Fashion Pass

Thoughts on style in medicine

Every time the CFM packet tells us to wear something “our grandmothers would like,” I cringe. Aside from the cultural complexities that the statement ignores (my grandmother’s idea of dressing well is a starched silk sari + your weight in gold jewelry), it also makes me wonder if I’m supposed to hide inside my ill-fitting white coat for the rest of my training and/or career.

Dr. Lash’s well-intentioned advice aside, the question of whether fashion has any place in medicine looms large in mind; I’ve often wondered if sometime soon in my future is a time when spring dresses and high heels are a distant memory. As this school year draws to a close, I’ve entered a bit of a shopping frenzy to buy and wear as many wonderful summer clothes in what may be my last summer of minidresses and flip flops ever.

Photograph by Aarti Surti

I don’t remember when or how I first started loving clothes, but as any fashionista can tell you, when you fall, you fall hard. The rush of wearing something you truly love is difficult to explain, but it’s much more than an insane shopaholic’s addiction.

When I look at my wardrobe, I remember where every piece came from. My red raincoat isn’t just a pretty red raincoat; it’s a coat I rummaged around and found at the bottom of a sale bin in 8th grade that I’ve had (and used) for over a decade. I remember going through a particularly messy breakup and realizing that my coat had been there for me more than he ever had. I realized that the coat was probably more worth my tears than some guy who was causing me nothing but pain. Silly? Maybe. But it helped me see the bigger picture.

So we know now that fashion can do more than just cover your body, but it still doesn’t answer the question of how fashion fits into the field of medicine. If medicine is a profession oriented toward serving the suffering, the opulence and flashiness of fashion seems to be its diametric opposite. It certainly seems hypocritical to sit around discussing how to improve health care for the underinsured or control costs while wearing extravagantly expensive clothes. I’ve spent the better part of the past few months pondering this question. I still don’t have a clear answer, but I stumbled upon a realization during my last visit to NYC.

I found my way back to my favorite jewelry shop in the West Village. It’s unique both because of its handmade Turkish jewelry as well as the fact that it is on the corner of Bleecker and Macdougal (home to Kati Roll, Mamoun’s, and lots of other late night fun) and open until midnight. It’s the perfect place to take a break while bar-hopping or before stumbling into a cab to get home. As I returned, nearly a year after moving out of the city, the shop owner’s eyes lit up. She jumped up, hugged me like an old friend, and asked how I had been doing. As we tried on rings together, I told her about medical school and my summer plans, and as she wrapped up my purchase, she reminded me to call her next time I was in town, and with her last hug, she told me how proud she was of me. I walked away filled with love for the things I had just bought and warm fuzzy feelings for her.

Photograph by Aarti Surti

As I walked home, I realized that the division between my love for fashion and medicine is not nearly as distinct as I thought. Both require meticulous attention to detail and quality. Both also require an observant eye and an ability to see things in context of a larger picture. But most importantly, they are both ways to understand and relate to the people around us.

The fashion that most people lust after (name brands, sample sales, designer handbags, etc) represents only the pinnacle of what is really out there. Underneath all that is the enormous variety of clothing, jewelry, shoes, that literally overflow from malls, street vendors, and websites all over the world that different people assemble in different ways, based on their resources, inclinations, and desires. It is then, that art of assembly, no matter the cost, which constitutes “fashion” and serves as a window into each person’s choices and decisions. Similarly, what we as physicians hope to do often just scratches the surface of the enormous diversity and variety of human need. We have designed protocols and tests to examine and understand the human body and mind, but ultimately, it is the gamut of humanity that we are trying to understand.

Fashion, then, is much more than a shopaholic’s addiction or merely a form of self-expression. It is also a way to understand and relate to others around you through buying, selling, observing and talking. Like medicine, it too is about all our individual stories: the story you tell about yourself to everyone who looks at you as well as the story of everyone you look at. It is woven into your outfits as a visual representation of both your histories. So the advice still stands: choose your clothes wisely, but choose for yourself, not for grandma.



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