collectivism vs. individualism

Hierarchies are what fashion is all about. The driving force behind all change and innovation in fashion is the desire to appear better, somehow. Or, different – fashion serves us endless variations to satisfy our never-ending desire for novelty. Concepts of equality don’t jive well with fashion, which is why fashion and social justice are such uneasy associates.

There are two essential choices when we dress ourselves. Sometimes we dress to emphasize our distinctions from our fellow human beings. Higher heels. Better bag. Custom made. Avant garde. Flair.

However, most human beings dress to emphasize equalities, most of the time. We follow trends, we don uniforms, we all wear blue jeans and Chucks. Suits. Dress codes. Most human beings in the western world dress to appear more alike, not different.

Often, we do both or either. What we lean towards though, does seem to reflect our essential view of the world. One example of this division can be seen in the simultaneous emergence of the punk music scene in New York and London in the 1970s.

Emblematic of the nascent New York punk scene, The Ramones dressed in tight blue jeans, t-shirts and black leather jackets – the ironically ubiquitous post-war uniform of rebellion. Punk in America was steadfastly anti-fashion – it wasn’t cool to dress differently from one another. This sameness is reflected in almost all aspects of American style and stems from revolutionary roots, showing how all men are created equal, and of course, to distinguish the New World from the old one. Although the American dream that anyone can achieve whatever they want can be interpreted as an extreme form of individualism, the actual philosophy is one of equality and the result is that American style is essentially homogenous.

Concurrently in London, The Sex Pistols exhibited a very different visual display of punk – it was a scene where the importance of fashion superseded even the music. The uniform of rebellion was subverted, everything was customized, and the idea was to appear as different as possible – one common comment from contemporary observers was that they had never seen anything like it before.

It makes sense that the European version of punk would be much more about emphasizing aesthetic diversity. In England, different classes of society have always dressed to express inequality. This historical hangover is why fashion thrives with such intensity in Europe, and why innovation in Western fashion trends develops more frequently in London than anywhere else.

Of course there is natural bleed-through and contradiction between these opposing forces which make sorting out an individualist sartorial expression from a collective one more complicated than you’d think. Hierarchies will assert themselves in hypocritical ways even when the superficial appearance appears to be collective – whether it is subtle tweaks in a Savile Row tailored suit, an expensive pen in a Mao suit pocket, or an artfully distressed pair of expensive Dolce & Gabbana jeans. Fashion dies hard.

Although I would like to think of myself as intellectually individualist, I’ve noticed that my own personal style is far more collectivist. I tend to dress to blend in rather than stand out, and I have a casual classicist preference that is quintessentially indicative of my North American roots. This also, not coincidentally, extends to my illustration style, which seems to appeal to American clients much more than European ones. I recently realized, or admitted to myself, that my work, like my closet, skews much more towards mainstream than avant-garde.

I’m curious… do you dress more individualist or more collectivist? Does it reflect your personal philosophies at all, or what part of the world you live in?


10 thoughts on “collectivism vs. individualism”

  1. I think this binary – the need to fit in and the need to stand out – is one of the things that is most fascinating about fashion.

    A hipster friend recently told me that I was a “style tribe of one” which I found complimentary (though untrue – my people are just back sixty years in time).

    It is interesting that your style is so mainstream when you are clearly not – is it an attempt to stylistically balance your unconventional life/thinking? Is it to blend in and avoid attention? An interesting question to be sure.

  2. Interesting- to get a historical perspective on this. Your posts always instigate some level of contemplation on the social nature of fashion.
    I think that once you pass the teenager phase the emphasis on ‘fitting in’ disappears (or at least decreases markedly). I sew all my own clothes and one of the reasons for this (apart from not wanting to wear sweatshop, having super high standards for what I consider quality and forever chasing the perfect fit) is not wanting to wear what anyone else is wearing. So even though I use commercial patterns to sew my garments I modify/ add/ subtract/ mutate everything so it’s not recognisably ‘common’ (by any definition of the term). For me, it’s not cool if someone else has it (although that may be an allergic response to belonging to an ethnicity where each person is special – just like the other 1.2 billion) XD.

  3. Nadia – style tribe of one is a compliment indeed!

    For a fashion blogger, I don’t put that much conscious thought into how I dress so it’s interesting to step back and examine why I wear what I wear. When I attend fashion weeks, I do deliberately dress in an inconspicuous way because I don’t care to have my picture taken.

    So… why? I like to place the focus more on my work and my ideas rather than my appearance whenever possible. Paradoxically, I like to set myself apart from the fashion flock in a way… I like being a different type of fashion girl. Perhaps my collectivist appearance is deceptive, because placed in the context of fashion it is in a counter-intuitive way, individualist. Ugh, meta!

    theperfectnose – it’s interesting how much we seem to use our appearances as a silent protest or reaction to something! There really is nothing more individualist than making your own clothing.

  4. I think in an ideal world where clothes really do make you happy, I would want to wear what everybody wants to be wearing but nobody is. I sometimes think about ‘Grease’ how Sandy was wanted because she wasn’t like the other girls but the message seemed to be at the end that becoming like them, all black skin tight leather, meant she had ‘arrived’ and was now normal.

  5. Hmm, I think a lot about that… I guess it depends on my mood. Sometimes I dress myself to stand out and sometimes to fit in. But I kind of prefer standing out.
    That might be my way of dealing with inferiority complex. You know ‘You laugh at me ’cause I’m different, I laugh at you ’cause you’re all the same’ way of thinking.

    Or am I just ‘being me’, whoever that is.

    And also, it depends on where I am. In my village or in the little town nearby I might look outstanding, but in a bigger city or on the internet is a chance that my style seems completly boring.

    Hope you understand what I mean and that my bad english doesn’t bothers you too much.

    Peace and love!

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