15 May 2012

Suggesting Self

Neo Structure
Vogue Italia, October 1996
Photographer: Steven Meisel
Models: Carolyn Murphy, Guinevere van Seenus, Amy Wesson
Stylist: Nicoletta Santoro
(images via TFS)

There are two main ways of considering dress and the individual - the interior externalized, and the exterior internalized.  The first is the notion of dress capturing some sense of a true self, creating a material expression of a fixed, or at least solidly self-realised, interior being.  The latter is the notion of using dress to perform a variety of roles, creating an exterior that allows part of the interior some anchor point around which to fix at any given time.  In the first the self is a relatively fixed idea, in which is contained some reality that we must need uncover and understand.  In the latter the self is a multi-faceted and fluid concept that can be in parts hidden, and in parts exposed, as the role requires.  Yet as oppositional as both approaches sound I find both have merits in creating an understanding of the role of the self in the manner of dress we choose.

The idea of a true self is a problematic one because it implies that one is otherwise in a state of thought that gives rise to a false self.  To dress in such a way as to cause a discord between the self and one's dress will necessarily cause both an internal, as well as an externally-noticeable sense of discomfort.  However in reality to reach a discord at such a level is to push dress is quite a dramatic way.  Even in situations where a strict uniform is applied, the manner of wear allows the individual some sense of ownership and control over appearance.  Indeed even if that control be only an incredibly small amount, to the point of being in reality visually insignificant, it still allows the individual some sense of personal awareness and presence.  An element of control, however false it may actually be, will dramatically effect the way we approach and come to understand the circumstances within which we are dressed.  However thankfully for the most parts we have more control than we would actually think, and thus understanding why we dress the way we do is important.

Whether the self is a fixed or fluid notion, the idea of externalizing that self is incredibly interesting to me, because that process will always be incredibly individual.  On the other hand the idea of using the external to inform, or simply reinforce, some aspect of the interior is equally fascinating, because it is essentially the same process done in reverse.  Either I dress to express some inner me, or I use a socially significant uniform to reinforce an inner me.  In both circumstances I am asserting a sense of self, attempting to control in a very specific form the way in which I am perceived.  The social self is a clothed self, so one must necessarily consider others in this process.  The self is expressed for the satisfaction of the wearer, but ultimately it is something that will be seen by others more than it is seen by the self (unless you happen to live in a hall of mirrors).  However those messages and symbols are open to an almost infinite array of possible readings.  I cannot control how others view and understand what I express, and yet, in that uncertainty comes the understanding that one can certainly influence it.  In the plasticity of the medium one finds that suggestion is the only real form of communicable expression, and thus it becomes a question of how one suggests the self.

In the case of the exterior internalized the suggestion is done through the socially significant uniform, but also the social setting.  The uniform does not necessarily have to be outwardly enforced, as the suit would be for a city worker, sportswear for the gym user, or reasonably smart clothing for the first date.  It can be a personal uniform in any sense of the phrase, although usually in the form of repeated stylistic elements that happen to characterise the individual to their close associates.  However the power of the external to denote the interior is most powerful in the eyes of others rather than the self.  It suggests in such a way as to be at once recognizable, allowing one to belong to a pre-existing structure, yet simultaneously alerts the viewer to look for subtle signs of individuality to discern that person from others wearing similar signs.  A man or woman wearing a white lab coat in or around a hospital will be understood to be a doctor, a man wearing a tuxedo whilst on the train will be understood to be going to or coming from some formal event, etc. 

Signs, whether subtle or dramatic, allow one to suggest some notion of self to the outside observer.  In working life the choice of signs may be restricted by virtue of restricted styles of dress, however there will always be some form of restriction, even in personal life, by virtue of social setting, social customs, social company, etc.  So in order to understand the process of suggesting self it becomes important to tackle this idea in all areas of dress that one needs to undertake.  However I think it is actually made easier by these constraints, as it were, because it allows one to experiment with the most subtle of signs and symbols within the safety of a pre-existing and understood framework.  In order to subvert or highlight a sign, one must first understand the sign.  To make a comparison to tailoring, it is only when one understands how to cut a traditional suit that one can then question the traditions and create a new, or at least different, cut of suit.

In the desire to express the self we display the inherent human desire to be seen and understood (and ultimately accepted and loved) as an individual.  We want that expression of self to be seen and understood in some manner, however it is only ever through suggestion that this is in any way possible.  One could argue that many people construct an identity through dress that is consciously not their self, however that is still formed from a desire to express some identity to others.  Whether it is our true self we want others to see, or some other form of identity entirely at odds with who we actually are (as would be the case with, to take an extreme example, the scam artist), the principle is the same.  We use signs and symbols invested with cultural meaning, as well as personal meaning, to suggest.  Colour is perhaps one of the most powerful, yet equally one of the most polysemous, forms of suggestion one can employ in clothing.  And it is perhaps for that very reason that I find my wardrobe currently devoid of any real colour.  I am not yet ready to explore the complexities of that arena.

Black, white, grey, navy.  In a wardrobe devoid of colour one is reduced to basic elements of light and dark.  Before I attempt to understand the ways in which colour can suggest, surely I need to understand the basics of black and white?  At its heart it is a matter of stark contrasts and a combination of tonal values, but at the same time I think removing the distraction of colour allows one to truly focus on fit, shape and silhouette.  I am not suggesting that colour does not allow one this focus, but rather that it makes it harder, because there is an additional visual and stylistic element that one has to consider and negotiate.  The reason I chose to post the editorial above is in the treatment of colour, most notably in the black and white photographs.  The way I consider colour in clothing is as forms of light.  The combination of tonal values is perhaps more important than the combinations of colours in themselves.  For this I think black and white photography is particularly revealing, because it removes the element of colour, allowing one to see and understand the tonal range and combination employed.

What I find particularly engaging about this editorial is the way in which the clothing suggests a particularly strong and individual meaning, even when removed from the context of, admittedly, rather heavy-handed referencing that surrounds the models.  That this meaning is entirely fictitious and fabricated gets right to the heart of the issue in hand.  Do these clothes still reveal some sense of the individual?  Is there some particular part or facet of the self always implicit that can never truly be obscured?  Is there still some real facet of self to be seen, in this case where the exterior is being internalized?



  1. I want that leopard hat! Perfect editorial...thanks for sharing...I think I do not know it...

  2. Impressive essay with the pictures. I gotta say..I love hats. Not sure what that says about me. Am I exterior..on interior. Oh, its making wince, just thinking about it.

    Lovely, post!

  3. You always give me the element of surprise. Even so..you are romantic.

  4. gorgeous editorial... and beautiful write up! romantic, dreamy...

  5. I enjoyed to read your essay . Yes,clothing you wear tell many things.But people can't tell who I am from me wearing my uniform that is apron:D

    I love photos too. None of them show hair.Beautiful.Retro atmosphere.

  6. Great piece. I for one personally believe that everything starts with the superficial, like from the outside going in. For instance, if you believe in going against the flow, you have to show it maybe by how you dress, act, speak, so you can internalize it fully.