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Color portrait of Tim Gunn, from waist up. He's half turned to the camera, wearing a dark suit and purple tie; a window is in the background.
Tim Gunn. Photo: Scott McDermott

Tim Gunn on Fashion

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—Tim Gunn is an academic, bestselling author and television star. He won an Emmy Award for his role as host of “Project Runway.” He wrote this piece for the January-February issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, which is devoted to fashion.

I make a pronounced distinction between fashion and clothes. Fashion bubbles up from a context, one that is societal, historical, cultural, economic and even political. Fashion designers are a barometric gauge of our society and culture. They need to know the news headlines, what books and films are commanding attention, the frequented blogs and podcasts and the daunting content and volume of streaming platforms, not to mention social media. These elements are responsible for fashion’s constant change.

Clothes, on the other hand, don’t have to change. They can remain static for decades. Consider the L.L. Bean catalog (for which I have tremendous respect and from which I own quite a few items): Bean’s clothing staples have remained largely unchanged for years, and that’s a good thing. Let’s say you want to replace a worn out pair of blucher mocs you bought 12 years ago. That same pair is still there, waiting for your purchase.

For the sake of comfort, propriety and protection, we need clothes. But we don’t need fashion. We want fashion, but we don’t need it. The cultural forces that exist will have us believe that it’s our responsibility as citizens of the world to know, and ideally embrace, the latest fashion trends and movements. Furthermore, fashion is a pendulum; it swings one way, then another. A current trend is loose, even voluminous, pants. It’s a reaction to the prevalence of form-fitting ones. Fashion wants us to buy things. Otherwise, fashion becomes static and morphs into clothes. Ergo, trends. And a trend is only relevant if it works for you. Otherwise, don’t even consider it, because you’ll look like a fashion victim.

Personal style is a form of semiotics. The clothes we wear send a message about how the world perceives us. That’s a very tall order and one for which we must accept responsibility. I tell people that I don’t care how they dress as long as they accept responsibility for their decision making. Some people tell me that this stance is shallow and inappropriately judgmental. Is it? When we meet someone for the first time, we immediately assemble a collection of thoughts and assumptions based on how they’re dressed. Actually, we do this with everyone we see on the street! Is that person neat and tidy or an unmade bed? Are they a traditionalist or a hipster? Are they saying, “look at me!” or “go away”? People tell me this stance is overly judgmental. Yes, it is. But how do we distinguish between the staff in a restaurant versus the diners? Hospital personnel versus patients? The guides in Central Park? Answer: their clothes.

While I appreciate, and even admire, people who regularly change their fashion according to whims and impulses (my beloved Heidi Klum is one), I sincerely believe in the efficacy of a uniform; that is, clothing that you can effortlessly reach for in your closet, that looks good on you, makes you feel confident and won’t look dated in six months or a year. I personally subscribe to this belief, because, quite frankly, it’s easy.

The wonderful thing about fashion today is that you can be whoever you want to be. Gone are the decades of highly prescriptive dressing. So, consider the power of semiotics and think about how you want the world to perceive you.

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Comments (3)

  1. I hope the traditional American dress as webille will return to this time, to the world of new fashion,it is very beautiful to suit our current era

  2. Love Tim. And that interview from your link was so well worth watching!

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