Hey… can you all help me out? It’s getting late and I’m still trying to figure out what to wear this Halloweekend. I know, I know, I should have been on this a long time ago, but the truth is… I’m kinda indecisive when it comes to dressing up.
Of course, every Halloween costume comes with its own ample affordances and dire drawbacks, but in the back of my mind there’s always a voice muttering to me about how ridiculous I might look in one outfit or how unfit I might be for another. And to tell you the truth times two, this problem persists way before and much beyond this spooky weekend in October. Personally, this issue exists as a permanent fixture throughout my entire life.
I could write an article for every article of clothing I own, how it makes me feel, the memories I maintain and experiences that remain attached to it. I won’t. But it’s interesting to think about how tied we truly become to our wardrobe over time. After all, because our clothing so successfully communicates information about our gender expression, sexuality, ethnicity, race, religion, class status and more to others, one might conclude that we are, indeed, dressing up with every outfit, with every decision on what to wear serving as a defining piece, an unquestionably delineating part of our quotidian costumes.
(Do note that in this article, I will speak primarily about [what has been traditionally conceived as] men’s clothing, considering I am by no means an authority on women’s clothing nor have the proper lexicon to ponder on it.)
More than just flesh, our clothes hold history. And not just of our own… each item reflects a complex series of relationships and experiences even before appearing in our closet. Fashion theorist educator Renate Stauss encourages us to see our fashion not just as product, but as a commodity, denoting that in making such a distinction, we’re compelled to think more critically about the vast processes behind our purchases, the diverse array of fashion designers, manufacturers, department stores, all of which establish such close-knit relations with our clothes prior to their arrival in our clutches.
Once we perform the purchase, and the clothes become ours, they take on their own personal meaning mediated by our experiences. I maintain memories of where and when I copped certain heartfelt items that stay with that item as long as it is in my possession. Though with the advent of digital retail outlets, these fond memories of falling in love at first sight, at first fabric are less frequent. Online shopping, aside from promoting fast fashion culture, has divorced us from intimately knowing the details of the items we’re interested in putting on our person before purchase. Now, what we get in the mail is a crapshoot, with the sunk-cost fallacy feebly urging us to come to terms with whatever ends up delivered on our doorstep, regardless of how much it matches the digital depiction.
Beyond our personal feelings about our fashion, our quotidian costumes can be considered a form of inter-actional code-switching with others. We dramatically alter our appearance with every outfit and prime people’s perceptions of us based on what we put on. How we dress reveals our values, conveys our beliefs about the body, how it should be accessorized and stylized. We wrestle and wonder about what features of the flesh should be displayed and how much. Sometimes, we may open ourselves to a healthy degree of external inspection, feeling liberated amidst the soulful sensation of showing off.
Anyone can try practicing this easily on their own. Though it may take some reconciling with the detriments of desirability politics plus monocultural (commonly anti-Queer, anti-fat and anti-Black) ideals of identity and self-expression. German theatre practitioner Uta Hagen advanced an exercise in which one is to observe the changes in sense of self as they “get dressed for a particular occasion … (noting) the sensorially suggestive aspect of a garment.” We must feel ourselves into the fabrics, as we can only come to truly know ourselves through our sensory feelings. Knowing is feeling. We innately know when putting on our quotidian costumes of convention, we’re simultaneously putting forth our personal aesthetics and emotions.
In the morning, when we rise to figure out what to wear, we employ our own cognitive theories of color and our own aesthetic philosophy to decide how best to display our Self. Even those who claim to not care about how they dress must still partake in this process. The complementing of colors and matching of fabrics we select can be considered musings of our subconscious mind speaking outwards. Personally, I find myself drawn to wearing navy blue, heather gray, black, white and burgundy the most. But that still doesn’t help me decide what to wear this Halloweekend…
On the surface it’s evident our fashion allows for artistic self-expression. But are we truly expressing the Self when the fabricated forces of late-stage capitalism continue to command our closet? The relationship between fashion and capitalism, once stripped bare, becomes unbearably evident. As Stauss states, “Fashion and capitalism are co-dependent, caught in an inextricable cycle, a relentless cycle, a relentlessly accelerating cycle.” Eighteenth-century innovations in marketing and manufacturing of clothing in particular, as American historian William H. Sewell Jr. claims, allowed for significant advancements in the development of industrial capitalism. Sewell asserts that the massive role of textile manufacturing in the Industrial Revolution demonstrates the formative function fashion has historically taken on with respect to the (current) capitalist system. Much like the exploitation of labor in the textile production processes of the past, the fashion industry’s ongoing exploitation in the present solemnly suggests to me that there are scornful skeletons in every one of our closets.
After all, have we not all become walking advertisements for corporate brands, our drip drenched in the most mainstream of attire? Heedlessly dressed head-to-toe in promising proprietary lines, labels and logos, from our inner and outer to over and underwear, it seems we’re unaware of how strong of a hold corporations have on the clothes that hold us together.
A short stroll through campus simply proves how many people proudly brandish themselves with elite and luxury brands. German philosopher Walter Benjamin maintained that “Fashion prescribes the ritual according to which the commodity fetish wishes to be worshipped.” It is not uncommon for folks to buy clothing items for logos alone, as wearing recognizable brands may strengthen one’s perceived status.
Though somewhat antithetical to fashion culture’s commodity fetishism and the modern-day monstrosities of the harrowing hypebeast culture, another formidable phenomenon has emerged. Yes, thrifting is trendy now! Obscure, niche and virtually unrecognizable brands are becoming all the rave as young people veer into vintage aesthetics. Interestingly in thrifting, one person’s garbage quickly becomes another person’s garment. To say you thrifted a fine piece of fabric might feel like a flex, especially if it is from a recognized elite brand. Yet there’s a growing awareness occurring of how rich, well-off people have exploited and appropriated thrifting and it is not uncommon (at this university even) to see considerably wealthy individuals wearing thrifted clothes, subsequently glorifying poverty aesthetics in the process. And while white, affluent individuals may cosplay poverty aesthetics out of attempts to conceal their privilege, conversely speaking, there’s a tendency for poor people of Color to dress impressively out of a desire to ascend socially.
Evidently, the rubber-soled shoes meet the road of retrospection when we consider how sneaker culture, a result of the historical popularity of basketball in the ’70s, has enthralled many young Black males — from all socioeconomic classes — into being (hyper?)conscious of their shoe game. As Black sociologist Michael Eric Dyson asserts, “the sneaker reflects at once the projection and stylization of black urban realities linked in our contemporary historical moment to rap culture and the underground political economy of crack, and reigns as the universal icon for the culture of consumption.”
Sneaker culture over the decades has allowed for Black males to engage in expressive artistic individualism, subverting the apathy of unemotional hegemonic masculinity. But in recent years, it has also created heinous conflict, especially with the advent of socio-digital shopping inter-faces like StockX and GOAT. The facts of the footwear are rather weary when you take into account the senseless violence surfacing from growing devotions to materialistic attachments via hypebeast culture — sneaker culture’s superordinate. In today’s time, sneaker culture has remained ingrained in Black communities, compelling young, Black males of working-class background to spend a considerable amount of cash just to cop the latest drop. The cost of sneakers stays rising steadily as luxury elite items continue to be sought after.
But noting how crucial the expressive nature of clothing is to our identity, is splurging on a coveted shoe to up our game truly cause for shame? Keeping up with current trends can show we care about what we wear and are conscientious in our curation, but it can also lead us to become clout-chasing consumerists, especially with the insidious implications of fast fashion.
Unsurprisingly, the average American purchases at least one medium-priced piece of clothing every week. Now finish up this article so you can help me figure out mine… I have a costume to cop for Christ’s sake!
More pertinently, our penchant for new clothing and fresh costumes has clearly frequently claimed and maimed many on this Earth… but it’s worth wondering… why are we so caught up in our clothes to begin with? Aside from their functional application, our quotidian costumes are oftentimes used as a means to elicit desire and evoke arousal in others. This is not necessarily sexual per se but perhaps arises from a biological imperative to draw attention and build a more relational self with others. Sensually speaking, Jungian psychotherapist Thomas Moore reminds us that “attraction to a person, idea, or thing is never simple or superficial.” So frequently do we find ourselves inexplicably drawn to someone’s outfit, typically a continuous extension of their attitude, behavior or bodily appearance. We become enigmatically enthralled, mystified, typically with no understanding of the meaning why. Our eyes, as commonly uttered, act as open windows to the soul, which for a myriad of reasons realizes itself invested in particular qualities of character, color, texture, shape and size. Evidently, everybody has their own primordial aesthetic preferences, their own intrinsic conceptions of how they might prove themselves as no stranger to Eros.
With sports jerseys veering us toward a sultry jubilant virility, formal suits facilitating seduction in simultaneous pursuit of social power, muscle-revealing cut-off shirts and tank-tops tepidly turning us onto the fascinations of the flesh, short-shorts showing thickness and thighs and gray sweatpants presenting wandering eyes with thinly veiled surprises, it should come as no shocker that there is an inherently erotic nature to much of our attire. This brings up the chief, quotidian question: Are our ordinary outfits textile tools of the ego?
With all the time we spend in trying on clothes in front of (distorting) mirrors before hastily taking them off; taking artificial outfit selfies with (distorting) phone cameras; shamelessly shopping online and in-person; not to mention laundry, ironing, tailoring and alterations, it seems to me we’re clearly caught up in appearances.
I’ll be the first to admit that my spending habits when it comes to fashion often elude me in ways I’m not too proud of. I struggle to find my distinct style while also trying to meet the challenges of our mercurial Michigan weather. My clothes rip, disappear, get smeared, smelly, too small or feel too large leaving me to replace basic items of utility on the regular.
In trying to mitigate the materialistic mess that has been thrusted upon us, we should resolve to bring an added layer of attention to our personal wardrobe and stylistic choices. If we were to start seeing what we wear as a sacred extension of Self, then we might become more firm in our bodily feelings and more energetically attuned to how our attire makes us feel. This takes some reflection on who we believe ourselves to be, how we come into alignment with the four existential questions of origin, purpose, morality and destiny, as well as how we determine for ourselves the proper way to reconcile our wardrobe wishes with our innate social identities.
Personally, I find it extremely difficult to decide what aspects of my identity I want to accentuate with my outfits. Having been the subject of much homophobic harassment for dressing more feminine in high school, I still struggle to fully allow myself an authentic connection with my Queer bi-sexuality through dress. Even on campus, I’ve been called out and accosted (literally last weekend) for wearing clothes that might be considered conventionally Queer. And while it’s clear our fashion opinions are absolutely idiosyncratic and somewhat subjective — as no two people will view one outfit the same — they still stay informed by stereotypes and hegemonic cultural norms. Stauss asserts, “Rather than a ‘silent visual language,’ the communicative properties of dress might be most usefully conceptualised as a ‘clothing code’ because dress cannot produce permanent symbolic solutions. Its symbols are too ephemeral, its ambivalence too deeply rooted. An excess meaning always escapes.”
Growing up, my early schooling at a predominantly white private school led me to fear adhering to common misconceptions of Black men as thugs once arriving in a more diverse public schooling system. I was apprehensive of being associated with the so-called “pants-sagging thugs and hoodrats” roaming the halls and skipping class. A testament to what Black sociologist Tamari Kitossa describes as “the root of the black man’s current situation in the West (laying) in the white man’s imagination, where he is enduringly portrayed as both exotic and grotesque,” the antagonistic ethnophaulism associated with Black males who sag, many whom been vilified, fined, even jailed for merely showing fabric, shows how ruthlessly our anti-Black culture polices Afrikan peoples. As Black artist Fahamu Pecou posits, “The visual spectacle of the black male body continues to trouble racist hegemonic visions of society.” While it may seem silly to say something such as exposed undergarments are an act of embodied resistance, the cover art of many established rappers might claim otherwise. No longer do I judge my fellow brothers on how they dress, nor any folks for that matter. Since, in understanding our quotidian costumes as holy adornments of Self, we can come to consider any article of clothing as a truly divine decoration.
I tend to be a perfectionist to a neurotic degree, so this intentional mode of thinking, dressing and being, for me, is a lesson in appreciating the tiny quirks of my clothes, the rips, tears and wears as character. I have a blue and red (vintage) flannel missing its bottom button… but I don’t care because it’s frankly my favorite shirt ‘cause I think the colors are calming. I got a pair of (vintage) Joma soccer shorts from seventh grade. They have no pockets and are extremely loose-fitting as the drawstring has disappeared but I still rock them every once in a while (aka right now as I write this) because they just feel reminiscent of a time when I was still playing soccer. I own a slightly ripped (vintage) jean shirt my dad gave me, once belonging to my late uncle, that I still wear regardless of the tear because of the personal connection it makes me feel to my family.
I find familiarity acts as an energetic feedback loop. The more often I wear something, the more experiences I come to associate with that item, the more positive or negative emotions I begin to feel toward it. There’s a subtle subconscious culmination rising with every wear causing us to come to terms with the past and put forth new possibilities into the present to shape the future. For a variety of reasons, there are some fits we simply don’t see a future with/in… and that’s okay. Donate or throw them away! There’s no need to keep around the energetic frequencies of fabrics that we find distressing. Simplifying our wardrobe, being intentional about what we wear, why and when, can help rid us of this stress.
Yet it is easy for this desire for simplification to suffer, especially when compulsory social events can make the process of deciding what to wear a brain-racking pain. On Game Day, deeply entrenched in the allures of experience economy, we tap into the “imagined community” of the campus, as Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson would denote, branding ourselves as a unit within the broader scheme of the corporate entertainment enterprise masquerading as educational apparatus, that is the University of Michigan.
Figuring out what to wear on Game Day can be difficult because balancing our own aesthetic desires, bodily comforts and practical affordances with the mandates of Maize-and-Blue can prove to be as invigorating as it is enervating. But putting in effort for associated organizational events conveys to others that we care about the cause and are willing to take part in the collective. Taking part in the collective can prove beneficial when done with our own best interest in mind. Party themes can push us to be creative, think abstractly and express ourselves artistically. The theme adds to the ambiance, the atmosphere and the spectacle of the overall event.
It is one of the great joys of our conscious existence to experience the abundance of a numinous nightlife as when we go out, we’re given the opportunity to truly dress up, blessing up and expressing outwardly in the process. Undeterred by the detriments of professionalism and its punitive, white supremacist implications, we exercise our God-given free will, comprehending the copious creative impulses instilled in us by our Creator to craft and re-create our Self. Thus, our quotidian costumes in the most considerate sense encourage us every day to question norms and beliefs, query our beliefs and most importantly go out into the world with the courage to be and exist as we are.
Anyway, any thoughts? I’m still trying to figure out what I should go as this weekend. Please, let me know!
MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.