Fashion is often described as aspirational. Looking at magazine editorials or designer runway shows, you could be forgiven for thinking that this translates to ‘thin, young and beautiful people look good in pretty much anything’. You might also believe that fashion is ultimately a way for people (mostly women) to waste money in the pursuit of materialistic bliss. This may be true to some degree - watch the Lifestyle Channel if you need proof - but treating an enthusiasm for fashion as empty and silly undervalues it.
Fashion and fashionable items mostly exist as a vehicle for personal style. Fashions may change over time, but style endures. Separating fashion and style might sound like splitting hairs, as a passion for either one still sounds like the prerogative of people with far too much time and disposable income. However, behind the stereotype of the ditzy schoolgirl or spoiled housewife toting multiple shopping bags lies an interesting truth: style is, and always has been, part of being human.
Humans have always sought to personalise and embellish their surroundings. From 40 000 year old cave paintings to richly decorated ancient tombs, humans desire to be individuals and to be remembered as such. The first examples of jewellery are more than 100 000 years old, and by 5000 BC luxurious textiles for clothing were already in production. In more recent history, clothing has also been used effectively as a political tool. If you want people to think the same and act the same, encourage them to dress the same. During Mao Zedong’s rule of Communist China in the 1950s, citizens were expected to wear plain, functional clothing closely modelled on their leader’s ‘Mao suit’. Wearing colourful or expensive clothes was considered unpatriotic and could even result in punishment. In present-day North Korea, unofficial youth police monitor the population for unsuitable fashions, which are usually too skimpy, too decorative or simply too ‘foreign’.
Before the mid-20th century, clothing was a strong indication of a person’s social class. Styles varied throughout the world but in general, upper class citizens wore much more intricate and expensive clothing compared to the masses. This system was at least partially broken down during the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The Cold War environment bred a general distrust of authority and the baby boomer generation began to support environmental and social causes as they pushed for change. Fashion choices reflected this new way of thinking – the younger generation styled themselves in ways that horrified and bewildered their Depression-era parents. Men wore their hair long, women wore more revealing attire and practical, comfortable clothing such as jeans and T-shirts were the new uniform. For the first time in Western society, it was generally acceptable for a person to wear their heart on their sleeve, or at least their T-shirt. Psychedelic patterns, favorite bands and political statements were freely on display – people were able to express themselves in ways that had never previously been allowed.
In the modern world, it’s no longer expected that someone will dress only according to social class. The question has become, what do you WANT to wear today? Very expensive clothes and exclusive labels are still a status symbol and hallmark of the upper classes, but style-on-a-budget is more popular now than ever. The rise of the thrift-shop fashionista means that it’s possible to achieve a stylish, unique look while spending very little. The popularity of blogs such as The Refashionista, I Love to Op Shop and Goodwill Fashionista show how with the right eye for fashion, anyone can craft a beautiful look on a tight budget. So in the twenty-teens, what does style actually mean? It’s not an automatic reflection of social class, or politics, or even gender. So, what has style become?
Individual style can give the wearer a sense of power, and being heard. It’s much easier to ignore what someone says than to ignore the way they look. Style can be a visual representation of a strong personality and a desire to be acknowledged. On the other hand, clothing can also be used to blend in. In the modern Western world, a hoodie, jeans and headphones sends a clear message: ‘I don’t want to interact right now’.
How you dress is the image you choose to present to the world; a form of artistic expression. Pieces of clothing can also hold special meaning. For me, this includes the Argyle socks I bought from a supermarket in Finland, because it turns out you can buy pretty much anything from a Finnish variety store. A pink rain jacket I bought on my second day in Northern California, cold, hopelessly jetlagged and still wondering if a one-way ticket from Perth to San Francisco was a good idea (it was). The jacket my sister gave me eight years ago after she bought it from a thrift store in the early 2000s. None of these items were expensive but they’re still part of my life. And style is a part of your life, whether you take great care co-ordinating an outfit or simply throw on whatever you feel comfortable in.
So, what do you want to show the world today?
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