Those Very Local Looks

Posted on September 05, 2013 by Sandy Ericson

Here we are in the midst of the most visually active society ever -- everything is designed -- clothes, interiors, magazines, ads, celebs, cars, bikes, food, entire farms -- and it’s all accompanied by a publishing industry of how to get the right look. And yet, people look terrible. Just the other week, I went to a local theatrical production at a large theater and the Theater Director mounted the stage to welcome the audience. He was wearing old jeans, flip-flops and his shirttails out. My first thought was “why did I pay a lot of money for this?”
Let’s delve into the problem.
We now live in a very tribal society in which there are lots of insular groups, be they friends, clubs, professions, political affiliations, whatever -- they can be called “silos”. The incestuous nature of these silos fosters a phenomenon over time in which their best traits get better and their worse traits get worse. This concept may be familiar to those studying folk societies in a fashion history class. Folk societies are isolated and not subject to the influence of a larger context; they are provincial, like inland villages bordered by mountains that do not have frequent contact with other populations. Their clothing tends to reflect earlier times, sometimes centuries earlier, and they often develop very intricate decorative techniques on their clothing with very specialized meanings to local people. In other words, their languages, both spoken and visual become uniquely theirs  -- it goes without saying that change is difficult. 
Even though technology now shapes life in our developed country, it also comes with the collateral damage of enabling the formation of virtual folk societies. I’m certain that the theater manager was convinced of his coolness, having perhaps achieved a look his peers would envy. But, sitting there, I just thought this guy’s world is too small and therefore supporting the theater financially would be a waste. He is too provincial -- that is, cut off from the rest of of the culture, living in his own distinct sub-culture. There are lots of sub-cultures now, most obviously, gangs, wall street, fashionistas, on and on, all fueled by the lubrication and/or cement of instant communication within their silos.
Now let’s add another dimension to the problem. Let’s say that maybe the proliferation of sub-cultures isn’t such a bad thing -- people are more easily accepted by similar people, the tokens of admission are easy to present and everyone has a “home”, a place where one is understood. But what if we add “proprietary” to “provincial”? The price of admission to a proprietary sub-culture is made steep and others are warned off, further hardening the barriers between groups and fostering two-way ignorance.  Case in point, Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comment that young people are much smarter then older people. Do I want to buy Facebook stock?  Will that guy be holding his finger up to bigger financial winds than those blowing at Facebook? I thank him for presenting us with the perfect combination of a provincial and proprietary sub-culture. Can you think of others, local ones, your own?
Now we get to the last piece of the puzzle, the concept of dominant ideal.  Dominant ideal most often in fashion history describes body types. When a “body” is “in” it is said to be the dominant ideal. That ideal reflects society’s larger values -- during Victorian times, the bosomy woman who looked like the prow of a ship was thought to be very fertile and a safe bet for having lots of children -- remember, many children died young in those days. During war, strong shoulders are in since strong men with big shoulders were ideal soldiers and heroes -- you get the idea. There are two issues with the dominant ideal thing. First, each sub-culture tends to breed it’s own dominant ideal so the benefit of having broader cultural ideals as aspiring signposts is lost. Also lost are the people who just adopt the boring uniform of their colony without any deeper introspection. Second, since there are few dominant ideals defined by the larger society, the very concept of “ideal” is lost. This is the more significant loss. An ideal is defined in the dictionary as a “standard of perfection” or “a principle to be aimed at” but we no longer can identify that so we cannot apply it to our appearance. Instead, what we have is either the dominant real or wearable symbols of small worlds and those are no treat for the eye.
To pull this thing together, once you hand yourself over to a sub-culture it is difficult to feel authentic if you do not visually mirror that sub-culture, since authenticity is the basis of trust and inclusion. As a member of a sub-culture, the sight of the larger culture, the bigger context, becomes elusive and grows dim, along with it’s ideals. When people get in deep, they defend their sub-cultures by making them proprietary. It is a bit like Stockholm Syndrome, drinking the Kool-Aid or that thing you do when you can’t have something, you say you don’t want it anyway, that you prefer what you have, even if it is not much.  You’ve created and live in a comfy, rote allegiance to a provincial and proprietary silo.
Moral of the story:  Keep the biggest context you could possibly ever experience in your sights, identify it, aspire to it, expose yourself to it, dress like you understand it, like you belong in it. Deliberately choose your own dominant ideals after much thought and visual discernment of the whole culture. Visually, become the person you can be with the most careful taste and presentation possible. Present this person to the world every day. You will never be a leader who sets standards for a small sub-culture but you will live more successfully for a lot longer in the much larger world -- a bigger, more fulfilling, lifetime prize.

Posted in Clothing & Human Behavior, Education, Fashion Design, fashion trends, September 2013


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