Conformism and Style

Harajuku girl. Photo by Jay Bergesen.

There is always an unwritten code of dress everywhere and, as you rise in your profession, people will give you clues if you are making mistakes in your dress. Sometimes these are ever so slight and even disguised. Something said with a chuckle can be deadly serious.
––Frederick Knapp, image consultant, from The Indispensable Guide to Classic Men's Clothing

The word conformism has a bad reputation. Merely saying the word calls to mind the mindless architecture of American suburbs, programmed drones with barcodes on their foreheads, little German schoolchildren goosestepping into a nightmare. To conform is to lose yourself and let society win.

Of course, no one thinks, or wants to admit, that they conform to anything, except maybe the traffic laws. But we all do so, in large and small ways, most of which we don't realize.

To "conform" is to "comply with rules, standards or laws." It also means "to behave according to socially acceptable conventions or standards," that is, the unwritten laws of any community or group. A conforming object is "similar in form or type."

It's this last meaning that most people object to, and for good reason. Uncritical conformism has serious drawbacks. Few people want to be mediocre. They object, I think reasonably, to institutions like forced schooling, which aim to reduce all people to the same, safe level, which try to make them aspire to some dull ideal they haven't chosen for themselves. Most people don't want to obey laws which aren't made for their benefit, especially when they protect the haves against the have-nots.

The Sex Pistols and a police officer: two types of uniform.

For better or worse, we all obey some unwritten rules in our day-to-day lives. Let me give you an example. Have you ever seen pictures of a fashion show where the models were dressed like flowerpots, or walking acid trips, or a heap of fabric scraps? Your gut reaction was probably a mixture of disbelief and derision. What, is some rich person actually gonna buy that crap? Is flowerpot the new black? Part of this reaction comes from how strange these looks are. They don't conform to any recognized standard of dress. They're not useful in social intercourse, except maybe in some martian society.

Now imagine a successful business executive. Chances are slim to none that you would ever see him or her in baggy jeans and a "Big Dawg" t-shirt. In order to succeed they have to project the accepted image of a business executive, which usually means a three-piece suit, a shirt and tie. Even when they're working out, getting ready for bed, or going swimming, their outfits will unconsciously fulfill the expectations of their peers, their spouse, and their family.

What's true of business executives is also true of young people. A hipster outfit meets the expectations of their social group; it is "predictably unpredictable," from the black frames of their glasses to the tightness of their pants. The more one deviates from this "unwritten code of dress," the more "ironic" the look must become, or the wearer will receive the kind of glances a man used to receive for pairing brown shoes with a black suit.

These unwritten laws exist in every society and community. If you don't want to conform, you have two options: remain a nonconformist, or find a group with less objectionable codes. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a social group, or job, or city, where everything is permitted and everyone is accepted. More to the point, who would want to inhabit such a place?

This may or may not depress you. My only advice is to find people who resemble who you want to be, and make them your friends. Find people whose strengths counterbalance your weaknesses. Above all, try to find a community and a place where you can be yourself without feeling too much ambient resistance or disapproval, unless you enjoy resistance and disapproval.

Related Reading:

Enjoying Your Style

What is Style?

Style and Sex

Men's Style


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