Tag Archives: Identity Construction

Portrait of Antonio Navagero by Giovanni Battista Moroni, 1565 via Wikipedia

The origins of the codpiece are innocent enough. The triangular gusset made of cloth functioned as a connector to the two knitted legs of 15th century men’s hosiery. But as the length of the doublet (fitted jacket) oscillated at various points between the mid-thigh and natural waist, one’s private bits were left susceptible to exposure by the slightest gust or breeze. 

Over the years it evolved into a sculpted and cushioned accessory. By the middle of the 16th century the codpiece was embellished, no longer camouflaging the crotch, but greatly emphasizing it. At its apex in menswear, the item took on a pouch shape where the wearer could utilize it as a purse for tiny objects or perhaps bonbons. 

My introduction to the codpiece wasn’t through paintings of the Defender of the Faith Henry VIII, who is easily the de facto spokesmodel for the accessory. I associate it mostly with Cameo’s Larry Blackmon. In the “Word Up” and “Candy” videos, the lead singer’s bright red leather covering is in essence the sixth member of the band. 

What was originally intended to cloak genitalia evolved into one of the most conspicuous pieces in dress history. Before the codpiece reached its saturation point in the 1570s, it became a pronounced sign of virility. During this period, when a select group of monarchs were conquering far off lands to build their respective empires, the adornment was the most potent sartorial manifestation of machismo. Like Alex and his droogs in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, there is no concept of subtlety when the codpiece is involved. 

Do you feel like you ever want
To try my love and see how well it fits?
Baby can’t you see, when you look at me
I can’t kick this feelin’ when it hits.

I Want Your Love, 1978

In his thoroughly captivating memoir Le Freak, Nile Rodgers goes into detail about how important the role of dress played in the building of the Chic brand. He cites Kiss and Roxy Music as being major influences because they were in essence ‘faceless’ and recognized how vital the band’s image was in creating a mystique. Rodgers and bass man Bernard Edwards didn’t come from money, but everything about the Chic allure suggested affluence and restrained luxury. Rodgers notes in his book that the R+B groups of the 70s wore ‘flamboyant’ costumes, but his band opted for a ‘believable’ image of bespoke business suits and refined ready-to-wear that coincided with their philosophy of aspiration. As trite as it sounds, when I hear a Chic tune I stand taller, fix my collar and the like. One can’t utter ‘Yowsah! Yowsah! Yowsah!’ with poor posture. 

via Google Image

When I moved from Brooklyn to Brickell last fall I wasn’t expecting the culture shock I encountered. While I had been living in New York for 15 years (having moved there to attend uni) I grew up in South Florida—only an hour and change north of Miami. I was used to nondescript button downs from Bealls and Burdines on dads and cargo/capri hybrids on moms. The only place where high-end fashion was given any serious weight was Palm Beach proper, where the money was quite old. As America’s original resort town, Palm Beach was the holiday destination for the DuPonts, Astors, and Vanderbilts. On Worth Avenue alone sits outposts for Hermès, Chanel, Bottega Veneta, plus a Saks and a Neimans.

As a child growing up across the Intracoastal in West Palm Beach I got my fashion fix on Saturday mornings from CNN’s Style With Elsa Klensch or poring over issues of Vogue and Elle I’d purchased by hoarding lunch money change. That was 80s/90s West Palm Beach and I’ve been thrust into the post-noughties Miami. Now the sartorial restraint of Crockett + Tubbs exists only on morning reruns of Miami Vice on Centric. To have a Miami a cohesive Miami look is too difficult in such a transient town with a thriving tourism industry.

Comparisons to New York aren’t fair, but they’re inevitable. In Miami the colors are brighter and the fabric is tighter. Since our physical environment and the elements dictate what we wear, naturally a sub-tropical climate will foster a wardrobe full of more vibrant hues and less material. It can be said that New Yorkers shrouded in swaths of black are subconsciously reacting against the constant stimulation and recessing into the background of a city filled with 8.2 million people densely packed together.

In Miami, with less people walking and more drivers, one thing I noticed instantly was the emphasis on cars as opposed to dress. A BMW or Mercedes is middle of the road; as common as a Camry in other parts of the country. The “nice” cars are almost as plentiful. It’s not rare to step off the sidewalk and almost get run over by a speeding 458 or Diablo.

I don’t take issue with anyone driving a beautiful car. What I can’t wrap my brain around is why it’s ok for one’s car to be better dressed than the driver. In his seminal work The Theory of the Leisure Class economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen introduced the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” or the accumulation of expensive goods for the purpose of suggesting wealth. The most direct way to cultivate an identity is through material culture. With so many people walking around traditional urban centers like New York, dress will be emphasized more so than your 5th floor walkup. In a city where a car is a necessity, one with the capital to afford it will find it easier to pick out the most expensive car on the lot than to take the time to cultivate her own personal style.

In Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety he stresses that “we are anxious about the place we occupy in the world.” Most of us care about the figure we cut, otherwise we would wear the same thing everyday and disregard hygiene. To spend six figures on a vehicle while wearing ill-fitting garments is absolutely criminal. Unfortunately, the driver of that Gran Turismo is too busy cutting off four lanes of traffic to care. 

If we’re to be perfectly frank with ourselves, the Jeffrey Campbell Lita bootie is one of the ugliest shoes in creation. If not the ugliest. It’s a vamped up monstrosity that the Bride of Frankenstein would resist wearing. They’re categorically unflattering, make a peculiar clomping sound, and give the wearer an awkward, unsteady gait. Despite these shortcomings, the boot is easily one of the most adopted styles to come out in the past couple of years. A quick Youtube search produces over 60 videos (most of them in the haul genre) of young women espousing the shoes’ virtues. One video has in excess of 6,500 views.

What concerns me is the fact that I find these modified clodhoppers to be cute and was consider buying them for a minute. What stopped me is the fact that I think they’ve reached their saturation point. They’re too special for so many people to be owning them. But the benefit of increased height and the comfort of (an extreme) interior platform caught my attention for a moment. I’m honest enough with myself to admit that I own several pieces that a majority of the population would find ugly. Even I find them ugly. But like the JC Litas, there’s something appealing enough that draws me back to wearing them over and over again. 

Undoubtedly the shoe’s popularity has been propelled by the personal style blogger. Before this era of the shopper as sensei, the style may have not have gained this level of notoriety, as a great deal of what appears in magazine editorials is driven by advertising dollars. As was the case with the Youtube search, typing “Lita” “blog” and “Jeffrey Campbell” yields results for days. Since the personal style blogger has been elevated to a sort of ombudsman of fashion, they have made it ok to wear this cement block on stilts. 

Earlier this year I presented a paper at the Florida Consortium for Women’s and Gender Studies Conference on how women use dress to modify their bodies and repel potentially propel others, whether intentionally or subconsciously. For me, anything that I find ugly and still insist on wearing is based out of a jolie laide concept. Something so unattractive that it’s alluring. The Lita is so uniquely ugly, I can’t stop looking at it. In Why Women Wear What They Wear, Sophie Woodward writes that the “sensual relationship to items of clothing means that often women are unable to verbalize why it is they love an item of clothing so much.”

Due to the stalwart loyalty towards the Lita, it’s no longer relegated to distressed black or butterscotch-colored leather. There’s a style for every foot of every persuasioncrushed velvet, a splattered Pollack pastiche, and even a style for the patriot. While the Lita may not replace Keds or Tretorns as a closet staple, it’s not a fad that’s going to clomp away quietly. For some Lita laughs, check out Who Stole My Litas. 

via Ebay

In grade six I started attending a private day school. Since navy jumpers were the dress code for the lower school, accessories played a more pronounced role in our restricted wardrobes. For footwear, saddle oxfords were required, but as long as they were black and white, there was a bit of room for interpretation. Most of the girls had shoes from Capezio, Kinney or Buster Brown. I remember one particularly tall and athletic fifth-grader managed to score some Nike versions.

During my first semester my mom and I decided on a pair of the Capezios. There were two options for the black section of the oxford, either plain leather or simulated snake skin. I went with the former, but soon regretted getting the Capezios in the first place. When I started school, I realized that most of the girls bought their shoes from Kinney. They were sharper and cuter. Despite being my size, the Capezio versions looked like I was wearing a pair of yachts on my feet. By the spring semester, I made my way over to Kinney after convincing my mother that the Capezios weren’t working out size-wise.

By this time I was also fully aware of how girls throughout the school placed a special emphasis on bags, shoes, scrunchies, jewelry and colored rubber bands for braces as the sole means of identity construction. Since I’d received some birthday money I decided to use it towards my next accessory purchase: a Liz Claiborne bag with the multiple triangles. Since the brand was a formidable component for the working woman from the 70s through the early 90s, the accessories inevitable trickled down to her daughter.

Fortunately, I had a cousin who worked at the Jordan Marsh in the Palm Beach Mall and he was able to get the bag down to $65 with his discount. The next day I wore my purse so proudly, with its long strap, pink canvas and ecru triangles, my head nearly popped off my neck from an enlarged ego. But I needed to drive home the point further. The bag needed to be distinguished from the others. I’d conspicuously left the hang tags on the bag to showcase its newness. Before I even made it to homeroom, a classmate advised me to remove them because they looked ridiculous.

Although embarrassed, this minor infraction didn’t keep me down for too long. In fact, before class even started I designated myself the counterfeit police. At the time there were several knockoff versions of the ubiquitous bags. Instead of the triangles, the step and repeat pattern was an angled square that looked like a modified diamond. I proceeded to tell my classmates who owned this bag (which was just as popular as the Liz Claiborne version at a quarter of the price) that they were wearing fakes. My BFF Mary dismissively said she didn’t care. I had conveniently forgotten that my official purse for the third grade was a child-size Gucci knockoff littered with the letter “S” as opposed to the letter “G.

In The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel writes that  “often the identities we express with our aesthetic choices are not those we have but those we desire.” In my quest to acclimate, I was gauche (hang tags), rude (sorry Mary!), and hypocritical (Succi anyone?). By the start of grade seven, my pink had succumbed to wear and tear and was looking rather ratchet. I eventually moved on to an Esprit bucket bag the size of John Goodman, then a canvas Esprit tote, then a multi-color pleather backpack, and finally ending my secondary school career with a non-descript black JanSport knapsack that I bought from a street vendor in Washington Heights while visiting family during the summer. In retrospect, I unknowingly purchased a knockoff. Bag karma.

When I was in kindergarten, I had a very specific formula for my school clothes. I’d outgrown Strawberry Shortcake, so pieces that were littered with patterns of either the character or the fruit had to be replaced. I usually wore a plain sweatshirt or button down blouse with Peter Pan collar with a skirt or pair of corduroys and always, always a pair of fake, white Adidas sneakers with four pink stripes. Rainbows, hearts, plaid, velour tops and tube socks were popular styles for kids during the 1983-1984 school year.

Throughout my childhood, back to school shopping consisted of trips to Zayre, Jefferson Ward and on special occasions, the 90 minute drive south to Downtown Miami. There, at the independent mom + pop vendors, my parents purchased clothing that wasn’t sold in West Palm Beach. (My best buy down there was a turquoise t-shirt purchased during the third grade with the silver metallic face of a generic Madonna/Jem hybrid.) But I was most proud of my church clothes. I always wore slick, black patent maryjanes, stockings and a little purse that was just big enough to hold my bible. The aesthetic perfectly countered my weekday wardrobe which was sporty enough to endure monkey bars during recess and sloppy joes during lunch. Over time I grew tired of this and felt the need to inject some femininity into my Monday through Friday look.

I remember begging my mother for weeks to allow me to wear my favorite church stockings with my regular school clothes. They were thick and white with pink hearts sprinkled all over them. She resisted and tried, unsuccessfully, to convince me that it wasn’t a look that worked. I planned on wearing my Miss Piggy t-shirt that I’d received for my 6th birthday. It was a white shirt with her dressed in a too tight tank top, short shorts and roller skates. The American flag was used as a motif somewhere on the design. I intended to pair it with a denim skirt to show off my pretty Sunday School tights and, of course, my default pair of fake Adidas sneakers.

After a long period of my nagging her, my mother relented and permitted me to wear what I believed to be my sartorial magnum opus at the time. When she dropped me off at school I was elated and couldn’t wait to start collecting the compliments. I don’t think I even made it to Mrs. Weeks’ classroom before I got my first ribbing. If the shorthand “WTF?” existed back then, it would best explain the look on my classmates’ faces. Within minutes, I was embarrassed and felt that perhaps my mother had set me up. In Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies,  Yuniya Kawamura stresses that “Image is a picture that one wishes to project to win approval, respect or prestige by appearing stylish, sophisticated or chic, and its functions within an interpersonal network system.” My six-year-old mind wasn’t sophisticated enough to articulate how I felt to that point, but I do remember dreading her saying that she had told me so. 

In retrospect, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have dressed how I wanted to as well as for the ribbing. In Jamaican patois there’s a term called “poppy show”. In essence, it’s a person who looks ridiculous or absurd, like a damn fool. That long day back in 1984 I was a poppy show for juxtaposing my Sunday School stockings with my Miss Piggy on wheels shirt and fake Adidas sneakers. I’m certain I have the occasional poppy show misstep in my adulthood, but I’m far more prepared for the “WTF?” looks.

via InStyle

For most of us, mornings entail getting up, looking at a closet bloated with clothes, deciding that we have nothing to wear and reverting back to piece that we probably utilize too much. We overlook the garment that still has the tags on it, and a year after purchasing it debate whether or not we’ll continue to hold onto it. We then go to work and complain to our friends on Instant Messenger that we need to go shopping for new clothes since we have nothing that’s suitable. Frustrated from what we perceive as a lack of choice in our wardrobes, we head to the store and become overwhelmed with the new and end up bulking up on pieces we’re convinced will revitalize our closets. Or, we peruse the store for longer than we should, feel underwhelmed, and purchase something in order to justify being at the store in the first place.

By it’s very nature, fashion is ephemeral. But when we shop out of boredom, the longevity of the newly bought piece is even further reduced. When we’re negotiating with ourselves at the store regarding whether or not we should purchase something, we convince ourselves that it will change our lives (to put it in the most dramatic terms), or at least add some legs to a self-perceived mind numbingly monotonous closet. As Lars Svendsen writes in Fashion: A Philosophy, “We do not only consume to cater for already existing needs…consumption functions as a kind of entertainment.” Or in the words of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, “Not being bored—ever—is the norm of the consumer’s life.”

With my Style Therapy clientele I stress analyzing existing pieces before shopping in order to make a proper assessment of buying habits, both healthy and counterproductive. Without knowing what we truly own we run the risk of buying more harem pants than we really need to.