the Semiotics of Style: Identity as Art and Expression

You must be an artist.”
What band are you in?
Where are you shooting?”
My family never failed to marvel at the questions I’m asked by total strangers, some of whom have crossed streets or held up lines to ask advice in whatever field they think I’m in. “It’s so funny,” my mother will whisper. “How do they know?”
To me, the answer is plain: they can read my style. Each piece I wear, each choice I make is indicative of an influence, an icon or industry. To those in the know, everything is a symbol: the semiotics of style. It may be what’s inside that counts, but the outside can be a language used to decode the mysteries within. It’s a language that takes years to cultivate, and one that never stops evolving. Some of us take to it naturally, knowing just what to put on and pair to communicate our interests and ideas; others take years trying to gain fluency.
Stevie Nicks Self Portrait
For creative people, each article we wear, each hairstyle, lip colour, accessory, is a statement. We indicate our interests, our quirks, our differences on the outside—sometimes as fluid and gracefully as our creative pursuits, sometimes a little clumsier. I can’t even begin to count the awkward teenage translations I mucked up to communicate my still-developing identity. Sometimes, we plagiarize—in my own adventures in style, one could easily see Siouxsie’s brows, Robert Smith’s Hair, Stevie Nicks’ gypsy layers, Mana’s exaggerated lip color. Before I developed my own dialect, I lifted language directly from others. Like a child, we learn through imitation. We might try on so many other identities, learn so many different ways of speaking before honing in on what best communicates us to others. And after years of practice, gaining fluency and command of our new language, we allow these assumed identities to accent our individual voices.
Identity is my favourite medium. I admire skillful painting, and I marvel at musical composition, but every artist I can count among my favorites worked endlessly in cultivating not only their artistic skills but also their identity. Joel-Peter Witkin’s infamy is due not only to his strange, abject photography, but also the mythology that shrouds him. Edward Gorey illustrated countless works of whimsical fiction, but his larger-than-life character earned him a place in the public eye. David Bowie shape-shifted from character to character in order to immerse his audience in the fantastic worlds he conceived of. Andy Warhol not only became his own masterpiece of commercial culture, but also kept a veritable gallery of experimental identities. In my opinion, Candy Darling and Edie Sedgwick are infinitely more finely-crafted art objects than any silkscreened disaster or painted Brillo Box.
the Factory regulars
We’re often told to “dress for the job we want, not the job we have.” By trying on identities and learning the language of personal style, we explore not only our relationship with the world around us, but our deepest desires in life. Motivational speakers and life coaches will add that definite statements of success will help manifest goals—“I will be collected in the MoMA,” “I will write a NY Times best seller.” When you say these things with outward style, the sentiment is echoed back at you, which not only stokes the flame of our long-term goals, but also gives the immediate gratification of instant success—“you must be a rock star,” “I can tell you’re an artist.”
Walking through my neighborhood the other day, I passed a man who spoke volumes to me without ever saying a word. At a glance, I could tell what music he listened to, what places he frequented, what books he likely read, what shows he’d probably seen. —and in the fleeting instant our eyes connected, I wondered how he read me with my sea-witch hair and my waxed black jeans. It was clear as he stood on that corner in his matched tartan plaid bondage trousers and field jacket, taking long drags from a gnarled cigarette, that he had spoken this language far longer than I. He had settled comfortably in his manner of speech years ago. I wondered if he saw me as a foreigner still building my vocabulary, or as a modern polyglot chameleon, shifting from one language to another according to habitat. I could read his bleach-burned hair and bovver boots, but did my vintage frames and abundant silver jewelry translate to him?
David Bowie, Hadden Hall
Whether conversation-casual or professional-proper, our outward presentations say a lot to people. They can read our drives and desires before we ever open out mouths. We are art objects as much as anything we create, and we should take pride in our fluency and expressions. Popular opinion has shifted lately, placing the responsibility of style on the outside world—that we dress for other people, to please society, draw sexual interest, or squeeze into a designated role. But when considered as a form of expression, making these statements about style is like saying that artists produce work solely to please the public—and any artist can tell you that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Artists create work to convey ideas and concepts dear to them, to articulate points that may not be otherwise heard. They create to satisfy a deep need to express what’s going on inside. So too is style—we ought to adorn ourselves out of that same expressive drive. My hair isn’t blue in order to attract men or set myself apart from society, it’s a statement of self: “I am an exotic bird, a creature of my own creation.”
The next time you dress for the day, pause for a moment before the mirror. What are you saying today? Where did that expression stem from? From whom have you learned your visual language? Are you satisfied—even mores, are you happy? Express yourself. Exorcise those thoughts and feelings, pull yourself inside-out and look at your signs and signifiers as they manifest. What kind of life do they indicate? Life and art aren’t the tag-team separates we paint them to be—they are one in the same. Art doesn’t imitate life—life is art, and it begins with you. You are your own masterpiece. Speak out proudly.
Photo Credits: Self Portrait by Stevie Nicks, Factory Group Shot by Andy Warhol, David Bowie Hadden Hall 1972 by Mick Rock