A character in Henry James' short story, Portrait of a Lady, Madame Merle has greater validity in her argument that the self comes through our surroundings. Her points that our clothing, company, and activities have a great deal of influence on the people we become are especially true today.
Clothing is much more than cloth to cover the body. Clothing sets people apart and determines our social hierarchy. Isabel Archer holds an opposing view; that the self is not expressed by anything else, especially not clothing. Well, sorry Isabel, but half an hour at Flatirons Crossing or one day at Boulder High gives too many examples of clothing determining one's life so that I cannot agree. A freshman's first day at Boulder High is extremely stressful. Not just because there is the fear of getting lost, or "creeked," but also because wearing the "right" clothing is so important. From the beginning, it is easy to tell who is friends with whom based on clothing.
I am an athlete, it is expected that I dress like an athlete, and to come to school dressed like anything else would draw attention to myself. No matter what level I look at, the conformity in dress obviously sets groups apart.
The company one keeps also plays a big part in the envelope, as Madame Merle refers to, that defines our self. I am a jock. Ask anyone. How is it that what I am can be summed up in one word, or that others could do the same? Easy, my surroundings. I do sports. So do my friends. I dress in clothes ready for practice or reflecting past tournaments. I am a billboard for volleyball. And because of this activity, I can define who I am by the people around me. Archer may argue that this just happens to be something that I do. However, by letting these people play such a large role in my life, I am changing who I am and my perspectives reflect an athlete's point of view.
The society Archer believes in does not exist. Archer does not want to be defined by what she wears or does. But who she is is largely decided by everything that is around her. Can teachers and classmate see someone on a skateboard and not associate drugs with that person? I would love the word to see me more than just an athlete, rather than having to prove my larger range of interests. Though the skater boy and I are much more, time and again people make decisions based on a quick glance.
People try to break the trend, showing that their self is not determined by their clothing. They show this carelessness by dressing and acting differently. But, is this not further supporting Madame Merle? If by trying to show that I am different, more than just a jock, a skater, whatever, and I dress in a different way, I am defining myself once again by my surroundings. If I just do not care about what people think, how then would I dress? Are pajamas neutral apparel? Is there such a thing as neutral apparel? Madame Merle makes a strong point when she asks if Isabel would prefer being naked, showing that dress is an expression of preference, which directly connects to the self.
The self is largely expressed by our actions, and especially, appearance. Isabel presents an ideal situation for today's society, but Madame Merle's concept of the self has greater validity, as who I am today has greatly been affected by everything around me, including the labels in my clothing.