The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts October 14, 2005
O Style
>>Finding function in formlessness

by Emily AscoleseI originally wanted to use this week’s O Style to explore the personal style of that ever-marginalized group, Oberlin athletes, but, as I sat down to brainstorm, I found myself confronted with a much larger problem: Why do people dress the way they do?

In order to fully explore the logic and benefits behind full-time sports- and spirit-wear, one must first be able to grasp the different fashion functions operating beneath all of the fashion forms our wardrobes take. So, forgive me for my brief, if necessary, digression from the fashion phenomenon at hand.

So, why do we dress the way we do? The stock answer, “to express ourselves,” seems a bit inadequate. I’ll agree that clothing choice is, to some extent, dictated by our personal tastes, attitudes, body type, geography, influences and socio-economic status, but the idea that a piece of fabric that is uniquely representative of an individual’s personality and complex inner life can be bought at Midway mall, the bead-store basement or even Prada hardly seems likely.

Which leads me to the next likely possibility: We dress the way we do in order to look good — to feel attractive to ourselves and to attract other people. The problem with this theory is that not all of our brains respond to the same definition of what constitutes attractiveness.

A classic illustration: A girl may temporarily lose brain activity upon finding the perfect black-pleather pump, while the last thing her date is interested in checking out may be her feet, no matter how dressed up they are.

It is clear to me that the decision-making process behind athletic-wear as everyday apparel cannot be found in either of these first two categories. While your rugby shirt may “express who you are” as a rugby player, most athletes would argue that there is far more to their identity than the sport they play — in fact, it is an argument often put forward by “jocks” weary of being stereotyped.

So, wearing one’s sport on one’s sleeve is clearly not a call to be perceived as a jock. It’s also not, in my estimation, a call for pick-up lines. For while a well-sculpted body in motion is often a beautiful sight, baggy shorts, lose-fitting shirts, oversized sweats and bright, clashing colors (such as maroon and gold) are not flattering for any physique, no matter how “cut” it may be.

But while sports clothing may not, by itself, attract the object of one’s sexual desire, it may serve a greater attractive purpose: attracting the type of people one desires to be friends with.

This brings me to the dual nature of fashion’s social function. On the one hand, the way one chooses to dress gives others cues about what kind of person one is — for example, whether one wears Birkenstocks or Kenneth Coles might lead others to make conclusions about one’s political attitudes and work ethic.

Based on this information, people can ascertain how much they have in common with one another and whether they’d then like to associate. In this case, jock-wear alerts other physically active individuals that in you, they might find a person with whom they’d be able to discuss their favorite team or player, or find a potential running-buddy.

The other half of fashion’s social function has more to do with social conceptions of individual and group identities. While matching blue polo shirts may make it easier for customers to locate retail employees, they also serve to create a sense of unity among the employees and loyalty to the company.

The same can be said for company dress codes, Catholic school uniforms, police uniforms, nuns’ habits and basically uniforms and spirit-wear of every sort. The individual is physically forced to remind him/herself that at the moment, he or she is not Ally McBeal first, but a lawyer, not Fraulein Maria first, but a nun in training, not Matt Kaplan, but an Oberlin student. The athletically-clad student may be trying to signal that his or her group identity is just as important to his or her self-conception as any other aspect of his/her life.

Perhaps the most basic function of what we chose to wear is the most utilitarian — the physical purposes of clothing: to shield ourselves from the elements and shield others from our birthday suits. By these standards, sports apparel may be the most functional of all clothing. allowing for maximum comfort, breathability and freedom of movement.

The choice to clothe oneself in sportswear on an everyday basis may signal a triumph of function over fashion, comfort over vanity and social attraction over sexual attraction.

Those clad in Adidas and mesh are more concerned with alerting others to their function as a team player through the numbers on their sweatshirts than luring potential playmates with muscle-hugging sweaters, and more concerned with themselves than others — their own physical pleasure trumping others’ delight in their visual appeal.

In this way, the everyday athletic dresser may be the least self-conscious creature on campus, and should be commended as such.


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