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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Licentiate Column 31/03/11: Reactionary Dressing

If my Junior Cert science knowledge serves me well (and it probably doesn't), one of Isaac Newton's laws of physics is, 'for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction'. While this applies in relation to centrifrugal forces, it's also relevant to our everyday lives - and to think we were convinced that it would have no practical application once we left school.

Whatever your political preference, whether left, right or maddeningly, non-commitally dead-centre, we are all rebellious reactionaries. Reactionary dressers, that is.

Like most deep set neuroses, I believe that this starts in early childhood. A child is dressed by his or her parents. They are the dictator of the toddler closet, the holders of the keys to Gap Kids. You will wear those pink corduroy dungarees and you will have this pudding-bowl haircut. You have no choice in the matter.

From a very early age, a person gets a sense that there's a way that you want to dress and a way that you have to dress, and ne'er the twain shall meet.

Both of these things play off each other. The more rigid the uniform, the more expressive and off-the-wall the remainder of your wardrobe will be. This is where Newton comes into the equation. Here's the science bit.

Friend A works in a chain sportwear shop on the high street. He is required to wear Brand X for work, but his distaste for X means that he now buys Brand Y for his days off. In fact, he buys much more Y than he did before he started at work. It's a reaction to the dreaded brand X. Q.E.D.

Friend B is a impossibly polished medical consultant in a large private hospital. When someone sneezes in her presence, she thinks they're making a medical point about Jimmy Choos. She get manicures twice and blowdries thrice weekly because of the sheer wilful need to look professional in front of her influential, much older, mostly male peers. On her off days she goes to Tesco in her pajamas.

In a wider scope, almost all countercultural movements of the twentieth century are reactions to the establishment. The hippie ethos was born out of disgust with the American government and stifling social norms, but the clothing was a calculated counter-attack to these norms. It shocked Johnny Crewcut out of his complacent haze and into a more, er, lycergic one - one that involved bell bottoms and a helluva lot of suede fringing.

For some reason, this is a phenomenon that has only come to maturity within the past hundred years. The Surrealists shocked the world in the earlier part of the century, but part of their shock value was that they looked incredibly respectable, in three-piece suits and soft homburgs. Even then, their clothing was a reaction - a deliberate effort to buck against what was expected of them, which was to outwardly express what deviants they were.

From shoes, to outfits, to social groups, from traditional national dress to battle uniform even to schisms in society at large, all reactions are governed by the actions that precede them. Once you start to notice these reactions, you life may start to take on a Da Vinci Code-esque significance as you count all the coincidences that pop up almost out of nowhere. For me though, there's a straightforward explanation - it's simple fashematics.