Manolo the Shoeblogger writes in The
Paradox of Not Caring: “claiming to not care about the clothes, to
not be concerned about what one wears, it the paradox, for the clothes
worn by one who claims not to care make as much the statement as those
worn by one who dresses with the purpose.” He’s got a point. And yet,
there is a difference between fashionistas like most of his fans and
anti-fashionistas like me, and it’s an important one.
Here’s what I wear. Rockports or hiking boots, good-quality black
jeans (usually Land’s End), chammy shirts a la L.L. Bean in the winter
and polos or four-pocket bush shirts in the summer. Unlike most
geeks, I don’t wear T-shirts very often. My color tastes run to solid
high-saturation “jewel tones” and outdoorsy plaids.
I have an A-2, a classic brown-leather flight jacket, that I wear
pretty much whenever it isn’t so hot I’d stifle, and I bought a
polar-fleece vest specifically so I can keep wearing the A-2 in deep winter
weather. Occasionally I wear Aussie-style bush fedoras.
The last clothing fad I actually liked was the vogue for safari
gear in the mid-1980s; I’d still wear that stuff, but I wore almost
all of mine out.
I tend to buy somewhat better-quality and more expensive clothing
than my peers, but in styles that are designed for durability and ease
of maintainance rather than flash (nothing I normally wear requires
ironing or dry-cleaning). I favor simple designs in good materials, and
I don’t buy anything I don’t expect to be wearing for at least five
years (except that my shoes unavoidably wear out faster than that).
To use terms that Manolo wouldn’t, my clothing choices have both
a functional level and a semiotic one. Manolo’s point is that the
semiotic level will be there whether it’s intended or not. The
functional level is obvious, I wear clothes that minimize the amount
of time I have to spend worrying about clothes.
But I know what the semiotics of my clothes are, too. What I wear
is a modern spin on classic no-nonsense men’s clothing, with an
outdoorsy masculine emphasis — the sources for its design
elements are explorers, soldiers, aviators, and engineers. There’s
an implied contrast with high-maintainance indoor clothing designed
primarily to express the wearer’s position in a social hierarchy;
the implication is that I don’t care to play that game, and
don’t have to.
(But there’s another level to that. When you consider durability
and how often one has to buy new clothes, the L.L. Bean/Lands’ End
version of outdoorsy clothing I wear is almost certainly less
expensive over the long haul than most of the ostensibly cheaper stuff
at your local mall. Nevertheless, it requires larger lumps of
investment, so it is in its own way a form of wealth display.)
My choices also intentionally suggest that I have no use for
fashion trends — that I’m self-assured enough to wear what
I like, not what’s hip this season. And that’s why, at least
for me, Manolo’s Paradox of Not Caring is more apparent than real.
Fashionistas are concerned with what everybody else thinks is cool, and
that changes randomly and rapidly; anti-fashionistas, like me, seek a
personal style to settle into that expresses what doesn’t
change about them.
For me, that’s adventurers’ clothing, sort of Indiana Jones lite
— except I liked that look before the movies. I can make it
work because I’m a muscular guy with a strong physical presence;
people look at the way I dress and carry myself and then aren’t very
surprised to learn that I’ve lived on three continents, visited over
fifteen countries, been fluent in three languages besides English, and
that I’m a serious martial artist who can fight hand-to-hand in any of
three styles or with sword or pistol. They aren’t supposed to be
surprised; semiotically, conveying toughness and competence and
resourcefulness is exactly what my clothes are for.
There’s a subtler message in there as well. I’m an intellectual,
a thinker, a geek. I could dress to emphasize that, but why bother?
It’s going to be obvious whenever I open my mouth. It’s much more fun
to play off the fact that people don’t expect intellectuals to look
natural in adventurers’ clothing, or people who look natural in
adventurers’ clothing to be intellectuals. Yeah. I want to bust
those categories! I want to make it clear that I don’t fit neatly in
either box, or for that matter in any box at all.
So, even if I weren’t attracted to flight jackets and safari gear
and the adventurer look, I would make something of a point of not
usually dressing like a generic computer geek.
But getting back to Manolo’s point…the high-level message of
fashion is “I am a herd animal, a follower, concerned primarily with
the opinion of others”. When people claim not to care what they wear,
than can be sloppiness or it can be an individualist impulse trying to
break the herd-animal pattern. OK, so he’s got it right that we
cannot avoid sending messages with our clothes — but at least
some of us try to look like ourselves, rather than like everybody else.