from previous choices. Something instinctive in you responds to a colour, a pattern, a texture, a design. You launch a pleasurable mind experiment. A future self inhabits the dress, the pants, the jacket, the shoes in imaginary social situations, some of which—if you’re honest—won’t eventuate. But you’re already feeling the delight of wearing silk, linen, cashmere or angora against your skin, of being noticed and admired. All this in a few seconds. A few seconds of an impulsive love affair with a garment that may not fulfill its promise after it’s in the bag and out of the store. We exaggerate our need and once the new threads become familiar, we can be childishly fickle.
There should be a word—regret isn’t large enough for it—for the feeling of settling for something that doesn’t light your fire or say anything about you when it’s been impossible to find something you adore for a special occasion. Insect life, at least, will benefit. Moths and silverfish will feed on that thing for years as it hangs unloved and unworn in your closet after its single outing. You keep it because you spent good money on it. It stays, just in case. Ha! Apparently we wear twenty percent of our wardrobe eighty percent of the time. When shopping for clothes, I’ve learned to apply the dictum, ‘If in doubt, don’t’, especially at sales when bargain-hunger craves satisfaction and an appetite for those eighty-percent-off, half-a-size-too-small Jimmy Choo or Fluevog leopard-print heels is screaming ‘now!’. Beware—when you fall in love too fast, it may not last.
But when we choose well, it’s a different story—we invite longtime companions into our lives. The feeling of wearing something we love comes with a sense of certainty, of reliability. Those things we love are biddable, never say ‘no’, are always ready to merge with and express us. When they wear out, we grieve their loss as if part of us has died. We remember them, we search for something like them, realising at last that it’s as impossible as finding the face of a lost love in a crowd.
‘Normcore’—the casual unisex anti-fashion fashion—is having its day, but alongside its blandness are the creations of edgy haute couture and smaller local designers, who keep pushing the imaginative envelope with bold designs and new ways of thinking about how to adorn bodies. Their work—visible online in our ultra-connected world a mere second after the steam evaporates from final pressing—can serve as wearable art. Intriguing pieces that ignite us with possibilities. Inspiring clothes that can speak for something latent in us that may someday become us.
If you’re an original for whom nine-to-five office days straitjacketed in suits sounds like a gulag, you’ll align with Advanced Style’s Lynn Dell and her take on fashion versus style. An ageless New Yorker, she believes that fashion is about ‘me too’, whereas style says ‘only me’, which she much prefers. In the city, standing out in the crowd is both acceptable and necessary if you’re a style individualist (take a look at ‘Humans of New York’ for touching stories and beguiling examples of self-presentation—links included below). Lynn Dell treasure hunts for a lot of her pieces in thrift stores, and advises dressing for the ‘theatre of your life’—every day. Charity shops are cornucopias of other people’s discarded dreams, and havens for thrifty devotees of style. Can’t afford designer labels but love the quality and audacious designs? Wait a while. I paid only four dollars for the buckled Dolce & Gabbana boots pictured above.
When you separate from what other people think, when you let go of trying to fit in where you don’t fit—when it clunks in that you’re always an ever-changing work in progress and that you call the shots—you’re ready to allow your sartorial style to speak for you as much as the words that flow from your mouth or pen, the music you compose and play, or the art you imagine and create. Transmit the essential or soon-to-be essential you through what you wear and watch what you receive in return. When she takes the time to dress well in her unique style, people treat her better, a friend tells me.
Style can become a creatively healthy expression of your inner blooming’s ever-changing phases—it doesn’t need to shade into ostentation or narcissism. Perhaps, like Seinfeld’s George Costanza, dressing according to mood might become your new thing. You may even consider unbuttoning if you’re usually a model of buttoned-up reserve. And if your defences have corseted you too tightly, maybe it’s time to unbuckle, unfasten, unzip—to become more elastic, to choose a cover story that’s not about hiding.
Devote yourself to difference. Devote yourself to style.
Article and photography by Susie Surtees
Style sites to explore: