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Studies 'n' style

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Costly thy habits
as thy purse can buy, /
But not expressed in fancy;
rich not gaudy, /
For the apparel oft
proclaims the man ...

Polonius from Hamlet

Do clothes make the man or woman? Perhaps not, but there's no doubt that fashion is a major outlet for individual expression. In high school, our style starts getting defined and our friends usually reflect our "thing." That "thing" may be preppy, nerd, goth or hip hop. The teenage years are filled with various incarnations of our "thing," and we may even dabble in one or more different looks until we find the one that most reflects the image of ourselves we want the world to see.

By the time we reach college, form and function have typically merged. Our style often emerges as a direct correlation between our course of study, how late we stayed out the night before and what time our first class begins the next morning. Visit a college campus – like MT did the first week of classes at Wayne State University – and study the student body. Can you distinguish the pre-laws from the art students or the business majors from the dancers? You probably think so.

But, you might be surprised. You could encounter a jazzy medical student or a Goth with a 100-watt smile. Stereotyping is taboo while interpreting expression through fashion. By definition, fashion allows an individual to project an image at any moment. But unlike more permanent expressions – such as plastic surgery or tattoos – one's fashion image can change daily according to mood, weather or occasion. How many of us own a power suit worn almost exclusively for interviews, big meetings or funerals?

The hip-hop generation and J Crew have helped redefine style. Casual and comfortable have replaced ultra-stylish. Dressed-up no longer means sequins, silk charmeuse and satin. In the new, anything-goes attitude, you might find jeans and ostrich feathers paired as evening wear in the '90s. The no-frills approach has even crept into corporate America with the adoption of casual Fridays in many offices.

Perhaps now, more than any other time in history, young people have a tremendous influence on the fashion industry. The most haute couture Paris fashion shows are set to the beat of urban rappers. Today's designers have tapped into the style and pocketbooks of pop, R&B and rap singers and fans alike, along with the occasional sitcom or movie star. In fact, the list of rappers with their own clothing lines – like Busta Rhymes and producer Russell Simmons of Def Jam fame – grows daily.

We wear the "costumes" that enable us to play the "roles" we accept each day. Our fashion sense develops over a lifetime, but can change at any moment. Your "uniform" doesn't define you, but it can give the world a glimpse of who you might be today.

And it doesn't matter what you wear as long as you're authentic – or as Polonius further counseled Hamlet, "to thine own self be true."

Sharnita C. Johnson is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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