Personal style is quite a big part of the way that I think about myself. I had this strange moment at graduation where – after deciding to play it safe and stick to the conservative dress code – I didn’t feel like “myself”. Isn’t that a strange idea, that just a dress could seem inconsistent with my sense of personal identity? On occasion I’ve had this conversation with male friends where they ask me why clothes are so important to me and whether that’s inconsistent with being a feminist and resisting the societal pressure for women to care a lot about what we look like. I never really know how to answer. I certainly don’t feel like I’m being oppressed when I dance around my room choosing an outfit to wear. I don’t consciously dress up to be attractive, although I undeniably get a thrill from my nearest and dearest appreciating my outfits.
Whether or not I subconsciously dress-up for societal approval, it’s puzzling why clothes feel so important to me. Especially since caring about clothes conflicts with my environmentalist values often – fast fashion and sustainability don’t make a happy partnership. There’s a tendency for the phrase “self-expression” to be thrown around as an answer to questions of value in fashion. “Fashion is important and feminist because it allows people -especially women – to express themselves!” But, I’m not sure what is meant by “self-expression” here and so it’s hard to evaluate the truth behind this sentiment. I rarely think beyond “this looks good!” when putting outfits together and I have plenty of days when I want to blend in / wake up 10 minutes before I have to leave for work and thoughtlessly shove on a jumper and jeans. It seems most people aren’t trying to make a political statement by getting dressed but simply trying to go about their business without getting frostbite or giving the neighbours a shock.
In a wonderful recent interview, Madeline Pendelton, one of my favourite fashion bloggers, says “Getting dressed every day, that’s a big action. I think of it as the only form of art in which everybody is obligated to participate”. This idea makes a lot of sense to me. I think personal style as an art form is commonly devaluated both because getting dressed is a routine, everyday action and because of fashion’s longstanding love affair with consumerism. Unlike other types of art, most can’t choose whether to participate and multinational corporations are paying billions to persuade you to express yourself via the medium of this totally *new* *life-changing* and *necessary* trend. I have friends that believe getting dressed is only art if you chose to approach it that way, but actually regardless of whether you intend it, clothes are a tool for communication. You can’t help but communicate something about who you are, who you think you are and what you value through the clothes you wear. Humans are judgemental creatures, and what you’re wearing is one of the first things we pick up on. We might be wrong, but people will make assumptions about where you’re from, how much money you have, what gender you identify as, what music you might listen to, where you shop and how many fashion magazines you read by looking at your clothes. Personal style is a very powerful tool for communication and maybe this is what “self-expression” amounts to in relation to fashion.
Outfit Details: Coat, Vintage (Armstrong’s, Edinburgh) / Dress, Vintage (PicknWeight, Berlin) / Top, Charity Shop (Peel Charity Shop, Isle of Man) / Shoes, Dorothy Perkins / Tights, M&S / Lipstick, LA Splash Catrina
I read on Accidental Icon about some really interesting research which suggests that fashion can really transform the way we feel about ourselves. This paper found that clothes affect the way we think, feel and behave. Not surprisingly this depends on the properties we perceive the clothes to have (e.g. “is this something a confident woman would wear?) rather than some objective properties of the fabric. In other words, if you want to blend in and you wear something you think will help you do so, you’re much more likely to act invisible than if you had the same intentions but wore different clothes. What you choose to wear will affect the way you feel and behave that day, and not just because you may want to feel attractive but because clothes have the ability to convey so much more. In this way, personal style can express, and help us become, who we want to be. Women commonly refer to a trusty shade of red lipstick or a dependable dress as “armour” because these elements give them the confidence to thrive in certain environments or succeed in difficult situations.
I also think that style can be expressive when it is subversive and oppositional. Not all artistic expression has to make a distinct ideological point with each separate work – or outfit, in this case. Many people express something in their general attitude towards getting dressed. Subcultures and counter culture – punk is an obvious example – have often expressed distaste with the mainstream, dominant culture through clothes. Refusing to conform to traditional ideas of how women should dress is a feminist action and declining to buy sweatshop produced apparel does make a political statement about the way you want the world to look. Fashion has traditionally been an industry dominated by a small group of wealthy and powerful influencers – fashion designers, editors and the “upper class”. With fashion blogging, now more than ever, “ordinary people” have the opportunity to contribute to the conversation and reclaim fashion for themselves.
So then, why is personal style valuable? I think it has something to do with self-expression – we use clothes to communicate ideas about our self-image, change the way we feel and behave and sometimes even oppose dominant power structures by disobeying the rules about what we should be wearing.
James took these photos of me in Glasgow Necropolis, perhaps the most beautiful graveyard I’ve ever seen! All the major elements (bar my shoes) are vintage or second hand. I fell in love with this coat as soon as I saw it in one of my favourite vintage shops ever, Armstrong’s on the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. It reminds me of something a “quirky” female character would wear in a film set in London in the early noughties, perhaps paired with a baker boy hat à la Kiera Knightly in Love Actually. I just can’t get enough of these 90s-does-70s-meets-goth vibes at the moment. What am I trying to express? What a difficult question! I find it interesting that these are (in my opinion) two styles that aren’t commonly seen together. I like to think that you can’t figure me out just by looking at what I’m wearing.