In the middle of 2016, I did a talk for TEDxUWA:Masterpiece the inaugural micro-conference of a new TEDx organisation in WA, TEDxUWA. The subject of the talk was creative, personal expression and the support needed to be confident with that expression from a personal and family perspective.
You can see the talk here on YouTube.
Below is the original full text of the talk for those who’d rather read it. I delivered this from palm notes so the actual, delivered text is slightly different, but the same in essence.
Why do you dress the way you do?
Why do you pick your particular clothes?
Have you really thought of why you wear what you wear? Have you thought about what your appearance says to other people? What you are expressing through your clothes. I have. I’ve been thinking about it now and then for the last 20 years. More so now that I live in Perth.
I moved here with my family from Adelaide five years ago. Since arriving, we have often received comments on our appearance, most of them positive.
“You all look so great” is common. “You guys are the coolest family” was one that stood out.
“Are you all in a show” and “are you performers” happens sometimes, especially around fringe time. I used to say “no” until I started doing amateur opera, and now I need to accept that it’s not true anymore and I am a performer.
“You are a family of artists” was one that felt touching, as I’d never thought of us as that before.
Occasionally we get stranger comments like “take a look at the gypsies”, which was honestly kinda confusing.
But what I think most people see, and what they are admiring is just open, personal expression. They see somebody who is just being themselves and not wearing a uniform or a mask.
When I get dressed, I try to wear what makes me feel good about myself, and what I feel expresses who I am to the world.
But I didn’t always do this.
When I was in my early twenties, I grew up in the alternative scene in Adelaide, among the punks and goths and other fringe culture people. I dressed out of utility and a desire to not be seen. To not let anyone know too much about the real me. And partly that was because I didn’t know the real me either.
What I expressed though my clothes back then, was my desire to fit in with my immediate group, and my desire to keep everybody else away. I wanted to keep them away because I didn’t feel I fit in. And I felt vulnerable as I didn’t know who they thought I would be. So I covered myself up, in a uniform, in a mask.
So how did I come from then, and dressing to hide myself, to now, and dressing to express myself more fully?
I see there as being three main steps.
The first step was when I met my best friend, my partner, my wife. I met her at a punk gig, and when we met I had a feeling of instant comfort. I was completely at ease with her and I found myself able to be myself around her.
My wife from an early age has always been very expressive in the way she dresses, she likes to dress in a way that agrees with her mood. She won’t go out if she doesn’t feel right in her clothes. And she dresses very colourfully and vibrantly. And I was the opposite when we met. So we were an interesting looking pair back then.
Over time with her, I stopped having the need to hide from society and started dressing like a normal IT worker. But this wasn’t me either.
The second step was when we started having a family. My wife grew up in a family that lacked internal support and nurturing. In her family, people undermined and belittled each other. She grew up feeling unsupported and alone. And when we faced the idea of having a family of our own, we both agreed that our family should not be like that. So we started exploring and researching the idea of nurturing relationships and looked at ways of being more supportive ourselves.
So when we had kids and they started to grow older we specifically tried to maintain an environment where anyone could express themselves so long as they are respecting each other. Trying to avoid unnecessary negative judgements.
Doing this with the kids then started to carry over in how we felt about ourselves and slowly we became more comfortable with expressing ourselves to people other than each other.
The third step was when, as a young family, we moved to Scotland. Living in Scotland was a strangely liberating experience, especially in terms of self-expression. In Scotland, any quirk or oddity in how I went about things could often be explained by a simple “Oh, I’m an Australian”. So because of this, I started to be more like my inner self, my true self, and explained it away by being foreign, even though in truth much of it was just me and wasn’t really common Australian traits.
During this time I started to question more and more why I did a lot of things that I did when I was out in public. And I questioned why I dressed the way I did and realised I didn’t really like the way I dressed at all, but I wasn’t sure of how I did like dressing.
One realisation was that I always felt good when I dressed up to go to an event like a wedding, or an award ceremony, or even a job interview. When I needed to wear a suit. So I started to think why not just wear suits all the time? At first, that seemed a strange and extreme measure, but I did take a first step.
I never felt comfortable wearing t-shirts in general, so I decided to try and stop wearing them and wear button dress shirts instead. This was strange but liberating and when we left Scotland and came back to Australia I was a mostly button up wearer.
Once back in Adelaide, I found myself back among people who expected me to be the same and questioned my differences and I fell back to being more hidden. But I kept with my shirt choice and went further by slowly switching to wearing suits generally, even on the weekend.
The final trigger was discovering some hats on sale in Myer. At $5 I bought a couple on a whim and wearing them a bit, suddenly realised I was a hat person. This seemed to unlock the final part of my expression and people seemed to more accept the way I looked. I think because I felt more comfortable with myself.
At this point, my kids who had been watching me shift further into dressing this way also started to want to dress up more often when we went out. My older kids wanted to get suit jackets and hats too. Hats were easier than suits to get for their sizes. But they never considered it a strange thing to want.
Having moved to Perth now, I’m very comfortable with how I look. I also explain some of my oddities with “I’m from Adelaide” and it seems to work here too. I’ve also apparently become the inspiration of a number of people, young and old, to wear hats, bow ties and waistcoats. I’ve been told there is one teenage boy who has built a whole wardrobe around how I dress and even lends his clothes out to friends.
And my kids continue to be comfortable to wear what feels right for them and not be too worried about what others will think.
So what then was the mechanics of this change in myself? What is the reason my kids feel comfortable facing the world this way?
I see it as having a base of acceptance and support within our own home environment. We have created a place in our home where people can be vulnerable with safety and try new things, where people can be themselves with confidence. I think that having that safety at home gives people a base of confidence to be themselves when they are out and exposed to the wider world.
And I see this as being very important for the development of culture. I see culture as, among other things, an expression of the inner experience of a people. Everyone has their own personal expression and thus their own personal culture, and these personal cultures combine and blend with others making the larger cultures that we all live in.
But these cultures are not dead, static things. They grow and adapt with the inputs of the participants. And cultures are as rich as the variety of the expressions that make it up. But if we as a group laugh and poke fun at things that are different or strange, we help restrict that expression and that can only limit the richness of our culture.
So from all this, I guess what core of the idea I want to share, what I’d like you to think about, is this: “What if everyone had the confidence and the support to dress and live in a way that expressed themselves, and made them happy.”