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Not All Clothing is Fashion

“Don’t you feel guilty about liking fashion, because it’s so superficial?”

Recently, someone asked me to justify my love of clothes, and I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. In fact, I renamed my column this semester, from “Justify My Love (of Clothes)” to the current “Fashion Statements” to signify that I was finished with proving to people that my interests mattered.

But this question that felt like a punch to the gut brought me back to sophomore fall, when I won a lottery to have lunch with a famous visiting chef at the Faculty Club. When it was my turn to do so, I explained—to my two professors, a couple of students I had just met, and the guest of honor—what I study: in a word, clothes. Mr. Visiting Chef sneered. “Fashion?” He retorted with something to the effect of “What’s the point of that?”

I felt like his question was an accusation. It’s one I receive often, sometimes in more subtle ways. It happens when classmates act surprised when they read my essays about clothing and find that I’m talking about cultural shifts, intricate economic systems, or issues of identity and mental health. “No offense,” they say, and I wait to be offended: “I expected you to write something superficial.”

It happens when family members hear that I study History and Literature and write about clothes, and ask, “What are you going to do with that?,” as if I should treat my interests and passions like a tool to get ahead. As if I should already know how to use them to do something.

I don’t mean to victimize myself. As my academic advisor told me a few days ago, everyone is questioned about their interests at some point in their career. I believe that this is true.

But of all the art forms, I think fashion receives some undue criticism that is based on serious misconceptions about what clothing could signify if we created and consumed it more thoughtfully.

When I tell people that I love clothes, I sense that they think I simply love to shop. They might imagine that my closet is humongous, that I have hundreds of pairs of shoes, or that I spend thousands of dollars a year on outfits I’ll only wear once. I’m not surprised that this is the case—the fashion bloggers who command everyone’s attention these days make that life seem pretty glamorous, and the fashion industry has been all too willing to collaborate with them.

Chiara Ferragni is one example that comes to mind—her blog The Blonde Salad chronicles an extremely lavish lifestyle. Ferragni has multiple homes all over the world—each with a walk-in closet teeming with expensive clothes—and has managed to make such a profit from the blog and its related businesses that she now guest-lectures at Harvard Business School. Her Instagram exhibits a parade of high-price items that she seemingly never wears more than once. But the fashion world loves her.

Ferragni is not alone, nor is she a villain. There are plenty of bloggers just like her, and I admit that I’ve found her Instagram to be a fun escape from tedium on occasion.

The thing is, though, I don’t want her life, and it doesn’t actually have much to do with the way I want to think about fashion. There’s nothing necessarily specific to fashion about her excesses: she could buy cars or food or real estate in the same way that she buys clothes—over and over and over again, until she realizes that there is more to life than Chanel.

I don’t love to shop—I love to look at clothes. I don’t buy things on impulse—I buy them with care. And though I’m willing to admit that I own more clothes than are strictly necessary to my survival, I’m grateful for each piece in a different way.

That sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. When I shrug on the sweater my mother bought me for Valentine’s Day, it feels as if she’s hugging me. Every time I wear my white silk blouse, I remember the day I bought it and relive happy memories of being with my family in Washington, D.C. I could tell you something special about every item in my closet, whether I saved up to buy it or it cost me fifty cents.

For me, clothes are repositories for memories. They are comfort, too, because it’s easier to construct an outfit than a personality. On days when I don’t know who I am, I feel a little bit better knowing that I’m at least sure of how I want others to see me.

Clothing as I describe it here is different from Fashion, the fancy clothes that make up a billion-dollar, global industry. Of course, the two are related. And fashion is complicated. Unlike musicians, who manipulate instruments, or sculptors, who manipulate clay, fashion designers manipulate something that happens to be a basic necessity: clothing. You can’t deny the irony in a $1,400 coat worn by some Harvard students when over 1,500 families spend cold nights on the streets of Boston—the same amount of money could go a long way in procuring housing for those families. Ferragni does seem tone-deaf when we think about her in the context of a large

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