What motivates your middle-aged dad to wear button-downs and khakis while that guy on the L train opts for a leopard-print cape, a turquoise dashiki, and a glittery baseball cap? And why did your dad start dressing like such a square after his years in college wearing burlap sacks, Birkenstocks, and hippie hair?
Questions of why we dress the way we do and how these choices relate to culture, identity, and body image have occupied anthropologists and fashion designers for centuries. “Dress + Emotion,” a new research project and photo series by Fiona Dieffenbacher, BFA director at Parsons the New School for Design, explores such questions through a series of surveys and a photo study of eight style “outliers” in New York City. The outliers are those creatures whose outfits you might surreptitiously try to snap photos of on the subway: face-painted, bejeweled, spiked, and fabulous.
Whereas most street style photo series are simply concerned with the “what,” Dieffenbacher is concerned with the “why.” “How do we see ourselves? What comes first? The body, the image we seek to create or does one create the other? Are we dressing a body image that is real or imagined? Do we see dress as a uniform, persona, provocation or protection?”
“The project grew out of a very personal analysis of how my own dress codes have changed over the years,” Dieffenbacher, who studied fashion at Parsons as an undergrad, says. “Why have I made different choices in my own dress at different phases of life?” She used to be an outlier herself, she says, but her style has calmed down. “Thinking about these questions led to developing a research project around that.”
As part of the project, she documented the creative ensembles of eight outliers and conducted interviews with them about how they dressed as a child, where their personal style came from, who they’re dressing for and why.
Among the chosen ones were Dusty Childers, he of the leopard cape and dashiki, who’s recently had to tone down his look after beginning a new job teaching special ed. Dieffenbacher first encountered him on the street. “Everything he’s creating is in-your-face, full color and pattern, with cross gender dressing, totally accessorized to death, with customized baseball caps,” Dieffenbacher says. “He’s definitely out to provoke.” But there’s also an element of his personal style that’s ultimately for him, a mode of creative expression. As Childers told Deiffenbacher:
The unfortunate truth is that they kill flamers where I come from. It wasn’t until after moving to NYC that I finally took ownership of my look. Keeping my sanity was the biggest driving factor in creating this dress code. I was going mentally numb by holding back. Being in a killer look, I feel equal to anyone I come in contact with. My whole ensemble could cost four dollars but I wear it like casual couture, and for me that’s where my power lies.
One of the better-known subjects is Mickey Boardman, of Paper magazine, who’s all about sequins, bold necklaces, patterns, and fantastic huge glasses. Then there’s David, whose mohawk, spiked bracelets, and New York Hardcore shirt insist that punk’s not dead. He incorporates sports references into his dress, such as varsity jerseys, because of a “complicated relationship with his father,” who worked in sports, Dieffenbacher says.
One of the greatest insights the project has yielded into the relationship between dress and emotion: “Style is not a defense mechanism,” Dieffenbacher says. “The [subjects are] celebrating something. They really love putting together these looks. They’re ultimately using fashion to create their own worlds.” Perhaps the modest dressers among us do the same–we just create more toned-down worlds.