"Fashion is the language. Style is what we choose to say in it."

One of my favorite quotes for several years now has been this one on the meaning of style, as defined in contradistinction to fashion, from Robert Solomon in his book Living with Nietzsche: What the Great “Immoralist” Has to Teach Us:

Style, while it varies from person to person, nevertheless begins with exuberance, a ‘yes-saying’ to life, enthusiasm, ‘overflowing.’ Style, for Nietzsche, begins in exuberance on behalf of value; it is thus the (disciplined) overflow of one’s personality. Style is not just a way of ‘dressing’ oneself, a way of ‘coming on’… Most of what passes for style, however might better be classified as mere ‘fashion,’ that is the very antithesis of style. Fashion is the attempt to live in conformity with others’ expectation, in neglect of one’s own virtues. Style, by contrast is distinctly one’s own.

Recently I was talking with a fellow Nietzsche researcher, trying to sell him on the virtues of Solomon’s writings and I cited this insight. He eviscerated it convincingly. So, I was perked up when Greta Christina articulated beautifully my friend’s persuasive, more contextually alert and nuanced, counter viewpoint:

Fashion is the vocabulary, and the grammar. We don’t have control over it — it’s shaped by the culture we live in. Just like regular language, we don’t get to control it, and we all have to more or less accept what the language means in order to be able to express ourselves in it. If we don’t all more or less accept what the word “fish” means, we can’t talk about what to have for dinner. And if we don’t all more or less accept what “skirt-suit” means, we can’t decide what to wear to the interview at IBM to convey that we take the job seriously. There needs to be a common vocabulary in order for there to be personal expression within it.

But as participants in the language, we can and do shape it. Regular language changes with time — and it changes because of how people use it. And the metaphorical language of fashion also changes with time… because of how people use it. (More on that in a tic.)

And, of course, we can choose what to say in it. When we show up at that interview, for instance, we can decide that we want to say, “I take this job seriously”… or “Take this job and shove it.”

That’s where style comes in.

Fashion is the language. Style is what we choose to say in it.

I don’t agree at all with MarinaS, who argued that the range of things that can be said in fashion is limited to about half a dozen basic concepts. I do certainly agree that we can’t say as much in fashion as we can in actual, literal language. (What with it not being actual, literal language and all.) But we can say a lot more than MarinaS thinks we can. Here is just a small sample of the things that can be said in fashion: Playful. Classy. Functional. Elegant. Conventional. Creative. Sexy. Tough. Retro. Athletic. Outdoorsy. Mature. Youthful. Authoritative. Ambitious. Rebellious. Sophisticated. Prim. Exuberant. Edgy. Conformist. Self-possessed. Free-spirited. Extroverted. Attention- seeking. Urbane. Down-home. Studious. Relaxed. Serious. Shy. Frivolous. Wild. Feminine. Masculine. Androgynous. Creative with gender roles. Defiant of gender roles.

And, of course, we can combine these basic concepts in an enormous number of ways, to express an enormous number of more specific messages. (Just like in any other discrete combinatorial system, such as actual verbal language, or DNA.)

She goes on to discuss how sexism in fashion and style work and drives home the point that you communicate with what you where whether that is your intention or not.

Finally, my friend with whom I had the original disagreement informs me that Roland Barthes wrote a brilliant semiotics of clothing called The Fashion System, for those interested in delving deeper.

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