In Defense Of Fashion

When I was first approached about this guest-blogging job, I worried I wasn't qualified. Although I've always loved fashion and been fascinated by how people choose to present themselves, I'm no fashionista. I follow high fashion the same way I do the Mets: as an amazing art form that doesn't have any relationship to my everyday life. Someone commented yesterday, "Jen was sophisticated and relevant. You are not." I can't pretend I wasn't terribly hurt, but at the same time, I knew the commenter was essentially right. At the end of the day, I'm just a goofball who likes clothes, and I'd certainly hate to pretend otherwise.

I don't come from a fashionable family. In my house, it was understood that clothes were frivolous, a mere means of keeping warm, on a par with trashy TV and Babysitters Club novels. My mother, a feminist and intellectual, frequently spoke slightingly of those "self-absorbed" women who devoted themselves to grooming and clothes rather than the life of the mind. When we did our annual school shopping, it was at the Salvation Army. Fashion, when acknowledged at all, was regarded as patently absurd: sinfully expensive items made for and by pretentious morons who perpetuated dangerous beauty ideals.

Although I dutifully got in line with my family's morally superior attitude, from an early age I was secretly drawn to the world of clothes, reveling in dress-up and doll fashion, and noting the outfits I saw on the street. Of course, I was ashamed of these shallow leanings. I remember snaking clandestine peaks at the Vogues in the dentist's office, marveling at the beauty of the clothes even as I gaped at their prices.

In a sense, my mother could afford her principles; hers was the sort of natural beauty that needed no adornment. But as I grew up, it became clear that I had not hit this genetic jackpot. Whereas my mother's height and lean lines looked dashing even in sweats, I, five inches shorter and considerably curvier, looked dumpy in the same clothes. Where her straight, thick hair looked elegant after her $20 Supercuts trims, my own curls turned into a frizzy mushroom. And if her high cheekbones and natural tan didn't need the enhancement of nature, my pallor and pale lashes most certainly did.

As I moved into high school, I knew I looked awful, but I literally had no idea how to go about fixing it. Even if I had, I didn't have any money and was dependent on my parents for transportation. Asking for funds for clothes was unthinkable; I'd have died before I let on that I was any less high-minded than they. I pretended scorn for the girls in my school who wore artfully applied makeup and dainty, expensive clothes, yet I yearned for their sartorial ease.

When I got a bit older, I started thrifting on my own and experimenting with clothes a bit. I began to learn the structured shapes that worked for my body and to realize that even if I loved the idea of something, did not mean it was for me. More importantly, I had a major revelation: it takes as much time and effort to buy clothes that look bad as something that fits and flatters. As long as one has to wear clothes, there is no reason you shouldn't spend that energy wisely. I ran across a great quote in a Georgette Heyer novel: "Of course there are more important things than clothes. But not when one is getting dressed."

I was helped along in this by a naturally stylish friend who, although a serious scientist, took tremendous, unashamed pleasure in putting together the exuberant looks that were her trademark. Clothes were, for her, a means of expressing her creativity, and she did so unashamedly. I came to see that my dismissive moral indignation was no more admirable a stance than revering labels for their own sake. Both are, essentially, a form of judgmental intellectual arrogance.

Late in my teens, I took a part-time job at an antique clothing store. It was a revelation to me. I became fascinated by the artistry and history of the garments, their function and workmanship. For the first time, I came to understand the point of couture – an evolving art form with real-world reflections and ramifications. This is not to say that I started saving for labels; such a thing has never been within my means and I found too much about the world of privilege surrounding fashion unappealing to ever want to be part of it. Unlike most art forms, high fashion has a highly accessible and practical alternative – a cheaper version for the rest of us – and this is inherently alienating. However, I grew to love the clothes as objects in themselves, and found observing their adaptation to real life to be fascinating.

I had a hard time articulating these evolving ideas to my family. It was simply not within my mother to enjoy any form of physical self-expression; she had defined herself for too long as someone who didn't care about how she looked and to challenge this would have been to undermine a great deal of who she was. She viewed my ever-more elaborate outfits and increasingly expensive haircuts with growing incredulity. When I got a weekend job in a high-end boutique, I could tell that it baffled her.

Then one day, I realized that I cared about clothes. A lot. I thought about them the same way I did the books I read and the movies I loved. It seemed to me amazing that one could transform oneself willfully – that everyone has this much control over how they are perceived in the world. A lot of my friends still found this interest frivolous, but came to see that it didn't compromise anything else – and, from my perspective, broadened and deepened my interests.

So, when the opportunity came to guest-blog here, I decided to do it. I knew that I couldn't set myself up as an authority; just try to share my enthusiasms, talk about the way real people dress and, if possible, do so without unkindness. When my mom called me this morning to tell me she'd been enjoying what I wrote, I can't tell you how happy I was. Oh, and we made a date to go shopping.