October 28, 2012, by Stephen Mumford

Appearance and Reality

I realise that my life is full of contradictions. I’m shy yet I enjoy attention; high-intellect attracts me yet I’m also fond of comic books; I love to visit my roots yet I’m mostly found hidden away in the world of academe. Added to that is the struggle in which I’m perpetually caught between appearance and reality.

Most of us like to look good. We seem to gain confidence wearing new clothes: fashionable clothes that fit us well, emphasize our best bodily features or hide our worst. We like a haircut to match, designer glasses, new shoes or trainers, and to have well-manicured hands. Sometimes the look is formal and sometimes casual. We want to fit in with our surroundings: to be attractive, admired by others and, as well as our behaviour, this includes being dressed well.

Yet I’ve always been struck by how utterly vacuous this can be too. Fashion is an industry. It profits by our insecurity. It manufactures new styles so that we buy more and replace attire that otherwise remains perfectly serviceable. And there is something quite calculating about its regular seasonal schedule, with the biggest swings in fashion procuring the greatest profit. Our glasses were once large and round, then they were narrow and rectangular, and when everyone has a pair of those, the fashion is for large and round once more.

Apart from that, the troubling issue of superficiality should also be addressed. Why should people respond to you according to your appearance? Should we not be judged by our actions and words more than our looks? Yet I find this not to be the case. And it is easy to exploit, for instance by power-dressing for an important meeting.

Arguably, however, the appearances are part of the reality rather than being independent of them. What is inside has to be conveyed by what is outside. And thus with one’s clothing one issues a statement to the world. One expresses something: for everyone must have an appearance and must make the decision what it is to be. Maybe I am not alone in my uneasiness but a metaphysical inseparability prevents any resolution. The appearance and reality in this case form a synthetic unity – an indivisible whole – and I can no more decide to go without an appearance than I can decide to have no reflection.

Posted in AestheticsArt History