Minimizing the Self
“It was this very weird personal state where the only actual constant was myself, and I can do myself in black jeans and a silk popover every day for the rest of my life, so fuck the rest of it. I don't need any other identities, I don't need any other clothes, throw away all the baggage, literal and metaphorical.” -Baby Sloane Conde, 2014
Okay, first of all, lolllllllllll.
I wrote that way back in late summer 2014, back when I used to blog regularly about my clothes (I know). It was, to be fair, a pretty big year in the life of a lil’ baby 21 year old. I had just come back from spending the summer running around Europe, alone. And it sounds dumb even now, but the world never really did feel quite so open and limitless as it did to me back then, in a way that I thought then was very special and would continue to believe to be special long after reading “Goodbye to All That.”
So if I’m leading with that quote, let’s be clear, it’s with a certain mocking irony, but also a very special tenderness towards a younger self, that someone could ever believe quite so strongly in a simple and direct correlation - even coherence - in the clothes they chose to put on the back and their personal identity. And it’s interesting to me today, too, since dress and identity is still something I study a lot - I find myself wondering what that cry for extreme minimalism could’ve possibly meant. I mean, I know what it meant for me, (see above re: 21, lil’ baby), but why was I so attached to that idea?
2014 was, what? Peak skinny jean era? Peak minimalism era? There was this sense that you could - no, should - contain your entire wardrobe, and thus your entire self, to a small closet, a small suitcase. It was a moral imperative (global warming, overconsumption, capitalism, etc. etc. etc.) Marie Kondo’s book had just came out in the US. Instagram was all. over. this. Every single blogger did a capsule wardrobe, even the really flashy ones like the Parcells. You could literally be a better person by pairing down, throwing away, simplifying.
In a certain sense, the aim was “simple but significant” - which, what a coincidence, is an actual quote from Mad Men, the series of the moment. It was all about silks, wools, linen - simple signifiers of luxury and wealth, the signs of a person who was well educated enough, well-read enough, had the taste and the free time to rise above the capitalist machina and return to the fruits of the earth.
There was a sense, I think, in the zeitgeist, that we could reach perfection. It was the beginning of personal quantification, of body metrics. The FitBit started to get really big. Obama was president. There was a very, very subtle internalized misogyny “cool girl” aspect to it all, easy-going girls who travel with one suitcase and wear only neutral colors and don’t take up any space in the world, physically or visually or with their voices. This was the future. We were all going to be set free from the burden of our stuff.
There is something I almost miss about it.
There’s this dude Russell Belk who first came up with the idea of the “Extended Self” in the late 80’s - basically, that the objects we surround ourselves with are all contribute to our sense of self. Teenagers like to quote Fight Club when they criticize the capitalist system - “What dining set defines me as a person?” - and as weird and uncomfortable as that is to say aloud, there’s a certain truth to it (also, for the record, Belk argues that the closeness of the object to the body might have some correlation to our emotional attachment, and tends to have a greater symbolic value - which is why the thing with the dining set is weird and uncomfortable, but no one finds it weird to have like, a treasured childhood baseball glove.)
Belk’s argument, though, seems to be more about the person’s relationship to the object - “What does the fact that I own this say about me?” It’s interesting in that case to look to my actual boyfriend Roland Barthes, who made an argument for the semiotic value of clothing - really basically, that every clothing object is a signifier that then signifies something about the person. A postmodern look would lead us to the idea that those signs are flexible rather than fixed - we can only interpret them within the particular context in which they exist - but they exist, nonetheless.
So, given alllllll of that, it makes me wonder what we were trying to say about ourselves with minimalism. If we use objects to express things about ourselves, what did it mean when we tried to do it as simply as possible?
I mean, let’s look back at that outfit. I am laughing as I tell you now that it was not actually a silk popover but a only the finest quality polyester popover camp shirt for me, yessir - simple signs of luxury and quality on a college student budget. (But, like, you know, actually better now that I’m thinking about it? Since that shit did not wrinkle ONCE that entire trip? And I did not even have to bring a steamer?) In any case, black high-rise skinny jeans - which were like THE jean in 2014, if you remember, the platonic ideal of denim. Simple and beautiful and sexy and dark. You could wear them with literally anything. It was all about adaptability and simplicity.
The official minimalist argument for that outfit would lay in its physical properties - materials adapted to a summer getting shoved in and pulled in and out of a suitcase, jeans that go with literally anything. It was probably true that I’d found THE outfit that I could travel in forever, if by forever you mean 2014, which is exactly what I wanted to do - endlessly wearable, the perfect mix of formality, fashionable enough to be but safe and readable.
In many ways, it did correspond exactly to the person I wanted to be at that point.
But I don’t think it was just that, and I don’t think it was necessarily just about participating in a trend. I’ve written my critiques of minimalism as a trend before, and how I find that it forces the adherent, ironically, to think a lot more about their clothes than before - in making the right choice, the upkeep, etc, etc. This would’ve been before I actually thought any of that, I was knee-deep in minimalism kool-aid at that point, but there is I think something necessarily more to minimalism than that.
It represented freedom, I think, if that doesn’t sound totally insane. There was something about keeping everything I’d ever need with me - about reducing all of the emotional noise and personal baggage that objects inevitably represent in our lives, whether we’re packrats or 2014 White Blogger Minimalists. And I think there was this sense that I could constrict my identity, too, to being that single person.
I think I - and I will dare to speak for everyone else who got really really into this in 2014 - felt on some level that I could restrict the the chaos of the self, that it could be reduced, simplified, perfected - and that I could put everything I was and would be and had been and would ever need on my back, and ride away into the sunset (on a train, I do not drive).
My “extended self” being so appropriately reduced and summarized so succinctly by those pieces of clothing that I felt represented who I was (chic but simple and cool and obviously not that concerned with authenticity!) - that, semiotically, communicated who I was to the world efficiently and in a variety of contexts - let me feel as if I were somehow becoming a singular and coherent person, a “romantic self” if you will, that would be at once fixed and mobile (and came in a convenient carrying case).
I was not yet into personal metrics at the time - I am still not, actually - but I was a college student. And like a lot of college kids, I was really into perfecting myself, into reading all the right poetry and books and having the right friends and experiences in the hope of creating some sort of tableau, as if that Romantic Self was some sort of project or painting I’d finish one day. Nobody ever really does think about what happens after you ride off into the sunset - that one day, those jeans will rip and the yellow sweat stains under the arms of the polyester blouse will become unremovable - especially not 21 year olds, but that’s all the fun of being 21.
I am not accusing everyone else who was really into minimalism at 2014 of the same emotional naivété, obviously, or even saying the same of 21 year olds besides myself. But I do think that there was a certain cultural moment we all had - a moment before Trump, before the anxieties of climate change felt quite so pressing and real. Where the more privileged among us were blissfully aware of what everyone else was dealing with. And there was this sense that if we could just consume better - if we could ignore the realities of generational financial inequality and a host of other issues - we could be better.
Of course, now that I’m finally getting around to publishing this essay, minimalism is back at the forefront of the zeitgeist in a very big way, in a large part thanks to a more pressing anxiety about climate change and an even larger part thanks to the Netflix series bringing Marie Kondo back into the spotlight. And I’m firmer in my convictions, now - see this Atlantic article, or this viral Buzzfeed thinkpiece - that minimalism takes a lot of its root in trying to “clean” ourselves by cleaning our homes. Cleansing, perhaps, isn’t the word. Simplifying, streamlining, optimizing.
Selves, of course, are not a project that can really be perfected. But that won’t stop us from trying. And maybe there is a certain truth to that - maybe if we just get rid of all our shit, we’ll be able to concentrate more on the important things. On the important parts of ourselves. But now it’s 2019, and we know that that’s not really entirely true - so we buy the weird Zara pants.