"Be yourself" is bad advice for getting dressed
Try being someone else
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— Jonah & Erin
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NOW LET’S GET TO IT —
“Personal style” — what is this s**t supposed to mean, when you really get down to it? Is it a fixed property, tethered to something enduringly and inescapably true about you? That’s the meaning people seem to intend when they tell you to “just be yourself” when you get dressed….
“Be yourself” is such inane advice that, as the advanced minds behind Blackbird Spyplane, we never think about it much one way or the other. But the other day I (Jonah) was reading Spyfriend Sam Hine’s profile of street-fashion-documenter Maurice Kamara — “the man behind TikTok’s most influential fit account,” The People Gallery — during which Sam correctly points out that, when Kamara asks his subjects to share some off-the-cuff sidewalk advice, ~99.9% of them opt for “be yourself” …
Why does this advice irk me? The easiest way to problematize “be yourself” is to recognize that, while it contains within it a valuable kernel of truth, so does the exact opposite advice, which is also way more interesting and, ultimately, way more useful when it comes to developing personal style: BE SOMEONE ELSE !
We touched on this the other day in our essay about “the C.O.M.B.O.V.E.R. Mindset,” pointing out that “wearing clothes is one of the simplest ‘technologies’ of body modification.” It’s a point worth reiterating: The power to change the way you appear — and, with it, the power to shed, inhabit and experiment with different identities — is one of the most fundamentally liberatory things about wearing clothes, period. I’m halfway through Spyfriend Hua Hsu’s wonderful new memoir of his ‘90s youth, Stay True, where a running theme is searching for who you are by assuming the identities of other people:
“I explored the less trafficked aisles of the comic shop, rummaged through my grandparents’ apartment for old flannels, mohair ties, factory lab coats… Any magazine article about cyberpunks, ravers, or animal rights activists suggested a new, totally plausible path for me,” Hua writes. “It was exciting to meander and choose who you wanted to be, what aspects of yourself to accent and adorn. You were sending a distress signal, hoping someone would come to your rescue.”
What a fascinating way to end that passage. I’d never thought about signifying to others with clothes in terms of distress and rescue, but it’s true — especially, though not exclusively, when we’re young.
Think of the classic case of a high-school kid who grows sick of the way she looks and chafes at the way her identity has been inscribed among her classmates. She transfers to another school in junior year, because her parents move to a different part of town, and she decides that she will take this opportunity to reinvent herself as a skater. She will thrift herself a bunch of sick clothes of the kind that skaters wear, and because she loves watching skaters do their d*mn thing, marveling at their elegance, swag, and athleticism, she will also put in work to learn how to skate herself. Beautiful.
But imagine that some other kid from her old school transfers, too, and sees her “suddenly wearing the costume” of a skater. Maybe he sees her fumbling her initial attempts to land a kickflip, the way all novices do. This little s**t calls her a poser, and shares old photos with her new classmates of her wearing Hello Kitty tees and a Dora the Explorer backpack or whatever at their previous school, trying to take the wind out of her sails by “exposing the real her” and calling her new look “performative.”
What he’s really doing is torpedoing the exploratory process of self-discovery, which necessarily entails mimicry and performativity. What’s up with this little identity-police hall-monitor-a** hater ??
To the (significant) degree that clothes are a language, we can analogize the fledgling clothes-rocker who wants to develop Mach 3+ personal style to the aspiring writer who wants to develop a distinct voice. Virtually every GOAT-tier author will tell you that the only reliable way to do this is to read as widely and voraciously as you can and, as you go, to steal, copy, and rip off shamelessly from the people you admire — finding yourself through shape-shifting mimicry. Throw styles at yourself and see what sticks…
And this isn’t just about what novices can and should do. The other night I went to a Stay True book reading, where Hua was joined by one of Blackbird Spyplane’s favorite novelists, Tommy Orange. Toward the end of the Q&A, Tommy mentioned that he spent the pandemic reading every single thing Toni Morrison ever wrote. It doesn’t matter that Tommy’s 2018 novel There, There was brilliant, a bestseller, and nominated for a Pulitzer — reading through Morrison in 2020, he said, “is going to change the way I write forever.”
Because the true GOAT-tier writer, much like the true GOAT-tier clothes-rocker, keeps shapeshifting — albeit in more sophisticated and self-assured ways, and with a firmer bedrock of self-knowledge — long after they’ve become goated.
The only alternative is to BE(come a dusty, fossilized version of) YOURSELF.
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