September 2, 2009

Some Similes for Style

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So this is a fashion column. What does that mean? Well, I talk about fashion, style and clothing and it’s printed in a columnar shape. Like any good social scientist, I say basically whatever I want, but try to back it up with some sort of solid evidence. With a substantial amount of vigorous wit and idiosyncrasies, I assert my opinions and analyses of trends past and present. But first and foremost I am here to help you look good, feel good and know your shit (like me, of course).
Today’s column, apropos to starting this, my last full-time semester at Cornell, is a glimpse at fashion and how it relates to other fields I have studied here. What can we learn about what we put on in the morning or what we could put on by looking at it as yet another form of expression with interacting elements of form and content?
In traditional fashion / style mythology, there is an abundance of rules and taboos: Don’t wear white after Labor Day; Don’t mix navy and black; Don’t mix metals. If you think of pieces of clothing like parts of speech, then getting dressed is like uttering a sentence. We have traditional rules and taboos about that too: Don’t split infinitives; Don’t end a sentence with a preposition; Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. In linguistics, this sort of rule is part of prescriptive grammar, a category which should conjure up the image of a little old school-marm replete with authoritative chalk and a ruler with which to smack the back of your hand. In short, they are parameters someone has externally imposed.
The alternative is descriptive grammar, which, as the name suggests, describes the actual way people speak (or for the sake of our extended metaphor, dress). The point of descriptive grammar is to account for the fact that “un-grammatical” phrases such as the one I’m ending this sentence with, are still judged OK by native speakers. Crazy, huh? The hypothesis here is that there are innate parameters in the brain that enable language, and that when children learn language, they figure out which way any given switch goes for their own language. Like, in my “style language,” the mixing patterns switch is definitely ON. So is the eyeliner on the bottom lid switch, and, I don’t know… the plaid switch. (Is there a double ON option for plaid?!) But in my language short shorts and short dresses are turned to OFF.
What I’m trying to get at here is that each person’s style is just like her own idiolect (an individual’s way of speaking / grammar). There are clearly holes in this analogy, but I think you get the point. Outside of your “innate” style preferences, there are various other influences that contribute to the way you dress — certainly for any given particular event (we all know how big I am on dressing appropriately for whatever’s at hand), but also in general.
In my nutrition class (woot! last distribution requirement) we are required to keep a food diary for a day. Included are questions about the decision-making process in food selection, including how cost, convenience, cultural / personal acceptability, irresistibility and other things contributed to the food you ate that day. I think this can again be extended to fashion preferences and decisions. You’re Cornellians, so I don’t need to draw specific parallels, but things like cultural heritage and the part of the country from which you hail definitely contribute to one’s sensibilities; reactionary and fractured works are equally indebted to what came before.
Finally, I want to continue with the idea of an outfit as a composition by looking at diction, juxtaposition and innovation. Both in choreography and in poetry, diction, or the choice of vocabulary, is extremely important. So, what moves are you using? What pieces are you taking out of your closet? Next, how are you combining them? Juxtaposition, placing two things together for comparison, is one of my all-time favorite tools in all of the art forms, and one in which I fancy myself to do good work. You’ll hear it all the time in fashion magazines: “Anchor a feminine dress with studded leather booties” or something akin to that. The idea being, I think, that when displayed in contrast to an opposite or surprising element, each element is highlighted. Which brings me to another important tenet: innovation. Do something new. If it goes terribly wrong, adjust slightly; all good compositions have come through the fire of revision. If it goes well you’ll have a new outfit. Either way you’ll have a surprising amount of fun just trying things out.
As I am attempting to draw a parallel to various social sciences, it would seem as if I were asserting that there should be a certain level of objectivity in fashion advice — and I am. One of my utmost delights in writing this column is filtering raw data (observations of the fashion world á la moment) and disseminating it to my readers. However, I am a person with a particular aesthetic sense, likes and dislikes and an infinite capacity for criticism. So I will do my best to keep my biases above the table, but, basically, if you’re appropriate (as in, not nakey), inoffensive and happy with yourself, I can’t really complain. Except I just don’t understand Uggs at 80 degrees — surely I am not the only person in captivity who sweats. Just sayin’.
I hope you have enjoyed this foray into the interconnected pathways of my life and the universe. Until next time, I’ll leave you with this tidbit of advice: Enjoy your summer clothes while you can — there is plenty of fall and winter to come, and there’s no need to rush it now. And when the time has come, and you’re dying to know what to wear, you can, “Extra! Extra!, Read all about it!” right here.