To an adolescent, feelings about clothes are apt to go beyond the old adage that "clothes make the man." Clothes are the man. His clothes, as it were, are a part of him. By them will he--or she--be judged.
The inordinate concentration on appearance, the fussiness over a shirt's not being loose enough, jeans not tight enough, skirts not long enough, ties in with the feeling that the person and the clothes are one. It's as if our boy or girl were saying, "If my clothes are all right, then I'm all right; if they're wrong, then I'm awry."
The strutting or posing or gawking by the hour in front of the mirror is not so often vanity. It is anxiety. It's as if he were appraising not only his clothes but himself and his body.
Concern over his body is natural in these years, as we have seen. Part of it ties in with the growing awareness of sexual changes and the thrust of sexual feelings. Anything that he feels is "wrong" with his body or with his sexual feelings is apt to make him more self-conscious about his clothes.
Even the apparent unconcern of "the-sloppier-the-better" attitude may in truth be the opposite.
Says Rick's father sternly, "Why on earth, Rick, do you have to keep looking so sloppy?"
"Why?" Rick returns nonchalantly. "Don't you know, Dad, that's the style?"
The denial of interest in clothes may be denial of concern over his body or over himself. He may once more be using the hiding technique we've heard about before. Or he may be harking back to earlier, more babyish stages of development where messiness was the prime joy in life.
As we well know by now, one thing that may throw the adolescent back to an earlier stage is the sense of rivalry that so often creeps in with growing up--the boy's rivalry with father; the girl's rivalry with mother.
"I wish I were as attractive as my mother," groans Emily. "She's old, it's true, but isn't she stunning? And," with envy apparent, "you should see her pictures when she was young! I could never equal her. Never."
With guilt over her own rivalry feelings Emily feels twinges of insecurity, for one thing, in selecting her clothes. She wants to do her own choosing and yet she wants her mother's approval, which means that in a way she is dependent on her mother's choice.
Similar feelings exist in many a youngster. They swing from wanting to choose independently to wanting help or approval dependently.
"Tell me, Mother, do I look all right? Isn't my skirt too bunchy? Isn't my hair terrible?" pleads Eva. But in the next breath she waves her mother's opinion aside and exclaims with utter disdain, "Moth-er, you're foolish to say this isn't becoming. This, I repeat, is what all the girls wear!"
"Look, Mum," crows Clara, exultantly pirouetting in front of the mirror, "this is just gorgeous! This is really my type of dress!" Then, in sudden pause, with yearning for Mother's praise peeking from behind the wish for self-assertion, "I realize, of course, that it doesn't suit your taste, but honestly don't you think it just suits mine?"
What these attitudes sum up to in our day-to-day living makes the choosing of clothes a subject of tender and often irrational moment.
"Why can't they be content with hand-me-downs?" Or "Why do they want them?" Father's overcoat. Mother's earrings. Like having a claim to a parent's fame. Or like wanting none of it because of the wish and drive for fame of one's own. As for discards from older brother or sister, these are strictly to be hung on the limb of a tree to be carried off by the wind!
Borrowing, however, is another matter. Here one's own choice functions. When one wants, it's fine to borrow another person's attractiveness, as it were. It's intriguing to show how neatly one can outrival the other person by looking better and then, just as neatly, to salve one's conscience and regain one's own individuality by returning the possession. It's like stepping into another person's shoes with freedom to step out at will and get back into one's own with a sigh of comfort.
But when one's own shoes are borrowed, this is another matter. "Mother, please," with indignation, "won't you tell Blanche to stay out of my drawers!"
How to keep peace is a futile question. The wrangling and fussing between brethren--this is a normal and wholesome part of growing up.
At this age, too, shopping may become a major issue.
Says Steve, "Gee, Ma, I don't know what kind of slacks to get. Won't you or Dad go with me?"
Says Mother, "Steve, you make me weary. Last week you said you wanted to be independent; you'd decide for yourself." "But, Ma!" with a kind of giving-up shrug, "last week it didn't matter so much. This week . . . well, Betty's going out with me and I have to look right."
No matter the reason, in one mood, at one moment, a youngster feels uncertain. In another mood, at another moment, the independent spirit rules. It's wise when he feels wobbly to come to the rescue, not with the clinging or clenching grasp but with a hand that gives willing support and then willingly lets go and withdraws to leave the youngster free on his own when the sense of being stronger is restored.