random thoughts: on style as expression
I'm about to talk about something that I've never felt particularly qualified to talk about. But I have quite suddenly become ferociously fascinated with clothing style.
This is noteworthy because honestly, this hasn't always been the case. To be clear, I've never particularly cared for brands -- I was never one of those people that had to wear Calvin Klein or Jimmy Choo or Armani or whoever the coolest designer of the time was. And I've certainly never had any interest in wearing anything where a brand name was overtly visible -- the concept of brand-as-status-symbol has always turned me off. But for sure, I used to buy all the fashion magazines and pore over the latest trends. Until I didn't.
It started in my late teens and early 20s, I think, when I was very influenced by style. At first, as with most kids my age, I was motivated by favourite celebrities: there was definitely an unfortunate Madonna and MC Hammer period. Then, once I graduated from college, I was all about what was "proper" corporate-wear: I dressed the way I was supposed to for work, as a young engineer, and then later, as a lawyer. I bought what I assumed were the "right" things to wear, what was "appropriate." I researched magazines, and stayed as on-trend as possible. And I didn't just do this with work clothes: I shopped based on what I thought I was supposed to wear. I absolutely, positively dressed for others' approval.
Now, for the record, I don't entirely think there's anything wrong with dressing this way, particularly when you're young and just starting out. When you're just beginning your career, in my experience, youth works against you -- people are making all sorts of judgments about your capabilities based on how young you look, and dressing to help redirect those judgments to something a bit more appropriate makes a lot of sense. If I were still in my 20s, I would do exactly the same thing.
But I'm not in my 20s anymore. And what's more, I don't work at a corporation anymore.
To be completely honest, though, I became completely disinterested in fashion when I stopped working at an office, about 6 years ago. When you work from home all day, it's really easy to become more focused on "comfort" rather than "fashion." And not inconsequentially, when you write a book called The Beauty of Different, it's particularly easy to become completely disenchanted with the fashion industry in general -- magazines that once seemed inspirational suddenly seemed diminishing and damned near insulting, with their "fashion do's and don'ts" and "dressing for every age" and Photoshopping-gone-mad techniques. I stopped buying them altogether. And over the past few years, I've spent my days vacillating between dressing in my most comfortable clothes when I'm off the clock, and dressing the way I thought everyone else would be dressing when attending conferences, and speaking at events. And it has honestly worked out fine for me.
But then over the last 18 months, my interest in style has awakened again, because of statements by two women whose work I respect, and who made me think of style as a form of communication, an expression of self -- something that I'd honestly never considered before.
The first statement was made by Brooke Shaden, the talented photographer whose workshop I took last year. At one point during the workshop, she had us do an exercise where we came up with what we wanted our work to feel like -- what words we hoped people would think of when they saw our images. Hers, unsurprisingly, included words like "mysterious" and "fantastical." And then -- this was the part that I thought was interesting -- she mentioned that whenever she's at an occasion where she might be meeting people who would be interested in her work, or her work was represented, she dresses with these words in mind -- creates looks that inspire feelings of mystery or fantasy. "These are the things that I stand for," she said. "I want people to experience the same feelings in my presence as they do in the presence of my work." I thought this was incredibly interesting -- I'd never linked my work or my values or my mission in life to the way I dressed. The concept made me think for a long time after I'd left the workshop.
The second statement that has given me pause was made very recently by a friend of mine, Attillah Springer, who is a journalist from my homeland in Trinidad. She is currently visiting Nigeria, and in her Instagram account, she shared an image of herself being taught how to tie a traditional Nigerian headtie. In the lengthy caption, she discusses her long-time fascination with head ties (sometimes to the derision of others), but what particularly struck me was when she said, "Style is both personal and political and the negotiations black women constantly have to make are not always what you want to confront when you wake up to get dressed in the morning."
Huh. Style is both personal and political.
So here I am, at 46 years old, for the first time considering using clothing as a way to express what I'm about, as opposed to gain the approval of others -- crazy, right? For the first time, I'm really thinking about what I stand for, and how to use something other than my camera to communicate this -- to use what I look like to communicate this -- regardless of whether or not it meets with approval. It's not about being "age appropriate," or "dressing for my body type." It's about looking like me -- even though I'm not entirely sure what that means yet. And while fleshing this out includes the pulling together images of street fashion that I love, it certainly doesn't mean that I'm picking up fashion magazines again.
Because if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that ultimately, the only fashion rule that really matters is if it feels good and right, if it feels like you, you should wear it. No matter what anyone else says.
Incidentally, if the thought of spending some creative, introspective time thinking about what you stand for, all in the support of other like-minded souls, consider joining me for the LimeLight Sessions this October, right here in Houston. Early bird pricing continues through May, but there are only a few spots left -- so register soon!