Every city street is a runway, every pedestrian a supermodel. Even the old woman, bundled up in the same lumpy grey sweater she’s been wearing for years. Even the man in the plain black and white suit, carrying his worn-out department store briefcase. Even the child, who dressed herself that morning in mismatched purples and oranges without regard for appearances. How is it that all of these people are displaying fashion? How is it that people can make fashion-conscious decisions when they don’t mean to, or in the case of the child, don’t even know how? If fashion can be any of these things, if fashion can be a lumpy grey sweater, a department store briefcase and mismatched purples and oranges, then what does that say about clothing as a form of fashion? Fashion is an immersive part of our lives. Every decision we make is somewhat based on aesthetics that affect how the world sees us. In this way, fashion digs much deeper than just its physical embodiment.
Consciously, we make decisions on what to wear and what to buy based on careful thought about how those things will make us appear. However, this doesn’t just apply to clothing. We also make stylistic decisions about the makeup we wear, the accessories we buy, and even the products we use. Patterned or customized laptop covers and water bottles are becoming more and more common, and even the notebooks and planners that people use on a day-to-day basis reflect their own personal style. Cars, furniture, backpacks, and even pets are a form of expressing fashion. Even though these items aren’t clothing, we still employ aesthetic judgement in picking them out. All of our decisions are made as part of a contribution to completing the “look” that we want to showcase to others. Everything we buy contributes to the construction of our ideal persona, that is, the person we wish we were and the person we try to be.
Although we make decisions about purchases or what we showcase to the world consciously, we are also subconsciously building our ideal persona with both our actions and our words. If fashion is taken into account every time we consciously purchase something that will enhance or change how others see us, it is bound to have an effect on our internal, subconscious decision making as well. Fashion is molding what we do on an unconscious level every time we make any decision that will affect our appearance, even when it doesn’t directly change what we or the things we own look like. To some degree, everything that we like or want is based on the conception of how it will contribute to the person we would like ourselves to be. We have reinforced the concept of our “ideal persona” in our heads so much that everything we do works towards achieving that persona, whether we notice it happening or not.
Blanton Smith, an Austin-based photographer, showcases more elements of personality in his fashion photography than he does clothes. “I don’t look at [fashion] in just a clothing aspect,” he said. “As a photographer, I’m more interested in people and their unique looks and how they carry themselves and how they choose to represent themselves. To me that’s way more interesting than some type of clothing.” Many of his photographs showcase fashion without using clothes as a main subject: a blurred-out figure against a clear backdrop, a close up of a girl’s face, bare shoulders just barely in frame. Smith’s photography embodies fashion without leaning on clothing, instead letting the style of the subject shine in other ways.
People represent themselves in a myriad of ways, most of which do not explicitly include clothing. Apparel is a major way in which people express themselves, but there are many other outlets in which people promote their personality. The books we read, the music we listen to, and even the television we watch are in direct correlation with our personal style. For example, a person that views themselves as having a more edgy persona might be more likely to listen to rock music, read J.D. Salinger, and watch “Roadies” on Netflix. They might buy a shaggy mutt instead of a poodle, and spend their weekend nights going to concerts instead of painting sunsets. While none of these qualities individually define a person’s style, together they comprise the image that that person is trying to express. Style is just a form of showing other people who you are, and clothing makes up just one facet of the way you express it.
However, clothing remains the most obvious form of expressing style. Oftentimes, a person’s outfit tells you a lot about them and the way they live their life. And just like clothing goes in and out of trend, certain “personas” go in and out of trend as well. In the ‘90s the waif-like look took precedence, as hordes of teenage girls framed their faces with wispy hairs and meandered around in slinky, spaghetti-strapped dresses. The early 2000s saw the rise of the ‘edgy’ look, and angsty pop culture icons promoted the ripped skinny jeans and dark-rimmed eyes. And with the coming of the 2010s came the march of the infamous hipsters where waistlines got higher as necklines got lower. Blanton Smith said he sees a new trend emerging among the millennials of today, but also says it has to do with a lot more than just clothing. “It is trendy and fashionable to kind of go against the establishment on things, and I think in our generation we’re seeing a lot more of that,” Smith said. Trends come and go, and along with them so do attitudes; one thing that stays the same, however, is that the fashion industry largely dictates which trends come into fashion, and which trends disappear.
Trend setters in pop culture are almost always fashion icons. People like Kim Kardashian-West, Kanye West, Vanessa Hudgens, and Miley Cyrus are so prevalent in the public eye that what they wear creates rules by which members of the fashion industry abide by. But what happens when one of these trendsetters is stripped of the clothing and accessories they use to express their style? How can we tell who they are when they’re not advertising it to us? Noted fashion photographer Mario Testino is in the process of creating a photo series that addresses these questions. The very first photo of the series, taken in is a slightly surprised-looking Kate Moss in a simple white robe, with her hair wrapped up in a white towel. Testino was inspired by this photo to keep taking photos of fashion icons in a raw state: none of the subjects of his photo series are wearing anything but a plain white towel. “I think girls and guys feel this freedom at being able to express themselves because there is no predetermined way of how they should put the towel on. You can do anything you want… wear it however you want,” Testino said in an interview.
Testino primarily uses the trendsetters of the fashion industry for his series such as Gigi Hadid, Justin Bieber, and Imaan Hammam. Each photo in Testino’s towel series somehow expresses the personality and personal style of its subject even though they aren’t wearing an ounce of clothing. In most of the shots, the women seem to be wearing natural makeup. “He did a really good job in photographing these people and their uniqueness,” said Blanton Smith. “That raw environment is different because you’re representing yourself and who you are.” Mario Testino’s towel series is proof that fashion exists without barriers, it is proof that fashion is expressed through all aspects of a person, and it is proof that fashion transcends clothing.
Fashion is as much of an attitude as it is an industry. Fashion and the business of wearing clothing are just means of accomplishing style, a much more difficult task. Fashion and style are not two branches of the same tree, but rather fashion is the branch and style is the roots. Without the existence of style, fashion (the expression of style through clothing) does not exist. It’s easy to see how the two get confused. In order to understand a person’s personal style, we have to look at the ways in which they express it, and that largely falls on clothing.
There’s a depth behind clothing choices that saturates the very being of the person wearing them. Style exists beneath the surface, below the lumpy gray sweater, below the department store briefcase, below the mismatched orange and purple. Style is the physical embodiment of what a person has to say to the world, and fashion is just one of the ways in which they say it. Mario Testino’s towel series has accomplished depicting style in its truest form, showing us that even though beneath the shield of clothing and accessories lies just another ordinary person, those ordinary people are already marvelous in their own ordinary way.