two women dressed fashionably

When I was a kid, for some reason a popular discussion topic around the house was whether appearances, social connections, etc., mattered, or whether the main important things in life were personal grits and smarts and such. Ah, the perennial debate!

Nowadays, this doesn’t seem to me like such a debate. To my adult mind, both of these spheres matter. It matters how you develop yourself personally; and it matters how you present yourself to others. Unless you are a hermit, that is. But barring that, it seems to me that both should be given due heed.

Esmé Weijun Wang has something interesting to say about this non-debate. Her 2019 book The Collected Schizophrenias includes an essay called “High-Functioning.” In it, she describes giving talks about living with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. Wang has a desire to share her experiences with others, to foster an understanding of people diagnosed with a serious mental illness. However, as she is well aware, it is difficult to talk about having a serious mental illness without calling into question your validity as a speaker.

So she finds ways of establishing validity and winning her audience’s trust. She is careful to drop that she is a writer who was educated at Yale and Stanford. She wears her wedding ring and talks about her decade-and-a-half-long relationship. And she is careful to dress with impeccable style for all speaking engagements.

Wang admits that she has had a longtime passion for fashionable clothes—and for good reason. I love this passage about how she feels about fashion:

“The way I clothe myself is not merely camouflage. It is an intimidation tactic, as with the porcupine who shows its quills, or the owl that puffs its body in a defensive offensive: dress like everyone should be terrified of you.”

This makes a lot of sense to me. If who you are, as a person, is liable to provoke mistrust in others, why wouldn’t you do everything you could to appear powerful and in control? On the flip side, if who you are, as a person, is liable to provoke trust in others, why would you waste your time attending to every minute detail of your appearance?

“Dress for success” is a great mantra, in my opinion. Just don’t neglect to also put in the hard work of developing your personal strengths—as Wang has clearly done. Her book is fabulous. It’s well written, extensively researched, and thought provoking. I trusted her completely to give me all the facts: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And the chic.

What are you wearing today?

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