So the saying goes. It’s a pun, a play on the word ‘ahead’ – meaning to gain an advantage, and ‘a head’ – the thing on which you place your hat. Thus if your aim it be at the vanguard of things then you need appropriate headwear. It doesn’t actually specify too many details on the hat itself but surely this is important? There are some hats – Beanie, Bobble, Balaclava (?) – that, I would contend, will not raise your profile appreciably above that of your contemporaries. The Top, the Bowler or the Boater, on the other hand, will ensure you stand out in any crowd – hence their widespread use among the more posh and well-heeled in society. I am unsure whether the association came about as a result of their being worn or the reason for it.
All the clothes we wear, not just the hats, are a means of expressing something about who we are. This is as true for the Teddy Boy in his brightly coloured drape suit and brothel creepers as it is for the ordinary looking bloke in his jeans and trainers. There will be times when they are one in the same person. Sometimes we want to stand out and sometimes we don’t.
Generally speaking we each have what we would consider to be our ‘look’. This doesn’t mean we wear the exact same clothes every day of the week. There are people like Steve Jobs, the former head of Apple, or Mark Zuckerberg the man behind the Facebook, who famously would only ever wear the same combination of trousers and top every single day. Clearly, these two, how shall we put it, had their minds on other things, let’s say, and didn’t want to have make any more decisions than they already had to (geeks eh?). Assuming you are not the beating heart of a trillion dollar tech corporation, you probably like certain styles and, moreover, think that some clothes suit you more than others and that you have a skin tone that works with one colour better than another.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
But what about that time when you indulged yourself and said yes to that pair of yellow dungarees? Those red shoes that you just couldn’t resist? And, of course, who could forget the fedora?… How did you feel when you put them on? You felt like a million dollars, you would turn heads, you would stand out from the crowd, people would notice you…
What were you thinking?
PEOPLE WOULD NOTICE YOU!!!
And they would think things about you. They would judge you and condemn you. “Mutton dressed as lamb”, they’d be thinking, “what do they think they look like in that?”, “you can’t wear that at your age”. All eyes on you, all looking down their noses. The shame, the guilt, almost overwhelming but then…
But then, someone smiles and says “you look nice” and “I love those shoes, I could never get away with them, I am so jealous”. Just one person out of a crowd of how many? Yet it is enough to make you feel good about yourself again. The palpitations subside, your heart returns to its regular beat, the sweat dries on your hands and your mouth no longer tastes of sawdust.
You have just run the complete gamut of emotion because you wore something you wouldn’t normally wear. You didn’t dress the way you always dress. It was such a small change but it felt like such a big deal. Because it was. It was a new expression of you, a small step to becoming someone you forgot you once were perhaps? A giant leap into the unknown of who you might be. A chance of an ever so slightly different future.
The symbolic strength of what we wear is so often ignored or taken for granted. If we are in any doubt as to its importance we need only look back to our childhood. I doubt there are many people reading this that didn’t indulge in some dressing up when they were young. The thrill of putting on unusual or oversized or just plain someone-else’s clothes was a magical experience. We could transform ourselves and be transported into another world of endless possibilities, where it felt quite literally like anything could happen. (Sounds a bit like the paragraph above doesn’t it?). I would like to suggest that we never lose that sensation, it just gets buried. It begins with school when we are forced into uniform. It’s fun at first, of course, it’s just another dressing up game but then we realise that everyone is in this game and it’s not even a game. Slowly, the realisation dawns that we are going to be dressed in the same clothes as everyone else around us for what feels like the rest of our lives. Many rebel when they get into their teens, they will ‘forget’ or ‘lose’ an item of uniform and replace it with something they think says something about them. With me it was the substitution of my blazer for my Wrangler denim jacket. It was easy to slip this transgression past my parents as we didn’t see much of each other first thing in the morning and most of the teachers didn’t seem that bothered. I may have to fend off one or two enquiries but on the whole I got away with it and I felt like I had one over on the whole establishment. I looked cool and I was winning. Other kids did the same with footwear and even those that stayed within the letter of the law indulged in their own acts of rebellion by making their own minor modifications to the size of their tie knot or length of their skirt.
Once we leave school and we’re supposedly free to dress how we liked we find that there were just as many rules regarding the clothes you are allowed to wear, they just aren’t written down anywhere and breaking them shouldn’t mean get you a detention. The punishment for not dressing in the correct way in adulthood ranges from the mild amusement of your friends or colleagues through to social exclusion and isolation. And there will be constant subtle changes to contend with, from the shape of your shoes through the width of your jeans, from the size of your lapels to the shape of your collar, you will be constantly trying to stay the right side of the latest trends and fashions.
It’s not just the judgement of others that you need to worry about. Worse than this is that inner voice that is trying to convince you that it’s better to toe the line, it’s easier to go along with all of this, anything for a quiet life eh?
I am not here to tell anyone how to dress. We all wear what we do and we all have reasons why we do so in one particular way or another. This book, though, is about expressing who you are. It is about the creation of you and in part 2 I try to convey ideas that I have on the ways in which we can accomplish this. This subject, what we wear, cuts across a number of other topics I cover in other essays.
Although I like to consider myself anti-capitalist, any cursory investigation into my activities might expose this as something of a myth. One area where I am perhaps strong in this otherwise delusional stance is in my antipathy towards fashion. Mainstream clothing fashion is so clearly a major weapon of the capitalist armoury. There cannot be many stronger consumption delivery mechanisms than the seasonally repeating cycle of wardrobe replenishment, annually adjusted sufficiently enough to ensure costly and continual adherence. Stepping off this treadmill and developing your own style through thriftily acquired second hand items of good quality clothes works on many levels:
- Allows you to express yourself and cultivate your own style
- Permits you to try something different from time to time
- Releases you from the usual clothing binds – familial role, age, job
But we must be careful and considerate – others are also engaged in this activity. We must, therefore, be generous and kind in our appreciation of the people we meet. We each bring the experiences of our lives to these encounters, experiences we can never fully know or appreciate, many of which will undoubtedly have been unpleasant or painful. So make your next new encounter a good one. Smile and say something nice about how they look regardless of what they are wearing. You may or may not make a new friend but you will almost certainly make someones day a little bit easier to endure.