Once, we were all dressed by someone else. Parents picked out a T-shirt; the school dictated what colour our trousers should be. But at some point, we were granted the opportunity to discover who we might be in the world of clothes. We had to decide for ourselves about collars and necklines, fit, colours, patterns, textures and what goes (or doesn’t) with what. We learnt to speak about ourselves in the language of garments. Despite the potential silliness and exaggeration of sections of the fashion industry, assembling a wardrobe is a serious and meaningful exercise.
Based on our looks, background, job or certain tendencies in our behaviour, others are always liable to come to quick and not very rounded decisions about who we are. Only too often, their judgment doesn’t quite get us right. They might assume that because of where we come from, we must be quite snobbish or rather resentful; based on our work we might get typecast as dour or superficial; the fact that we’re very sporty might lead people to see us as not terribly cerebral; or an attachment to a particular political outlook might be associated with being unnervingly earnest.
Clothes provide us with a major opportunity to correct some of these assumptions. When we get dressed, we are, in effect, operating as a tour guide, offering to show people around ourselves. We’re highlighting interesting or attractive things about who we are – and in the process, we’re clearing up misconceptions.
We’re acting like artists painting a self-portrait: deliberately guiding the viewer’s perception of who they might be.
Peter Blake, Self-Portrait, 1961
In 1961, the English painter Peter Blake portrayed himself wearing a denim jacket, jeans and trainers. He was deliberately nuancing the view most of his contemporaries would have had of him: based on knowing that he was a successful and rather intellectual painter. He might have been thought of as slightly aloof and highly refined; detached from, and censorious of, ordinary life. But his clothes speak about very different aspects of his personality: they go out of their way to tell us that he’s quite modest; he’s interested in talking about pop music; he sees his art largely as a kind of manual labour. His clothes – like ours – give us a crucial introduction to the self.
This explains the curious phenomenon whereby if we’re staying with good friends, we can spend a lot less time thinking about our clothes, compared with the anxiety about what to wear that can grip us with strangers. With good friends, we might sit around in a dressing gown or just hastily slip on any old jumper. They know who we are already; they’re not relying on our clothes for clues.
It’s a strange – but profound – fact that certain items of clothing can excite us. When we put them on or see others wearing them, we’re turned on: a particular style of jacket, the right kind of shoes or the perfect shirt might prove so erotic, we could almost do without a person wearing them.
It’s tempting to see this kind of fetishism as simply deluded but it is alerting us in an exaggerated way to a much more general and very normal idea: that certain clothes make us very happy. They capture values that we’re drawn and want to get closer to. The erotic component is just an extension of a more general and understandable sympathy. The French novelist Stendhal wrote: ‘Beauty is the promise of happiness’ and every item of clothing we’re drawn to contains an allusion to a different sort of happiness. We might see a very desirable kind of competence and confidence in a particular pair of boots; we might meet generosity in a woollen coat or a touching kind of innocence in a hemline; a particular watchstrap may sum up dignity; the way a specific collar encases the neck could strike us as commanding and authoritative.
The classic fetishist might be pushing their particular attachments to a maximum and be rather restricted in the choice of items they favour, but they are latching onto a general theme: clothes embody values that enchant and beguile us.
By choosing particular sorts of clothes, we are shoring-up our more fragile or tentative characteristics. We’re both communicating to others who we are and strategically reminding ourselves. Our wardrobes contain some of our most carefully-written lines of autobiography.