Growing up, my best friend in middle school had the raddest tee. It was simple enough – navy and fitted – with a tiny line of white text on the front. But it’s message was far from subtle, reading “Labels are for jars. And you are not a jar.” She’d picked it up at a concert, and in the age of Guess jeans and “Button Your Fly” t-shirts, it was a bold alternative to the walking billboards that infiltrated our small town. Yet I’ve always wondered if – even when we’re not toting brand names or ad slogans – we’re still labeling ourselves? Are we becoming billboards for our lifestyle?
Rotterdam-based duo photographer Ari Versluis and stylist Ellie Uyttenbroek would undoubtedly argue yes. Their project, Exactitudes, is an extensive anthology of style tribes, individuality and the uniforms we choose to don on a daily basis. From trenchcoat-draped “Cappuccio Girls” to combination hoodie+leather-clad “Team Doppios,” the pair has uncovered over 120 cultural style tribes and sub-tribes from different parts of the world. Yet perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect of this project is the realization that each person is photographed precisely how they were spotted on the street – no staging, styling or altering of any ensemble.
The idea that we are all expressing our own individuality while simultaneously looking exactly like each other is fascinating to me. I think we’ve all joked about The Official Blogger Uniform of stripes, polka dots, sock buns and thick glasses frames (I’m waiting for Ari and Ellie to photograph this one), but the reality is that, by embracing this “uniform,” we’re collectively flashing our blogging badge to the world. We’re announcing that we read blogs and write articles and schedule posts, and that the neon satchel we’re carrying just might be storing a shiny Mac and and our editorial calendar.
As I’ve started placing an emphasis on becoming mindful and present and creative this year, I’ve given a lot of thought to personal style (which today, if you’re curious, consists of leggings and a gray tee – a signal to my world that I work from home and plan to venture to yoga later this afternoon). And I can’t help but be reminded of the idea that labels are for jars. And we are not jars.
I worry that the lens in which I view personal style is becoming my own filter bubble - that I’m subconsciously spending my time out in the world scanning faces and shoes and bags to find my tribe, when really I should be looking at the jar itself. At the eyes, the stories, the souls.
Labels are wonderful and helpful and often beautiful, but they are limiting. Because, in truth, there’s only enough room for a visual and a few ingredients and the small portion of the story you want to tell. There’s no room to display the struggles and trials and successes and sleepless nights and endless conversations. I wouldn’t expect there to be.
But I can seek to open the jar, regardless of the label. That I’d stock my pantry with the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful and the striped and not-so-striped. And that I’d make a wonderful meal with those jars, and I’d invite over many different Exactitudes to sit at my table and dine with me. (I’d let The Fluffies provide entertainment.)
Feel free to come along. The more jars, the merrier.
Image Credits: Exactitudes