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The Value of Scruffy Clothing, or Personal Style can be Anything

Based on Sartoriography‘s recommendation, I got the book ‘Clothing as Material Culture‘ out of the library. Most of it wasn’t of direct interest to me, or didn’t inspire me to a think piece/discussion/rant for this blog anyway, but one aspect of one essay in the book did stay with me. In the paper ‘Looking Good: Feeling Right – Aesthetics of the Self’ by Sophie Woodward, the author interviewed a number of women about their relationship with clothes and their personal style.

One of the women was Vivienne, a retired political in her fifties. She wears clothes that it is implied are not very flattering: loose big shirts and full length skirts mainly, and almost everything she owned was either about 30 years old, a cast off from her two adult daughters’ wardrobe, or second-hand. The article shows that although she claimed to just ‘throw on whatever’ she actually had a very defined personal style in terms of shapes, colours, materials and style.

The reasons for her style choices were partly to do with comfort and the feeling of safety associated with being enveloped my large amounts of fabric, but were also to do with her politics and feelings of social responsibiklity (many clothes were made by local craftspeople in the Middle East and South aAsia, where she had travelled) and a sense of personal history (the travelling and the ‘hand me ups’ from her daughters). It was very important to her how she dressed, and how others perceived her dress, to the extent that she would turn down invitations to awards ceremonies because she was unwilling to dress up in the socially expected way for them.

What really struck me about the article though was this passage about how wearing clothes that are worn in and worn out eventually become part of Vivienne’s self:

An aestethic totality crystalises over time, as the clothing softens through wearing, so too the clothing becomes an integral part of her. In wearing the same clothes over a period of time, the fabric starts to relax. The persistent washing and wearing of a sweater starts to drain the colour, softening both the appearance and texture. Through perpetually wearing the same items of clothing it is as if they age with the wearer, becoming like a second skin. On wearing them there is no awareness of constraint, or a seam that rubs and chafes; rather the items soften in places where the body is most harsh on the clothing: the elbows on a jumper, or the knees on trousers. The relationship between clothing and person becomes symbiotic, the hardness of the body being softened by the fabric.

It’s quite poetic, isn’t it? This quote really brought it home to me that some people might choose their clothes based on things other than that they are fashionable, ‘nice’ or flattering. I often see fashion blogs describe people wearing scruffy or worn out clothes in very negative terms. Such people are often described as having no respect for themselves or for others, and the lack of ‘nice’ clothes is basically constructed as a moral failure.

But maybe we should consider that scruffy clothing might not actually be a result of disrespect, laziness, or depression, or whatever else negative, but a conscious positive choice based on personal values. Just because these values aren’t in line with what the majority think, and might not have anything to do with the way the wearer looks, doesn’t make them any less valid.

So maybe next time we see a person in scruffy clothes (or any clothes we think are boring or don’t like in some other way), we should question your own assumptions about why they look that way, and try not to judge them based on what we ourself think is important. It’s a lesson I will be taking to heart anyway!

Photo via the LIFE magazine archive.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • interrobangsanon 1 November 2010, 4:08 pm

    An excellent point. The quote reminds me of the essay "You Don't Have to be Pretty" on A Dress A Day.


    The lines, "Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked 'female'" and "…you don't have to apologize for wearing things that are held to be 'unflattering' or 'unfashionable' — especially if, in fact, they make you happy on some level deeper than just being pretty does" are especially resonating.


  • Sidewalk Chalk 1 November 2010, 5:04 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post, thank you. I love the idea of wearing what you absolutely love until it becomes a part of you.

    Sidewalk Chalk

  • sacramento 1 November 2010, 5:21 pm

    Well this is a very interesting point. Above all respect for others in all kind of ways.

  • MrsBossa 1 November 2010, 5:40 pm

    Thanks for your comment on Mrs Bossa Does the Do – be careful what you wish for though, or I might send you extracts from my Trainspotting-inspired novel!! Cringe!

    Excellent post, by the way – and yes, it is wonderfully poetic. In some ways I find it more interesting to figure out the choices of people who dress 'outside' of fashion. It does make you realise that some people have a distinctive style that they have chosen, that their outfits are not lack of choice at all.

  • Shallow Mallow 1 November 2010, 6:30 pm

    Great quote – thanks for sharing 🙂

    It makes me think of vintage right away. There is something special about wearing a garment older than yourself, the fabric soft, an age spot here, a tiny tear mended long ago there. It seems odd to be wearing a garment that has been someone elses second skin before. It feels like this should be off putting but the thought always makes me smile. Mystery 🙂

  • tinyjunco 1 November 2010, 6:46 pm

    Really nice post, Franca. i find that many new things have a flatness that can feel dull to me. so many items develop a wonderful patina with time and use. that's one of the reasons antiques with the original finish are so much more valuable than 'refurbished' pieces – that glow which develops over time, and makes them almost seem like living, aged, beings….

    i have an old old jacket that is in tatters – i wear it in costumes now because it's so worn. but i thin it's so much more beautiful, with all of it's experience, than all those new, shallow, young things.

  • Terri 1 November 2010, 7:50 pm

    But of course–her approach to style sounds very familiar to me. In fact, just this morning I was going through a sack of castoffs my youngest daughter was giving away. It included a mesh jacket with satin trimming that she bought on a trip to Paris. I saved it for her…the meaning of it ought to make it a keeper whether she wears it or not.

    I have two items, cowgirl shirts, my husband bought for me. They've shrunk have repeated launderings, but I cannot bring myself to part with them because they were the first items of clothing my husband selected for me.

  • devilishlypleasurable 1 November 2010, 11:08 pm

    Thought-provoking. I loved the lyricism of Vivienne's excerpt. . it does feel like a piece becomes a part of your skin. . when some things are etched with memories.

  • The Snake's Hips 6 November 2010, 12:41 am

    Reminds me of something I read in an interview with Anna Allen at Casey's Elegant Musings a while back.

    She said:

    The idea that people stitched their own clothing and wore them until they were shreds and then patched them up and wore them longer amazes me to no end. I want to wear my clothing so long that they need to be mended and patched. [snip] I desire to create clothing that will last a long time, not just one season.


  • Dionne 6 November 2010, 4:05 pm

    So, so glad to see this post on a fashion blog! I've found it frustrating to see that there are always negative connotations for those who aren't fashionable.

    For me this is because of the example of my beloved BIL: he was a psychologist, and a very good one, who made the choice to live in a small Northern Alberta town and work with people on nearby reservations because, as he said "I work with people who want to make BIG changes in their lives. Right here is where I can be the biggest help."

    His appearance was, frankly, scruffy: white socks and sandals because of his diabetes, two-day beard growth and not-much-showering because of his ezcema, and old concert t-shirts and jeans were his typical work outfit, because that's what he felt comfortable in. He was smart and professional, but didn't look it.

    But here's the really important thing: He was effective with his clients BECAUSE of his appearance, not in spite of it. He worked with people who lived below the poverty line, people who distrusted white guys in suits. His appearance was his CHOICE, and had nothing to do with lack of respect or depression. We lost him far too soon to complications from diabetes, and I miss him terribly.

    Fashion is something I enjoy – I like making an effort to look good. But I've been frustrated sometimes at the comments and ideas found in fashion blogs. It is judgemental and shortsighted to claim that everyone who doesn't "look good" needs to change. Like a previous commenter said, this is about respect.

    Sorry about the long post. I just feel really strongly about this. 🙂

  • lawyerdoll 6 November 2010, 6:25 pm

    Dionne- your brother sounds teriffic, and I'm sure he will be missed. I'm so sorry for your loss.

    As much as I love playing around with fashion, sometimes the things I feel best in aren't stylish at all.

    But I tend to live in my head, and without the distraction of the pulls, scratching, flopping, etc. from my "fashiony" clothes… I can concentrate on what I'm doing/thinking.