Style and Evolution

It's not who you are, it's what you wear.

A fashion is no accident. It will always suit the situation, time and place. Fashion is really a matter of evolution. It has a natural life, unlike a fad, which is a stillbirth
––Stella Blum

Style is always evolving. There is no such thing as permanent style, or permanent fashion; if there were, the toga would still be the height of elegance. New styles of dress are always being invented, re-invented, and improved upon.

Animals evolve by passing their genes onto their offspring. Although "time and chance happens to them all," on balance, children who can adapt to their environment survive, and reproduce, more than those who can't. Children with strong immune systems will survive climates where hygiene is low and disease is rampant; intelligent children will prosper in situations where that intelligence is rewarded.

Societies also evolve, at a much quicker pace than species do. Large scale changes, like mass immigration, religious revivals, wars and political movements can dramatically change the nature of a society. These changes are almost always reflected in styles of dress. For example: a century ago, it was considered indecent of women to wear pants. Today, noone in a secular country would give a pants-wearing woman a second glance. This changing of standards reflects the changing role of women, who now have the rights to vote, inherit property, file for divorce, work and serve on a jury (most of which were forbidden a century ago). In pointing this out, we might be putting the cart before the horse, but this sartorial freedom reflects a growing political and social freedom.

Different schools of design, art, literature, architecture and thought can all influence the fashion of the day. Artists like David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Madonna can all inspire long-lasting trends, merely by wearing one odd outfit in one photograph.

Memes

Screenshot from Heathers

The word "meme" was coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, a book on evolution and DNA. A meme is any self-replicating unit which can be passed from one mind to another. Ideas, patterns, poems, jokes and religions are all examples of memes. Fashion trends are an excellent example of memes. As Dawkins himself explained in an interview:

Dawkins:[T]here are cultural entities which replicate in something like the same way as DNA does. The spread of the habit of wearing a baseball hat backwards is something that has spread around the Western world like an epidemic. It's like a smallpox epidemic. You could actually do epidemiology on the reverse baseball hat. It rises to a peak, plateaus and I sincerely hope it will die down soon.

Interviewer: What about voting Labour?

Dawkins: Well, you can make––one can take more serious things like that. In a way, I'd rather not get into that, because I think there are better reasons for voting Labour than just slavish imitation of what other people do. Wearing a reverse baseball hat––as far as I know, there is no good reason for that. One does it because one sees one's friends do it, and one thinks it looks cool, and that's all. So that really is like a measles epidemic, it really does spread from brain to brain like a virus.

People are very good imitators, but they're not perfect imitators, and nothing stops a creative person from taking a nascent style and adding a new twist to it. This twist, or mutation, may become more popular than the original.

Here's an example of how a meme is passed. You see a friend wearing a Hawaiian shirt with dancing crocodiles on it. For some unfathomable reason this shirt piques your fancy. You ask the shirt-wearer, "Where did you get that?" If he says "Ebay," you might do a search for a similar t-shirt when you're next at your computer. Because it's such a rare shirt, though, you can't find an exact copy, and settle instead for a similar shirt with dancing walruses on it.

Conscious Evolution

As styles change, it's inevitable that the more impractical, unflattering and ridiculous elements will fall by the wayside. Who hasn't laughed remembering ridiculous fashion trends of yore? From hammer pants to bouffant hairstyles, ridiculous memes eventually wear out their welcome.

It's almost a given that something in your closet right now will be out of fashion in ten years. Baggy jeans, venetian sunglasses, the faux-hawk, emo bangs are all somewhat fashionable now, but hopefully not for long.

Although you don't have to follow every meme like a sheep, it's imperative to at least know what they are. If your fashion sense freezes permanently at age 25, or 30, you run the risk of always looking somewhat anachronistic, which can have serious consequences for your personal life. Try to evolve your style consciously, to reflect your changing self.

Related Reading:

Style and Money

Vivienne Westwood quotes

Style and Beauty

The Looks Book


References:

Richard Dawkins Interview. Channel 4 TV, UK, 1994. Reprinted on positiveatheism.org. Accessed 9 March 2010.

Above screenshot from Heathers. Copyright New World Pictures, 1989.

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