In my introductory entry, I suggested that most men should be more aware of the power of their clothes as tools for expressing, and even constructing, their selves. But what if you go too far the other way? What if clothes are all that’s important to you, and you have little or no sense of self outside of the clothes that you own and wear?

To some extent, everyone reflects who they are through the clothes that they wear. It helps you express your individuality and be more in touch with yourself, and it also lets you tell people something about who you are as a person. It only becomes problematic when your sense of self is incomplete. I think this is the position in which teenagers often find themselves. For example, I'll bet just about everybody of my generation knew someone who turned into a goth in high school. Why? Because they were trying to figure out who they were and who they wanted to be, so they were trying on different identities to find one that felt right. The healthy thing to do, I suppose, is to eventually come to a conclusion about who you are, and move forward with your life. But what if you don't?

Suppose you never finished figuring out who you are (or didn't like the person you thought you were becoming), but you had a pretty good idea of who you wanted to be. Well then, you might just fill in the gap with whatever clothes best reflected the ideal person you wished you were. You'd probably also form emotional connections with particular items of clothing, or clothing brands, whose marketing images resonated with the ideal you and your ideal life. If you dreamt of country estates, yachts and trust funds, you might stock your closet with Ralph Lauren and boat shoes; if you wanted to feel sexy and desirable, the centre of attention, maybe you'd splurge at Dolce & Gabbana or quest for the perfect black leather jacket.

Brands, in particular, have a special power, because they can pack a whole array of images and associations and fantasies into one little logo, then conjure them up again instantly whenever you see that logo. That little embroidered polo player, those little embossed initials, are shorthand for every advertisement you've ever seen, every concept and image you've ever known to be associated with that brand. No wonder that fragrances and accessories, the least-expensive products sold by virtually every fashion house, also comprise the majority of their revenue. After all, not everyone can afford $2000 for a Dolce & Gabbana suit, but just about everyone who cares to can afford $60 for a bottle of D&G cologne—to buy into the fantasy.

Everybody does this, of course. Women wear heels and lingerie when they want to feel sexy; for men, maybe it's a flashy new blazer or your favourite (lucky?) clubbing shirt. I know a certain lawyer who always seems to be wearing the same Burberry tie whenever I see him in a photograph. Now, there's a slight element of costume whenever you wear something deliberately to make a particular impression, or to make yourself feel different. It's only a problem if you're wearing that costume all the time, and you get so wrapped up in maintaining your image that you forget—or don't have the headspace—to make time for anything else.

Test yourself, fashionistos: If you were forced to stop shopping and wear a uniform every day, would you still feel like yourself? Or would there suddenly be a gaping hole in your identity? If you really care about clothes, the answer is probably yes... but if you couldn't find something else to care about instead, you may have a problem.


Anonymous said... @ August 12, 2010 at 12:03 PM

This is a very smart and insightful post, I think. You've really pinned down how advertising and branding adds value to otherwise ordinary clothes.

I think the analogy to teens trying to express a sense of self through fashion is a really useful one. Clothes can enable a person to put on a new identity, which is probably why shopping can be a pick-me-up when you're having a low-self-esteem day. The problem is when all your effort goes into supporting an image rather than developing oneself as a person (as with Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, for instance).

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