Rachael Garrett is a self professed ‘recovering fashion designer’ who’s currently pursuing her PhD in media technology, looking at aspects of ethics in the use of drones. This morning she allowed herself a bit of a relapse as she hosted a seminar on representational aesthetics; the kind that is all about what stories we’re trying to tell about ourselves. I found it highly interesting, here are just a few things that stayed with me:

When American super model Karlie Kloss appeared in Vogue made up like a Geisha—in a “diversity theme” issue—it went viral in a way she hadn’t hoped for, whereas when Jacinda Ardern met with Queen Elisabeth II wearing a traditional Maori korowai cloak, it was met with pride and enthusiastic support online. That’s because one is an example of cultural appropriation, and the other of cultural representation. I never exactly thought of the distinction, but it obviously makes perfect sense now that I do.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, pink was coded a passionate male colour and baby girls got dressed in blue, which was thought to signal cool control and demureness. Also; speaking of getting dressed: the odd fact that women’s shirt are buttoned lef-over-right, is likely a remnant of a past where men dressed themselves whereas (upper class) women got dressed by servants. Since most of said servants were right-handed, it made sense to design women’s clothes in such a way that they could be optimally buttoned.

Oh and also, when we’re at the topic of gender coded fashion: I never knew that high heel shoes were invented to make men look more masculine!

Speaking of buttons; I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that that I never knew you’re supposed to leave the last suit button unbuttoned. Now that that I’ve filled that gap in my sartorial education, I also got the bonus insight of where this unspoken rule originated. Apparently King Edward VII was obese to the point that he had to unbutton whenever mounting a horse. Not to make the king self conscious about this, people around him silently starting to do the same. The rest, as they say, is history.

Stepping into the present, and revealing further blind spots: I never knew that New Balance sneakers started to become associated with neo-nazism about fifteen years ago and that the brand had to engage fiercely in counter campaigning in order to repair its brand identity.

I also didn’t know that Burberry—a brand I associate with fox hunting aristocrats—got so smeared by association from its popularity among British football hooligans, that they decided to discontinue their popular baseball caps.

And on the same note, although I think I somehow had picked this one up: that Fred Perry stopped selling their iconic polo shirt after it had gotten adopted as an identity marker by the American far-right group Proud Boys.

I’ve noticed how designers, architects, actors and also lots of tech people (myself included) seem to share a preference for black, but I never thought about what it’s supposed to signal. The ‘black uniform’ says you’re above the fray, that you’re designing, not the ones being designed.

Last of all, I was struck by a question: if woke is such an important concept in the ongoing culture wars, then how come there’s no apparent way of signaling wokeness? My uneducated guess would be that woke is seldom a chosen identity. Being called a punk or a hippie can be insulting, depending on who says it, but also a proudly chosen identity, I guess woke is different that way. Or rather: I never thought of that before, but see it now. That’s refreshing!