Function and Symbolism

So this week’s Wednesday weigh in has gotten a lot of traction on Twitter (you can see it here) and – rightfully so – it’s been a polarizing one.

My personal reservations on it are the same as many others.

It’s trying too hard

Looks like a costume

He’s a hipster who doesn’t actually need the clothes he’s wearing

These ideas and a conversation with one of my friends started sparking an idea for me.

Most clothing choices throughout history have been driven primarily by function.

It’s why so many different cultures across the world dress differently – they deal with the unique challenges and demands of their environments in distinct ways.

That functionality gives a valid reason to change the way we dress and then the form or style aspects can start to evolve from there.

Which mean’s the problem today is most of us live, work, and largely exist in climate controlled or digital environments.

We have almost zero functional needs for our clothing.

I would imagine 90% of the population of the US would be just as functional in a pair of scrubs as they are in whatever they’re wearing (me included).

So with no specific functional needs for our appearance, we have no easy reason to start to change our styles.

The counterpoint to this is that there’s one other reason for aesthetic changes – symbolism

When we want to send a different signal – either to ourselves or to others – we can do that with the way we look too.

But once again, we find ourselves robbed of many of these opportunities in contemporary Western culture.

First, because we lost our fluency in symbolism.

Everything is now just logos and brands.

There is zero subtlety to the symbols we now use.

And so much of that is aesthetically ugly that it only results in graphic T’s.

Second, we live in a global society in which the less mainstream you are the less likely you are to find any success.

Yes there are plenty of sub tribes within our overall culture but almost all of their aesthetic approaches still fall under the umbrella of what’s socially acceptable.

Streetwear or suiting may not be for you, but it’s not so far removed from you or people like you that it looks alien or hostile.

The old counter culture symbols – died hair, visible tattoos, piercings, etc have all been swallowed up by the mainstream in our rabid desire to accept everyone and everything.

And there are no visible symbols that signal a rebellion against that ethos.

Oh, and don’t forget that even if we do have symbols in our clothing – you can just buy them, they don’t have to be earned.

There are exceptions for things like Motor Cycle Clubs, the military, etc.

But the vast majority of us can just buy or wear whatever we want to – making it more meaningless and also more interchangeable.

When you have to earn the right to wear a particular piece of clothing or visual symbol, you’re not as likely to abandon it in favor of whatever trend the global corporations and magazines are pushing on you next year.

So we’ve killed the need for function, along with the fluency and staying power of any symbolism.

Which means we’re just left to make crap up as we go.

It should be freeing and mean we have a ton of aesthetic variety but it doesn’t.

The only people who are pushing boundaries are those who want men to dress like women and I’m not interested in joining them in that pursuit.

So many of us look to the past to find better styles and aesthetic cues (like the picture I posted) but the problem is that it really is just LARPing.

We don’t need big hats, or work boots, or massive chunky scarves because we’re never exposed to the sun or cold unless we want to be.

When the function isn’t there, and the meaning is irrelevant, we see it as someone putting on a costume purely for the sake of standing out and getting more attention – which is still a gauche move in our society.

So how do we fix that?

I don’t know.

Barring a major social collapse, it’s not like we’re going to start seeing more of a functional need for clothing.

In fact, that’ll probably decrease.

Which means we need to lean on symbolism – at least as far as I can see – and that means having an identity that’s either part of our global one with very small aesthetic variations.

Or going full-on counter culture and embracing the massive differences.

But what’s the punk rock vs suit and tie version of you counter culture vs a global one that’s based on profit and inclusion?

And are the consequences of looking like you don’t belong to that world worth it?

– Tanner

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