The Style Of Self

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Growing up, my best friend in middle school had the raddest tee. It was simple enough – navy and fitted – with a tiny line of white text on the front. But it’s message was far from subtle, reading “Labels are for jars. And you are not a jar.” She’d picked it up at a concert, and in the age of Guess jeans and “Button Your Fly” t-shirts, it was a bold alternative to the walking billboards that infiltrated our small town. Yet I’ve always wondered if – even when we’re not toting brand names or ad slogans – we’re still labeling ourselves? Are we becoming billboards for our lifestyle?

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Rotterdam-based duo photographer Ari Versluis and stylist Ellie Uyttenbroek would undoubtedly argue yes. Their project, Exactitudes, is an extensive anthology of style tribes, individuality and the uniforms we choose to don on a daily basis. From trenchcoat-draped “Cappuccio Girls” to combination hoodie+leather-clad “Team Doppios,” the pair has uncovered over 120 cultural style tribes and sub-tribes from different parts of the world. Yet perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect of this project is the realization that each person is photographed precisely how they were spotted on the street – no staging, styling or altering of any ensemble.

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The idea that we are all expressing our own individuality while simultaneously looking exactly like each other is fascinating to me. I think we’ve all joked about The Official Blogger Uniform of stripes, polka dots, sock buns and thick glasses frames (I’m waiting for Ari and Ellie to photograph this one), but the reality is that, by embracing this “uniform,” we’re collectively flashing our blogging badge to the world. We’re announcing that we read blogs and write articles and schedule posts, and that the neon satchel we’re carrying just might be storing a shiny Mac and and our editorial calendar.

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As I’ve started placing an emphasis on becoming mindful and present and creative this year, I’ve given a lot of thought to personal style (which today, if you’re curious, consists of leggings and a gray tee – a signal to my world that I work from home and plan to venture to yoga later this afternoon). And I can’t help but be reminded of the idea that labels are for jars. And we are not jars.

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I worry that the lens in which I view personal style is becoming my own filter bubble – that I’m subconsciously spending my time out in the world scanning faces and shoes and bags to find my tribe, when really I should be looking at the jar itself. At the eyes, the stories, the souls.

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Labels are wonderful and helpful and often beautiful, but they are limiting. Because, in truth, there’s only enough room for a visual and a few ingredients and the small portion of the story you want to tell. There’s no room to display the struggles and trials and successes and sleepless nights and endless conversations. I wouldn’t expect there to be.

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But I can seek to open the jar, regardless of the label. That I’d stock my pantry with the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful and the striped and not-so-striped. And that I’d make a wonderful meal with those jars, and I’d invite over many different Exactitudes to sit at my table and dine with me. (I’d let The Fluffies provide entertainment.)

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Feel free to come along. The more jars, the merrier.

Image Credits: Exactitudes

p.s. Just for fun: Leaf costumes and Royal Ascot hats.

  • Wow. I absolutely LOVE this. Just brilliant. Oddly enough though, it doesn’t make me worry that I’ve subconsciously joined a tribe, it just makes me realize that almost positively I have. And I’m also fairly sure that I belong to a number of style tribes. And that’s fine with me actually, which is surprising considering I’ve always thought of myself as independent and individual, but still, something about this is deeply comforting in some unexpected way. We are all out there, doing our own thing, and yet we are all so much alike. I don’t know, somehow this has just filled me with deep joy. So glad you posted it!

    • I love your thoughts about this! And yes – isn’t it a fascinating concept? We’re dressing to make statements about who we choose to blend in with, in a sense. :)

  • Exactitudes is incredible! I’m always fascinated by projects that come to life over such a long period of time – what concentration and patience they must have.

    Your narrative about the project is so fantastic. I attended a super hippy alternative high school where people went huge lengths to dress to express their unique identity… it could be pretty exhausting. Right after graduation I went to Bonaroo, and imagine my surprise when I was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of beautiful, unique people that looked exactly the same (and exactly like the ‘original’ kids at my high school).

    It was such a relief to me… it’s way more rewarding to focus on the uniqueness of your inside, instead of your outside.

  • Wow. Ok, first of all the photos are stunning. Secondly your post is beautiful and through-provoking as always. And thirdly I did not expect this photo series to be this big and evolved. Pretty crazy how many boards of photographs this duo has. Great work.

  • This is really fascinating, and such a valid point. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the “blogger uniform.” Ironically I’ve been struggling in a new position because I don’t fit the mold of those around me. Coming from an entirely different region of the US to work is a whole new level of this uniform game. We question, and judge those who do not fit our idea of normal, and it makes us uncomfortable, even if we claim to be seeking individuality. I’ll be thinking about this post for awhile, so much food for thought.

  • This jar is the member of many tribes by choice, not because I am still looking to fit in or find myself…I am way too old for that now. With age comes the ability to recognize not only the tribe you belong to but the tribe others belong to as well and possibly, the tribe they will end up in when they age. Very thought provoking and fascinating topic well illustrated with the photos. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Isn’t it so intriguing? I so admire the dedication of this duo – a series of over 120! I’m so impressed. (And hello, sweet Gabby!)

  • I think I needed to hear this, especially while I am exasperated wondering where my tribe is in this new place? Or where is the tribe that will make room and let me in? I have to stop judging them at first glance, am going to adjust my course now!

    Steph

  • I’m with Nomadic D – as a life-long individualist the realization that I’m not part of a tribe is actually rather refreshing!

    Excellent post !

  • I LOVE this post. One thing that I have found interesting about Pinterest is when I find someone who has my EXACT taste in art but SUCH different style inspirations, or share some EXACT same style inspirations, but the rest are just SO different. I think we are all much more complicated. We find different tribes that we belong to, but we really do belong to many.

  • what an interesting project. great post! i love your friends tee also. i imagine even the most individual amongst us still fit a tribe somewhere (im thinking advanced style, hel-looks) yet just like the jar label there is so much more going on inside. most days i’m not sure who or where my tribe is which once bothered me more but i’ve come to appreciate we’re very complex individuals, one of the beauties of being human. and we dress differently for occasions and moods so each day could be a new tribe perhaps! an exciting thought : )

  • Erin, this post got me thinking about branding and style nuance. We all set out to be a little different, to communicate our own, unique message. Yet, at the same time, we are all very much the same. I’m curious how you approach your own fashion style with respect to your brand. (Feel free to email in response. Would love to connect.)

    • Hi Erin:

      Thanks for your note! I’m actually really wrestling with this one at the moment. Part of me wants to lounge around in gray tees and yoga pants daily, b/c it’s comfortable and adaptable and suits my current lifestyle. And how great would it be to never think about what I had to wear again? But, of course, the other part of me longs to be accepted in social situations, ha. And then there’s a part of me that truly does enjoy putting pieces together and expressing creativity in that fashion. I just have to figure out which parts I’m giving the most energy to, and why. ;)

  • Oh my goodness. I just discovered your blog and have been enjoying all your posts, but this line really spoke to me: “I’m subconsciously spending my time out in the world scanning faces and shoes and bags to find my tribe, when really I should be looking at the jar itself”

    I’ve spent so much time over the past year and a half thinking about fashion. I wrote a blog post about it once, because I realized that this time, it is born from inner shifts and being ready for my outside to match my inside. And it is also how I express my creativity, when I am willing to let myself. So on the one hand, there is goodness in it. But on the other hand, I know that I partly use fashion to assess whether I think someone is a potential kindred or not, like how they dress will tell me what they are like and whether we will connect. And I suppose it’s true that it might be a good way and we might, but it also means that I miss out on so much. I want to remember this and be more conscious of it. Thank you for sparking this realization.

    • Ah, thank you, Elizabeth! I’m realizing exactly the same thing – we’re missing out on a lot. The older I get, the more I realize those crazy adages are true about not judging books by covers and then some. ;)

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