In the era of information overload, of Facebook, of "personal branding," how do we define ourselves? Have the little things come to mean too much? Have we sacrificed nuance in favor of a slick and quick elevator pitch, or swapped the legwork of figuring out who someone is deep down with the convenient shorthand: What do you do? Have we replaced being ourselves with being our brands?
I got to thinking about these questions after reading the cover story in Sunday's New York Times Styles section: The Power Stylists of Hollywood. The piece was a well-timed tease -- especially for me, an admitted and unrepentant stylephile -- whetting the appetite for red carpet season, which kicked off Sunday night with the Golden Globes. The only thing was, rather than talking about trends, or even really about the stylists themselves, the piece is about the business of styling. And a bit of it gave me pause:
"Dressing for a major red carpet isn't simply getting ready for a big party and looking pretty," said George Kotsiopoulos, a stylist and a former editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine who is now a host on "Fashion Police" on the E! network. In recent years, he said, "it's been about selling yourself as a brand."
As insiders see it, that investment is worthwhile: the right red-carpet turnout can help a performer change lanes. "If your client plays nefarious characters," said the stylist Jeanne Yang, you might dress them, say, in tulle, to demonstrate "that she's really a fresh ingénue."
Others strive for sartorial consistency. Indeed, a case could be made that [Hailee] Steinfeld's reliably chic but youthful red-carpet looks inspired the fashion executives at Miu Miu to cast her in its advertising campaigns. Mila Kunis's transformation, at the hands of Ms. Flannery, from ill-kempt hipster to regal sexpot doubtless helped secure her latest role, as the new "face" of Dior. A fashion or fragrance contract can earn an actress in the tens of millions.
Such potent stylist-star alliances were spawned well over a decade ago, when celebrity Web sites and supermarket tabloids competed to serve up candid shots of stars exiting Starbucks or the gym in a state of sorry dishevelment. Hoping to shore up their images, some were quick to enlist a fashion consultant.
Stylists at the time catered to stars' insecurities. "The stylist is an outgrowth of the mean-girls culture," Ms. Press observed. "Their very existence says of an actress, 'I don't trust my own instincts, or I have no instincts, or I can't bear to read all the mean things people are going to say if my dress doesn't deliver.' "
Sure, for most of us, no matter what we wear, our outfits will likely not be netting us a gig as the new face of Dior, but I think there's something in here that's pretty universal: the need to brand ourselves.
It's gross, right? The idea of reducing ourselves to a brand, packaged accordingly. And yet, we all do it: Whether putting together the outfit that will convey precisely the image we want to project on any given occasion (competent yet creative for the job interview; smart yet sexy for the date; pulled together without trying to hard for the errands), or editing the reality of our lives in order to present a carefully curated -- some might say contrived -- image for our imagined audiences to admire on Facebook, we're all in the business of personal branding. And, as Barry Schwartz tells us in Undecided, it's little wonder:
Nowadays, everything counts as a marker of who you are in a way that wasn't true when there were fewer options. So just to give you one example: When all you could buy were Lee's or Levi's, then your jeans didn't tell the world anything about who you were, because there was a huge variation in people, but there were only two kinds of jeans, you know? When there are two thousand kinds of jeans, now all of a sudden, you are what you wear... What this means is that [with] every decision, the stakes have gone up. It's not just about jeans that fit; it's about jeans that convey a certain image to the world of what kind of person you are. And if you see it that way, it's not so shocking that people put so much time and effort into what seems like trivial decisions. Because they're not trivial anymore.
Actually, it reminds me of a story of my own:
Last year, I was in New York for a reading of an anthology to which I'd contributed an essay. Off I went, sporting an Outfit-with-a-capital-O. After all, I like clothes. And I spend more than enough time at home alone with my trusty laptop, wearing what can most kindly be described as scrubs. If people were going to be looking at me, I wanted to look good, damnit (and, you know, be comfortable -- except for my baby toes). I was staying with the (wildly intelligent and beautiful) woman who'd edited the book, and, while we were walking to the train, she -- dressed decidedly down -- told me how she feels like she has to dress that way in order to be perceived as a Serious Writer. You know, the kind who's so busy being a Serious Writer she doesn't have time for silly fashion. She said she even has a pair of fake glasses. (Even a Serious Writer has to accessorize!) The irony is that she loves clothes as much as I do. She was laughing about it, but I have to say, it kind of made me take note of what each of the other contributors wore that night, and what my choice of duds communicated about me. Fabulous and fashionable or literary lightweight?
It all makes you wonder: Is all this "personal branding" we're doing serving yet another purpose? As with the actresses who employ professional stylists, is our brand -- or, as we like to call it, our "iconic self" -- a buffer in some way? The armor that protects us from those we fear will judge us? After all, in a world of endless options, of jeans for every political affiliation and body shape, sometimes, isn't it easier to slap on a costume, play the role, be the brand, rather than hanging our sloppy, undefinable self out there for all to see? Or doing the work of figuring out who she is in the first place?
Surely all of this comes at a cost. After all, what about the parts of ourselves that don't fit neatly into our brand? Maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. If we let go of the need to fit ourselves into the brand, the image, the iconic self, maybe we'd have an easier time figuring out who we really are. Which in turn, might just make our decisions easier, not to mention more authentic. All of which might just make us happier. Think of it as You, 2.0.