Like the rest of the people in the Western world, I believe that my fashion choices reflect aspects of my personality. When I wear clothes, they are really symbols, or a type of language which explains who I am. Hence, for example, I will only buy and wear analogue watches which have an old fashioned feel to them and I, as a general rule, only wear ‘classic’ looking clothes. This fashion choice relays the information that I seek to go above the merely ephemeral and wish to feel part of a tradition. The fashion choice is also a homage to my grandfather, who, like the rest of the Asian Diaspora of his generation, would wear suit jackets and trousers and shoes even in their leisure hours. Hence, I favour cardigans with nice buttons, shirts and jackets, although I will often wear these with the ubiquitous blue jeans and trainers (so even in the application of my personal, general rule, there is something that is more contemporary). Sometimes, I also mix this old-fashioned basis with a layer of brilliant colour. As I write this piece, for example, I am wearing a bright pink jumper with a white t-shirt showing underneath and with blue jeans. I believe that these intense colours relay ideas about my passionate and intense nature, my whimsical, flamboyant and creative side.
What I wish to consider here, is how much self-expression and creativity is allowed in our fashion choices. After all, most of us do not make our own clothes. We wear the vision of others. Our self-expression and creativity therefore, when it comes to fashion choice, appears to consist in our selection and arrangement of clothes in relation to other people’s selection and arrangement of clothes.
I will begin by considering the selection of clothes. This process of selection has certain natural constraints which are attached to it. Firstly, weather seems to determine which clothes I will wear. Summer, as a general rule, excludes jumpers and heavy coats. Winter and autumn, even spring, seem to call for them. Weather also seems to determine the colouring of clothes – there are more sombre colours in winter and then in summer, the season of the summer dress, bright colours come into play. For women, the seasons also seem to determine the nature of patterning on their clothes. Summer dresses usually have floral patterns on them, in contrast to the patterns in winter. Winter clothes also have more of an idea of texture about them.
Selection is also determined by what other groups of people wear. Hence, certain groups in our society are immediately recognisable by the colour and style of the garments they wear, as well as the accessories that they choose to wear with them. An obvious example is if the garment is from the culture of a specific nationality or religion, but there are other examples, too. Goths wear heavy make-up and generally favour the colour black and often wear crosses, for example. Another obvious thing to do with these groupings is class and status: richer people will wear clothes which are considered to be more exclusive or differentiated from mass-produced items and which bear the names of famous designers. One person’s selection of clothes will show what kind of fashion tribe he or she belongs to in this grouping in our society.
However, what is unique to the fashion sense and creativity of each individual will test the boundaries of each fashion tribe. I have referred above to my incorporation of ‘classic’ styles with more intense colours and with jeans and trainers. There is a mixing and hybridisation of elements in my own unique fashion style. Instead of going by what everyone else in my chosen fashion tribes choose, I tend to mix and match elements. So, for example, for my watch collection, I have to have a big name and a Swiss-made name, because I believe in their claims for better workmanship and better design. So, I will save up for a long time to buy a watch of this description, because I believe it is a superior item and I believe that the watch will relay the information that I am part of a fashion tribe that understands why a particular watch is exclusive and why it can claim to be beautiful and much better than a mass-produced item. The watch is an index of my qualities of aesthetic appreciation and my membership of a certain fashion tribe. However, for my suit jacket collection, where the most exclusive items are by big designers, I don’t just go for the big names. This is mostly for financial reasons – I am not a particularly wealthy individual and don’t have much money to splash around. However, beyond this, there is the aesthetic dimension. I go for a particular suit jacket because I like the look and the texture of it. It doesn’t matter to me what status the material is held in – what matters is my individual preference and the aesthetic dimensions of the suit. However, the fact that I favour wearing suit jackets, even in my leisure time, as I have mentioned above, has a whole host of personal associations that are made. The suit gives me belonging because it links me to the clothing conventions and traditions of my grandfather’s time. The suit jacket makes me feel like someone professional and has connotations of status, since not everyone wears a suit jacket in their leisure hours. It again seems to me, to relay the signifiers of good taste and sophistication to others. I wear jeans because of convenience, so this selection is based on a comparison of what it would mean to wear trousers with things – trousers mean that I have to wear uncomfortable shoes with them (I’m not the kind of person that combines trousers with trainers).
My own selection is to buy clothes which will last. Although I once made the mistake of buying skinny jeans, which quickly went out of fashion, everything else has been a traditional cut. I am less adventurous in terms of cut than in terms of colour.
Having considered what determines selection and how it is bound up with creativity and self-expression, I will now turn to the important role of arrangement in relation to these ideas. I will start with a personal anecdote which will relay some facets of my personality and fashion sense. Now, I once bought some Puma/Ferrari trainers. I bought two pairs of the same model, in different colours. One was yellow, one was red. After a little while of wearing them in, I started wearing one red trainer with one yellow trainer, making an odd pair of shoes. This arrangement, while being considered a fashion faux pas by many, was making a statement about myself and my personality. I was saying to other people – you follow conventions unthinkingly, yet I break them knowingly. I was broadcasting my uniqueness and quirkiness, my difference to others, to other people by matching up an odd pair of trainers. Everything relied on the arrangement and accepted conventions of arrangement.
I think personality, creativity and self-expression are relied upon in the arrangement of pieces by the extent to which they follow or disobey convention. Hence, my use of bright, non-traditional colours, alongside the wearing of more traditional pieces, as well as wearing more traditional pieces with jeans. I will also wear waistcoats with t-shirts, for example. I think a famous example will illustrate how fashion can express individuality by arrangement. I am thinking of Michael Jackson and his famous white glove. Michael Jackson realised that people only wore a pair of gloves. By wearing only one, he focused everyone’s attention onto the gloved hand, exaggerating its significance. He was expressing his individuality and creativity in relation to other people, doing something that was genuinely different. This was all done by arrangement.
I think one of the most expressive ways of arrangement, beyond the texture of clothes, is the composition of colour in an outfit. Clothes give everyone a chance to become like artists in their use of colour. One can make many harmonies and contrasts in one’s use of colour. Colour coordination may express one idea, a striking contrast can express another. One component of my individual composition of an outfit is the use of the colours green and blue. Now, my eyes ‘change colour’ according to which colour I will wear, because they have both green and blue elements in them. When I want to wear a certain colour, I have a certain overall effect in mind, but the idea of the chameleon is attached to the meaning of the colours, a subtle message that only someone in the know, someone close to me can appreciate. I have already mentioned the messages that I relay to others in my use of bright and intense colours, but it is worth adding that I choose these colours because they are more exotic, a quality I like to associate with myself – the vast majority of men in the west wear sombre colours which I am reacting against.
I now wish to address a particular issue in the arrangement of pieces which I am particularly interested in – the suit, shirt and tie combination. Now, I must confess that I am a bit of a collector when it comes to these items. I have seven suits, with more individual suit jackets and a big collection of shirts and ties. These all range from the ‘traditional’ look to the more brightly coloured items and I often combine the outfit in different ways. Sometimes I colour coordinate, becoming a mass of one continuous colour. I often do this with my brown suit, brown shirt and brown tie, but I also do this with navy blue and black or grey. At other times, I vary and contrast colours in the shirt and tie at the middle of the ‘frame’ of the suit. This game, which takes much deliberation (and which also involves my big collection of over thirty cuff links) doesn’t take up much time, but it was part of the fun of working in a professional environment.
This last point leads me to another. Fashion is not only about identity, self-expression and creativity, but it is also about fun. It allows us all to be artists. I only wish the fashion industry was more ethical and environmentally and socially aware. I don’t think we should endlessly keep on buying clothes – this is bad for the resources of the planet. My own buying spans a number of years, which is why I have been able to accrue a big collection and, as I said, I don’t buy items which are only fleetingly fashionable, so I hardly ever throw anything out. In my view, the pleasure of clothes and fashion is a pleasure that has to be carefully rationed and carefully thought out. But clothes, for us in the West, are very important in relaying messages. They, and our individual fashion sense, are things of some importance.