The Genteel
April 22, 2021



The "fashion world" is constantly and publicly misappropriated as superficial, and a lot depends on image. In the simplest of terms, the medium is the message, and in everything from runways to advertising campaigns, the message can get lost in the image pretty easily. It doesn't take a fashion-interested citizen to know (or see) that the public-at-large continues to invest in, and define themselves, by their clothing choices in extremes. It's an idea that's been progressing since dress became less class-driven, with the rise of the notion that essentially anyone can be "fashionable." Some people are saying something with their clothing; others say nothing at all. But, of course, image is identity and it therefore forms the basis of our public association, or what you represent to the world. (You are what you eat, after all.)

Everyone has a signature. It's a fact I've been reluctant to embrace, especially as any sort of ploy in the development of what you'd call my "persona." (I'm not even sure I believe in personal brands, but here we are with gospels preaching the idea almost daily.) Earlier this month, London-based fashion illustrator Danielle Meder wrote about reinvention and self-creation on her blog. Since then, it's a topic I've been exploring readily, within myself and through others around me. I've written about my distaste for a calculated look before. I've always felt that the "realest" projection of a personal brand or of one's self-image happens authentically, without mediation. Although I don't easily admit it, I'd be stupid to think I won't be judged by my "image."

What Meder points to is shockingly simple, if not depressing: if you want to "make it," you've got to be something people want to buy into it, or follow, or admire, or - in the scariest form of flattery - imitate.

Without a doubt, the cause-and-effect of image and identity is the most fascinating thing I've seen develop as I've matured with the rise of the Internet and its stars. Everyone has a thing, but if you don't, are you - for lack of a better word - screwed? Do you need to buy into it? What Meder points to is shockingly simple, if not depressing: if you want to "make it," you've got to be something people want to buy into it, or follow, or admire, or - in the scariest form of flattery - imitate.

I like when people just do what they want, when it doesn't feel so…conscious. As someone pointed out to me - and this is one of my favourite expressions - randomness is most certainly a pattern. But what I failed to consider is that people have been doing this for as long as television has been around - or at least since David Bowie. When everyone stopped looking like everyone else, when styles became fluid and global through mass mediums, identities became commodities. After all, this is what the modern business of fashion is largely based on: create an ideal, package and then re-package it, and then sell it to the masses. In Meder's post, she lists examples of women (two of whom I have also talked about in this column) that have effectively re-created themselves for the goal of something greater, even delving into her own thoughts of a possible, even hidden, need to revaluate and reconstruct herself.

I recently got into a discussion about this idea and, more importantly, about the proliferation of personal "trademarks," the things people come to know you by. We've all got them, I guess. Even in this magazine, a lot of what we write about can be tied to an individual subject's own iconography. I, for example, have explored what makes women like Marilyn Monroe, well, Marilyn Monroe. Most recently, through a discussion of age and its changing place in pop culture, I looked at 90-year-old Iris Apfel, whose oversized glasses have played a role in her recognition and development as a personality, much like Bill Cunningham's blue smock. An equally interesting exploration revolved around Audrey Hepburn and her love affair with Italian fashion which, in turn, has come to be associated with her as much as her cigarette pants or her films.   

Yet at what point does one start to feel like a caricature of themselves? Does our inadvertent projection onto the world force us to engage in what some would call "unreal" or "fabricated" behavior? (Think: "People like this. They're responding to it. I should keep doing it.") Or does it just, well, become a part of you? I can't think of a greater horror, visually speaking, than when one feels the need, by choice or by illusion, to subscribe to one image. To be that girl, and that boy. 

Yet at what point does one start to feel like a caricature of themselves? Does our inadvertent projection onto the world force us to engage in what some would call "unreal" or "fabricated" behavior?

A recent profile in the New York Times on Carine Roitfeld, the 57-year-old former editor of French Vogue, examines, in part, the brand power of someone who has, essentially, had nine lives. In comparison, Anna Wintour's bob will become as much a part of Vogue history as anything else she ever did for the magazine. Any day now, bloggers across the runways are waiting with baited breath for an announcement from Daphne Guinness, who is said to be preparing to mount an exhibition-cum-retrospective on departed editor Isabella Blow, the veritable mother of image and identity who was, in my opinion, the original Lady Gaga, only easier to digest and believe. And I'd like to think she didn't twice think about her "personal brand." Nevertheless, the need to be unique, to have a "thing," is almost necessary within social circles, and may explain why hipsters are hipsters, for example. A recent news bulletin I came across in Men's Health made me both laugh and think. It noted a Harvard study of college Facebook pages deciphering a science to why people strive to remain or appear distinctive. "The meaning of an indie/alternative taste rests not just in the taste itself - but also in being the only one among one's friendship circle that expresses it," explained Ph.D. candidate Kevin Lewis. "If I like The Decemberists, and suddenly my friends start liking them too, suddenly I'm no longer socially distinctive. So this taste loses much of its appeal and I will run off in search of some new band to express my 'hip' identity."

So then, there comes that time when you have to look at yourself and wonder about any sort of signature/image/identity you carry with you. During the debate about signatures and trademarks, when I mentioned my intention to return to my natural hair colour after two years of trying every shade of blonde, the reaction is what startled me the most about my self-image. "You can't go back, it's, like, your thing. It's you." How terrible, I thought, to be reduced to a mere shade of ever-changing colour. Something originally intended as nothing more than a quiet rebellion against the very men who responded to such a change with, "Change it back, it's more butch." (I never did.) While this is an entirely different topic for an entirely different conversation, the idea of how something out of your purview, out of your control, can suddenly rise to become "your thing" causes me anxiety. Should I have been thinking harder? Ha. Truthfully, I was just having a little fun before all my hair falls out for good.

If image really is identity, then what else is there, really? Just try not to take yourself too seriously. 



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