Mulling the uses — and abuses — of fashion

IN SOME discarded textbook I read Emerson's classic essay "Self-Reliance." His passionate, logical prose convinced preteen me that I shouldn't let other people tell me how to think and feel.

Emerson, in my view, backed up my function-over-form lifestyle. I hated to fuss while getting ready in the morning. Why in the world did women waste thousands of dollars and hours per year on clothes, makeup and heels instead of wearing T-shirts, Payless sneakers, and thrift-store slacks? They did it for other people's approval, and I would have no truck with it.

When my dad performed weddings, my family attended and dressed up. My mother and sister chose my outfits for me and hoped I would someday develop the most basic fashion sense. What colors matched? Which patterns clashed? What distinguished a layered look from a bag-lady look? To me, these questions seemed as obscure and useless as the old chestnut about angels and the head of a pin.

Dad would occasionally, plaintively ask, "Why can't you look like a girl?" Because feminine fashion made no sense. Skirts are fundamentally immodest; shorts and pants never reveal undergarments, but skirts might. Long hair takes hours to dry, but short hair requires no barrettes, scrunchies or other such frippery.

Makeup requires yet more matching with skin tone and clothes just to replicate a "natural" look that you already have, and non-white women usually can't find matching hues anyway. And heels hurt your feet while, like skirts, constricting your stride.

So I dressed to please my body and no one's eyes. My parents had pierced my ears with simple gold hoops; at UC Berkeley, I let my earring holes close. Anyone who considered fashion important, in my eyes, convicted himself of superficiality. And so I looked down upon everyone who dressed carefully.

Then I met Leonard, a whip-smart geek who wore jeans, free dot-com T-shirts, and useless button-up short-sleeved shirts on top. He explained that, without the decorative shirts, his outfits looked bottom-heavy. I scoffed.

"Look," he said. "Do you believe that things can be beautiful? That there is such a thing as aesthetics?"

I said yes.

"Then why can't there be a personal aesthetics?"

My eyes opened. I started practicing an aesthetic hygiene, partly for others and partly for myself. Just as I showered to avoid rank body odor, I learned to avoid pain to the eyes, and even create beauty, by matching colors, patterns, and levels of formality, in my clothes.

Now I feel more productive at work when I am dressed "professionally," in clothes I associate with the office. I've learned that it takes hardly more effort than my old ensemble of T-shirt and jeans. I wear a blouse or a blue button-up shirt with black slacks. You can get all those for a few bucks at thrift stores. Black dress shoes with no heels, ribbons or other useless bits are scarce and expensive, but you can usually substitute boots.

This development frightened me. Was I becoming what I had hated? Did my developing style mean that fashion mattered?

Elizabeth Hawes, a designer and activist from the 1930s, distinguished instantly-outmoded fashion from enduring style. Style, she said, reflected the needs and spirit of the era. Upon reading a bit of her work, and a Slate Magazine expos on fashion shows, I understood why my own budding sense of style seemed disconnected from the space-cadet stuff in women's magazines.

The mass media show us pictures of models walking down catwalks, not in anything everyday people or even rich people wear, but in experimental art. The difference between fashion-show high couture and the clothes in department stores is the difference between a painting in a gallery and a can of Sherwin-Williams for the living room wall. The high couture isn't meant for you and me to see — it is a conversation about art among couturiers, "see what I can do with this fabric or this line or this motif" — yet we see it anyway. The ready-to-wear stuff is much more sensible, if ugly, immodest, and superlatively expensive.

So I have developed a minimal style and basic fashion sense, to the shock and happiness of my female relatives. But since my aesthetic matches that of a U.S. male from the 1950s, I will continue to disappoint my father. As I learned from Emerson, you can't please everyone. As I also learned from Emerson, "Man ... dares not say, 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage." I hope he doesn't mind.

You can e-mail Sumana Harihareswara at