Friday, September 15, 1995

Naked Clothing

When I was a kid I used to think there was a monster in the closet. I'd turn off the light and it would all seem to start writhing and I thought the clothes were getting ready to fuse together, turn into something hideous, and get me. So far that hasn't happened...

When all is said and done, clothes have no power in themselves: the power is the power we give them. I have a kid in middle school, and to me that's the most obvious example: the incredible pressure the kids feel to dress a certain way, wear a certain kind of tennis shoe. It isn't the shoe that has the power: it's the other kids, or the perception of one kid that the other kids are going to judge them a certain way. A nerd looks like this, a jock looks like that. Makes it easy to know somebody: just like spotting airplanes. Clothes are a form of a form of language -- vocabulary we wear. Clothes are self-expression. At the same time, they're group identification.

Part of our wearable vocabulary involves identifying yourself with a certain group. My power suit means I'm a powerful businessman; my blow-dried haircut means I'm an evangelist, whatever. Street gangs do this very consciously and, in certain places, the wrong jacket can get you killed.What you wear shows who you belong to, what you're loyal to,where you're from. One year, long hair is a sign of rebellion, the next year it's short hair, a bald head, a mohawk, pink hair. (Like any language, the vocabulary is always changing.) Every statement creates an equal and opposite anti-statement: which is how designers and clothing makers keep selling clothes. It's kind of silly to wonder if high fashion should be taken seriously because it's already taken seriousl. There's a lot of money in it--just as there's a lot of money in low fashion.

The art world should take it seriously, because fashion represents a paradigm--which I happen to think is a destructive one--that new is good, old is bad, period.Clothes go out of style. Do paintings go out of style? When we look at a painting are we seeing it for what it is--or are we thinking in terms of "what's hot...what's not?" Is it possible these days not to think in those terms?

There's also the fact that clothes and high fashion cost a great deal of money: on a planet where a lot of people are sick and starving, what percentage of our planetary resources should go to clothes? Is there something to be said--on amoral basis--for dressing simply? Probably. People should have the right to dress to the nines if they want. It's a question of status, and as Tom Wolfe likes to point out, human beings are wired for status. You can't fight it.

People should also have the right to opt out, if they want--to wear simple, functional clothes and not be judged for that--whether to save the planet, or just because it's too much trouble coordinating your outfits.I think whole cultures have done have done this: from the Puritans to the Mennonites, to the Communist Chinese--and of course the people on top always wind up wearing better uniforms. I could also say that people should have the right to wear weird clothes and not be judged--but people who wear weird clothes want to be judged, just so they can say hey, don't judge me.

The whole thing is full of contradiction.

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