Commit to the fit
Clothes affect how much most people perceive someone a lot for how quickly and easily they can be changed. Assumptions can be made about whether someone is rich, aspiring, or poor, tasteful or tasteless. We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but our heuristics often make those judgements for us before we even have a chance. More often than not though, these judgements are correct, because people also dress to communicate a message to others.
People usually dress consistently and within certain conventions to belong to an ingroup or send a certain message. They can define an occupation: office workers dress more formally, tech workers dress more casually, and artists dress plain weird. Fashionable people dress according to today’s trends, active people wear more athleisure, and those that don’t care dress in yesterday’s trends. These examples are an obvious oversimplification, but a generally observant person can distill these observations of someone’s comportment into a generally correct assumption about them.
That people sometimes wear different things can occasionally throw a wrench into accurately judging a stranger on a street. The frowning man in a suit could be coming from a funeral, not a high-pressure day at a high-earning job. The young woman wearing gaudily branded clothes that don’t go well with her three-thousand-dollar purse doesn’t have to rich and tasteless, they could be bad with money and tasteless. Without context of events or occasions, taste is also often difficult to discern: the woman wearing loud sneakers that don’t pair with her dress has just come back from a long waitressing shift and no one told the American man on vacation that his Air Monarchs, baggy khakis, and Champion sweater are suddenly trending again.
These are certainly more extreme examples, because taste is still discernable. There are tastemakers and fashion trends trickle down across subcultures to a few ways to dress. With the proliferation of niche communities as the internet continues to grow, and the number of acceptable standards of casual dress does as well. People are now also increasingly aware of how others chose to dress, with the rapid distribution of visual content across various social media. But this also means that it has become increasingly hard to gatekeep the various styles. I’m all for inclusion, and I don’t care too much about how people dress, but it is now challenging to tell a poseur from the real deal, especially in strangers. They can have one black outfit complete with combat boots and cape, and they’re a fashion or art student. They have liner jacket, a knit top, and a pair of misfit boots, and now they’re embracing the Scandinavian it-girl look.
During my summer in Shanghai, I started to take note of the brands that people wore. This was easy, because people loved dressing loud and gaudily ten years ago in Shanghai. It soon got to a point where I became confused how everyone had the money to buy t-shirts that were a week of white-collar wages in China, and sneakers that were more than a few paycheques. My good friend L rolled his eyes and told me that they were all fake, plain counterfeits, and not even no-name duplicates. Throughout that summer we eventually distilled that the best way to tell if someone’s clothes were real was through an examination of their other accessories, and the larger they were the more accurately they conveyed authenticity. Sure, that looks like a Gucci shirt, but is she wearing plastic flipflops from the dollar store? Now that might look like an Omega watch, but he’s giving twenty-dollar haircuts. His LV tracksuit looked stupid, but he’s getting into a Mercedes. And of course, our favourite one of all: A man dressed in his fashion week best with a plain-looking woman, or vice versa. Sometimes, your partner is your best accessory. It takes a lot more money and some convincing to dress both parties.
A similar principle can be applied to the various aesthetics that people aim to dress in. A long black t-shirt is one thing, but well-worn black Doc Marten’s are another. A complex-looking hand-knit top with multiple yarns and patterns is a sure sign of devotion, but a wolf cut with short bangs sends that message over the top. Any sort of look is more committed when there are more expensive items, or items that take time to get to where it is. Changes to the body itself lend even more credibility. Someone with a mohawk or a man with long hair signals more of an attachment to an alternative lifestyle than clothes can. The ultimate commitment to a look is a irreversible and highly visible change to the body: think visible tattoos or large piercings. Those, particularly when a bit more worn, show that the wearer is completely committed to looking a certain way to complete strangers. People that see each other constantly know how committed to a look someone is, know if they are a part of this subculture or not, if the look is consistent with how they are, or if just bought some new clothes. Tattoos show complete strangers the irreversible dedication to a personality.
This is not limited to alternative subcultures: even raver girls who chose to get large back pieces or frat bros who chose to get a little decal on their bicep are not exempt. Of course, a sleeve or a face tattoo is even better, but those are a little more specific to certain subcultures only. In a way, that’s why tattoos are so attractive: they not only recall a more interesting, free-spirited youth, but also indicate that the wearer either had so much confidence in something that they wanted to have it for the rest of their lives, or they had so much confidence in themselves they didn’t care if they had it for the rest of their lives.
Don’t worry Mom, I’m not getting a highly visible tattoo so people think I’m more authentic. I’m getting one because I am authentic. Once I decide what I want anyways. Ultimately that’s what it boils down to: people dress to be perceived a certain way, and they want to accurately perceived others based on how they dress. I’m not here to preach that neither are important, because I know deep down I think that they are as well. I want people to think I pay attention to appearances, and I want to be able to get an understanding of what someone is from how they dress. Such is the duality of man: I understand how superficial it is to win and distribute favour based on not even appearances, but I still aspire to do it. So when doing it, be sure to commit to the fit.