It’s that time again when we think back over the year, the time of a million lists of good and bad, of the best and worst, the time of “Persons of the year”. It’s that time when we begin to make resolutions and then debate the efficacy of these resolutions, and then resolve on either more resolutions or fewer of them.
Ugh. Sounds like a terrible time, doesn’t it?
And yet, as I nevertheless find myself doing all of the above, two very small details picked up over the past 12 months have struck me as potentially being of very great use to us all in the next 12: American president Barack Obama and British supermodel Kate Moss have adopted the same strategic approach to dressing (albeit for different reasons). I kid you not. And, it seems to me, if it works for two such disparate people, perhaps it is worth considering for the rest of us too.
Here’s what happened: in a long interview with Vanity Fair during this year’s election campaign, Obama revealed that he had decided to wear only dark blue or grey suits “so I don’t even have to think about what I put on … You need to focus your decision-making energy.” Then, a few months later, in another interview with Vanity Fair (who knew that magazine was so full of sartorial investigation?) Moss noted that she wore only “black jeans now. Or grey. If you do a different look every day, they’re going to be waiting for the next look, and then it’s a paparazzi shot. Whereas if you just wear the same thing, then they get bored and leave you alone.”
Coincidence? Maybe. Strategic intelligence? Definitely.
Here’s what strikes me: they wear the same outfits over and over again, in the same colours, as it 1) works for them personally and professionally; and 2) reduces the decision-making pressure of their days. Not, as we often assume when discussing public figures with identifiable looks, because it makes a “statement” or even makes them memorable. As a rationale for why others might want to follow suit, it is as eloquent as anything I have heard, in large part because it works on a functional rather than attention-grabbing level. And it has the side-effect of giving a person something of a visual trademark.
Hairdos have long functioned on this level. Think of Anna Wintour’s bob, or movie stars such as Jennifer Aniston and Veronica Lake and their cuts. They are often developed out of practicality – knowing what you have to do to your hair every day is a lot simpler than having to play around with it until you find a style that works – but are interpreted by others as a personal signifier. I started wearing my hair pulled back when I had my children because as babies they kept grabbing loose strands and tugging energetically (ie it was a decision made to avoid pain). I then began twisting it into a bun because I couldn’t be bothered to get myself to the hairdresser to cut it, and the twist made the cut unnecessary (it’s lazy person hair). Now my hair takes me about two minutes in the morning to do, and I don’t have to think about it until I brush it out at night. Yet, in the few interviews that have been done with me, it has become the associative detail.
Extrapolating this to clothes is easy enough. Reduce your choices to certain colours and shapes and everything is simplified. Dresses, for example, require nothing except shoes; dark bottoms, whether trousers or skirts, can be mixed up with various tops to make new combinations. As long as all the colours are in the same family, they will probably go together. Men may feel they do this already via the suit but, in fact, the choices involved – between various coloured/printed ties, pinstripes or not, and shades of grey – all heighten the mix-and-match complexity. Take away the breadth of possibility and you reduce the option anxiety.
The only snag I can see is the boredom factor – it’s actually quite difficult to stick to the same uniform over the long term, even if it is one you chose as opposed to one that has been thrust upon you. You are likely to wake up of a morning and find yourself oddly swayed by the fact that the folks at Pantone have chosen emerald as the colour of the year (for 2013), or to enter a store and become drawn inexplicably to a bright magenta dress. Even those of us who are fairly self-disciplined can experience the insidious creep: after years of mostly black, I branched out into grey, browns, and olive green, as well as lots of metallics.
Presumably, Moss gets around this in her day job, by wearing whatever is to be photographed and working any urges out of her system, and the president simply reminds himself that four years from now he’ll be a private citizen with the sartorial freedoms that implies. The rest of us don’t have such release options.
So I have decided to put their theory to the test. Kind of. Come January 1, I’ll adopt the Obama/Moss approach on an as-needed basis. When life gets very hectic – during fashion show time, high-school applications, and so on – I’ll revert to uniform. When things relax, I’ll give myself more time to consider my clothing choices. That’s my resolution, anyway. Whether I manage to stick to it or not is, as all new year-dieters know, another question.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman