On dress and self-presentation

I had an interesting and lengthy conversation with Erik last night on the topic of dress, and more generally, self-presentation. This discussion got us through traffic in San Francisco’s Financial District, across the Bay Bridge, down through Oakland, all the way to San Jose and finally into my room and even bed.

It started when Erik mentioned that Mark Zuckerberg has been known to wear hoodies to investor meetings. I don’t need to get into it here, but this first part of the conversation touched on entitlement, creative rebellion, sexism, Silicon Valley corporate culture, and a whole slew of other topics, and if I remember right, it wound down around Broadway in Oakland.

By that time I’d gotten to talking about my feelings on self-presentation in general. On the superficial level, dress is about impressing people, about sending a message, and about competing with others. It is the human version of bird plumage, and like plumage, a lot of it is about sex and power. I think many people who dismiss fashion do so because they think that it begins and ends with that — and certainly, for some people, it does, but there’s more to it.

When I refer to dress, fashion, style, or appearance, what I really mean is self-presentation: a broader category that includes fashion and personal style but also grooming, posture, and comportment (a word you don’t see much anymore, but which refers to a combination of behavior and bearing). As an artist, my self-presentation is an extension of my creativity. As a woman, it is something I feel compelled to look after, because society tells me I must (and has socialized me to care). But were I not an artist, were I not female, I would still valueย self-presentation, and not just on the superficial level of wanting to look nice (or nicer than others).

The way I present myself is a gesture of respect. Like the wrapping of a gift (or the laying of a table), it has to do with thoughtfulness, with care. My self-presentation comes from my respect for myself, respect for others, respect for the occasion/environment, and — most nebulous and difficult to explain — respect for the integrity of the whole.

I wouldn’t say we should judge people by how they look, but neither do I believe it’s possible to avoid doing so. Our self-presentation speaks for us, regardless of whether we want it to — just as all of our actions speak for us, whether subtly or with the force of a whale breaching. Not everyone values openness the way I do, but because I do: when you read my writing, I want you to know who I am. When you see my drawings and paintings, you know who I am. And it’s the same with the way I dress, the way I move, my hair, my skin, the look on my face: this is who I am.*

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*Arguably, my writing, my artwork, and my appearance are not really who I am but who I want to be. That’s another thing about self-presentation: it’s aspirational. Is this a reason to condemn it? Should we not all exist in a state of nature? But then again, that is also who I am: someone who aspires, who creates, who experiments and plays, sometimes with success, sometimes without.

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