How are first impressions made?
Shoes? The way people talk? Their hair? Mobile phone models?
While it’s different for different people, I guess we can still reach a general consensus on one’s “appearance”. A person’s clothes and sense of style is often the first marker of their personality. Clothes make people feel confident, powerful and are a strong expression for defining their identity, alliance, defiance and influence.
We all judge, some just judge enough to impose their opinions onto others, which is problematic. But isn’t judgement innate to our survival instincts from the times we were cave people? Even though commenting on what others should wear is not helping us pay our bills, people will still do it, right?
So, we dress to impress. (Or wait, do we still?)
The revolution of the past era defined Clothing as Freedom. Today, dressing up has less to do with what the community wants and more about what the individual feels comfortable in.
This transition is yet another example of the hegemony of European and American Cultures in the world and dates back as early as the 1900s. The Asian cultures were ridiculed for their dressing patterns during colonisation as well as the post-colonial world. Colonialism inevitably opened cross-cultural doors for everything including clothing. Yet, even today, South Asians residing in western countries are not respected for their cultural identities and appearance. The cultures in Asia are more diverse, and thus many of the clothing patterns, which are traditional to communities, seem oppressive to other nations.
The contrary process of western nations adopting Asian appearances is even more disturbing, as they do fashion for the “exotic looks” of it. It harms the dignity of South Asian women when they are laughed at for wearing bindis in those nations and then a famous pop star just gets on stage wearing it, without understanding nor respecting the significance of it. Interchange of cultures is good, but if it’s without taking in the whole essence and doing it partially just for fun, it ends up as an insult to the original owners of these Asian symbols, who were not accepted for the longest time.
The freedom that a pair of jeans would define is important but so is the essence of traditional kimonos or sarees. These patterns are not only a cultural fashion but have many background stories of why they were best suited to communities of a particular place. But since globalisation has made the world one big diverse but interdependent family and whether we like it or not, the head of this family is the West, so “casuals” are what they define as comfort or freedom and that is what we all follow in most of our work cultures and liberal lifestyles. (Think of the importance of sweatpants and baggy t-shirts to millennials and genZ, while genX and older folks call it “homeless clothing”)
The turn of events that defined clothing as comfortable and liberal can be understood through the lens of the West, as it is the final influence of western culture we come under. Once women walked the path of casual wear by transitioning from cumbersome skirts to gored ones, and experienced the joy of unrestricted movement, they never went back to discomfort. The coming of bicycles was yet another turning point when pants for women became mainstream, “women’s cycle wear became visual shorthand for the ‘New Woman’ and soon enough, the Bermuda shorts were the most treasured possession for men, who would earlier wear a golf suit that came closest to casual wear.
Once UNISEX clothing made it to most of the local stores across the West, the differentiation between the appearance of men and women as well as the rich and poor started to blur, mainly because casuals were termed as clothing for the workers and the elite had to present itself as “uptight”. But once the average American started to term itself as “middle class,” the point of divergence between elite and peasantry merged and clothing became a commodity to sell to those who can afford it rather than imply what it signifies.
The good part of course is that different genders now feel safe because they don’t have to “fit into” any attire. Comfort and choice of individuals have taken the front seat. But while this wave of defining freedom through choice of garments is good news for a lot of people, is formalism useless and inefficient? For instance, the corporate world, schools and many other places still have a dress code, but many of them are also turning away from it, so as to make their spaces all-inclusive .
Different studies show that how we dress impacts our mindset and even leaves an influence on others around us. The way President Barack Obama would roll up his sleeves and remove his blazer whenever he was addressing working class Americans, was to create the impact of him being from the same background. Or how Hillary Clinton and her pantsuits became a fashion statement in politics. The Indian ministers will never come and address the public in a formal suit and blazer as they don’t want the label “suit-boot ki/ firang sarkaar” (capitalist/foreign government). Fashion is power, freedom to influence others as well our own minds, so when we put on gym clothes, it makes us feel energetic, when we put on formal clothes, it impacts our productivity and makes our mind stay alert as compared to yawning in our sweatpants.
The two-gender only approach and a standard dress code might not be a good idea for inclusivity but cutting loose and dressing free has its own repercussions. We all remember how one student’s hair highlights would send trend-waves throughout school and soon enough, there would be pink, golden and red headed students in the assembly. This is of course a matter of debate for every individual: would you choose a dress code that makes you psychologically more focused even if it’s physically uncomfortable or would you choose your comfort over productivity? So, if someone feels claustrophobic by dressing according to the office code or if someone wants to put on their cultural attires, the place should be inclusive enough to let them choose but not indiscipline enough for choice of clothing to impact their work output or culture.
A fine balance is needed in my opinion, so as to not pave the way for a rigid rule-studded environment, which promotes discomfort. But it cannot be solved with an all-liberal clothing pattern, which is making us slaves of a culture filled with no authenticity of appearance. I am all for freedom of dressing but I also want an ethic to my dressing that balances work, indigenous culture and above all, looks unique.
We live in an age where narrow bottoms to flared pants, neon shirts to leather jackets, nothing is old and nothing is new. The innumerable combinations that one can make has brought upon intermingling of ages, genders and cultures and if used correctly, it is not only a variety of garments but a means for unravelling identities and knowing ourselves better, the vastness of which amuses me.
How do you think your clothing defines you? Or do you redefine your clothing?
Akansha is a Masters student of Political Science at Sophia College, Ajmer. She blames her 20s, a bitter sweet phase, for her relentless career searches and existential crisis. She is also a Citizens for Public Leadership Fellow, through which she looks forward to make the world a better place. Writing is important to her for bringing change in herself and her external environment, and she pursues it with as much zeal as she can.