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.