Gertrude Stein once said, “affectations can be dangerous.” She said it in reference to a woman whose head was ripped off by a car because her scarf was too long (Isadora Duncan – horrifying story – check it out). Duncan’s scarf was a signature item – something that defined her.
I was having a conversation with a fellow recently who took such pride in the specific type of watch he wore that he said, “it’s a part of who I am.” Such strong verbiage for a $700 timepiece crafted by a stranger in a different country. Who you ARE? It stuck in my craw, if that’s the right phrase.
It’s incredibly common, that strong linkage. People do or don’t wear certain clothes or drive certain cars:
“Oh, I’m not the type of guy who would wear New Balance running shoes.”
“No, if I wore anything but black I wouldn’t feel like myself.”
“Yeah, I only drive station wagons – I mean, can you imagine me in a sexy sportscar? Get out of here! GET OUT OF HERE.”
Someone recommended a pair of boat shoes to me recently. Boat shoes? Those are for people who are on boats and I am not on a boat. Or they’re for 1980’s yuppies. Or golf dads in their spare time. That’s not me.
“That’s not me.” That phrase rang in my head as soon as I said it. Yes! Exactly! Shoes aren’t me! Certain types of cars aren’t me! Clothes aren’t me! I’m me, damn it, and that’s it. They’re just affectations. You’re the same person whether you’re dressing like an 1870’s lumberjack or a 1970’s Detroit punk rocker. Yes, clothes make you feel a certain way, but emotion and identity are different, and if what you’re wearing or choosing to drive defines you in such a way that you wouldn’t deviate from that norm, there’s some soul-searching to be done.
I understand the idea in the context of groups – you see someone dressed like you and automatically assume connection. It’s a cultural identity you derive from what you wear. Goths can be in with other Goths because there is a consistent way to dress and look and hell no, a Goth isn’t going to wear a floral jumper or a pair of boat shoes. They represent something a Goth doesn’t want to be, and the Goth look is a symbol that you all have at least one thing in common, which is essential for group dynamics.
It makes sense … to a point. We all have certain tastes and that’s fine – my tastes trend towards the woodsy type, but if I suddenly decided that I was now going to only neon, skin-tight futuresuits made of nylon and sexual energy, would I be different? So what, now I’m the type of person who wears futuresuits? What does that even mean?
The man with the watch thinks that’s a valid question when it isn’t. We all take pride in the stuff we consume, and that’s great and natural. When we take it a step further and say, “Oh, I’m an Apple guy” or “Oh, I’m the kind of gal who only wears jean cutoffs” it’s something more than pride – it’s definition.
If a Hawaiian shirt can define me, then wow, I am boring and there are millions of people just the same. Millions of people screaming, “That’s me!” like each person’s self is just the sum total of the styles we consume – if we get specific enough, we find identity, right?
“I only buy Apple products, I wear Chuck Taylors, I listen to Tupac, I drive a Ford truck, I wear designer triangle-rimmed glasses and my apartment is filled with rustic, reclaimed copper tubing – am I a person yet?”
We fell for the marketing and we fell hard. That’s all it really is. And if you define yourself by ephemeral items that can vanish in an instant or change on a dime, who are you when Ford closes down or American Apparel comes out as pro-slavery? What do we do if our affectations change on us?
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It’s difficult. Even writing this, I feel like a jackass, because self-expression is important and what I seem to be saying is that people shouldn’t express themselves through what they buy. But I do it every day and so do most of us. I guess it’s just something I’m very conscious of now; walking that line between having something because you enjoy it and having something because it’s you.
The latter has its perils – take away everything that person is allowed to look like and possess and they will sink like a stone into an identity crisis. Will that man with the watch have his head ripped off because of how he narrowly defines himself? I don’t know that answer to that, but probably.
All I know is that affectations can be dangerous when you become your affectations.
Bennett Rea is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles, CA. A survivalist with various primitive skills and a distrust of Snapchat, he’s just trying to be a human in an increasingly technological world. He also works at an art gallery on one of the country’s trendiest retail blocks and constantly battles the urge to flee for a cabin in the mountains filled with books and bourbon.