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The presentation of self in everyday life - click opera
February 2010
 
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Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 10:59 am
The presentation of self in everyday life

"When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them." So begins Erving Goffman's symbolic interactionist classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. This 1959 study of how we "perform" ourselves visually for others proposes social interaction as essentially theatrical. The self is a carefully-controlled, artificial construct we perform, taking care to remain consistent and credible. We project ourselves using "impression management" skills which parallel theatrical direction, costumery and "business". But the largely visual nature of these skills means that Goffman could as easily have chosen graphic design as his metaphor.



Wearing an eyepatch certainly makes you think about this stuff -- it's a rather extreme visual statement. But since buying a secondhand wig at a Sunday market and playing with it in public places, I've been thinking about Goffman's ideas some more. We don't just dress to include ourselves in desireable social contexts, he says, or to match those around us. We also dress to exclude, baffle, repel and perplex, to "prevent outsiders from coming into a performance that is not addressed to them".



Perhaps this is why I can weather with equanimity my mother's complaints ("I can't walk down the street with you without feeling embarrassed, Nicholas!"); I know that my rather bizarre self-presentation is just as likely to attract the adventurous as repel the upstanding citizens of Edinburgh's New Town. I was once at a reception for a Robert Rauschenberg show in Washington DC. Everybody there was wearing a boring business suit, except me and Rauschenberg. The artist walked right up to me and said "I've been rather intrigued by this fur waistcoat you're wearing!" We had a short conversation about secondhand clothes shopping. I don't think I'd have dared talk to him otherwise. Luckily my clothes did the talking for me.



But what happens when you concoct a self-presentation for someone else's self? When friends visit Berlin I often take them up to the four-floor Humana charity store at the Frankfurter Tor. Here, for next to nothing, you can assemble new and eccentric looks. These photos show clothes I picked out for an American friend called Sarah when she passed through Berlin. Trying these clothes on (she ended up buying some of them), Sarah became more European, more feminine, more burikko, more playful. The hard, dark, serious and practical style of her American clothes (jeans and t-shirts) gave way to something more ludic, friendly, feminine, soft... and slightly silly.



I wonder if these outfits -- the ones she ended up taking home, anyway -- changed Sarah, or just changed her self-presentation? Was agreeing to try and buy styles I found appealing a mere concession to me and my values, or was it a liberation from cultural habits Sarah was never particularly invested in? How did these looks go down on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn when she got home? Did the clothes conjur a slightly different parallel world -- a kinder, more playful one, with different gender relations -- and did wearing them, perhaps, force the real world to converge a few centimeters towards it?

69CommentReply

niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 11:27 am (UTC)

Is it me or does that wig make you look more German? More madking Ludwig? Younger, even?
Always one for a bit of perruque/perrugue..

Four floors of thrift? Is that an Eno/Four Tops mashup?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 11:38 am (UTC)

Mad King Ludwig! Yes! He even had the same need for wigs: "The greatest stresses of Ludwig's early reign were pressure to produce an heir."


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 12:35 pm (UTC)

I'm with your mum on this one. Many of your looks would be fine on a guy in his mid-twenties, but look rather less than flattering on a balding man in his late forties.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 12:40 pm (UTC)

"We also dress to exclude, baffle, repel and perplex, to prevent outsiders from coming into a performance that is not addressed to them."


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 01:31 pm (UTC)

This is my "presentation of self" today. I'm wearing a chef's jacket, bought for €2.50 at the Treptower market on Sunday, and a Popo t-shirt, sent by the band themselves. This outfit would appall my mother (who taught us to use the word "popo" as a synonym for "shit"), but has to work, contextually, with the people I'll spend the day with; Hisae and some design students from Pasadena college at a Redesigndeutschland opening:



Hisae's comment is "You look like a baker, or a chemist." Is that good? "Yes. I would wear that jacket if I was big enough."

If anyone posts images of their own today's outfit, I will offer my appraisal.


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hypocondriaque
hypocondriaque
hypocondriaque
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 01:43 pm (UTC)

I am interested in this. I think a lot about self-presentation and identity, perhaps because I've always been a bit of a performer. And because I am a portraitist, I narrow in on the outward appearance as a starting point for uncovering the psychology of the body.

Thinking about what happens when I collaborate with my models on a painting. I often ask people who have a remarkable outward appearance, which may be a crooked mouth, or an aqualine nose, but more often is a sweater I see them wear for a week straight, or a prop they carry with them, such as a black umbrella. Being that the outward appearance is the lift-off, and I prefer it to be a bit theatrical.

Adult life is more interesting if you know how to keep playing. Word, momus.


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sing123
sing123
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 01:58 pm (UTC)

You really live a weird life.
I love it !

-Sing


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 02:53 pm (UTC)

da vorne steht ne ampel und sie zeigt auf rot alle leute warten aber ich bin schon laengst fort...oi pyro. FROM OLD WUPPERTAL..ANZEIGE !!!! SCHWEBEBAHN MY ASS....bloody elephant


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 02:19 pm (UTC)

sparklig deleted his journal. sad. we want him back.

Show media Loading...


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eli_l
eli_l
eli
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 02:25 pm (UTC)

I love reading your blog. I found your reflexions inspiring. :)


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 02:40 pm (UTC)

fingers broken off.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 03:05 pm (UTC)

Momus, you look kind of shabby most of the time. There's such a thing as too much thrift clothing. I think you need to balance it out a bit.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 05:16 pm (UTC)

He's an international tramp - but a tramp nonetheless - that's what bugs his maw.


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 03:06 pm (UTC)

im thinking about it a lot....im not 17...what am i wearing?
i like primark.....bring me my jogging pants from london (my bird's coming back on thursday gatwique) i dont know nick..i don't know nick..i don't know what 2 wear.....HELP


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 03:26 pm (UTC)

u can't beat the old perm


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 03:31 pm (UTC)

Interesting!
For me, dressing into different outfits can be a way of commenting on things in the popcultural history, crossing different styles, just like in a piece of art. Yes I know this sounds a bit pretentious!
But is´nt it fascinating how in just pieces of cloth that you wear you can refer back to 1960´s france; brigitte bardot, pierre le fou, and also american highschool tradition, and a dash of english schoolboy preppyness.
I appreciate your dressing Momus, because I hint that you have the same way of thinking about it. Maybe I´m wrong?
Sometimes this kind of "crossdressing" in lack of other words can look quite odd, maybe the clothes don´t really fit together, hence comments like above, but when you get the context it´s such fun! It gives an extra dimension to life, once again just like a piece of art.
speaking of your clothing momus, i love the kind of army-hat you wear, where´d you get that? what´s it called?


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 03:38 pm (UTC)

the mission is..do what u fuckin want..


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 03:50 pm (UTC)

u gotta experiment, mate....


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tyrsalvia
tyrsalvia
Autumn, Suburban Machiavelli
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 04:41 pm (UTC)

A couple of years ago, I did a photo project and related study (the photo project was out of my own desire, it turned into a study for a class) on gender and presentation. Specifically, I photographed people dressed normally, and then I asked them to wear what they might wear if they were of the opposite sex. I had only nine people, but I mad men, women, one fully transitioned MTF woman, one guy taking female hormones not to transition but to be more androgynous, and one person who had started out female and now prefers the masculine pronoun but wishes to remain otherwise ambiguously gendered.

It was really interesting. Particularly the MTF woman. She'd been living as a woman for about five years and had done hormones and surgery. She's asian, so she's already small and slight of figure, which worked to her advantage such that when dressed in women's clothes, she is totally passable. Virtually no one who saw those pictures considered whether she might be another gender. As soon as she put on her old clothes from when she "used to be a boy," her entire posture changed. People who saw these photographs almost immediately assumed she was male. What's even more interesting is that the clothes were almost identical - she showed up wearing jeans and a fitted women's tshirt, and when she changed, she just changed into a men's tshirt.

Similarly, the funniest thing about the photo of this very masculine older guy (a friend's father that she sort of coerced into the project) was the way he sat on my chair, shoulders slightly hunched and legs wide open (though wearing a very short skirt).

In all the photos, the posture is almost more identifying than the clothes, in terms of gender. I've come to believe that, while everything you say above is absolutely true, the way we feel in the clothes we put on is of almost equal importance to the clothes themselves.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 05:20 pm (UTC)

What a waste of fucking time.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 04:50 pm (UTC)

I prefer the outfits that you picked out for Sarah. Besides the whole dramatic-self-presentation, this post could've gone in another direction: when couples choose clothes for one another (I know you're not dating Sarah...) The stereotype is often than boyfriends are horrible dressers, have no interest in fashion...but what's a girl to do when her boyfriend is more stylish than she is and he's always getting her to change clothes?
My boyfriend loves the hipster look (jeans and high top cons and ironic tshirts) but I have to say I prefer the more feminine outfits...when every girl wears tapered jeans, those dresses do look more eccentric.

-Monique


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 05:22 pm (UTC)

And if you're female, there's nothing better than being feminine.


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tyrsalvia
tyrsalvia
Autumn, Suburban Machiavelli
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 04:51 pm (UTC)

What's sad about all this is that, when I travel to Europe in a few weeks, I'll be dressing boringly. I'll have probably two pair of black pants and four or five plain pullover shirts. I'll be moving around enough that taking more would be impractical, and taking anything partiuclarly exciting wouldn't be prudent. I wonder if this is why your American friend was wearing the jeans and tshirt: utility, both in the moment and for current and future travel.

I find myself wanting to bring cooler clothes for the week that I'll be in Berlin, since I'll be meeting a bunch of people and whatever all else, wanting to go out. But then, that's also nervewracking in it's own way - having not been to Berlin since 1998, I have no idea how to look more interesting than idiotic, so blending into the background almost seems a better idea.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 05:23 pm (UTC)

Free tip: slide your wig approximately 6 inches to the right.


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rampala_quistis
rampala_quistis
Natalie Rose
Tue, Dec. 5th, 2006 06:39 pm (UTC)

Thank you for this.

I was recently trying to explain to someone how it wasn't so much a look that was important as much as the idea of presenting one's self, and failed miserably.

I look at each day as a chance to put on a costume, or at least be able to feel good about what I'm wearing when nothing else goes right. And there are certainly times when I think I've taken the idea of accessorizing too far (I have more socks than I do underwear in a wide variety of color schemes and styles, I wears scarves, aprons, fake glasses, and I've recently started considering wigs... all this in addition to vests, skirts, pants, leggings, sweaters, dresses, hats, shoes, and petticoats), but it's all in good fun.


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