For an experiment to be a success, there must exist a control group for comparison. Perhaps the trickiest phenomenon to experimentally test is fashion — specifically, whether we as humans truly dress to please ourselves and flatter our bodies, or rather dress to fit in with our peers. In other words, are we drawn to socialized camouflage or simply dressing for ourselves? Considering trends change and vary from region to region based on temperature and standardized dress codes, the universal control group can therefore be found decked in plaid.
I attended a Catholic school for 12 years, wearing a plaid kilt and pressed white button-up shirt since the age of six. Because of this, my sense of style was never allowed to develop nor change. It was always the same unbending outfit. Although I did not oppose wearing the uniform — or doubt that it saved me a lot of time getting ready each morning — I now realize that as an adult I must discover more things about myself than just what career I want or how to save for retirement. I need to learn how to dress.
To many, putting on a pair of pants and a shirt is second nature, but to me, it is an art form I have yet to master. The knowledge of color combination, pattern clashing and fabric quality is foreign. It’s as if I have been eternally trapped by black, gray and red stripes, and enclosed in shiny white buttons. For the first time upon entering college, I broke free from itchy polyester and into things like denim and suede. This learning experience is even more daunting with my closest set among the backdrop of Ann Arbor, where the fashion scene is as vibrant as the storefronts and city life. There is no set model nor uniform, so I am forced to discover myself afront a stark backdrop in which there is no way to blend in. I have emerged from plaid into possibility.
With such a possibility comes the persona that fabrics and color compositions take on — for although stereotypes are non-tangible, they still can be taken off hangers and put onto bodies. We are fronted with the choice to dress individually, not factoring in outside opinion. Yet this choice is almost never taken, considering the way we dress can determine our self-perception.
This process is called enclothed cognition, or “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.” Setting aside the fact that our intelligence, economic status or overall worth can supposedly be determined by our fashion façade in the eyes of onlookers, how does clothing affect our own self-perception? According to both the ideas of Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer and the research of modern psychologists, the power we have over ourselves can be swayed by the fabrics we wear and the shapes we take on. Hence, self-confidence and self-worth are ours to take so long that we know how to capture it in clothing.
Considering I and other former private schoolers were never allowed to showcase individuality nor enclothe our feelings when confined to a uniform, we have a hard time navigating ourselves and what others may perceive us as. Because of this lack of knowledge, development is experiential. I am privileged to be a part of the control group, able to find psychological wellness in the form of chosen self-worth through the clothing I pick free from restriction. Breaking out of the socialized camouflage of a dress code is key for achieving true individuality — and it is a challenge not bound to plaid.
With that said, there is most definitely a socialized dress code that is easy for me to use as a guidebook: social media posts, TV advertisements or runways, to name a few. The code, although not written in print, is further reinforced through addendums that implicitly determine the desirability of certain body shapes, complexions, ages and so forth. As someone who has exited a mandatory uniform, I find this non-mandatory practice absurd and the guidebook a trap.
Entering a public university or the general public space comes with a freely elected course for self-discovery — with you being a walking billboard of personality and learning. Individuality and means of expressing it may seem innate unless you are someone who has been devoid of it until adulthood, but growth is possible for all. As someone on this course of discovery, I can attest that there does not have to be a right or wrong way to dress as long as we ignore the socialized uniform. Happiness and confidence in oneself should be free from outside influence yet may be hard to realize when left uncontrolled. I choose to continue to take control. When searching for fashion inspiration on Instagram or a Pinterest board, choose what makes you as an individual feel empowered and confident, rather than what any guidebook mandates.
Julia Maloney is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.