I ran into a friend this morning in a beach parking lot. Figuratively, I mean. We’re both okay.
She was wearing a navy Izod polo dress, faded to denim and soft with wear. “I’m wearing all my old clothes from the ’80s,” she said.
No one wants to see me in my clothes from the ’80s. Black lace and camouflage, arms ringed with plumbing supplies and a pair of pants that looked like they were made from a Hefty trash bag – it’s a mercy none of it fits now. It was my way of saying “I am not from here and I am not one of you.”
I was of course from there and looking back, was one of them. I just didn’t like admitting it. I used my clothing to define myself, as did we all.
I remember a political science professor in college telling a classmate that although he was welcome to wear hot pink nail polish in class, it would just make things hard for him out in the real world. It was his choice, to either smooth the road ahead or make it unnecessarily rocky. Like it or not, we are initially evaluated by our appearance.
He didn’t say it’s right or just, he said it’s the way it is.
My friend is a mountain biker and likes his roads on the rocky side. This guidance did not phase him or alter his course toward what became a very successful career. He probably doesn’t even remember the conversation.
I’m not a mountain biker, and prefer to stay off the really steep inclines. I’m more of a Parisian side street kind of girl.
I used to wear vintage dresses to parties because I am shy and the clothes always inspired people to come talk to me. They sparked conversations about history, art, fashion and eventually the hors d’oeuvre table because that’s where my real interests lie. The funny thing is that because I wore clothes that were different, people thought I was confident and extroverted.
Which isn’t to say I’m not extroverted. I am very extroverted when I am at my house, alone, expressing my thoughts via my laptop. In my vintage kimono.
Clothes do many things, then. They mark us as one of the herd or single us out as the black sheep. They make the road a freshly paved expressway or a treacherous single-track of adventure. Not all on their own, of course, but as my professor pointed out, they do weigh in.
Part of their influence is the way they make us see ourselves. If you tell yourself that something is true enough times, eventually you believe it. If you choose to wear that message daily, it expedites the process.
In college I was incensed that people would judge my friend by his nail polish. I thought they should see him for who he was and value his contribution. It’s a two edged sword, this fashion thing. We use it. We are surprised and appalled when it uses us.
Years ago I spent a long weekend at a Zen monastery. One of the things they asked was that we wear loose, dark colored, simple clothes, with no patterns or pictures. They didn’t want our clothes to be visually distracting.
I didn’t think about it much as I packed my favorite black sweat pants and t-shirts, but it’s one of the things I appreciated most while I was there.
With no visual statements to distract me, I saw people as they were: beautiful and exquisitely memorable.
When I came home I made a concerted effort to simplify my wardrobe. We are all so perfectly us, we don’t really need the sandwich boards around our necks, telling people who we are and what makes us different/better/smarter/wiser. Sandwich boards are heavy.
I don’t always practice what I preach. Today I am wearing a particularly loud sundress because it makes me laugh like a maniac when I see a reflection of myself. It also makes random strangers smile when I walk by. It’s not good at a monastery, but it’s perfect for work.
These are my current guidelines for clothing choices, subject to change. I don’t need to be different. I don’t need to tell people who I am. I just need to be comfortable and happy.
And although I would have eaten live frogs before wearing my friend’s Izod dress in the ’80s, it looked covetously comfortable this morning.
That’s pretty fashionable.
This column originally appeared in The Magazine of Yoga