A couple of years ago I was browsing the new collection from a Styleforum affiliate vendor when I saw they had a nice, inexpensive light-wash denim shirt. It had a button-down collar with a great collar roll, no-frills, and it was priced at an accessible $55. I turned to my brother and said: “I want to get one of these—it’ll be perfect for mowing the lawn and doing yard work!” Always a sharp observer, he replied: “Don’t be Ken doll, Mitch.” I laughed, but he was right: I didn’t need a new light-wash denim shirt just to do yard work.
Ken (full name Kenneth Sean Carson) doll is famous for having an outfit for every occasion. If he were a #styfodude, we’d see him in his “perfect going out to pick up donuts early on a Sunday morning” outfit, or his “my dad’s retiring slightly early at age 59 party” outfit, or his “having some friends over to watch the Mandalorian together” outfit.
I’ve been thinking about the Ken doll since watching Toy Story 3—which prominently features Ken (who wears 21 outfits during the film) and even a whole sub-plot where he gets really excited about doing a fashion show for Barbie; a friend of mine commented: “Hey, that’s just like Mitch!” Ouch.
Having clothes that are appropriate for different occasions is not the problem here. First, we all recognize that our standard of living is vastly higher than any of us need, and the clothes we all lust after and buy are inherently a luxury. After all, most human beings at any time in history would have owned only one or two sets of clothing. The biblical Judge Samson—before his ill-fated hair cut—bet his Philistine foes an enormous sum of 30 sets of clothing they couldn’t answer his riddle. He lost and killed 30 Philistines to make good on his bet.
Secondly, there are legitimate occasions where dressing a certain way is socially expected or even required—and that’s true in every culture. Taking interest in clothing, to be able to dress the best/coolest way we can is totally legitimate.
But things start to get out of hand when you start inventing fake occasions to buy clothing for. Derek Guy nailed the joke with this tweet:
Look, it’s fine to just want something because it’s cool. Let’s not fool ourselves by inventing fake occasions for it, and let’s be honest that at a certain point, we’re all subject to a culture of rampant materialism. We like to buy things because human beings throughout history have always liked new things. When Gengis Khan began to conquer neighboring tribes on the Steppe, the sources of the time say the Mongols did not change clothes but wore them until they rotted off their skin (they supposedly disfavored bathing regularly as well). Their clothing was extremely modest, some accounts describing garments being stitched together from the hides of field mice. As the Great Khan conquered the neighboring peoples of Asia, the flow of goods back home raised that standard of living substantially, to the point that he faced political restlessness when he had conquered all of his neighbors, and the flow of new goods began to wane. Therefore, he had to go farther afield to find new empires to crush and cities to loot in order to satiate the newfound thirst for material wealth of his people.
Today we aren’t literally looting the dead corpses of our enemies to clothe ourselves, but we have to contend with shady labor practices in foreign nations and the question of sustainability as the amount of garments produced per year is 20x higher than the number of humans habiting the planet. Even the small steps of simply taking more interest in the origins of your clothes, buying used or secondhand where possible, and honestly just reflecting on your motives for acquiring new clothing are positive things to do in the face of the immense wastefulness of the garment industry.
The desire for new things and clothes for specific purposes (even rare occasions, like black tie rigs) is a universal human condition; it’s fine. Just be self-aware enough to know that you’re kidding yourself about something you want when you start trying to invent reasons to wear something. When that happens, it’s probably a sign you need to pass it up and let someone else buy it for their Sunday donut runs.