Friday, May 6, 2011

Frugality, Fashion and Cultural Norms

Whenever Eug has a client asking him to design a poster or brochure or logo with people in it, he has to ask them to step back: what do the people look like? Are they one race? Diverse? What are they wearing? Business casual? preppy casual? hippy-looking? homeless-looking? Because these things matter. They matter A LOT to how included we feel in society, and how we relate to a message and to eachother.

I write this a few days before I leave on my first trip to Korea (you're reading it while we're away), because I've been thinking about clothes a lot in preparation for this trip. In Korea, dressing beautifully, wearing makeup and being generally well-groomed, is a demonstration of respect and {where applicable} love to those around you. The flip side is that not meeting that standard may be deemed a sign of disrespect, or of a bunch of other problems.

I really didn't want to buy a ton of new clothes for one trip, but I wanted to show respect and appreciation for the family I'm meeting for the first time. Which was stressful because I felt like I was failing before I even started. I had entire conversations in my head where I tried to figure out how to measure up while not being crazy extravagant. I even bought a dress from the thrift store and only just thought through the fact that it's impossible for Noah to partake in breastmilk when I'm wearing a dress. I had momentarily forgotten that I haven't worn a dress in over a year.

Then I thought about people like Shane Claiborne, who manages to be totally loving and charming without buying a ton of clothes, and I discovered Kristy's One Dress Protest, which expresses some of this notion of how our clothing defines us.  These are extremes, but I'm surrounded by examples of people weighing consumption carefully.

As I think a little more about the stress and uncertainty of "fitting in" across language and culture, it's a cliche but the key starting point is actually feeling blessed by the people around me. Figuring out how to express that the best way I know how, has to come from that place, and not from a place of trying to measure up. As I try to navigate being "counter-cultural" in a society of consumers (U.S. and South African too, not just Korean), it seems that I have to first be really comfortable with myself and with disapproval. This is not to say that I don't try to dress well, but that if I don't quite pull it off, that's ok, provided I'm trying to understand more than to be understood.


leah said...

This is a really thoughtful post, Jo. I think that men, especially extroverted energetic men like Shane, find it easier than women to glide through life with a non conforming appearance, maybe because they're not as trained to pick up on the subtle cues about fitting in. Speaking of our friend Shane, I know that he has or has in the past worn his hair in dreadlocks, which is a rather deliberate sign of "I choose not to fit in for spiritual reasons."(I've many times considered dreading my hair because I love the idea of what it stands for, but I'm too vain and I just hate how ratty it looks on top.) I think at some point we all reach our giving up point in regards to fitting in, and after that it's on others to refrain from judgement. I know I personally have a problem with thinking no one's dressed appropriately at weddings, but that's my own sin of ungodly judgement.

Concrete Gardener said...

I think for men the line between conforming and non-conforming is a lot easier, because sometimes you look kindof the same...

After our trip, I'm less concerned about fitting in and more concerned about what it means to deliberately not fit in-- when that can be misinterpreted as just being rebellious without any real goal, or as just being lazy or uncaring.

Beth said...

this is a big issue for me on a larger scale, too: how do you show someone you love them in a way that is authentic and meaningful for you, when you know that they have a different way of expressing/receiving love?

my initial reaction was to try and "speak their language," but it seems that it is inauthentic on my part, and in the end they don't have a clear picture of how i express/receive love when i do this. i think it's ok to let others see that you have a different way of doing things, but it is also scary-- definitely the fear of disapproval, misunderstanding, CONFLICT.

sooo hard

Concrete Gardener said...

Hi Beth-- I agree, this is difficult stuff-- because even how one thinks of conflict (as positive, generative, building, or none of these things) is deeply rooted in our identity.

What you're saying reminds me of the Five Love Languages, which was very helpful in understanding people, but has ultimately been really hard to put into practice.