The Fashion Statement: Why is How People Dress Such a Big Deal?
The chatter about Michelle Obama's shorts last week was deafening. Google the subject and 9 million entries pop up. Well, make that 9 million and one, including this post. It blew away President Obama's mom jeans episode last month documented by only 1 million entries.
People care deeply about the way people dress. But it's a mystery why. Why the hell do we care? I mean, it's kind of embarrassing that we paid so much attention to a lousy pair of shorts. And modest ones at that.
Something in our primitive dinosaur brains kicked in when we saw Michelle Obama step off Air Force One. We weren't sure if it was okay. Eventually, the media asked us to weigh in and, after thinking about it with our evolved brains, 80 percent of us said it was fine.
Catch Madonna in a pair of shorts and even our dinosaur brains would be nonplussed. Style and cut would be debated, sure, but impropriety would never come up.
Why? Because clothes are inextricably linked to identity. Rationally, how can we whine that Michelle Obama wears shorts when most of us wear shorts? But, deep down, we don't want her to be like us. We want to see an aspirational image of the First Lady descending from the most exclusive airplane in the world. We want Jackie O. Or at least a business-like version...which Michelle Obama is most of the time.
Maybe not in a skinny pair True Religions, but we'd kinda like to see President Obama in a slimmer pair of jeans, say from Lucky Brand Jeans. That dovetails with our image of him as a hip, modern guy. Mom jeans don't fit, both figuratively and literally.
But the Obamas represent America's identity and we all have a vested interest in that image.
Two books out in September say a lot about identity in the context of what we buy. I have an advanced copy of Trade-Off, Why Some Things Catch On and Others Don't by Kevin Maney. "Clothes play an oversized role in establishing one's identity-whether it's owning the cool new brand of sneakers, jeans from a hot designer, or a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of a favorite brand," Maney writes.
The designers of menswear label Duckie Brown go one step farther, once telling me that a sharply turned out blazer is only about one thing: Sex. I think that's true. Most of us use fashion to that end. In the end, isn't everything about mate choice?
But it's something else, too. In an era when more and more people work remotely and have less and less face-to-face contact with colleagues and clients, the phrase "you only get one chance to make a first impression" has never been more true. Doesn't it take just seconds to size someone up? You better get it right.
"We process information based on visual cues more now than even 10 years ago," says Kit Yarrow, a psychologist who with USA Today reporter Jayne O'Donnell wrote Gen Buy: Why Tweens Teens and 20-somethings are Changing the Way We All Shop.
What we wear projects who we are to the world. Instantly. No further explanation needed. So choosing what we say is, in fact, a fairly big deal.