Clothing’s mythological value in human life is so primordial that we sometimes forget to stay conscious of it. The link between the clothing and the person is skintight, and we always run the risk of confusing the metaphor for reality. The crown makes the king; the uniform, the soldier; the college sweatshirt, the student.
We grew up with this metonymy invading all corners of our culture. We watched “Scrubs” and “Suits” and heard fairytales in which the slipper was the only thing that could confirm the true identity. Even the Bible reminds us that dress is synonymous with being human, that to eat from the tree of knowledge is to realize how foolish you look exposed. In that moment of traumatic embarrassment—or, rather, in the myth of that moment—we invented the self by covering it.
When we figured out in seventh grade the you-are-what-you-wear allegory of culture, we flocked to Abercrombie & Fitch, in the throes of identity crisis, hoping to accept some top-down sartorial commandment of cool. Maybe that was specific to the upper-middle-class New York suburb I grew up in, but surely every place has its own overt and covert conceptions of fashion. Nobody wants to be the one to call out the emperor on his new clothes. (There is a reason we call truth “naked.”)
Now as college students we face a vestiary choice more substantial than one of mere style: the blue collar and the white collar. Dress is always used as a means of enforcing status and office. This is not necessarily an evil conspiracy, but the hierarchy of professions is the fabric of our society, and it is manifest in our attire. There are conflicting pressures at Columbia to achieve but not to sell out, and clothes, naturally, are at the crux of this. Tech start-ups have turned this problem on its head with the invention of the casual professional workplace, a nod of humility and a snicker that corporations shouldn’t take themselves so seriously. But not everyone can work at Dropbox, and it is difficult to find an occupational outfit that fits.
Happily, Thoreau has some good old American wisdom for us on the subject: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes.” This distinction between the person and the image of the person is the real anxiety about finding a career or even an internship. A decision about dress code is a decision about identity. Thoreau in his infinite wisdom makes no judgments about people’s choice of profession. He is only critical of why people choose a profession, which is exactly the kind of self-awareness we need to live happily. Thoreau’s myth favors work boots over masks.
Our language leaves bare another mythology of dress, that fashion is the embodiment of caprice and whim. Fashion is ahistoric, by definition. This may serve a function for our collective need to follow trends, to lose ourselves in generational crazes or indulge in nostalgia, but it is dangerous when applied to thinking and even more so when applied to living. Clothes can be an art project that we literally wear on our person, 24 hours a day—I can’t imagine a more suitable platform for self-expression. But they can also be a landing ground for fugitive memes, a desperate attempt to be part of a system of mimicry that offers an artificial sense of belonging. The myth tells us this: Truth and beauty are always in vogue. Try yourself on for size.
Jake Goldwasser is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. Thinking Twice runs alternate Tuesdays.
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