The One and the Many: Love and Desire in Dress

As a relatively new New Yorker, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things we do to get noticed. It goes without saying that the clothes we wear are one of the most immediate ways we can grab the spotlight or stand out in a crowd. But why do we want to be noticed in that way? What is at about the basic human need for acknowledgment that so influences the way we dress?

Beneath the simple longing for acknowledgment are two much more profound needs — the need to feel desired and the need to feel loved. And as I’ve lately been questioning my own style of dressing and my social context, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which our particular modes of dress indicate either a longing to be desired or a longing to be loved. (And I don’t believe the two are the same thing.) In fact, I would argue that love and desire are two separate inclinations which express themselves most visibly as two distinct modes of dress.

A woman who seeks to be desired wants to entice or seduce, under a variety of masks. While a woman who longs to be loved wants to be known as one – as a complete and uniquely particular individual — whole, not divided.

Walt Whitman famously reminds us that we all contain multitudes, but what do the multiple selves we take for granted in contemporary society have to do with dress? An acquaintance recently told me he thinks a woman changes clothes so often in order to trick a man into thinking she is more than one woman. I’ve been mulling over that idea for a while and it seems pretty valid.

Men, in their most basic biological state, are able to mate with multiple women with no negative consequences. In fact, some have argued that is in their best interest to sow as much seed as possible. Yet, perhaps it’s at a higher level of consciousness (or enlightenment) that they are able to choose just one female with whom to invest in the act and process of procreation. But is a woman’s extensive and ever-changing wardrobe simply a biological trick, a ruse to appear as many women rather than one?

There are those women who clearly embrace this mentality – whether conscious of the effects of not. They constantly fluctuate in their appearance, seeming to have sartorial schizophrenia – never settling on a certain look or style. Are they merely confused, not knowing themselves, or are they attempting, in some fashionable way, to embody “everywoman”?

But then, with my recent interest in questions concerning sustainability, I’ve also become much more aware of those woman for whom style is subtle and constant. They have a look that may be particular, but it doesn’t frequently change. And the masquerade quality of clothing doesn’t hide who they are. For the sake of this argument, I’m inclined to think that these women are seeking a deeper kind of connection with the other – not one built on a guise or constant change – but rather on consistency and longevity – perhaps ultimately leading to love.

I’ve read a lot about the kind of fractured time that comprises life in post-modernity — pointillistic moments that appear disconnected to everything else — experience that is shaped purely by momentary needs and urges. Against this kind of temporal backdrop, it makes sense to see each day or each occasion as separate from the one that follows. As a result we begin playing into the consumerist and desire-driven masks we are compelled to wear. But I hope that the concept of narrative is not so lost that the possibility of a unified self, who still gets noticed, still exists.

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  • Liz of Scholar Style Guide May 27, 2010 11.22 am

    I’m interested in your distinction here, but in general, I wonder how you might work into your analysis motivations for dressing to draw attention besides the one you’ve identified (dressing to attract men).

    Plenty of women, especially those interested in fashion, it seems, adorn themselves in ways that have nothing to do with what men find attractive and have everything to do with what other women will find fashionable or attractive. For example, I don’t know any men who think gladiator sandals look attractive on a woman’s feet (though I’m sure some exist), but almost all my female friends own at least one pair because we think it’s a cool trend.

    How might you account for these desires for other kinds of attention in your analysis? While I think you’ve proposed two legitimate reasons that women dress in order to stand out, I don’t think those are the *only* two reasons, so that seems problematic to me as you try to extrapolate your analysis outward to address these larger questions.

  • Elaine May 27, 2010 11.57 am

    In the movie Reds, there’s an interesting quote about how women who have been in life-threatening or traumatic situations often become very focused on dress, very careful dressers who love luxurious garments. I’ve always been intrigued by this and wonder what the dynamic is — whether these women are subconsciously dressing for protection, visibility, pure sensuality, or something else in response to threat. Like Liz, I think what you’ve written is a fascinating beginning but there’s more to be said.


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