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By Iyone Agboraw
We are all searching for an authentic life. A niche to call our own. Western societies are often called individualistic societies – and this focus on the individual often translates to a focus on our outward appearance.
Style has become synonymous with expression of the authentic self. The clothes that you wear are the primary tools that you use to show people your inner emotions, your interests and dislikes, your social status / class, and a plethora of various personal ideas and concepts.
The ability of clothes to translate such abstract ideas as class, has been written about in various semi-anthropological books such as ‘The Official Prep Handbook’ by Lisa Bimbach, and has been enshrined in various TV shows such as The OC and Gossip Girl.
In clothing, the abstract becomes a reality.
However the imagined authenticity of clothing can be deceptive. While one’s emotions may betray one, clothes are something that one can control. The ability to control what you are wearing is what made ‘Back to School’ shop so enticing when you were younger, even if you did not really want to go back to school, it was exciting that you could buy an entire new wardrobe – that may or may not change your classmates arbitrary opinion of you.
The deceptive power of clothing does not change, even though you eventually stop ‘back to school’ shopping. Want to appear free spirited, buy lots of prints and colours. Want to appear more serious & mature – start wearing more suits and tailored looks. The preppy look is only a polo shirt away. And while fashion magazines might put the ‘it’ girl on a pedestal – you too can become her if you buy the right accessories and clothes.
Clothing can be deceptive.
I became fully aware of how deceptive the power of clothing can be the other day, when I was walking down the main shopping street in Vienna. Two girls were walking behind me discussing their plans to go shopping for an outfit for a party. They were surrounded by the usual stores that populate shopping roads in any big European city – H&M, Mango and Zara (otherwise known as the European Fashion trinity). However, none of these options were good enough for them – because as they proceeded to say in their conversation, none of the clothing they would buy in the store would have a story. These girls continued to discuss how all the pieces of clothing they buy had to have a story, how their friends counted on them not to be ‘mainstream’, their friends counted on them to be authentic.
Their dedication to their authenticity, and to all their clothes having a story meant that they proceeded to reject – clothes they liked that they came across in the various store fronts. They liked the clothes, but the clothes did not fit into their narrative – and thus they rejected them.At this point – I had been eavesdropping on their conversation for far longer than can really be considered appropriate, and while I like to fancy myself as a sort of ‘Harriet the Spy’, even ‘Harriet the Spy’ knew when to quit the spy game.
However I have not been able to forget the conversation between these two girls, and it is that conversation that has led me to write this article. I cannot let go of the idea that if you are pursuing a narrative of being an authentic person, and that narrative leads to you rejecting things that you might actually like, then surely that means that you are living an inauthentic life.
Clothing is supposed to represent the ideas mentioned earlier and so much more, it is supposed to be a visual representation of you, but if you are picking an idea that you are attracted to – even if it is not reflective of your personality, and dressing for that part, then clothing stops being a representation of reality and rather becomes a costume.
This idea is now a thought that I often ponder when I wander through stores like Urban Outfitters. If I buy my distressed jeans, crop top and Michael Jackson album from Urban Outfitters rather than thrifting it – am I less of an authentic person because I bought it from a commercial entity. Or does the authenticity come from the fact that I as a person liked these items, and would like them in both an Urban Outfitters and a Thrift store.
This is why true style is so unique, and people tend to gravitate towards it and idolize it. Because when you see someone with true style – you are not seeing someone who is using clothing as a prop in their pursuit of a new personality, but rather you are seeing someone whose personality guides their clothing choices.