What do we notice?
What do we notice and why?
I’ve been watching The Gilded Age on HBO the past few weeks - think Downton Abbey but set in 1880s New York. It follows a set of families as new, rich, railroad tycoons and their wives jostle for status and power. One of the things that really keeps amazing me about the show is the incredibly involved clothing worn by all the main characters. That led me to this site about Gilded Age Fashion on Google Arts & Culture - it’s the costume collection at the Frick Pittsburgh.
Here is one of the hats from collection. It has a dead bird on it since feathers and hats were really important.
As I write this I’m in my routine black cotton sweatpants and black cotton t-shirt that took me about 5 seconds to put on. I can’t help but marvel at how much more thought and meaning went into clothing back then. Corsets, elaborate dresses that rich women would change three times a day (there were dresses just for tea!), Japanese fashion influence was ascendant, parasols had become accessories, there were boots specially made for your carriage rides…
Of course, people also invest in fashion today but is it to the same degree and as extensive? There is couture and a lot of people invest a lot in their clothing, but it feels like overall the complexity from that time period has decreased significantly - at least across American society as a whole.
What do we choose to notice and why? What do we as societies and sub-cultures look into and decide to make our focus?
I don’t really care about my clothes to the same degree now that I work from my house but in other times and places I’ve cared much more. At some point when I was young brands really mattered: “Oh that’s Abercrombie & Fitch!” I can still remember being ashamed or proud of certain clothes... It all seems foolish in retrospect but I can bring back raw feelings just by thinking about it.
And it’s the same for everything around me. I care about teas but not really about the milk I drink. I care about my phone but not about my wallet. I care about having a clean kitchen but less about having a clean car. Other people are probably the opposite.
In Japan sidewalks are clean. In England people care about accents. Zen Buddhist monks care about which foot goes through the door first. Some countries care that bathrooms are clean. Others care that no shoes are used indoors. In China you put a paper down before you sit down on a floor outside. In France people really care about having proper meals.
Culture. Coolness. Fashion. Norms. Civilization. The power of marketing. Peer pressure. Branding. Mimetic desires. What we notice is a proxy for who we are and what we and the people around us care about.
The range of things people can care about and imbue with status is infinite. And so too can it be changed. Our aesthetic frame of reference guides us and is ever-shifting.