The Clothes Make the Role

By Georg(ia) Penfold

I’ve always had a thing for worn and battered shoes — shoes that are literally on the edge of falling apart and with enough holes in the soles that, if it’s raining, I know I’m going to get wet feet. I like them for two interlinking reasons: the first is that they are comfortable — moulded to my feet after heavy-duty use; the second is another form of comfort, a psychological one which comes from the story that my shoes tell. To me, they symbolise a hardness of life that my otherwise sharp and clean appearance would neglect to reveal. They are the part of my apparel that remind me that life isn’t always easy whilst letting others know that I may be more than I first appear, finalising my outfit by helping complete the picture of who I am. A picture which now more than ever seems to be the subject of constant change.

Clothing is a very prominent part of our society. It is one that we often take for granted and give little consideration to — as a result we often forget what our clothing says about us, and how both other people and we ourselves behave because of this. I’ve been aware for a while of how what I’m wearing affects the way people interact with me. Donning a dress in place of my tight trousers and paisley shirt, for example, is often met with purposeful looking away from some people but admiration and deep kindness from others. If I were to go out in tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie with my hair tied back out of sight, I would likely be ignored for completely different reasons. This said though, it wasn’t until purchasing a pair of knee-high lace-up punk boots with a 2-inch block heel, that I came to realise how my own attitude changed as well. I suddenly felt more outgoing and confident in myself: knowing that my shoes gave off connotations of rebelliousness and ‘not-to-be-fucked-with’ vibes, I felt a shift in persona as I embraced the ‘do-what-I-want’ attitude that my appearance was alluding to. I found myself grooving and singing along to the music playing in my headphones, making eye contact and smiling where previously I would have glanced away, and making light humorous chit-chat with cashiers and shop assistants, all because the story I perceived my clothes to be telling about me, made me feel more comfortable in myself. 

I feel that this comfort comes from realising new ways that we can be, opening up the possibilities of who we are and how we are perceived. Before I started wearing make-up and “women’s” clothing, I found it very hard to ever consider myself as beautiful — I could see myself as handsome or good-looking, but never beautiful. To be beautiful always felt distant and otherly. But once I started wearing what I wanted without sparing a thought to gender, this sense of otherness began to break down and I found I could look in the mirror and not just see myself as beautiful, but feel it as well. Since then, I have begun exploring the power of clothing more and more, aided by my ingrained philosophical belief that the world we experience around us is no more than an interpretation of a world we can never come to know — we are all merely actors playing out these interpretations on the stage of life. I have started making up whole new personae which I attribute different aspects of my life to, a bit like a mental filing system. This has allowed me to play about with the gender spectrum and take on roles which are highly gendered — something which I particularly enjoy for the mockery it makes of the conservative views which have caused this ingraining in the first place. The more I do this, the more I realise that we can be anything, or at least appear to be anything. I know some people will think of this as lying or as not being true to oneself, but I don’t really think there is a self to remain true to. How could there be when we’ve seen so little of the world and can barely even begin to conceive of things that are yet to be?

All in all then, we are capable of being many things. I feel that understanding the power of clothing can help realise the potential that we all have, although I imagine some will experience this more than others, depending on how variable they are in the way they dress and how fluid they find themselves to be. For all of us though, much as we are surrounded by symbols that inform us about the world, so we are surrounded by the symbols that we wear: symbols that we can pick and choose at our own desire and use to express radically different parts of ourselves, and in so doing uncover ways of experiencing ourselves as well. Clothes may seem just material, leaving one a material girl in a material world, but they have the power to express just as much as any book cover or painting. So next time you go shopping remember to keep in mind that you might not just be buying a new outfit but a whole new way of being. 

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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