Recently I took a trip with my wife to Budapest. On our way back to the States, we had a stop in Germany. At the terminal, we sensed that we were in the presence of Americans. Did we see their blue and gold passports? No. Did we hear them speak and recognize their accents? No.
What gave it away was their clothing, which didn’t quite fit with their bodies.
I have worn clothing over the years that didn’t fit well. I think sometimes it was the comfortable and casual triumphing over style—notice the current trends of people wearing workout clothes all the time. There was also some apathy toward clothing because it takes some effort to search for good clothes, the right clothes. At different times, I wasn’t convinced it was worth it. Also, I have silently rebelled—being a former punk skateboarder—because clothing is a superficial judge of a person, mattering only in specific contexts like job interviews. I now believe each of these three reasons is not good enough.
The Europeans we encountered were not necessarily wearing the highest fashion, but they seemed to better match their clothing to their bodies and did not let comfort suppress style.
The intriguing part for me is that understanding our bodies, in our very body obsessed American culture, is something that we are generally good at. We can easily understand our abilities and limitations in athletic contexts. Take an example from the martial arts: you regularly have to adjust the way you do a technique based on your body type and that of your opponent. When trying to land a kick you have to instantly move to the proper kicking distance. When performing a hip throw, you must quickly match your center of gravity with your opponent’s. And we know our bodies so well that we can do things like this very quickly, after a little practice. Otherwise, we get kicked or thrown.
Yet somehow, we discount our bodies regularly when choosing clothes. Having a thin torso but long arms, I would often buy large, long-sleeved shirts without much thought. This hastiness left me with mostly correct sleeve length, but I was drowning in a sea of fabric. Eventually, I learned that medium sometimes works, but also, ‘slim fit’ has finally gained traction. It’s the same size on the label, while actually fitting my body. I suspect others often settle—like I did—on these imperfect articles of clothing because we assume that they are ‘close enough’. But the stakes are higher than we think.
Beauty makes a difference in our lives. It makes our experience of the world better. For our appearances, it helps because of the way others respond to us when we are more put together. It can give us added confidence. Street photographer Bill Cunningham has declared, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”
Some philosophers have claimed a condition of beauty is ‘fittingness’. We are accustomed by our culture and experience to think of beauty in only the loftiest ways. We are repeatedly shown the most beautiful people, and we are more likely to recall the most beautiful things we have seen. But beauty is everywhere (in different degrees). It can sometimes exist by having two things fit together nicely. For men, this comes into play when wearing a suit. The jacket, tie, and shirt cannot be randomly selected. Do these different pieces fit together?
Not all parts must equally demand our attention. Balance can (and should) still be achieved. For instance, if someone wears a shirt that is pulsating with color and brightness, then one’s pants might need to be more muted to avoid a competition between the shirt and pants. Of course, these are not hard fast rules. It takes practice by trying it on and looking. Dressing oneself is an art. To my dismay, it is a diminished art, or at least underdeveloped in too many people’s lives.
Some people might use the excuse that good fashion costs money. This is not as true as we might believe. There is, of course, a substantial cost difference between clothes right off the rack and expertly tailored clothing. However, much of what I am talking about here can be resolved by understanding our bodies in relationship to two main things: fit and color.
Another condition of beauty is radiance, in which color plays a major role. The idea here is that the beautiful shines before us, and we want to continue or repeat our experience of it. Our clothing should enable our skin, eyes, hair, and personality to shine before others. Some clothing dulls a person’s appearance, highlighting their less pleasant features or washing them out. By contrast, other colors reduce our age by years and reveal our inner glow to the world.
Having already alluded to some of the problems, such as cost and apathy, I think another clothing hindrance is that people assume that a current trend (something that looks good on some people) will automatically look good on everyone. This assumption is false! I realize it is important to keep up with the trends, which can be one of the superficial consequences of fashion—that good and beautiful people sometimes can’t keep up with each new trend. Advertising thrives on getting people to believe they will look as good as the models. Looking good is not an unreasonable expectation or goal. But it doesn’t mean that anyone can wear whatever celebrities and others are popularly wearing.
This is precisely where the art of dressing oneself comes into play. People need to figure out, which takes a certain amount of trial and error (lots of error!), what things work for them and their bodies. As you become more conscious of these things, you will realize that some colors just don’t look good on you. Certain styles of pants or skirts or shirts just don’t work. And this depends on the exact color of your skin, your height, and your width.
The Internet takes some of the guesswork out of the process. Searching for skin colors and clothing, you can easily find ideas that were developed a while ago, like Color Me Beautiful. We simplify skin color, especially black and white. A simple example is that cool skin tones tend to look better with silver, while warm skin tones tend to look better with gold.
Am I saying that you need to get rid of all your clothes? Probably not (maybe?). But it might be time to make some significant changes. Once, fully frustrated, I got rid off every pair of pants that I own and got new ones. And it made all the difference, having pants that fit properly and make you feel good about yourself.
The last characteristic of beauty that I will mention here is referred to as wholeness or integrity. This one is admittedly a bit odd; it involves how close something comes to its ideal form. There might not be an actual perfect outfit. But we have all probably experienced seeing someone who’s clothing was as perfectly assembled as possible. And it’s not that it was necessarily flashy. It just wasn’t lacking anything.
On the opposite side, we have probably all seen someone and thought that they should have different shoes, wear a hat, or switch up some jewelry. In other words, the overall outfit might have been acceptable, but there was something, even something small, that was lacking (or excessive). Sometimes we aren’t really sure what was lacking, just that it was something.
So, what’s the message here? I admit that I tend to be too critical about people’s clothing choices; after all, I have studied philosophies of art, beauty, and aesthetic experience. I also think it’s because I used to not care too much, and now I have a new found desire to become a well-kempt man. But I know too well that I am not always the epitome of fashion. I have made many mistakes when buying clothing. You see a shirt that you like, but the store does not have your size. Then, you justify buying it because the price is right; it’s a cool shirt; and it fits well enough. (I made this mistake too many times!) But, unfortunately, it just does not look right on you, and you never wear it. Or you wear it, despite it looking awkward.
Wise philosophers have said for us to know ourselves, and I think we can apply this to our bodies (and fashion). Buying clothes that look good on us takes both effort and acceptance. It requires effort to search for the right thing, rather than settling on something that really doesn’t look that good. We also have to accept that some articles of clothing—no matter how cool they are or how good they look on others—just don’t look good on us. We need to understand our body type, especially what colors and sizes work for us. Additionally, we might consider how the theories of beauty might aid us in daily life. While I don’t pine for the days of Downton Abbey with its severe rules of clothing etiquette, I think people should care how they present themselves. And it begins by learning about our bodies.