The other day I asked my roommate whether she would be happy wearing only sweats and pajama pants in public if nobody would judge her. She thought for a little bit, nodded her head, then resumed eating her cereal like nothing happened.
I must admit, I was a little surprised by her nonchalance. After all, if I glanced into her dresser, I’d find it overflowing with trendy choices, none of which remotely resemble ratty gym clothing or worn sleepwear. Would all that stuff really be gone if the rest of the world told her it was OK to dress like a slob? And that got me thinking: What really drives us as a society to dress the way we do and not in comfort-conscious loincloths and furry hats?
It’s a valid question. In fact it’s, like, the only question the fashion industry rides on. How much money are we willing to spend on these pieces of uncomfortably sewn cloth? We buy magazines that tell us that military and metallics are in this season and that we should measure the amount of peanut butter we put on our sandwiches so that we can lose those extra ten pounds off our butts. And then there’s my favorite little gem: 80 percent of all women are wearing the wrong bra size. What the hell is this even supposed to mean? That we’re too stupid to figure out what’s most comfortable on us? Yeah, those manufacturers at Victoria’s Secret sure know us well — much better than we know ourselves.
So maybe it’s true. Maybe the underlying factor for all of us wearing “fashionable clothing” is social constraints. Take places like New York. The main reason the people there are so well dressed is because they come into contact with thousands of people on the street every day. In order to stand out — or maybe even just to keep up — people have to pay attention to what’s in or out. Because there are so many people, the cut and style of a piece of clothing, no matter how ragingly uncomfortable it may be, ends up defining the person underneath.
Obviously, this is not just limited to clothing. Anything we own, whether it’s furniture, electronics or bathroom supplies, has some sort of status symbol built into it. Take it as sign of our burgeoning civilization, or the widening gap between third world countries and the richest ones — we’ve just become obsessed with buying fashionable stuff.
But this explanation still feels incomplete. Generally, your primary criterion for buying a couch is not how fashionable it is, but whether you can sit comfortably on it. In fashion, this is obviously not the case, as my small-footed brethren in Qing-dynasty China can tell you. But why?
Let’s try moving this to more personal territory — Why do I wear the stuff I do instead of Snuggies and Ugg boots? For me, it’s all about the feelings associated with the things I wear. If I take a reasonable amount of time out of my day to put on clothes that I bought and like, I’m going to feel better about doing productive stuff for the rest of the day. People put on clothes the same reason they go to the gym or eat breakfast: It freshens up their morning. Staying in pajamas all day makes me feel like I’m sick or at a sleepover, which is really not the way I want to feel when I’m stressfully studying for a biochem exam.
Beauty is another factor. As every psychology study has told us a billion times, people are just drawn to beautiful things. Babies would rather be cuddled by big-breasted blonde bombshells than their own mothers. Subjects in studies routinely dub beautiful people nicer, smarter and all those other awesome adjectives. Like magpies to a gold mine, we just can’t get enough of pretty stuff. It’s like the hidden third law of thermodynamics or something.
And the point is, nobody can really pinpoint why we’ve evolved into fashion-mongers. Yes, the concept of the entire industry is completely ridiculous, but you know what? It works. Whether it’s for pure aestheticism, peer pressure or just to start out your day, fashion has stepped out to the forefront of our culture with almost no explanation for its phenomenon.
So the next time you run your hands over those maddeningly uncomfortable, ridiculously expensive stiletto boots, buy them. Who cares if they’re going to make your toes bleed and ankles break? They’re awesome and you deserve them.