Keeping up appearances

I have found appearances a real challenge. The problem – appearance influences how people judge one another; appearances themselves are easily changed. So, although in animals appearances tend to be fixed (the chameleon is an obvious exception), humans can manipulate their appearances through clothing, comportment and a multitude of adornments (from make up, to hair colour and styles, to tattooing, to body piercing, to surgery), and in so doing can present guises designed, for instance, to attract, seduce, conceal, distort, shock and even to deceive.  No surprise then that we humans spend vast amounts of money and energy in an attempt to modify how we look and how we present our image to others.

I am almost certain that my first concerns about the power of appearance began in early childhood. My mother, an actress, used her ‘chameleonic’ skills to make herself mutate in quicksilver succession from, for instance, sadness to warmth, humour to anger, as she manipulated her audiences. While such skill was highly rated in the theatre, it proved difficult for me to handle as a (bemused) child when applied at home. As I grew up I determined that such manipulation was to be resisted, and interestingly, with this decision came a lifelong distaste for mirrors.

Later, and in a very different environment, I realised how appearances were harbingers of prejudice. So, while I recognised it was important (essential) to notice the attire and comportment etc of those with whom I worked, it was also crucial that these features did not distract me. In essence, appearances could not be allowed to distort my judgments, to introduce false beliefs, indeed to spawn prejudice. Here, when dealing with patients, it was essential to ensure that clinical judgements and patient management were based on what the patient said (their clinical histories), on my findings when I examined them, on the results of various tests, and finally on their perceived needs. For students, the need to strip away superficial appearances was similar. In this instance, a professional relationship was to be based solely on the student’s needs regarding their grasp of/achievements in medicine, as revealed by what they said and what they produced. Clothing and any other adornments needed to be noticed, but allowing my judgement to be swayed by such adornment, and tattoos, rings or studs were a particular problem, was clearly wrong.

Whatever difficulties appearance presents to doctors, from the wearers perspective, changing ones appearance in order to express ones feelings and ones autonomy, to be and feel unique, to declare ones preferences, and to establish ones sexuality, are all totally reasonable, indeed a right. Moreover, the capacity to change appearance allows people to experiment, to express originality or togetherness, to dress for special occasions, and to look their best (disguise their worst). But, of course, excessive concern for appearances can, at one level lead to behaviour akin to obsessional preening with repeatedly verifying that all is in order, so checking zips, hem alignment, make up, quiffs and fringes, rucked-up skirts etc. At another, essentially pathological level it can result in people hiding away, staying at home because they have ‘nothing right to wear’, or feel themselves ‘too thin’, ‘too fat, or ‘ugly’ etc.

Notwithstanding all this, there is the matter of fashion. I actually detest the concept of industry-groomed devotees tied into the big business of the fashion machine.  Interestingly, pressure by the fashion industry to replace accessories every year is oddly outmoded as, by its very nature, it fuels consumerism, engenders waste and diverts scarce resources.

Despite all this, now retired I am beginning to feel that there is fun in how we dress, and that it is right and proper for the choice of clothing to change as it gives pleasure, and fulfilment and permits self expression. It should not, however, be allowed to endanger (high heel shoes) or distort, nor be determined by the dictat of industry rather than the whims of the wearer.

2 comments on “Keeping up appearances
  1. jc2 says:

    If you’re single then fashion, or at least dressing well, is an essential part of finding a partner. You might get only a few seconds at a party to make an impression – what you’re wearing is a huge part of that. And with something as universal to the human experience as fashion, I think it’s reasonable to look for an evolutionary origin. So perhaps fashion is a way of demonstrating fitness as a partner by showing you are materially capable of providing and socially aware enough to realise what is the appropriate dress of the season, the fact the fashions change so quickly just gives more opportunities for young singletons to compete and show their superior social awareness skills (which in turn shows better social integration, a key indicator of mental health and thus suitability as a long term partner), and thereby, their superior fitness. But once you’re married I suppose this becomes less important – the need to demonstrate fitness as a mate ceases to be as valuable as, say, being able to raise children. With your evolutionary duties completed, you can settle back into your favorite comfy jumpers and choose clothes based on your own fleeting whims. Just an idea. J

  2. Tina Bruce says:

    I find myself pondering uniforms as a result of reading this thought provoking article. I have always hated uniforms, because they reduce to make everyone to a standardised, depersonalised automaton, or they demonstrate the worst aspects of hierarchy, or they show people up because their uniform is not crisp and starchy, or their shoes do not gleam as much as others. Uniforms are a powerful mechanism for the public showing up of inadequacies, or showing off of power, but all in the name of equality.

    In schools, it is argued, uniform gets rid of the problem of fashion. some having more money than others, a focus on trivia, trying to be different and attention grabbing, and – gives young people something to rebel against (the most spurious argument of all in my view). In fact, uniforms demonstrate how new or old the blazer or whatever is, whether the uniform is an expensive one (boater hats in expensive private schools and no hats in state schools in areas of high poverty. Fashion breaks through with hair styles, etc.

    All of this supports the arguments in the article. There does seem to be a human need to think about one’s appearance, and this is probably linked to the way our sense of identity, who we are, and who we want to be, try to be, takes tangible form. Hence the categories and prejudices we form around appearances as we attempt to ‘identify’ each other and as we do so, decide how to relate to each other. Hence, blue-stockings, dowdy, dapper, elegant, fashionable, classic style, Oxfam shop mode, suit, sexy, etc. etc. How we want to be seen, thought of, regarded at work, at home with family, with friends, at an art gallery, working on an allotment might not be given conscious considerations, but it will be there, lurking in our inner selves. Those with a strong sense of identity will not be phased if from time to time they wear the ‘wrong thing’, but those who are not confident about who they really are, will.

    I like the idea of having fun with clothes and appearance during my later years of retirement… just off to the hairdresser now!

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