Do You Dress Like You Know Who You Are?

On your daily journeys, do you ever randomly glance at someone, and make an assumption about that person based on the way they’re dressed? I’m pretty sure everyone does and, as a long-time people watcher, I’m as guilty as anyone else, maybe even guiltier since I know that writers, if I may call myself that, are guilty of tucking mental pictures into a safe brain recess to bring out later and examine in depth and solitude, and then write about them.

One of the best people watching places I know is during stops at traffic lights during drives through the city. That young man crossing the street, the one with the heavy gold chains around his neck, baseball cap worn backwards, baggy trousers inching toward his kneecaps, showing underwear that–in another era–only his mother would have seen on laundry day, is he really a hip-hop gangsta or an admirer of one? Is he a rapper admirer or wannabe? Or could he simply be a boy on his way to  school?

Last week Hubby and I found ourselves walking across the UofU campus during midday. Suddenly we noticed two girls walking in front of us in the vicinity of the Student Union where there’s a pretty good cross-sampling of students, gender-, age- and class-major-wise. Both were 21st century slim and athletic looking, and both were dressed in very cropped, white shorts so tight as to be working themselves into classic “wedgies” as the girls schleped towards their destination.  

Their hair was “styled” rather than “arranged with hairspray” as in the 1950s, and one was wearing what we refer to as “flip-flops” on her feet. The other had on see-through, plastic stiletto heels. (In Las Vegas, where we lived before, we recognized those shoes as the thing that distinguished the ordinary, scantily-clad tourist from “professional girls” walking the streets.)

As we watched, I wished I’d had a camera in my pocket. Taken from behind where we walking, a quick click would not have been obtrusive and neither girl would have been embarrased. The opposing shoe choices of the two juxtaposed with all else being so similar would have made a fascinating study in contrasts. 

We walked on to our destination discussing the apparent dressing customs of what we deemed to be the current crop of college freshmen. What we didn’t need to discuss was how changed things were fashion-wise from when we walked together across college campuses 40 years ago.

On our return, through more or less the same route, we saw nothing more of those girls, but discovered another fascinating subject as we took a shortcut around the fieldhouse gym, this time from the front. Coming toward us was a comely female with close-cropped, spiky auburn hair peaking from beneath a head covering of some sort. 

She was amply endowed, yet slender, with a one-piece, corset-like bodice with a short, matching, box-pleated skirt, made of–I’m thinking–leather. For her “matrix inspired” ensemble she had chosen knee-high, lace up boots in black to match the outfit. In spite of her overall attractiveness, there was something about the attitude she exuded that shouted, “dominatrix” and in case you need that word explained to you, go here.

Who in the world pays for these girl’s clothes?” Hubby said.

Good question,” And I thought about it some more. “That matrix girl must be a freshman.” I said. “She’s still being bankrolled by her parents, and still living at home.”

By my reasoning, she could not afford the expensive-looking outfit, and she’d never choose leather if she had to pay for special-dry-cleaning herself. Her parents were well off, though not rich, otherwise she wouldn’t be attending a state sponsored school. Hubby suggested she may not be full-time or maybe not a student at all. Having noticed the way other women working around the campus dressed, though, I could not imagine her working without causing a bigger stir than accomplishment.

But we pretty much agreed on one thing. If they were graduate students, or on their own, responsible for purchasing their own clothes, they would be much more casually attired. By the time students are working toward higher degrees, and 100% or close-to being responsible for their own lives, they would have levitated toward sweat pants, sneakers or sandals for comfort, long hair pulled back in ponytails for simplicity in care. And the color choices would be limited to shades of black and gray.

See what I mean? We had worked up a complete scenario about the matrix girl with the laced-up boots. Though we could both understand the lure of flip-flops with shorts on a campus stride-about on a late summer afternoon, we were both perplexed by the choice of stiletto heels . . . or was she advertising?

I try to be open-minded about dress styles, remembering plenty of ridiculous outfits I wore in the 1960s (think loud colors and patterns), and I would never suggest–not in a million years–we ever be subjected to the 1950s again, where everybody had to look like everybody else. All the same I was happy to read recently that baggy, hip-hop pants are already falling from grace, if not literally off rear ends.

So. Do the girls I’ve written about really advertising who they are by their dress? Do the baggy pants mean the wearer admires gansters or hip hop artists? Frankly, I doubt it. The message that I get is that they’re really not sure yet who they are, just as we weren’t 40 years ago. Yet there’s  one thing they are probably being perfectly clear about. They want to stand out a bit in this big, impersonal world. Dress is one way we try to  impress our uniqueness on an otherwise mediocre world.

But one day we all grow up and, in time, older. If we’re lucky, we finally figure out who we are.  Finally our uniqueness shows, not by the absurdity of the clothes we wear or the money we spend on them, but by the way we refuse to let the fashion moguls of Madison Avenue dictate what we wear.

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