What We Do When We Dress Ourselves.

For a minute, suspend your disbelief that you could come to agree that putting on clothes is a form of spiritual practice.


That style & identity are related makes a kind of obvious sense. The most cited reason for why clothes matter is that they’re a form of self-expression, and presumably, what they express is something about their wearer’s personhood. That’s logical & right, but doesn’t properly address the degree of the connection that many of us have with the part of what we look like that is completely within our control: how we dress. I started The Keep Collection because I wanted to make some sense of the psychotically emotional parts of putting on clothes. I could (and later will) quote Proust & call it a day because he’s right about everything (& I’m hoping he might help you to trust me), but I’ve saved that for the end in case it’s unappealingly dense & you’d rather read about how my crush on Eddie Redmayne got me to my newest stance on what style is & why it matters.

By Susannah Emerson

Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, by Susannah Emerson.

In early February, I went to see The Danish Girl because I am a fan of Eddie Redmayne and am always interested in love stories. I liked the movie a lot, save for a melodramatic opening and closing 20 seconds. This isn’t particularly surprising as I’m interested in everything the movie focuses on. It’s about artists in Copenhagen and Paris, my two favorite cities. A few of the interior shots looked like they were painted by Vermeer. The camera angles were often so low that I got to see new parts of Eddie Redmayne’s face, and the movie’s about the first known man to undergo surgery to become a woman.

Still, I wasn’t expecting this moment of “aha!” type identification to come from a movie, but it did, and now I like The Danish Girl most for what it gave me. There’s a pre-gender transition scene where Eddie Redmayne goes and stands naked in front of a mirror in a man’s body. He watches himself for a while, tucking in his penis, pulling at his skin, jutting out his hips and somehow managing to taper his extremities to take on a more conventionally feminine-looking pose, and as I watched him, I recognized myself. I have done - I do - the same thing in front of the mirror to try to make myself into a version of the woman I want to be. I put myself into positions to right my hips, to momentarily give myself a body I would choose, and when I get it right I look at myself like I’m perfect, just as he did. I practice and practice this to give myself a little time with a body closer to how my brain wants it to be, and I suspect I am not alone in this.

I am not even slightly immune to a problematic body image, but that is definitively not what I'm talking about here. I’m not describing self-hatred or body-dysmorphia. And I don’t have to be naked: it’s a joy I get from dressing either up or down and playing with my proportions until I look “just right” for right then. It comes from finding the clothes or the pose that turns me into a more accurate representation of myself in that moment. Sure, if I had never seen Kate Moss in a Calvin Klein ad or a Botticelli of Venus of the half-shell, I would in all likelihood have a different picture of what my most perfect self would look like, but I would still be obsessed with editing what I was born with to create a temporary harmony between my outer & inner selves.

 

I have this theory that most of the people I find compelling are more or less haunted by, and ultimately spend their time struggling to negotiate, this distance between outer & inner self, and I have this other theory that a lot of us get dressed to say something about our ideals and the psychic pain that our distance from them causes us. Part of what it is to be a person has to be to have a body that is sometimes at odds with your consciousness and to have to deal with that, to hugely varying degrees, on a daily basis. Part of what it is to put on clothes, to present yourself to other people, is to do your part to bridge that gap.

 

Let’s back up: The Danish Girl helped me see that we could all be doing something related at the mirror, and it might have gotten me a little closer to the mystery that The Keep Collection was founded upon (i.e. why do I care so crazy much about clothing?). In my experience, the way that a person wears their clothes and holds themselves have been the two best indicators of whether the two of us will connect in the big deal way I’m always hoping for. It’s not a foolproof system, but it’s also not a superficial one.

It’s pretty obvious that clothes and body language are a form of communication. The way we dress can demonstrate our culture, worldview, profession, degree of privilege etc. but I think it’s actually the shallow sounding “taste” (as in predilection, not the opposite of tackiness) that's the most profound message clothing carries. I think “taste” might be standing in for something like “ideals” or “values,” so what it is that we’re actually doing when we dress or pose is charting the distance between our physical reality and what we would be. That means when a person’s outfit catches your eye it might be in part because you admire/yearn for/don’t have the very same things as the wearer. To me, that sounds like a foundation for commiseration or perhaps even profound understanding. And to dress well, meaning to take some clothes & what you look like when you walk around and then make it speak to something specific & barely articulable, sounds like a sophisticated & substantial accomplishment.

I love this theory mostly for selfish reason as - if you’ve followed - it justifies or at least explains how deeply I care about the way things look. I don’t mean to present clothing or self-presentation as the only way to grapple with The Struggle of being thoroughly imperfect. I don’t think that’s true (at all - look to most religions for an alternative), but I do think it’s a viable and commonly maligned form of spiritual reckoning. It might only apply in full to those of us who have made self-presentation our chosen pursuit, but that still means that in by getting dressed and taking it seriously, we’re all involved in what is among the most important conversations imaginable.

And now, as promised, I’ll conclude with Proust on clothing: "a deliberate illusion" that stands in for "the reality of a thing."

"Of course, when we are young ... our desires and convictions confer a woman’s clothing a unique character, an irreducible essence. We chase after the reality of a thing. But by the very fact of constantly letting it elude us, we end up noticing that, after the vain attempts have led to nothing, there is something solid there after all, which is what we have been pursuing. We begin to distinguish, to identify what it is we love, we try to procure it for ourselves, if only by artificial means. Then, in the absence of any convincing reality, costume comes to replace that reality by creating a deliberate illusion. I was perfectly aware that within half an hour’s distance from home I should not be in Brittany. But by walking arm in arm with Mme de Stermaria in the dusk of the island, by the water’s edge, I should be behaving the same way as other men who, unable actually to penetrate a convent, do at least, before possessing a woman, dress her up as a nun.”

Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way

Translated by Mark Treharne