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.”

The 1940s: Timeless Glamour for the Modern Woman

Timeless Glamour for the Modern Woman.docx


World War II had just ended, war vets were returning home, and most people felt a vague uncertainty about the road ahead: could peace, Americans wondered, really last?

Tensions with the U.S.S.R. were rising and the Cold War, not far off in the distance. This was a time of hope and affluence, but equally an age of fear and apprehension.

1940s fashion embodied this uncertain spirit. Fabric rationing ended shortly after Allied victory, and fashion houses like Dior made striking comebacks with luxurious textiles and extravagant furs. Women were tired of sacrificing for the war effort and, in 1945, they no longer had to- America was embarking on an unprecedented age of prosperity and wealth.

The world may have changed drastically after WWII, but the fashion did not. Gone were the days of Rosie the Riveter and disrupted gender roles; Americans wanted to return to the “real” life demolished by war. Pencil skirts, hour-glass silhouettes, pin-tuck blouses: all of these trends nostalgically turned to an earlier femininity unadulterated by bloodshed.

We all can learn a thing or two from the classic demure 1940s aesthetic. After all, who hasn’t left an Old Hollywood film star-struck by the glamor and effortless femininity of its actresses? With spring on the horizon, here are some tips to channel the 1940s elegant, ultra-girly spirit.


Natalie One Piece by Anthropologie
Natalie One Piece by Anthropologie

In times of trashy reality T.V., exposed cleavage and fashions so revealing we have to wonder whether they can qualify as “clothes,” we often forget the profound (if overstated) truth of “less is more.” Leave something to the imagination this spring and wear a prim (but equally sexy) halter one-piece. I especially love it in black; classy and elegant, a little black number is alluring without being obvious. Plus, the perfect cut and a solid neutral will flatter any body type.


Richard Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past, circa 1947
Richard Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past, circa 1947

The setting: a corrupt small town. The mood: grim. Dangerous, thrill-seeking women; the straight-shooting, good guy detective: this is 1940s film noir. Your life may not be as bleak or unpredictable as these Old Hollywood movies, but you can still channel your inner femme fatal and look as jaw-dropping as these chicks. So if you find yourself facing breezy March winds or a surprising spout of April showers, opt for a timeless trench like this one by Marc Jacobs…you’ll look like a temptress, I promise.

Marc Jacobs Trench
Marc Jacobs Trench


The Best Years of Our Lives, circa 1946
The Best Years of Our Lives, circa 1946

We have come leaps and bounds from the portrait of woman as homemaker; however, we can still take some pointers from the 1940s housewife aesthetic. Minimalistic and wholesomely coy, nothing is more chic than a blouse paired with a pleated skirt. Buttons give the look an adorable quirkiness, while a structured shoulder keeps it from falling into unforgivably girly territory. Add a belt to define your waist and you’ll look marvelously lady-like.