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.

Categorized as Culture


  1. Oh, no. You remind me I still haven’t read Sartor Resartus. Carlyle, while a very odd man, is likely to be far more perceptive than any “semiotician”. But then again, I’m not sure I have the patience to read him these days …

  2. Fashion is a hard thing to define. Yes, there definitely is a herd-fashion, but that’s not the real one. Yes, many people wear stuff they think fashionable to send the message they are following the herd, but the really fashionable people want to send the message they are leading the herd.

    As for a general definition of real fashion, not only for clothing, but also for music, web browsers etc., I will make a few tries:

    A) The really fashionable option is the second most popular one, but it also has to be in some sense better that the most popular one. Example: Firefox is fashionable, as it is the second most popular browser: exotic enough for people to think you know something, you are in some “inner ring”, but not exotic enough to make people think you are an oddball.

    A different version of this one:

    B) Being fashionable means being one step ahead, but taking care that it be only one step, as more steps people will not understand.

    again a different version:

    C) Fashion is the middle point, the compromise between that what “is” and that what “will be”. Firefox as an example again: it is fashionable, because it looks so much similar to MSIE (the one that “is”) and it still manages to smuggle in the view and philosophy of Open Source (the one that “will be”).

    As for clothing: if someone wants to look like a herd leader, it is difficult. You know you are successful in it if you got admiring, but puzzled looks: “This guy’s looking so unusual… but somehow still so cool, but I just can’t understand why.” To achieve it, you have to wear unusual things, but not too unusual as too unusual will be seen as an oddball thing, and you have to wear high quality to also not be seen as an oddball.

    I am usually wearing embroidered western boots, cowboy-style denims, black shirts, and black velvet jackets with diopter glasses that look like pilot sunglasses, with a ponytail. It’s a kind of “desperado” look. One one hand, this is definitely out of current fashion in every sense. On the other hand, it sends the timeless “cowboy/latino desperado/sexy macho” message that is just always cool no matter what is the current fashion. It is a good example: something that is considered cool, but people just don’t understand it why, as it is out of current fashion.

  3. I wear black slacks, a button-down blue shirt, and a tie every day. But I live and work in Western Washington state. Nobody dresses like that here. I can count on one hand the number of people I see wearing ties during the average week.

    So while I would be a herd animal on the East coast whence I came, I stand out as an individual here. And when I *was* on the East coast, I didn’t dress like this; I dressed more casually, much as business people here in Washington dress.

    I find this to be a source of endless amusement.

  4. “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 .. I’m a serious martial artist who can fight hand-to-hand in any of three styles or with sword or pistol … I’m an intellectual, a thinker”

    The true rugged individualist you seem to dream of being, Eric, doesn’t feel the need to open his mouth and blather on endlessly about what an amazing individual he is.

  5. Man, I must be the only one who reads your website via the newsfeed. If I click on the link from the feed (, e.g.), I get error messages like “Warning: preg_replace(): Unknown modifier ‘/’ in …”

    Maybe your WordPress needs reconfiguring.

  6. Individualism only matters if you have someone to impress.

    Still, I think

    Results 1 – 10 of about 32,000 for “naked guy” berkeley

    has beat out Eric in the individuality contest.

  7. I’m always amused by the fashion crowd. They just can’t seem to understand that some people genuinely don’t care about the issue they hold so dear.

    Hmmm. Come to think about it, there are alot more fashions in the world that just clothes, and they *all* seem to share this attribute. Moral fashions are just as bad.

  8. I too dress in a consistent manner and have done so for more than 40 years. I find it instructive when you add to your normal look. Forex I had to be somewhere in a suit and tie, I added on my lapel some miniature medals I’m entitled to. To those who noticed and could understand the change in attitude was radical, so much so that others asked what was going on. It’s still something I think on.

  9. Land’s End has never failed me. Whenever I have seen something I like in their catalog or on their web site, I always seem to balk at the price. But without exception, evey time I have pulled the trigger on a Land’s End purchase, I have been extremely satisfied. And it’s a good thing the stuff isn’t “in style” (i.e., it’ll never be out of style) because it lasts so damn long. I still have the first things I ever bought from them: a couple mesh sports shirt that have probably been washed and worn over 100 times.

  10. Well, Caleb, you got the Al DiMeola part right (how did you guess that?) but I don’t drink and
    you got the wrong shade of blue. :-)

  11. It seems some cheap Chinese manufacturers are starting to understand some things actually better than big-shot fashion brands. I mean Replay, Diesel, Levi’s, D&G and most other big ones seem to follow this algorigthm: 1) take a 70 (male) model and design jeans for him 2) proportonially enlarge it into every direction for bigger boys. And this just so stupid: people tend to gain fat in an unproportional way, so the only real way to make something both comfortable and not make one look like a moving mountain dressed in a blanket is to make it elastic. And some Chinese are exactly doing that: they make stuff that look like quite decent jeans but work like rubber. I wonder when will the big shots get the clue…

  12. I am a fashion student and would just like to make a point that as much i respect your opinion not to be interested in fashion, perhaps you should just respect that people involved in the industry are and are just lucky to have something in thier life which they are passionate about, which a lot of people don’t. Accept that the fashion industry isn’t just an industry full of airheads who don’t have anything else in thier lives but an industry full of creative poeple , most of whom are extremely clever and dedicated.

  13. Extremely talented at what? The art of social engineering? Getting people to think you’re the shit based on what you wear only works on stupids. Granted, the world is populated mostly with stupids, so this strategy can experience a lot of success. But it’s not exactly brilliant.

    Style is undying — uncompromised function fused with form that adheres to solid principles of design.

    Fashion is fickle — a throwback to when we were non-introspective monkeys who couldn’t hide the fact that we were shedding hair, and thus diseased. Millions of years of evolution later, and the bulk of our species still hasn’t learned that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Fashion is advertising with a single, daringly raised eyebrow.

  14. I think the last word on “fashion” was delivered like a terminal .45 to the skull in the movie “Wag the Dog”…Leary’s character “The Fad King”.

    I have somewhat similar tastes to ESR, but with a shovelful of hillbilly thrown in (practical, durable manly stuff…that my piece won’t tear up)…most people dismiss me on sight as a redneck (which I am often thankful for), but when I open my mouth, you can almost hear their mental brakes screeching “WTF?!?!?”…I actually derive some sadistic pleasure from ‘assassinating’ pretentious pricks in this manner ;-)

  15. PS. I agree with ESR’s critique of Manolo’s paradox…although I would have summed it up as actually being a manifestation of “amour de soi” vs “amour propre”

  16. Hi! I noticed that my website isn’t appearing well just in case you want to read what I think about fashion being a fashion buff that I also am. Cheers!

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