How to Tell a Hipster from a Gangster

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“Fashion can say a lot of things,” Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton states in her essay Reading and Writing About Fashion. “It cannot, however, say nothing.”

Whether we like the fact our personal daily fashion choices communicate to the world around us or not, everything from the Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt we pull out of the dryer to the classic little black cocktail dress and matching stilettos we slip into for a night on the town is a text just waiting to be read. Regardless of the time we spend planning our “text” for the day, our clothing is not-so-silently whispering something to each person who comes across our path. The only question, therefore, is will they read the intended message?

It was a chilly morning at the transit station, so Mr. B was sporting his customary black pea coat and matching felt cap; his tan messenger bag thrown over his shoulder, wireframe glasses, and a book in hand added to his overall persona. Due to my own personal familiarity with this textile “text,” I pegged him at once: English nerd (or “hipster,” if you like).

I was not a bit surprised, therefore, as we chatted to discover he was taking Shakespeare and poetry classes that quarter and despised his PE requirement.

To my fellow student commuters, though, Mr. B’s fashion sense communicated something other than English nerd.  They had both just moved to the Seattle area from Indonesia, so they were still learning to “read” American fashion texts.  One of the girls later told me she had been afraid of Mr. B at first because, when she’d tried to read his “text,” he looked “scary” and “tough.” Our other companion, getting clues from his beret-like hat, supposed Mr. B was French. Both girls were surprised to discover he was, as one of them later put it, “a literary person.”

In the same way attempting to read Star Wars would not make much sense if you jumped in as Darth Vader was reciting his famous, breathy lines—“Luke, I am your father.”—decoding someone’s intended fashion message without its proper cultural context can be equally perplexing.  In the proper context, Mr. B’s fashion statement clearly said exactly what he wanted, but to someone unfamiliar with the hipster/English nerd look, it communicated something vastly different, even frightening.

It seems like all kinds of texts have the potential to be misread, and fashion—whether on the runway or at the bus stop—is no exception.  But perhaps the vast array of clothing texts and their unique contexts is part of what makes answering the question, “What should I wear today?” so interesting.

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