Once upon a time, it was easy for me to buy into the old story that clothing was an entirely superficial thing. I’d go to the mall in the early part of my high school years and scoff at people spending small fortunes on clothing. To me – clothes could only ever perform the functional tasks of providing warmth and protection from the elements – the rest of their functions seemed invented and destined to divide people rather then to unify.
As I grew older and began to learn and love fashion and philosophy I started to think that perhaps there was a very real way in which the clothing we select and wear expresses something much more powerful and important. I began to see how there is a very real sense where our fashion choices are actually external expressions of our inner values.
Our clothing choices, on an expressive level, are a selection of symbols whose meaning comes from a cultural and personal subjective context. When a man selects a totally classically masculine wardrobe, he is asserting something somewhat conservative or in praise of “the old ways” of thinking and behaving. When a man selects the clothing adopted by a particular subculture, he is expressing the values that the behavior and philosophy of that subculture have associated with them.
Everyone has experienced the feeling of confidence that comes from wearing an outfit that you feel particularly proud of. The fascinating thing is, however, that despite everyone having felt this sensation we have all felt it about entirely different styles and genres of fashion choices. How is it possible that this is the case? We must consider seriously the possibility our pride stems not from the clothing itself but from the values we feel the clothing expresses about ourselves.
Of course this does not excuse the insincere. The burden of choice and expression lies firmly on each and every individual acting man. If symbols are adopted purely out of a desire for conformity (as must be the norm) then we pollute a rich vocabulary of expressive symbols with insincere noise. Just as with our use of language, we have the opportunity to lie with our clothing. This does not negate the power behind either language or fashion, it only means we must demand mindfulness.
In my view, we should make ourselves aspire to the heroic – to the flourishing of life and happiness – and thus we should seek out the values and expressions of those values that support the end of human happiness and prosperity. I have come to see fashion as a daily exercise in value expression – and as a physical ongoing reminder of the way in which ideas shape and inform human experience and action.