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.”