About a week ago I visited the Georgia O’Keefe retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum: Living Modern. The exhibit not only centered around her well-known paintings and photographs, but also around her self-made clothing, and how her choice in dress was part and parcel to her conscious artistic identity. Her clothes were black and white, androgynous and practical, refined and subtle. Céline-like.
Parallel to that, I’ve traversed the Jewish Orthodox neighborhood in South Williamsburg several times in the past month. You know the neighborhood’s invisible borders are breached once everyone is suddenly dressed the same. There is a single group identity immediately transmitted by a communal way of dress. In this neighborhood, there is no risk of a Stranger in Our Midst; here, there are Strangers Dressed in Jeans.
Then, at dinner with a friend, a mutual acquaintance came up who’d become a serious body builder. My friend showed me images of a transformed person, whose life revolved around and was surrounded by heavy weight lifting. The dress, colors, angles of our acquaintance’s identity had been wholly transformed; too me, he was unrecognizable.
While it may be said that all neighborhoods in all corners of the globe have a particular coda, New York is a city where way of dress almost determines what area a person will seek to inhabit: Upper East Side, North Williamsburg, SoHo, etc. Here, as is the case with Georgia, the body builder, Orthodox Jews, there is an intentionally visible commitment to dressing in a way that reflects who you are.
I feel no such commitment. I like a dress that makes me feel like myself as much as a dress that makes me feel unlike myself. Stuff is exciting when it is new. That is all.
Does this mean I am identity-free? Does identity exist without any conscious external markers? I fear it cannot.
The uniform, be it imposed or adopted, is eerie because there remains a knowing that beneath the cloaks or the wife beaters, lie the several selves. The comfort of the uniform denotes a sacrifice, a negotiation: buy to belong.
But, those who dare commit to the Self dress it forth as a demonstration of will.