The other day I was sitting at one of the outside tables at Starbucks, sipping my hideously-overpriced iced tea lemonade as I mused on the crisis of the hour: my wardrobe. This had never been a problem before, but I had come to realize that clothes communicate quite a lot more than I’d originally thought. Prior to this epiphany, I’d figured that dressing well was largely an exercise in conforming to certain archetypes, thus allowing people to identify you as part of their tribe or not; by dressing to a certain standard, one thus cemented their status in the social hierarchy. I dislike hierarchy in general, and I find dressing to the so-called “standard” to be confusing. This is mostly because my knowledge of “the standard” is based on clothing dogma passed down as tradition. While I could use the intervention of an “expert” to impart a good set of style rules to memorize, this is not an effective learning style for me. I do much better with principles, and the overriding principle here is that I can communicate through the details of my personal grooming, which makes the idea of wearing “grown up clothes” less of an anxiety-ridden chore and more of an interesting design problem.
As some of you may know, I go to Starbucks every morning to meet friends and get my freelance ass out of bed every day on time. And because the particular Starbucks I go to is a friendly one, it’s become a test-bed for some of my social experiments. So for the past few days, I’ve been dressing up to see if it made any difference at all in how people interacted with me.
Instead of wearing my usual cat hair-covered black t-shirt and formless jeans, the clothes I chose were made from nice material, color-coordinated, and actually sized-right because I’d chucked everything that didn’t fit me well during the Great Closet Purge of June 9th, 2008. This leaves me with about 3.5 days of clothing before repetition becomes inevitable, which isn’t very much but makes for a clean start.
Next, I took care of the personal details such as fingernails, which I have tended to be loose with regarding length and condition. It occurred to me that the personal grooming I was doing was very much like edgework in computer graphics design, which is my term for how well one pays attention to the pixel-level details in how they alter the entire composition. Crisply-placed pixels, as opposed to the usual blops that Photoshop generates when left to its own devices, creates a subtle impression of hand-crafted quality. I wanted no less to apply to my face; I spent more than the usual time scanning for the stray beard hairs that had escaped the hum of my razor, inspected my nasal cavities under a flashlight to seek out and destroy errant nose hairs, and even subtly leveled the edge of my haircut with the razor’s heretofore unused beard trimmer attachment.
As a final step, I used the hair wax that my hair stylist, Kim, sold to me 3 years ago. Personally, I never could tell the difference with the wax on or off, so I tend not to use it since my hair is so short anyway. I was enormously surprised when my friend Erin, sitting outside at Starbucks, asked me what I’d been doing with my hair recently. I laughed and admitted that I’d combed it and used some wax; could she really tell the difference? She beamed with pride, and would have patted me on the head if that wouldn’t have destroyed the magical effect. I also received a few approving glances from the women barristas, who are used to seeing me in my slobwear, and that is enough to convince me that paying attention to how I look makes a difference. By paying attention to details, I am saying that I am a detail-oriented person and have things together. By selecting clothes based on quality of material, contrast, and cut, I’m also portraying what my standards and my tastes are because I am demonstrating that I’m paying attention, and not leaving my appearance to accident. That’s a principle I can get behind 100%.
So I’m totally convinced that paying attention to clothes makes a difference, and I can actually apply the same graphic design skills to the selection of clothing and accessories, manipulating proportion, line, shape, contrast, and color against the backdrop of what everyone else is wearing. It’s a very very interesting design challenge. What’s next is even more interesting: what do I want to say about myself and how do I say it through clothes?
In the interest of writing shorter posts, I’ll leave those questions for next time.