2 April 2011

Truth And Self

Gypsy (c.1930)
by August Sander (1876-1964)

Flipping through the pages from one of August Sander's epic photographic tomes, People of the 20th Century, Yohji Yamamoto muses that it is the "truth" of the garments the men wear, as well as the truth of the faces of those men, which he finds so inspiring.  You see the man, you see his face, you see his clothing, and you feel as if you know him.  He looks exactly as he is.  He is not hiding behind his clothing, nor is he trying to be something he is not, he is simply himself - and therein lies the rub.  What is the self?

Yohji talks of the truth of the garments, in that they perfectly reflect and represent the wearers.  They are fully functional, uncomplicated and representative - they are nothing more than the clothes themselves, and yet they are somehow also the wearer.  That intimacy and that relationship is perhaps what people mean when they say someone is wearing their clothing rather than their clothing wearing them, a phrase which I have always thought is somewhat misleading.  I think what we all strive for is clothing which reflects us and is somehow true of (some part of?) our inner self.  However we also want garments that are true to the garments themselves - hence the phrase that we are looking for the "perfect" jacket, or the "perfect" pair of jeans.  That perfection is unique to each of us.  It is unique for the function they are to fulfil, and the part (or indeed totality) of self the wearer wishes them to express.

In Eastern philosophy, Buddhism in this particular instance, Anatta refers to the essence of self, the not-self.  The not-self is a notion ostensibly at odds with the idea of clothing representing the self, however it is one which I think is inherent to understanding part of what I (and indeed Yohji) find so magical and inspiring about these photographs.  Anatta refers not to the idea that you yourself are nothing, quite the opposite in fact, I would argue it is the idea that you are nothing but yourself - it is the essence of the self, something that remains true even if our appearance changes.  The nature of the mind is change - different parts of us emerge under different circumstances and around different people.  However if we are subject to this constant flux, what is the self that is beneath that ebb and flow? 

When talking of the self in relation to fashion, it is usually a projected self - some better version of ourselves that we are trying to emulate or dress into existence.  I think it is natural to project a better self and work towards that goal, however perhaps that is the wrong way to go about things.  Perhaps we already are that better self, and dressing to become another version of ourselves is a mistep.  Rather we should dress for who we already are, or some part of who we already are, however fluid that notion may just be.  Perhaps we should dress for that essence of our character.  It is not some better other-self I want to dress for, but rather the best of my true self.  I realize that may read as semantics, but I think the distinction is critical.  Style (in terms of 'good' style I suppose, although I dislike that phrase) is seeing someone who is dressed appropriately for the situation, however in a way that is true to themselves. 

In these portraits by Sander the people are dressed almost purely for their station and their standing.  I do not mean that simply in the socio-politcal sense, although they are indeed identifiable in such a way also, but rather that they dress for who they are rather than something they are not, or something they are trying to be.  The beauty lies in that truth and sincerity of their style, even though it be through necessity and circumstance.  It is in this sense something inspirational, rather than something to be emulated directly.  I think the idea of Anatta is that we have infinite potential, and the ability to be better, however that lies within the actual self rather than the projected self.

I often write that Yohji wishes people would live with his clothing rather than consuming them, but here I think the idea is truly important.  That intimacy of wearing clothing for years, for those clothes to become frayed and creased according to the specific curves and movements of your body, is beautiful.  Age is beautiful in all things.  I suppose that relates directly to the philosophy of wabi sabi, which Yohji fulfils aesthetically if not philosophically - the inherent paradox of being a fashion designer I suppose.  Indeed he himself says that he would love to create garments from cloth that was ten years old, so that the fabric was true to itself, and I think that idea is quite magical.  Age often brings that wisdom of knowing the self, even though it be a neverending journey (and indeed according to Lao Tzu, to truly know oneself is in itself Enlightenment). 

To know the inner self, to dress for that inner self rather than the projected self, is for me the hardest yet most aspirational process in relation to style.  It is about feeling and emotion, something which I believe is captured in these photographs.  The clothes are worn, they are old, but they have moved past clothing, to become part of the wearer.  They are in that captured moment true garments, in that the jacket is a jacket, the trousers are the trousers.  They are the garments themselves, yet at the same time, they are nothing more than what the wearer has made of them.  I want to be able wear clothing that reflects some part of the inner self, however I want it to be truthful to the garment itself.  I suppose it requires finding a designer whose philosophy and method of work you can relate to, and garments which when you try on seem to express some part of your inner self.

The distinction often given between the work of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo is that Yohji is about how the clothing makes you feel, whereas Rei is about how the clothing makes you look.  Yohji focuses on fabric and cut, to give the wearer a sensual experience.  It is about creating the truest garment, one that is perfected to itself.  Whether that be through the placement of the perfect pocket, or obsessing over the perfection of the button.  A garment that is true to its self, but also expresses an idea, an idea that is a part of the wearer's self.

Comme des Garçons has always been about changing the garment, and changing the body.  It is no less truthful, because it is a form of direct expression and even though they seek to change the look of the body, they still do so in perfect relation to the body itself.  They work directly on the body, yet in style that may often stand in opposition to it.  Both Yohji and Rei create clothing in relationship to the body, as all designers do, yet they express two different answers to the truth of a garment.  I think that shows the diversity to an idea which may seem upon first glance to extol only one truth.   

I suppose you have to try to find clothing that speaks to some part of your inner self, however at the same time remains truthful to its self.  A jacket ought to be a jacket, however at the same time it ought to express something more.  Something the designer, the garment, and the wearer bring to that moment.  It is not just about dressing, it is about being a clothed individual.  A special thanks to those of you who actually read this in its entirety.  



  1. Buddhist philosphy I find is always best understood if I don't think about it too much but let it drift into my mind by itself. Lovely, lovely portraits DK - I will need to re-read this I think - there is a lot to think (or not to think!) about in this gorgeous post!

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  3. Another beautifully and thoughtfully written post, it gives me hope that there is a way for my two interests (fashion and psychology) to co-exist.

    I like the way the men here (like in the Demeulemeester show) have retained their majesty. It's something to appreciate when all day I see older men in beige shorts and t-shirts.

    -ps. I liked the accompanying song.

  4. very well written and extremely thought provoking. the line "seeing someone who is dressed appropriately for the situation, however in a way that is true to themselves" is just brilliant, simple but so true.

    as ive grown older i dress less in terms of trends and more for myself, this is natural but i'm not 100% happy. it's a mixture of my self image and where i am in life i think. i'm happy with my wardrobe and do buy less and a more savvy shopper, this is term has made me happier. i think other the next 5/10 years will be a huge part of my life so we will see if my thoughts and personality reflect that.

    seriously great read

  5. The ideas you presented were so gorgeously portrayed in this post. You write so incredibly well.

    I think one of the beauties of fashion is the fact that it really is about so much more than the clothes themselves. How, in the end, it is always about the wearer, and almost always gives you a glimpse of truth about them you may never see otherwise.

    I may just have to bookmark this post so I can read it again and again.


  6. This is deep..so deep. I dunno..I still find in my own fashion..I tend to be torn. Down ..usually, I know I'm not pretty..so there fore..why must I dress the way some fashionista would want..since my body is not proportion to the 'skinny'..I am dumpy. I am buxom. All I've heard..don't wear stripes..don't wear that too long..nor too short. After while, I feel none of it really matters. I should wear what I feel like wearing.

  7. What a wonderful and authentic post about the relationship our idea of self has to our clothes. I have often thought that is is this ability of our clothing to conform to our unique bodies over time so that they become a part of the self we project. Perhaps this is why vintage clothes and things have an almost mystical appeal; they have not only been molded by the designers who made them, but also by the body that wore it.

  8. great photography you've added in this post, its amazing to look at, i could look at those forever! such classic details. amazing. well written post, i always enjoy reading.

  9. no way!! for some reason, i thought your hair was longer than usual right now. i don't know why. anyway, these pictures rule! yamamoto is incredible.

  10. Very great points! I love fashion because it can allow you to be who you are, who you want to be, parts of who you are, or just blend in. Its so versatile to exactly what you need.

    On another note, I love looking at old photos for fashion inpsiration and I think these are great for that as well. *that baby one is hilarious btw*

  11. this post is really inspring.

  12. This was a really lovely post. Thank you so much for being sincere and sharing.

    "Perhaps we already are that better self, and dressing to become another version of ourselves is a mistep. Rather we should dress for who we already are, or some part of who we already are, however fluid that notion may be."

    One of the greatest problems I have with dressing myself is that deep within me, I find myself a kind of loathsome, selfish being. Not more loathsome or selfish than anyone else — I am repulsed by so much of human nature, at least when I think about. I think this lack of peace with myself is really what makes it hard for me to just be... I almost feel like I have to seek it elsewhere.

  13. A lot of food for thought and definitely something I've thought about many times before. I think for most people the lines between the inner self and the projected self blur a little to the point they can't really distinguish one from the other. In many cases the projected self is also an armour for strength (say, like wearing a 'power suit' to an important business meeting - it symbolises strength to your co-workers but also makes you feel stronger and bolder from within).

    I like the distinction you made between Yohji's and Rei's work.

  14. I love these photos! They are incredible!!!!

  15. i think most people dress themselves either conciously or subconciously, most people gain a sense of beauty/acceptance from the clothes they wear, and I think this is also why clothing is a representation of the wearer's charater.
    I look into the mirror everyday and I put on different clothes to create different visual images but I am always creating something, trying to find something that suits me, that makes me feel the most comfortable in, and I dont think I will ever be able to truely find that until I have the very basic idea of who I am.