What Fashion Says on Behalf of the Non-Fashionista

I am a lover of color, a soaker in all things sequined and button front and loud. I adhere to seasonal trends, and I find myself suddenly loathing or loving things I once thought radically divine or horrific. I admittedly judge the hell out of the choices of others who are not pregnant or otherwise in dire, dire need of Crocs (while… you know… still respecting them as human beings…). Whether or not I am always conscious or willing to admit it, I am very much driven by the modern consumer agenda with respect to my aesthetic tastes. Yet, when it comes down to it, I have always held a certain envy of those who approach clothing pragmatically and adhere to the laws of fashion physics; that which goes up (and outside and to work in the morning and into the light of day), must also come down (into the reality of comfort and time crunch and just generally not giving a fuck about my hair right now).

I will say, I indulgently feed my inner glamor girl regularly. I am entirely and unquestionably enamored with Tumblr feeds and lookbooks and two-page spreads, each one a brick steadily mounting to build me up and keep me level and help me feel foine as hell. In the ways I decorate my body, I can be anyone that I see fit, and the satisfaction of a compliment here and there is just icing on that identity cake. Yet, every time I hear talk of fashion’s importance in every day life, it always seems to split into a glaring binary; either fashion is crucial or fashion is superfluous. Fashion is everything you need to be free or fashion is an utter waste of your time. The conversation fails to allow any space for anything in between extreme devotion or fierce avoidance.

This either/or mentality makes sense, when you peel away the layers of advertising and moral controversy surrounding fashion’s impact on body image. The divide we have placed between our stances is a protective barrier, and a barbed wire one at that. For the girl who was never quite kissed correctly by her jeans, it is easier to reject them rather than bear their broken promise. For the guy whose intelligence was ridiculed faster than his name was ever learned by his peers, it is easier to cast pop culture interests into that lock-boxed category of hurt than to admit the thirst for acceptance. And for those who grew up never quite financially able to afford what they wanted, the higher the name recognition of the product, the more of a symbol it became over time. There is no simpler way to get what you expect and to hold what you ask for in your hands than to literally purchase it.


Gif and feature illustration by Nicole Samanich, nicolesamanich.com

This is the embrace of name brands. The Oak pants and the Opening Ceremony shoes. The Y3’s creeping in around your toes. Here is a world where what you expect is what you get. There are no questions. There are no doubts. The internet is nodding yes. The ads are nodding yes. The strangers on the street are whispering their envy. It’s easier to be seen when you put yourself so clearly into this one, widely renowned frame. Prospective lovers find you easier to spot in a crowd. Friends find your interests easier to match with their own. Even your taste in music becomes more evident as you lock-step with its visual counterpart. It makes sense. I get it. I understand why you would want to be held within that envious whisper and housed within something so readily understood.

Yet for as much as we revere brands and use them as a touchstone for quality and style, we blindly skip over all that clothing means to those who aren’t name-dropping or bag-authenticating. The truth is that the world of fashion isn’t quite as polarizing as the media suggests. My own relationship with it, as well that of an entire population of casual shoppers or DIYers or hand-me-downers, is oftentimes entirely forgotten in the fray.

Even as I snark about Crocs or fat polka dots or fluorescent neon fabrics, I feel their gravity repel away from me and onto someone else. Every style is equally as important. Repeat this with me now, every style is equally as important. Every shoe can climb terrain or rip apart at its heel. Fashion is a language through which we are all always saying something. It is a voice that everyone has, whether it may seem current and informed by popular opinion, or not. It is, therefore, more constant, even, than words themselves, as it is communicating even when the speaker’s mouth is shut. Whichever side of the debate you find yourself aligned with, whether you think the fashion world is a consumerist ploy or a savior of sorts, consider, for a moment, how many things you can say just by picking out an outfit:

“I deserve to spend two hours getting ready for this dinner date because I spent 50 at my computer screen doing what others wanted and wearing what others saw fit.”

“I deserve to spend less than five minutes getting ready for this dinner date because I am 3-dimensional, and the weight of me sits in the thoughts I share and the interests I have, and not in any sort of fabric. Not even if it is suede.”

“I am ready for it to be warmer, so fuck it if it is not. These are my bare arms. This is my battle cry.”

“Lemme get my sweat on.”

“Lemme get my school spirit on.”

“I’m tired. Which doesn’t concern you. Deal with it.”

“I’m into anime.”

“I’m into velvet.”

“I have been to Germany and I like remembering that.”

“I have seen this concert live and I like remembering that.”

“I want to feel attractive. Which doesn’t automatically discredit all non-sexual aspects of my life. My sexuality is no zero sum game that wipes clean all other players in the arena of all that I am and could become. And even though it’s scary, to know the teeth awaiting around every corner to rip my personhood open, to make mere flesh of it, I will not make mere flesh of it myself. I will wear this dress. I will rock this dress. I will not be ashamed to enjoy all that which makes me vulnerable.”

“I’m late for school. Which doesn’t concern you. Deal with it.”

“I’m a mother. These sweatpants are my love song.”

“I’m transgender. These fishnets are my love song.”

“It’s the freakin’ weekend. This lack of pants is my love song.”

“I’m graduating. This moo moo of a gown on my body is a map of every peak and valley I have passed through. Also… I’m naked under this.”

“I miss my grandmother. Summers on her boat sprawl themselves out like buoys in my mind and today I am wearing her bright pink hat to go back there.”

“I spent my entire life talking myself into wearing pants this tight, and while I’m wincing through the doubt, I’m proud as all hell to have come here. To this day. To this room. To this woman who strips question marks away from her own presence (and dares not bend down to pick anything up.)”

“I want this job. I respect the professionalism of this job, even if this image is one I have manifested from a stock photo.”

“I miss my childhood. All the people all around me zip back into their hides of simplicity and politics click back into the first web portal they popped out of. SATs steadily erase their every answer and natural disasters reverse. Each hurricane wind braking, cradling into something still. Into something entirely benign. Like laundry settling on a clothesline. Like this t-shirt. Like this day.”

“Today I am who I want to have been.”

“Today I am who I want you to understand that I am.”

“Today I am wearing this bright pink goddamn hat.”

SELFBridget O'Toole