For the past few months, I’ve been on a journey.
Since early July, I’ve been working on a freelance project with a new ethical fashion company, writing a series of articles on ethical fashion, labor movements, and certifications. Having external prompts and external feedback helped me work out questions I had struggled to resolve by myself. I also read Tara Button’s book, A Life Less Throwaway, in just under 7 hours and became fixated on the chapters about planned obsolescence, the way marketers and makers exploit our psychological need for novelty and social conformity to get us to buy more.
Finally, I undertook the #glamcapsule 10X10 challenge, which forced me to get *really* creative with my wardrobe since I chose loud colors and prints that at some point had to be mixed and matched (a throwback to the pattern mixing days of my early 20s). It also provided excruciating clarity on what my actual style is, to the point of nightmares!
These things on their own don’t amount to much, but together they’ve nuanced the internal discussion I’ve been having with myself on running an ethical style blog and being a conscious consumer.
They’ve also forced me to spend more time thinking about identity and how it’s tied to social pressures and expectations.
Boredom & Barriers to Personal Style
Earlier in the year, I got really tired of the aesthetic on a lot of the minimalist blogs I followed and went on an unfollowing spree, replacing them with just one blog, Man Repeller, a place that feels very welcoming to both the intellectual and fashion-y sides of my personality. Following this “conventional” blog has helped me get out of the negative headspace I was always in trying to understand my distinct style while looking only to people wearing neutral linen as my inspiration.
While fashion is more democratized than ever – and seemingly any style, color, and silhouette goes – we are, I think by nature, tribalistic, and this leads niche communities (like ethical fashion, for instance) to slowly and perhaps unintentionally develop a type of uniform.
As evidenced by a lot of the top sustainability bloggers, and especially by the looks in the typical 10×10 Challenge, that uniform consists mostly of wide leg pants; drapey linen separates (think Elizabeth Suzann); clogs and glove flats; leather; and hues of burnt sienna, taupe, and black.
Does this sound dreamy to you?
I mean, it does to me.
But the problem is that when I attempt to put these things together, I feel like I’m wearing a costume. The shapes don’t always suit me. The colors, depending on how light they are, make me look like a ghost. And I don’t get that energy boost I have come to rely on when I’m wearing a bright, eye-catching color.
Excuse me for a moment while I go on a tangent…
Some of the current predominant style may have something to do with Instagram. I mean, in one sense it’s because we are all looking at and referencing each other when we get dressed in the morning. But there’s something more happening, I’m convinced.
Despite how free we are to wear what we want, it’s undoubtedly true that some trends will garner higher engagement on the highly visual platform of Instagram.
And getting likes and comments isn’t just addictive, it’s business if you’re a blogger or influencer. So we all rush out to buy the thing that will make for a great photo, higher engagement, and, ultimately, more financial security.
That’s not to say that we’re being totally insincere. We’re convinced we like these things because they make us successful and well liked. Heck, maybe we actually do like wearing these things. But at some point, the line is blurred between truly personal style and slightly adulterated “personal” style that serves a broader, less artistic or emotive purpose in our lives.
In a way, it’s a costume worn for the part we’re playing.
Consumer Culture & Aspirational Dressing
The reason why contemporary marketing is so effective is that it sells aspiration, subtly and seductively telling us that we aren’t good enough at the same time it offers a “solution.” Unfortunately, social media users are pretty good at using this strategy, too.
When a blogger or influencer shares a new look that garners hundreds of excited likes and comments, even if the post isn’t sponsored, it achieves an end of convincing the viewer that the influencer’s life is somehow better, that her style is more current and curated, and that indicates something about her worth. And the viewer, obviously, can’t actually become that idealized person on their iPhone screen, but they can buy some new clothes or adopt a new diet or get the same haircut.
We live so much of our lives on social platforms that were created to exploit us through advertising that we ourselves have become the advertisers.
We are willing – but perhaps ignorant – pawns in a consumer culture that couldn’t care less about the person in “personal” style or anything else.
There’s nothing wrong with being interested in fashion or curating a minimalist wardrobe or following style icons on Instagram. But we need to learn how to separate the various pulls of aspiration – which, in more accurate terms, is really just a form of self doubt – in order to get back to the joy of choosing things for ourselves. Sometimes that choice will leave us happily empty handed if we find we are content with what we have. Sometimes it will lead us into the back of Grandma’s closet or to the clearance bin at the thrift store.
For me, fashion has always been about creative self expression. I don’t consider myself an artist, but getting dressed can be artful, and like doodles on an etch-a-sketch, it’s something I can make and re-make every day, in endless combinations and color schemes.
I lose myself as an artist of personal style when I rely too much on what other people think about what I’m wearing, or when I’m not in alignment with both who I am and what I want to express, not only in my clothes but in my presence and language and action.
You will never be able to buy enough to bury your insecurity, to make yourself someone different. Who you are at your core is vibrant and attractive, perfect in its imperfection.
So if you want to tell a story through your clothes, let it be the story of who you are: where you’ve been, where you’re at, and who you’re becoming. You are not a character in a disjointed story told through images or social media mentions. You’re, if I may paraphrase Pinocchio, a real person.
Today I’m starting a small revolution: I’m doing what I want.
So what if I turn into one of those middle aged women who still wears the stuff she bought in her 20s? I’m ready to be me.
Karin of Truncation Blog wrote a great piece on this topic a couple weeks ago. Fran wrote an interesting piece on personal style, too.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.