Steady as She Goes

Problematic old white guy, Thomas Jefferson, once wrote, “In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.” I love a good aphorism, and it’s damn near persuasive. Style evolves and flows, but principles are foundational. On its face, the quote is quite agreeable, but wrestling with this phrase, I’ve discovered something quietly sinister at its core.

No one who knows me would accuse me of having good style. I’ve been on team jeans and band tee for a quarter century. But, it is my style. It is my minimalist, functional, and punk philosophy made manifest.

And it is here where we enter a quandary. How do we indulge the spirt of the times while maintaining our sense of self? Is fashion an essential part of selfhood? Or, do seasonal trends float above individual identity? Are we anchored to the world in a way which allows us to float along the whims of trends without losing our identity?

Our values manifest themselves in the choices we make. An unbranded Kirkland Signature tee embodies a very different aesthetic than the $95 German loopwheeled Merz b. Schwanen designed piece Carmy dons in The Bear. Even with a white tee, we express our sense of self in everything we do.

We make a statement with our selections: economy, comfort, quality, aesthetics. Our decisions are informed by the hierarchy of our values. To this extent, fashion represents a public-facing manifestation of ourselves. But outside of a wearing a meat-dress, we choose from a few designated buckets.  

However, as Tyler Durden, noted in the proto-incel manifesto Fight Club, “You are not your fucking khakis.” Clearly our sense of self must be deeper and more permanent than our fashion choices. On the most charitable read of the Jefferson quote, one could argue nothing is lost by an absorption into trendiness. That our character and core personality is unaffected by such pedestrian choices. Principles are what matter. 

It is here where I find the rock in my shoe of Jefferson’s pithy remark. Style is not inextricable from selfhood. Diligent adherence to fashion and trends I find ugly and lacking any core identity. A number of my aging Millennial counterparts have lamented the demise of the skinny-jean and the rise of the crew neck sock. And yet, they give deference to the youth. Two decades of no show socks find their way to the Goodwill donation bin.

I am intentionally leaving aside ethical concerns of fair wage, environmentally sustainable practices, and corporate defensibility. Though our choices certainly resonate through those rungs of the industry as a whole. For the moment, I prefer to focus simply on the aesthetic element. 

Those who adopt trends instinctually and habitually, lack a foundational element of self. As chameleons, they don the uniform of their time and blend seamlessly into the crowd. They-style is ubiquitous. It is everywhere and nowhere. The rootless can grow anywhere. Those who can blow in the wind end up anywhere. 

Defend style from the whims of time. Style is a watermark of selfhood. An indelible stamp that makes your statement endure over time. This is not to say it shouldn’t evolve or change. But instead of being carried by the currents of Tik Tok, we should instead say, “What among this current batch of trends, suit me? Where do I find myself among them?”

The pendulum of fashion swings mercilessly. And it is no accident current styles recur every thirty years. Just about the time a 15 year old gets curious to raid Mom’s closet. Like a Polaroid in reverse, the dream of fitting into them fades until a new generation discovers them. And the cycle begins anew.

Honor your core and you’ll never look back at pictures of your farmhouse chic home, or a boucle fabric couch, and fail to recognize yourself in your own home. Midcentury modern is over. And I couldn’t be happier. Because I want your used Eames Lounge. It being out of fashion means I might finally track down the Keane “The Stray” and “No Dogs Allowed” triptych.   

Style is a banner of selfhood. You can add stars, but it waves best like a lighthouse welcoming friends and family back to a familiar harbor. May your ship be steadfast and the waves of trend impotently crash against your hull.  Despite its upgrades and repairs, Theseus’ ship will be recognizable when it returns to port. 

In matters of style and principle, stand like a rock. Continue course and speed.    

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