Watch Me Unravel
a realization that clothes can be more than something practical
Back when I was a teenager and knew everything with absolute certainty, I showed my mother an ad for clothing and snickered. The text went something like this: “How can the occasion be special if your clothes aren’t?”
Ridiculous idea, I called it. What makes an occasion special is what happens. The clothes are just incidental. To me clothing was practical gear, with the ancillary social function of preventing indecent exposure.
Mom warned me not to minimize the social importance. A prom is not a prom without formal gowns and tuxedoes. What is graduation without the caps and gowns? What is a wedding without the dress? To her, clothes were a costume that proclaimed one’s savoir-faire and sense of style.
Till the day she died, we never reached agreement. She was fascinated by parades, coronations, movie premieres, the Oscars, operas, and other occasions where the most important activity seemed to be wearing clothes. I snickered. Mom insisted I should buy new shoes for my wedding. I neglected to do so. All my life I have nurtured this solid core of disdain, but hard knocks of experience have chipped the veneer off my teenage certainty.
Knock 1: Functionality
Joggers ply the roads between my house and Eau Claire. They wear costumes with bright colors in distinctive splashy patterns. Maybe yellow sleeves and legs on a black jumpsuit, or a white outfit with a wide diagonal green stripe. At first I thought, “Are you celebrating Harlequin’s birthday or something? Why not wear a functional plain gray sweat suit? Your gait already screams ‘Hey, world, I’m jogging! Improving my cardiovascular fitness!’ You don’t have to say it twice.”
Then a nagging thought chipped off a flake of certainty: such garb is not always entirely silly. In a long-distance race, distinctive color schemes identify runners a long way up the road, so their fans can prepare to cheer. In that way the clothes are functioning as gear; they help runners draw inspiration to keep going.
Here’s how gear becomes costume. Non-racing joggers going merely for weight loss and radiant health see those colorful togs without recognizing their narrow purpose. They know they’re supposed to wear prom clothes to a prom, so they conclude they’re supposed to wear running clothes for running. They figure a plain gray sweat suit may be OK for lounging around the house, but for the special occasion of jogging it’s just gauche.
Knock 2: Memorability
My mother gave my grandfather a pair of denim overalls in a wild psychedelic print designed for hippies for his 80th birthday. We laughed at the outrageous implication that our patriarch had a bohemian’s rebellious attitude and dissolute lifestyle. That gag gift would eventually knock another chip off my certitude. It taught me that clothing can actually transform an ordinary event into a memorable occasion.