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.