Do you have a fashion bias?
In my first opinion piece for China Temper, I ruminate on my own implicit bias towards fashion and mull over how attire is more than just what we wear.
See the China Temper posting with minor edits here.
Original photos provided by Unsplash.
Collages composed by me, Rochelle Beiersdorfer.
Before becoming a contributor to China Temper, I, Rochelle Beiersdorfer, subconsciously held a bias against fashion. I say subconsciously because it’s not like I was openly throwing shade at fashion trends every chance I got. Instead, I was silently intolerant of some looks and styles. For instance, I thought of haute couture as purely superficial, frivolous and vain; a pompous means for people to impress others by showing off their high socioeconomic status—or the socioeconomic tier they want to be a part of—through luxury labels and brands. There are people out there who totally utilize high fashion for this purpose, but it’s not the whole kit and caboodle. In fact, it’s probably the most insignificant reason behind why we wear what we wear.
My eyes were first opened to my own and others’ intolerance toward fashion while prepping to write my initial contribution to China Temper. This piece was on heavy metal music, fashion and individualism in China, and the musicians I interviewed were some of Beijing’s most diehard heavy metal maniacs. When talking about music and individualism, their answers were long and in-depth, providing a lot of content to write a solid piece. But when we got to questions pertaining to fashion and their own senses of style, most of their responses were the same disparaging reply: It’s bullshit.
Besides being aggravating, their dismissiveness really got me thinking: Is fashion really bullshit? We all wear clothes pretty much all the time, so why do we condone it and demean it?
To answer these and other questions, I talked to family and friends, composed a survey and went down a very long digital rabbit hole. Like anyone trying to figure something out in the 21st century, my search began on the World Wide Web by looking up how the term fashion is defined.
From describing how something is constructed to the way that something is portrayed, the results I got back were a little overwhelming and made it clear that fashion is a quintessential word in our vocabulary. I mean, you can write a grammatically correct simple sentence with just the term (Fashion fashioned fashion).
This abundance is similar in Mandarin Chinese. But, instead of having a one-size-fits-all term, Mandarin Chinese possesses a vast number of different terms, syntax-wise, to express the same things that the multifunctional English word does. Of these terms in Mandarin Chinese, the most relevant to what we’re speaking about here are 时尚 (shíshàng | fashion, vogue), 时髦 (shímáo | fashion, fad, trend) and 时装 (shízhuāng | fashion, clothes) with the latter being the best equivalent to what we mean when talking about fashion as a noun aka your wardrobe. But…what exactly is the crux of fashion?
Fashion, as defined by Oxford Languages, is “a popular trend, especially in styles of dress and ornament or manners of behavior.” From this definition, fashion, as in clothing, is a medium for expression. At least that’s how I’m understanding it. To put it in my own words: Fashion is a way to outwardly exhibit how you’re internally feeling.
When you really think about this it makes perfect sense and is something that China Temper’s own editor-in-chief and fashion aficionado Elsbeth van Paridon stresses repeatedly. “As superficial or trivial you may find fashion, what you decide to put on in the morning is a conversation you are having with the world,” Elsbeth states in an interview with China Plus, “if I walk out in a t-shirt and overalls it’s basically me saying: ‘Just leave me be. Not in the best mood ever.”
Elsbeth isn’t the only one who deems what you wear as a manifestation of your voice in fabric form. According to 11 of the 13 individuals who participated in an online survey (thank you all 13!), fashion is a vessel for self-expression. Two participants even associated the term fashion with the term self-expression when asked to list other words that come to mind when thinking about fashion.
At this point, you’re probably scratching your head and saying “13 participants isn’t enough to draw any type of real conclusion, Rochelle!”
I totally agree. 13 total participants definitely is not enough to draw any type of concrete conclusion, but it’s still something. Let me remind you that I created this online survey to see if the average person also held subliminal preconceptions of fashion or if I’m alone in my prejudice. According to the results of the survey, apparently I’m almost alone because 69% of participants (that’s 9 participants) denied having a bias when explicitly asked do you have a bias against fashion. Of the 69%, the majority of them were probably my mother and her closest friends –total fashionistas in their own rights—and other writers on the Temper team. So much for conducting an impartial survey. This was objective journalism of the highest standards!
Sarcasm aside, this survey did show, to some extent, that we all have opinions on fashion, be them positive or negative. Anything that we all have such black-and-white opinions on must matter. Right? If that is the case, then what you wear does truly matter. If A, then B. The father of symbolic logic George Boole is probably rolling in his grave right about now.
Speaking of philosophy…
In a quirky and insightful video by The School of Thought, a scholastic organization that teaches about how to be a well-rounded individual, fashion is explained as the way you portray yourself to the world; a medium to add complexity and flair to what others can easily perceive at first glance. So, you know, self-expression! Another way to look at this explanation of what clothing articulates is that what you decide to put on in the morning is a sort of visual aid to help others discover who you really are beyond any biological traits and vocal characteristics. It doesn’t just state your current mood, as Elsbeth acknowledges, but also your ever-changing disposition as an individual with ideas, sentiments and passions, like what those 11 survey-takers recognized.
To illustrate, image you’re on a subway in Beijing and instead of joining the 低头族 (dītóu zú｜smartphone zombies) you partake in some people watching. You see a group of 阿姨 (āyí | auntie, form of address for any woman around your mother’s age) in sundresses, 旗袍 (qípáo | cheongsam ) and tennis shoes. Little girls dressed to the nines in princess costumes. Twenty-somethings decked out in short shorts and high heel sneakers. Men in khakis and button-downs. Young professionals in dark-colored business suits. A pack of大叔 (dàshū ｜Uncle, an informal way to address men older than you but younger than your father) wearing Linkin Park t-shirts, dress pants, several gold chains and formal shoes. College kids dressed in 汉服 (hànfú) and others sporting animal print bottoms, bucket hats and baggy t-shirts that pay homage to streetwear labels like Supreme. You get the point. The train car is a copious patchwork of styles. But, what do these clothing combos say about their wearers? A lot.
The aunties in dresses and tennis shoes are easy. The tennis shoes imply function, comfort, and someone who values these traits more than being the center of attention for their flashy kicks. But what does this say about the 阿姨s’ moods? Nothing, until you interpret the colors and fabric designs of their clothes. Let’s say one of the dresses is rich indigo with a vibrant yellow and pink floral pattern. This could say that the auntie is cheerful and optimistic about what will blossom from the day and that she’s an outgoing, gentle individual. Or, from a skeptical perspective that subscribes to the saying “nothing is as it appears,” she could also be an absolute testy old lady just putting on a deceptive happy veneer, or is only wearing this dress because it was the first thing in her closet that day. Regardless of why she’s wearing the floral frock, her wearing it shows intention.
Through all my deep pondering on fashion and its significance, intent is the root cause that all my inquiries boil down to. Why do we wearing what we wear? Is it to express ourselves as individuals or to proclaim to the world how we are feeling? It’s either one or both reasons and, regardless of why we wear what we wear, it’s all fueled by intention. Wearing the same clothes for a second day or spending the time to meticulously decide your day’s attire are both rooted in intention. Deciding to wear overalls and a t-shirt to tell people to keep their distance is, you guessed it, rooted in intention.
Upon realizing this everything clicked. Mystery solved. Fashion is not bullshit, like those capital leather rebels rebuked. Haute couture is not superficial, vain and pompous in itself, like I subconsciously assumed. Instead, fashion is important and a very multifaceted subject. We haven’t even talked about how it’s used to display social group inclusion and exclusion or how it can be a soft power. We’ve only discussed the tip of the iceberg.
What’s the takeaway from my banter?That fashion is an essential intention-driven part of our daily lives and can be a medium for not just self-expression but also a canvas to express your current mood. So, the next time you’re deciding what to wear, think about what statement you want to make to the world.