Clothing As Armor

Clothing As Armor

When we think of fashion, writ large, it can be easy to see it as something that affects only our surface. We make snap judgments about people based on how they look, what they're wearing, what bag they're carrying, whether their soles are red, and so forth, whether we admit it or not, whether we are even aware it's happening. Of course, what can make it feel like fashion is superficial is that we make those judgements without knowing anything about the substance of the person underneath. Our world is one of images meeting each other, whizzing by on a busy New York street, crossing paths in an airport. Our images meet before we as humans do.  

Daphne Guinness by David Bailey for Harper's Bazaar, Feb 2011

Daphne Guinness by David Bailey for Harper's Bazaar, Feb 2011

But what if fashion were really substantive? What if it were something visible on the surface but whose roots emanated from deep within us? I want to consider the question of whether our clothing can serve as armor- a shield to protect our emotions, our vulnerabilities, our insecurities from the glares and judgement of the outside world. 

“The world perceives fashion sometimes as a frivolity that should be done away with in the face of social upheavals and problems that are enormous. The point is in fact, that fashion, you know, it’s the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”
— Bill Cunningham, Photographer, in Bill Cunningham New York, 2011

I've noticed in myself when I'm having one of those days- looking sallow, or with a spot of acne on my cheek, and my hair is just not participating, I'm bloated, and feeling altogether less than beautiful (but having to nonetheless go out in New York City, which happens to be brimming with beautiful people), I go to my clothing for that protection. In fact, I've noticed three discrete behaviors I take:

1. I wear looser-fitting clothes

2. I wear red lipstick

3. I wear layers of jewelry- stacking necklaces and bracelets

Upon analysis, the looser fitting clothes make sense because if I'm feeling less than confident, why should I want to wear something tight or revealing that somehow signals a desire to be seen? The red lipstick is a much more interesting one because I also wear it when I feel very confident and don't mind being seen. But sometimes, it feels like I can hide behind it- that I'll be somehow more anonymous behind red lips. Jewelry seems the clearest of all three behaviors to me- it actually feels like armor. I'll wear my vintage Bedouin-style bibs or my silver lace cuff and I somehow, with the feeling of heavy metal touching my skin, I feel stronger, more shored up, better protected. 

Daphne Guinness, Photographer unknown 

Daphne Guinness, Photographer unknown 

I think it's beautiful to be able to cover yourself in metal. I love the color and the way it reflects. But it is also a protection.

- Daphne Guinness

I'm struck by the fact that we are all presenting an image on the outside to shield ourselves on the inside. Fundamentally, while we care a lot about our looks, I believe we don't want to be valued for our appearance, but for who we are. We don't want to be judged, put in a box, stripped of the things that make us human; stripped of the things that make us ourselves. I think part of why we wear what we wear is to protect ourselves from that judgement, to protect ourselves from the glares that try to equate how we look with who we are. The troublesome thing is, although we don't want those things to be equated when it comes to ourselves, we do it to others all the time.

Silver corset, Dolce & Gabbana

Silver corset, Dolce & Gabbana

So, here's a thought: maybe the next time we jump to a snap judgement, or rush to conflate how someone looks with who someone is, maybe we should remember that that person might be using fashion, "as the armor to survive the everyday reality of life." There's a human being behind those clothes doing their best to project whatever image makes them feel less vulnerable to our sometimes harsh world. Here's to a little more mercy, a lot less judgement, and layered stacks of jewelry. Because whether we feel like hell or not, a little jewelry sure makes everything better. 

 

Feature image: Kristen McMenamy by Tim Walker for W Magazine, September 2012.

 

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