I have to get new clothes soon, because it’s spring. Not that I’m keeping up with the latest trends, just all my summer clothes are shredded and stained with last year’s mud. So it’s time to head to the thrift store and find some dead-people clothes.

I never feel good buying new clothes. They smell weird, they’re bad for the environment, and they’re stiff with the sorrow of the working class. Also they’re expensive. So I thrift. And I don’t want to wear the banal fashions of last year, so I aim for the dead-guy clothes. They’re generally better quality, classier, and have that extra room in the “sag zone” that has been abandoned by modern tastemakers (to everyone’s detriment). Despite their provenance, these duds hold fewer ghosts than the sweatshop wares. At least they’ve been laundered since the last time they were drenched in tears.

I like the layering of timelines, too. It gives that Blade Runner effect, the old with the new, the strata of fashion churned by tectonic forces of necessity. As I deliberated on a dozen decades of cuts and cloths and color schemes, I found an unlikely ally: nerds on the internet.

There’s a community on Reddit called /r/mensfashionadvice, or MFA. It’s in the top hundred communities, with over 2 million subscribers. It’s a world of its own, a digital nation. In fact, MFA has more members than the actual “digital nation” of Estonia.

There’s a /r/femalefashionadvice too, and it has a third as many subscribers (776K). This is a little under the 2:1 ratio of Reddit users at large. The FFA community is fine, of course, and naturally I’m biased to the clothes that are made for people my shape. But there’s a qualitative difference to the two communities, and MFA seems to have a taken on a life of its own in a way that not all subreddits have – even its sister community.

MFA has a wiki, a recommended-reading list, a FAQ page. It feels more like Wikipedia than like /r/funny. The members have come together to curate a sort of Queer Eye for the Extremely Online Guy. You can learn how to tie your shoes, how to knot your tie, how to knit your hat, how to tailor your suit. They have their own memes, their own archetypes: the Basic Bastard, the Forest Druid, the Goth Ninja.

Of course, these are nerds. They’re not doing avant-garde genderless fashion, or afrofuturism, or solarpunk. They’re seeking formulaic channels in the consumerist landscape. Sure, there are intriguing forays into DIY clothes or experimental fits, but for the most part they’re just making explicit the unspoken rules of the status quo. Saying the quiet parts out loud.

Which is great, for a brain like mine. The userbase of Reddit skews heavily male and young, and though I haven’t seen any data on this, I would bet it has a high percentage of neurodivergent and autism-spectrum people. It’s confusing to grow up in a world with millions of social rules that other people’s brains naturally pick up, when yours doesn’t. A guideline as simple as “match your shoes with your belt” can be a revelation.

In the past, kids learned these rules explicitly (through church, school, etc) and had to rebel against them. But once capital had cornered the earth and every subculture was mined for its symbolism, we had a world of clothes that anyone could wear and none of them meant anything. For a price you can buy the simulacrum of a social role. But you can’t buy a culture.

MFA, for all its banal button-downs and boat shoes, is a culture. It’s an egregore, a memetic organism with its own drives and homeostasis. It eats Scrubs and excretes Average Joes. In the petri dish of its subreddit, it has achieved its own identity. MFA members recognize each other, though they may only exchange a knowing glance. Their clothes send signals. Their sense of meaning and belonging is restored. They have each joined something greater than themselves.

In Ada Palmer’s lustrous Terra Ignota series, hyperfast air travel makes nation-states obsolete. Instead of being drafted into the government of your birth location, you choose a Hive to join as you become an adult. The Hives represent different cultures: the imperious Masons, the forgiving Cousins, the industrious Utopians. Those who haven’t chosen a hive are Graylaws, following a rudimentary legal code. Those who reject even the Graylaws become Blacklaws, subject only to universal precepts like “no killing children”, “no torturing animals”, and “no destroying civilization”.

Masons wear suits. Cousins wear shawls. Utopians wear VR goggles all the time, Blacklaws wear a black sash. Of course, within each of the Hives there are subtle distinctions of fashion. But the idea of declaring your allegiance with your clothes is an ancient magical practice, and with the renaissance of magic it’s coming back. As these internet cultures rear their heads in real life, what symbolism will we see? Swastikas were once an icon of peace. What fashions do we see, even now, that we will one day look back on with horror?

Superheroes wear their symbolism front and center. So do NASCAR drivers. I’m off to the thrift store to look for clothes that scream “No Destroying Civilization”.

What image do you project? What values do you care enough to wear them on your sleeve?

Thanks for reading,

– Max


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