In Defense of Fashion: Alain de Botton on Clothes as a Powerful Means of Self-Expression

I have a secret: I’m obsessed with fashion.  During my lunch break, I salivate over my favorite store’s “just in” section.  I spend hours upon hours finding inspiration on Pinterest and scrolling through fashion influencer’s TikTok pages.  I approach clothes with a collector’s passion.  My closet is a carefully-curated museum, each piece is a work of art in my exhibit.

As a self-professed bookworm, I constantly chastise myself for caring so much about clothes.  Surely, it must be better to spend one’s time reading serious philosophy than skimming through Vogue!  Day after day, week after week, month after month, I scold myself for collecting fashion inspo on my Pinterest board instead of reading Proust.  In our culture, an interest in fashion has always been dismissed as empty-headed and shallow.  After all, who would care so deeply about a Chanel bag but a braindead bimbo?

Think of the 90s MTV show Daria.  Daria is a misanthropic outcast but portrayed as one of the only morally righteous and intellectually sound characters while her pretty, peppy younger sister Quinn is the embodiment of the dumb popular girl.  As the vice president of the fashion club, Quinn is only interested in two things: boys and the season’s latest “it” color.  Rather than discuss the day’s pressing political matters, Quinn and her midriff-exposing friends spend their meetings discussing such seemingly frivolous topics as whether acid-wash jeans are “in” and what belly chain to pair with what crop top.

But is fashion always silly and superficial?  Can you delight in a fine luxury handbag without being a materialistic, status-obsessed capitalist?  Can you appreciate the architectural perfection of the iconic Burberry trench coat and still be a serious-minded intellectual?

For British philosopher Alain de Botton, the answer is yes.  In his wise, witty, The Meaning of Life, Botton suggests clothes are a powerful means of self-expression.  “Despite the potential silliness and exaggeration of sections of the fashion industry,” he writes, “assembling a wardrobe is a serious and meaningful exercise.”

When we get dressed in the morning, we’re not just clothing ourselves for the practical purpose of covering our bodies— we’re communicating who we are.  Like a painter, we’re crafting an image, an identity.  Our materials are no longer a canvas and oil paints— they’re trousers and skirts, coats and collars, shoes and handbags.

Studies show that we form a first impression in as little as a tenth of a second.  In a brief moment, people come to lasting conclusions.  By carefully choosing what we wear, we can influence how others perceive us.  As Botton writes, “We act like artists painting a self-portrait: deliberately guiding the viewer’s perception of who we might be.”

Do we want to appear chic and classy?  We’ll wear timeless pieces like trench coats and ballet flats.  Do we want to be taken seriously?  We’ll clothe ourselves in a perfectly-pressed button up, bookish blazer and prep school plaid.  If, on the other hand, we want to appear edgy and non-conformist, we’ll ditch the conservative pant suit for denim jeans and a leather motorcycle jacket.

Garments are words in an unspoken language.  Different clothes transmit different messages: a pair of breezy linen trousers might capture the easygoing summer spirit; a milkmaid midi dress might suggest a delicate femininity and charming innocence.  The woman who wears jeans and a t-shirt is fundamentally different from the woman who wears espadrilles and a slip dress.

Ultimately, adornment isn’t just vain and empty-headed.  How we dress is a way of telling a story: about where we’re from, about who we are, about who we might be.  When we get dressed, to quote Botton, “we are communicating to others who we are while strategically reminding ourselves.  Our wardrobes contain some of our most carefully written lines of autobiography.”

Alain de Botton on How Work Can Transform the Wilderness of the World into an Orderly Garden

Dictators rise to power.  Countries wage war.  Economies crash.  Streets erupt in civil unrest.  Much of the world is mayhem and madness.

In his infinitely illuminating guide to finding value and purpose, The Meaning of Life, British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that— though life is often an unmanageable mess— work can give us a consoling sense of tidiness.  At home, many of our problems are complicated: we might find it impossible to summon the stamina and enthusiasm to sleep with our partner after a long day at work and two decades of marriage; we might harbor homicidal fantasies of killing our teenage son for— yet again— not washing his dirty dishes; we might struggle to find time for ourselves amidst the endless demands of raising children.

But at work, we can “get on top of a problem and finally resolve it.”  The doctor can diagnose an illness and prescribe medicine.  The entrepreneur can pitch an idea to investors, design innovative new products and fill holes in the market.  The plumber can fix leaky pipes and broken toilets.

Most of life is dictated by things beyond our command: natural disasters, politics, stock markets.  But at work, we’re no longer powerless.  We might not be able to control whether a deadly hurricane devastates the Gulf Coast or who wins the next presidential election, but we can teach our students how to solve a system of equations using the substitution method and lead a meeting of directors with poise and self-assurance.  

In this life, there’s many things we cannot know: why we were born, when we’ll die, the purpose of it all.  We can’t know why humans have 23 chromosomes or why— of Earth’s 8.7 million species— the ability to formulate thoughts into words belongs to us alone.  We can never fully understand ourselves or unravel the mysteries of other people.

But through our work, we can know at least one subject in great detail.  A biochemist can understand how CRISPR can genetically engineer cells.  An art professor can give riveting lectures on the bold, expressive colors of Van Gogh and explain the cultural significance of Picasso.  A sommelier can decipher the exact year the grapes of a vintage Merlot were harvested and detect that they originated in Bordeaux.  By becoming an expert in a particular field, we can— to paraphrase Susan Orlean — whittle the world down to a more manageable scope.

Though many of us resent having to go to an office, work is crucial to our contentment.  Without work, we’d be lost in the wilderness with no sense of direction, no meaning, no purpose.  Weeds would overgrow; bushy brambles would choke our path; there would be no water or food for nourishment.  But in the lovely words of Botton, work can help us create a harmonious, comprehensible garden from a tiny portion of the wild surrounding forest.  When we devote ourselves to something larger, we bring a pleasing order and symmetry to our existence.  Work transforms weed-engulfed fields into beautiful botanical arrangements.

Want more advice on how to make meaning in a meaningless world?  Read Botton on how to be a better storyteller, how to define meaningful work, how to find authentic work, and how work is an expression of our better selves.  Want to learn more about work?  Revisit groundbreaking psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on why work is essential to happiness and poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran on labor as a form of love.


Juno Dawson on Finding Love, Finding Yourself & Why No One’s Too Busy to Reply to a Fucking Text

What’s the secret to finding love?  Is it a convergence of  chance and fate?  Is it hard work or just dumb luck?  

Why are some people blessed enough to find the man of their dreams the first week of college when so many more of us have to wait what feels like eons until we find the right person for us?

If we complain about our doomed single fate to the happily-coupled, they’ll give us practical advice.  “Get on the dating apps!”  “Put yourself out there!”  

In the swipe-right age of Tinder and astonishingly in-depth compatibility tests, it seems like there’s no excuse for being single.  Of the millions of men at our finger tips, there has to be someone out there with whom we’re compatible.  

Despite the seemingly boundless sea of possible partners, we’ll never find love if we don’t first do the difficult work of finding ourselves.  In her tough-minded interview in Conversations on Love, author and transgender icon Juno Dawson suggests you can only discover long-lasting love afteras the old adage goes— you learn to love yourself.  After twenty-nine years of living as a man, Dawson made the courageous choice to transition.  Now as a woman, she has learned to embrace the truth of who she is, stop pretending in her relationships and ultimately create meaningful, authentic connections.  When asked how her relationship with her fiancé Max was different from her former failed relationships, she made an astute observation:

“What I would say is that this relationship isn’t necessarily different— I’m different.  There’s so much emotional literacy that goes into being with someone: instead of dramas, there are compromises.  Instead of tantrums and storming out, you learn how to read signals and when to back off and which hills to die on.  These are all things that are difficult to navigate without self-understanding.”

In the end, you are the common denominator in all your connections.  The quality of your relationships is directly proportional to your self-awareness.  You can find a handsome, intelligent, successful man who shares your love for Thai food and Otis Redding but— if you haven’t done the hard work on yourself— you’ll continue to encounter the same issues time and time again.

Say, for example, your first boyfriend cheated on you.  Your current boyfriend might be the most loyal partner on the planet, but if you’ve never taken the time to cope with that first betrayal, you’ll continue to have trust issues.  You might be so paranoid and distrustful that you snoop through your boyfriend’s phone.  You might pick fights with him for staying out too late at the bars because you’re convinced he (like all people of the male persuasion) is incapable of keeping his penis to himself.

The result?

Your unfounded suspicions and rampant insecurity cause such an irreparable rift in your relationship that your boyfriend breaks up with you.

Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”  Being in a committed long-term relationship requires basic compatibility but it also requires patience, understanding, forgiveness, mercy, compassion.  Love demands we become the best person we can be.  For love to last, we have to possess the self-awareness to know and communicate our needs; the willingness to examine and improve upon our shortcomings; the self-confidence to not be overly jealous or possessive; the selflessness to occasionally sacrifice what we want for the sake of maintaining harmony.  We have to know when to bite our tongue, when to just listen and shake our head sympathetically, when to have a difficult conversation to maximize our chances of being heard and minimize misunderstanding (not right when our husband walks through the door or when either of us is sleep-deprived, hungry or grouchy). 

Though love is our most demanding work, it shouldto some extentbe easy.  Yes, all couples encounter difficulties; however, we should never use the truism that “love is work” to rationalize staying in a tumultuous, dysfunctional relationship that is ultimately harmful to our well-being.  Love should be a source of joy— not torment and anxiety.  As Dawson writes with equal parts plainness and poetry:

“It’s like mixing paint: sometimes when you mix two people together you get a horrible color.  Some people do bring out the absolute worst colors in you and, if that’s the case, it’s the relationship that’s flawed, not you.  You’re not meant to lose sleep or cry over love.  You shouldn’t have to fight for it.  If it feels like a fight, don’t waste your time.”  

Before meeting her fiancé, Dawson— like most of us— suffered a string of shitty relationships.  After all the heartbreak, she learned one thing: have high standards for the person you’re with.  You should never have to beg for the bare minimum.  If a guy likes you, he’ll make the effort to make you feel loved and appreciated; he’ll shower you with attention; he’ll call when he says he’s going to.   (One is reminded of Justin Long’s iconic line in He’s Just Not That Into You: “If a guy treats you like he doesn’t give a shit,” he tells a slightly pathetic Ginnifer Goodwin, “he genuinely doesn’t give a shit.”)  In dating, there’s no excuse for someone to abuse/mistreat/neglect you.

Though this is obvious, nearly all of us have wasted precious tears crying over scumbags.  I can’t count how many irretrievable hours I’ve frittered away dissecting men’s poor behavior.  “Where is he?  Why hasn’t he reached out?” I’d wonder weepy and inconsolable after some jackass I was dating randomly decided to disappear.  How many weekends I’d spend, distracted and depressed, unable to enjoy myself!  How many sleepless nights I squandered overthinking and obsessing, worrying that some guy I was seeing was secretly seeing someone else!  After all the games, it’s a wonderful relief to be in a stable, long-term relationship with a supportive man who never makes me question his feelings and always directly expresses himself.

With humor and wisdom hard-won, Dawson reminds us dating doesn’t have to be a drama.  Love isn’t insomnia-ridden nights or wondering “will he or won’t he?”  It’s safety, security, and consistency:

“When [Max and I] met I was seething from a shitty relationship with an absolute time waster.  He made me into a crazy nightmare person who couldn’t sleep, because I didn’t know if he was going to reply to my messages for three days.  That’s an important lesson in love: no one is too busy to reply to a fucking text message!”

Need a sherpa to scale the Everest-like mountain of love?  Read Alain de Botton on idealization as the opposite of love, Natasha Lunn on love, loneliness & the torment of not knowing, Sarah Hepola on books as a source of connection, companionship & community, Dolly Alderton on friendship as a more satisfying, everlasting form of love and Emily Nagoski on the myth of “normalcy.”