Custom, Fashion, Costume, Cosplay

Walking through the Financial District of San Francisco and taking in the tremendous diversity of dress and accoutrement there to be seen is a source of endless interest. After years of observation, I have developed a hypothesis about what a person’s dress indicates about his inner condition, to wit: any obvious design to appear abnormal indicates spiritual disease, a deep unhappiness of some sort – alienation, confusion, loneliness, perhaps despair – that has prompted a compensatory effort to attract attention, as it were almost a cry for help. Or, more succinctly: if you look as though you are trying to look a certain way, you feel you are failing to be what you would like to have been.

First, take note of the categories of devolution in dress and increasing abnormality, that bewray increasing disagreement with society:

  • Custom: the traditional dress of one’s nation, and then of one’s station within it, given the social circumstances (church, dinner party, work, funeral, and so forth). No one takes notice of customary dress. The basic costumes appropriate to different stations may be modified according to occupation and the immediate situation. But no one would wear a clerical collar who was not a priest; no one would wear a hard hat to a wedding. The traditional every day dress of the American male breaks down into several broad categories, none of which would be at all remarkable anywhere in America, and which may overlap or combine without notice (as when a Prep man substitutes hiking boots for moccasins or jeans for chinos):
    • Business Suit or Business Casual. Substitute clerical collar for priests; businessmen on a job site may substitute work boots and add a hard hat; and so forth.
    • Prep: the WASP uniform.
    • Western: jeans, cowboy hat or trucker’s cap, boots of some sort, and so forth.
    • Worker: work pants, chambray shirt or t-shirt, trucker’s cap, boots.
    • California / Outdoor: jeans or shorts, polo shirt or t-shirt, sandals or hiking boots or athletic shoes.
    • Athlete (a relatively new category): athletic wear of any sort, as jumpsuits, track suits, bicycle gear, and the like. Men at least are usually to be seen in athletic gear only when sport of some sort is in view.
  • Fashion: stretches the envelope of customary dress. One still wears a business suit, but it is pushed to some limit or other, as of color, fit, cut, accoutrement (e.g., sheer purple socks with a tight grey flannel suit and tiny yellow bow tie). Usually seen in women, who feel they must – poor things – ever try to fit in to an ever-changing standard of appropriacy and decorum.
  • Costume: dressing up as if you were a slut, or a biker, or a goth, or a hobo, when really you are not. Aggressive tattoos, piercings, outlandish hair, extreme makeup, all fall into this category. Ditto for the drug addict look, or the hipster, the goth, the metal-head, the skinhead, the hippie. Any dress that signals an involvement in some subculture is Costume.
  • Cosplay: dressing up as if you were something that you absolutely cannot be, such as a squirrel, or a superhero, or a centurion, or someone of the opposite sex. This sort of thing is expected in dramatic performances, but anywhere else it indicates insanity.

[What does it tell us that when we see a man walking down the street dressed as a woman, we no longer assume he is simply mad, but rather only that he is into playing dress up?]

When I started working in the Financial District in 1982, almost everyone dressed in Customary clothes. The dial has moved. Most women now fall into the near end of Costume. They dress as if they were prosperous athletic sluts (many of them are just that, perhaps)(a fact which, if true, bespeaks a yet deeper degree of discomfiture). The men fall mostly in the Customary to Fashionable range.

The key here is whether or not one looks as though one is trying to look remarkable. The more one looks as though one has had to put some thought into dressing, the greater the personal vitiation one telegraphs. And vice versa. A fit, handsome man dressed in utterly Customary clothes does not appear to be trying at all, and will therefore be most attractive of all. He is at manifest ease in the world and with himself, ergo powerful, and reliable. But dress him up in some Costume, and he begins to look sick, weak, desperate.

So also for women, a fortiori. Women work much harder than men even to appear normal and appropriate. When they obviously work hard to appear extraordinary or inappropriate, they advertise their extraordinary impropriety.

If you have to try to look a certain way, you are not really that way. Your appearance then will be a deception, but a poor one; and no one will be fooled thereby, except perhaps yourself, who has so fooled shown himself a fool.

What then does all this frantic latter day signaling for attention mean? It means that almost no one – especially these days, apparently, young women – knows where or what Home might be, or mean, or look like, and so under their bravado are lost and deeply afraid.

A sad thought.

14 thoughts on “Custom, Fashion, Costume, Cosplay

  1. Pingback: Custom, Fashion, Costume, Cosplay | Reaction Times

  2. “alienation, confusion, loneliness; perhaps despair.”

    I am quite sure that San Francisco is THE archtype for this sort of thing. But its external expression is increasingly becoming very prevalent in my neck of the woods as well. The common folk has its fair share of this, but where it really stands out for me personally is in our uniformed “public servants” (law enforcement, firemen, emergency medical personnel).

    Don’t get me wrong, they don’t dye their hair green or style it like a punk rocker, but there is tendency within these groups to become muscle-bound tattooed freaks. And they do apparently put a great deal of effort making sure their hair and facial appearance is just so.

    In any case, and speaking only for myself, this is a disturbing trend especially among law enforcement officers. As you say, they are projecting themselves as something they are not. Which is a recipe for disaster. …

    • I have noticed the same thing in emergency responders out on the West Coast, and for that matter everywhere in America lately. My bet is that it is due to the fact that many of them are returning veterans, who picked up the current martial fashion in the service. I am not so sure that the muscularity bespeaks any sort of mental disease. Indeed, it seems to me rather an indication of good mental health than of the contrary: mens sana in corpore sano.

      There is also a bit of an arms race at work on their profession. The bad guys are into muscles lately, too.

      As for the tattoos so prevalent among the otherwise quite based young men and women of their competent sort, yes: that is indeed a reach for meaning and significance where none is offered to them from their patrimony, so far as they can see. It is an outworking of a deep urge – we all feel it, for it is natural in man – to dare committing irrevocably and wholly to something that is definite and important. The only problem is that tattoos fail miserably along the dimension of importance. The act of the tattoo is important *only* in virtue of its irrevocability.

      • To make matters worse, isn’t there a tattoo-removal cream soon to be marketed? Or is this just a snopes rumor?

      • I had not heard of it, although I know that tattoo removal is a huge new business for dermatologists.

        I keep wondering: why not just use a Sharpie instead of tattoo ink? I don’t get it.

      • Kristor, interesting take. I can agree to an extent. A little bit of superficial muscle goes a long way. After a certain point though, one gets the feeling something isn’t right. NB that many of these officers wear the tightest uniforms they can squeeze into. That has to be psychologically driven.

  3. In my part of the country, rural; rust-belt; most men dress in a slovenly manner. Partly it is to fit in, partly to signal that one is a man’s man, and partly it buys in to radical egalitarianism where any kind of difference is likely to arouse resentment. As someone commented about American visitors to Paris, why must they look like they are about to mow the lawn?

    I tend to somewhat overdress. I will wear tailored suits and sports jackets, though typically without a tie, when going out to the bar or a restaurant. I think of it as a combination of things, as is the slovenly dress mentioned above. There is an element of wanting to stand out – but actually by being more conservative, not less – a rejection of the blandness and slovenliness of the t-shirt and jeans and baseball cap look – a dash of adolescent rebellion – and a desire to mark the occasion so not all life is encompassed in profane, bland, uniformity. i.e., an attenuated distinction between the sacred and the profane. Or, it could just be a personality disorder as you describe!

    • So long as you don’t pass that threshold of fussiness characteristic of the dandy, I think you are OK. I tend to dress conservatively myself, for many of the same reasons – but mostly because it feels comfortable, practical, and suitable.

    • My only retort to the Euro is why must you dress as though you were blindfolded when you picked out that light yellow polo, those flower covered boxer shorts and those wornout penny loafers with contrasted brown dress socks?

  4. In addition to a jacket and dress-slacks, I wear a tie to the regular symposium that Richard Cocks also attends, on Sunday afternoon, at Oswego’s Old City Hall tavern and restaurant. Sometimes it’s my “Birth of Venus” tie (Botticelli), sometimes my “Scream” tie (Munch), sometimes my “Starry Night” tie (Van Gogh), and sometimes my “Dogs Playing Poker” tie (???). I would hate to disappoint Kristor, but as Richard can attest, I also have matching Botticelli, Munch, Van Gogh, and (???) socks! I try to wear a different tie every day when I teach, and it’s often one of my “fine art” ties. Some students recognize the item; it is a way to get conversations going. A jacket and tie, I have found, solicit a higher degree of attention at places of business.

    When the octogenarian lawyers of Oswego die, their surviving relatives give away their otiose wardrobes to the local charity store. I have collected some very nice double-breasted jackets, a “retro-look” that I rather like.

    I am the only member of my faculty who dresses like an adult. Most English professors dress as though they were about to mow the lawn.

    • Matching socks. That’s a tad … aggressive. Nanoaggressive, you might say.

      Still, I can’t imagine your being *fussy* about the socks. That could be achieved only if you intended them seriously. In that case, you *might* be a dandy.

      But no; what am I thinking? Bottom line, Tom: it would be very hard for you to carry off the dandy bit while dressed for class. “College Professor” and “Dandy” are mutually exclusive. It’s a well-known analytical truth …

      I myself have a T Rex tie, that I delight to wear from time to time. It was a gift from my youngest son when he was only 7 or so, and totally into dinosaurs. He didn’t think of it as a gag gift, not in the least. He thought it was the neatest thing, a really awesomely cool tie. That alone makes it a favorite of mine. At 25, he still gets a huge kick when I wear it.

      And here’s the thing. When I wear that tie, I’m not trying to be something I am not. I am only being a father of a young man who was once and is still deep inside a little boy, and honoring that boy. When they see it, store clerks smile, and ask, “Did your kid give that to you?” I nod my head, and we beam at each other.

      • Well, I gave my neckties to myself, but in wearing them, precisely, I’m not trying to be anyone that I’m not! I should perhaps not speak for “Richard and Me,” but I might essay the following: When our colleagues dress as though they were about to mow the lawn, that is a studious affectation; in dressing in the other direction (so to speak), Richard and I are calling attention to the reverse-affectation (the tiresome, 1960s, hippy-affectation) of our liberal colleagues. So we exaggerate a bit! They exaggerate a good deal more than we do.

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