Chicago O’Hare International Airport is one of my favorite places to people watch. More than any other airport I have traversed, the cross section of travelers with the austere, quirky German architecture intersects in such a way that makes me think all the stylish people of the world are required to take a layover there.
Once I saw a woman there wearing a white, corseted Comme des Garcons blouse whose buckles and straps referenced a straightjacket. That exquisite and very expensive piece was neither practical nor comfortable in an airplane, yet there she was walking, gliding, floating down the terminal with the rest of the beautiful people watching in aloof approval.
Instantly, I imagined where she might live: her vast collection of Jean Prouve originals and one-off Rick Owens furniture in a spacious, stark home, beautiful and just a little bit too clinical to feel completely comfortable. Her husband was not into fashion like she was but had a worldly, original and unmistakably contemporary sense of dress. Their children were grown, inherited her good taste, and were living on the coasts with their young children and high-end Scandinavian baby accessories.
In addition to imagining the aspects of her lifestyle, I thought the mix of restraint and bravado she showed in her blouse must have some kind of reflection in her personality. I could picture it all: who she considered her heroes, which novel changed her life, her greatest dreams and fears. In effect, because I engaged with her fashion aesthetic, I felt I could clearly judge this book by its avant-garde, edgy cover.
My seconds-long encounter with this sartorial heroine illustrated the magic and problem of fashion: It can ignite the imagination instantly and viscerally, but it also has the tendency to mistakably purport ideas and traits that do not exist.
Fashion also presents the question of whether taste reflects character. If a person has great personal style, a beautiful home or a fast car in a cool color, does it — or can it — mean they are a good person or better than us in some way? It used to be easier to surmise something concrete about an individual by looking at how he was dressed, as clothing varied in accordance with social class, religious virtues or occupation. But now, anyone can look like anything with a little money and resourcefulness.
The heart of fashion is to express who we are, but increasingly, we use it to express who we want to be or at least who we want people to think we are.
We even use fashion now to assign aspirational characteristics in others. We fell in love with Gwyneth Paltrow for her great style, unassuming looks and rocker husband. And as our fixation and appetite increased, we decided that her clothes made her a fashion expert, her beauty made her a health expert and her celebrity marriage made her a relationship expert. Her website, goop.com, is now visited by thousands of users, offers a multicategory e-commerce site, hosts brick-and-mortar pop-up shops and sells a slew of licensed specialty goods. Paltrow is also a New York Times’ best-selling author of several cookbooks. None of her outlets offer any insight or advice in acting.
Clearly, our need for meaning and connection can sometimes drive us to reach forgone conclusions about people we see in airports or beautiful actors in films that move us. And while there is no harm in imagining or daydreaming, there is also an objective realization to be made that sometimes a well-dressed person is just well dressed, just like sometimes clothes are just clothes.