An Outfit Defines the Person

Recall the last time you saw a smartly dressed man or woman gracing down the sidewalk in fabrics so finely made, they caused you a double-take. Chances are good that within your double-take, in that calculation and appreciation for such exceptional threads, you formed an idea about the person behind those clothes. With the outfit as your leaping off point, you arrived at a description of its wearer.

Just as my fellow Philosophy students and I did in ontology class, you briefly pondered what made that person who he or she was and arrived at a rough sketch. I’ll argue here that one’s style of dress plays a heavy role in determining that. Start with me as an example. Sometimes my idea of dressing up means pulling on a clean baseball hat. If my socks match and my pants don’t show visible stains, I’m ready for a night on the town.

This fashion, or noted lack thereof, goes with my personality. I’m the type who focuses on the practical necessities in life, leaving any luxurious pining to be the fluff that I might occasionally daydream about on airplanes while flipping through magazines. I dwell in the realm of simple and basic. It never occurs to me to tailor a T-shirt for a better fit or that a hair barrette might actually MATCH my outfit. Maybe this will change, but for now it’s who I am. Meanwhile, I often give lots of thought to why other people dress the way they do.

An outfit I have often pondered is the Western riding outfit. Assuming I would never in my English riding career wear such a thing unless for a Halloween party, I have frequently stared at cowgirls in their fringe-laden, blingy get-ups and wondered how practical any of that could be.

WDAA-WorldShowThen, I decided to enter a Western Dressage show and found myself needing to don just such an outfit. That is where the transformation began, where this new outfit began to define a new me.

First off, getting dresses required two helpers. Probably not since Fourth grade had someone else helped me put on pants, but I found the chaps too tricky to master myself. All that dangling fringe kept catching in the zipper. So, finally I let two bystanders help cram me into my clothes. One zipped the chaps on while the other shoved me underneath a cowboy hat. With a long-sleeved sparkly shirt and a pair of jangly spurs, I was ready for the arena… and very hot.

By Sacramento, CA standards it was an average summer day– nearing 100 degrees. Inside that Western gear felt like an incubator. I peered from under the hat’s enormous brim– no easy task- and walked slowly over to where my horse stood wilting in the heat. Sleeved in glittery Lycra, my arms began to sweat. Meandering to the warm-up pen, I started to understand why Western riders often seem to be moving so slowly compared to us English folks. Normally, I would have launched into an array of high-energy warm-ups moves with my steed. Instead, we slowly limbered up and found our groove. Melting under my big stiff hat, it occurred to me why Western riders never seemed as frenetically paced as us.

Not only do they need to conserve energy lest they suffer heat exhaustion, but after investing so much time shimmying into an outfit that includes both fringe and sparkle, why not enjoy it? At shows, we English riders change back into street clothes as soon as our class finishes. We hurry out of the jackets and collars and tall boots that make most of us look like newspaper boys from the 1800’s. Now that I was wearing this Lady Gaga-style Western outfit, I felt no urge to hurry back and take it off, despite sweating at a rate that guaranteed dehydration.

Long puzzling concepts began to make sense, namely the reason that things happen slowly in the Western world, and I’m not not talking about the riding. For one thing, the dialect has always struck me as exaggeratedly unrushed. Western folks use the same time to deliver their mono-syllabic equivalents of our English multi-word phrases. For instance, Western show announcers take the same time to drawl through “pen” as it takes a dressage steward to blurt out “show arena.” The same amount of time for one syllable versus four. We English trainers hurry through telling our students to “apply your inside leg” in the same time a Western coach relaxes through suggesting a student “bump” her horse.

Without realizing it, by wiggling into this borrowed costume, I was sampling a world that long intrigued me. My steed and I moved at a markedly slower pace than normal. And maybe because of that, or because of the blissed out costumed feel-good of his rider, my horse offered up more relaxation and submission than he often does. Our movements were quiet and graceful. We went smoothly through our paces with our fringe and bling catching the attention, I hoped, of anyone watching. I pondered the unhurried conversations I’ve overheard among cowboys, their “we’ve-got-all-the-time-in-the-world” interactions with their horses. For this brief moment, I got a taste of that. And I’ll admit that, in my snug sparkly shirt and eggplant colored chaps, I felt pretty darn cool. For one wonderful hour, I was my own John Wayne style hero– full of smooth moves, good swagger, and long pauses.

That is what initiated this reflection about a person’s fashion defining her to some extent. It might be hyperbolic to say that an outfit can change a person, but it sure helps create a mindset. In my case, it helped me leap across the Great Divide of equestrian sports: English vs. Western. Had I always viewed that other discipline while clad in my tight breeches and polo shirt, I would have continued to see it as, well, a bit funny. By adopting the look and feel of it for a day, though, I experienced it genuinely. Having done so, I experienced that I long suspected: that we each have tons to learn from each other if we can be open-minded.

It’s not that I want to close the chasm between us so that we share one world. Rather, I actually like the separation because it allows riders to fit in wherever they feel most comfortable. I would just like us all to be open and accepting of each other in different disciplines. Plus, I want the opportunity to cross-dress my way through each one. Er, I mean cross-train.