Clothing and Meaning

I’m not a very good dresser. I think I have some fashion identity, meaning that my friends could probably guess wether or not I would wear a certain item. But I can’t say that I typically look good. Sometimes I even look flat out ridiculous.

This is mostly because dressing well takes some effort. I appreciate when other people take time to build a wardrobe, but it takes more effort then it’s worth for me. The result is that every once in while I pick up a couple stylish pieces of clothing, but I never match them with anything that makes sense. Most days I put no thought into clothing at all. Sometimes I don’t even know how I ended up not being naked.

With all that in mind, I do have a few pieces of clothing that I care about.

  1. A pink shirt with a golden anatomically correct heart painted on it

  2. A belt with skulls and crossbones going around it. (Paul Frank)

  3. A bright orange hoodie

Not one of these items is particularly good looking, although the pink shirt is probably the closest. But I like all of these items a lot.

  • Why?

Well, I think it takes some explanation of the Classical and Romantic Approaches. These are discussed heavily in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, and I’m mostly just telling it how it’s told there.

The Classical approach is concerned with what a thing means more so then what it is. It contains the study of classifying things by their underlying structure. Because of this, it’s possible to trace this approach back to Plato and his system of categorizing things. The Classical approach extends forward to the Scientific Method.

The Romantic Approach is concerned primarily with what a thing is, not what it means.

I think a good example is a radiator in a steam heated house. If you ask a Classically minded person, “What is a radiator?”, they will tell you that it’s a device that holds something of high temperature and provides a surface area to exterior air. The surface area is maximized so that the inside substance gets colder, and the outside air gets warmer as quickly as possible.

If you ask a Romantically minded person, “What is a radiator?”, they will tell you that it’s a large steel object in the corner of a room that has a textured surface, lots of coils, a very heavy feel to it, and a knob on the top that makes it get hotter or cooler.

You can see how both views are important. And again, I’m mostly paraphrasing Persig here. Both ways of seeing things are completely valid. In practice, we are never being completely one way or the other. Most times we are using a blend of the two approaches, but I think it is quite true that some people tend toward one side or the other.

For me, with clothing, I’m Classical. I like the pink shirt with the heart on it because someone important to me hand painted that heart on it. That shirt means something different then other shirts do to me. I don’t like that shirt because it’s pink, fits well, looks cool, or is comfortable (although it is all those things). I like it because of what it means.

I stole the skull belt from another person who is important to me about 10 years ago. I’m certainly more drawn towards what it means then how it looks. Again though, nothing is pure, I also like how it looks.

I bought the bright orange hoodie because orange signifies Wisdom in the Buddhist belief system. After wearing it for some time though, I decided that bright colors in general mean something. To the dismay of my friends, this has lead to more neon hoodies :)

I like Hand Me Downs. I like the meaning that comes along with wearing something that came from someone you care about. It doesn’t matter how much I like a shirt that I see in a store, it’s never going to be as cool to me as any of the items I mentioned. This is a classical way to see it.

The classical way of approaching clothing also can lead to stuff like not caring that something is ripped, because it still performs it’s task. Which I also do.

If you’re trying to look your best, thinking of clothing this way is not a good idea. But it can lead to having a good story to tell from time to time, and all I’m really trying to do in life is have interesting stories to tell in a bar.