Sandra Michels Adams is wearing a loose, chocolate brown halter dress in the manner of her idol, 1930s American designer Claire McCardell. Her feet are bare. The sharp edges of her russet hair fall against smooth, pale cheeks. Her glasses are tortoiseshell, her necklace and earrings clunky copper. She sits on a straight-backed couch in her study, surrounded by books with titles like Clothes Tell a Story and The Book of Beauty and Fascination, boxes of old Vogue magazines, rattan mannequins, and fringed scarves–the very picture of the fashionable and scholarly costume historian.

“There isn’t anything we do, including dressing, which doesn’t reflect our state of being, whether we’re conscious of it or not,” says Adams, who teaches classes on 19th- and 20th-century fashion at the School of the Art Institute. “Your taste is an indicator of who you are. People of a particular generation will always maintain some aspect of their time. When I’m an old lady I’ll probably look like I was a hippie in 1968. I won’t be able to help it.”

Adams, who calls herself “obsessed with meaning,” weaves threads of psychological, philosophical, political, and poetic meaning into her lectures. All these things, she says, are closely related to fashion. A sampling of her thoughts makes the point:

We base our choice in attire on very personal and largely unconscious criteria, some plucked from the media, some picked up on the street, some centered in inner longings. “I might want to be attractive, for example, to my husband. I may ask him, ‘Do you like me in brown? Do I look horrible in blue?'” Most of us, however, are not so methodical. “When we look in the mirror we really don’t know what we really see, so accustomed have we become to wearing a certain hairstyle or shade of lipstick. A lot of dressing is intuitive. We may occasionally be jolted into something new, but we tend to stay with the familiar.” Those familiar clothes, she says, tell other people what segment of culture we belong to, from the rock-club crowd in crucifixes and skulls to the blue-haired widows in sensible shoes.

The extent to which we decide to interact with society corresponds to how much we follow fashion. On the one hand, we want to make an impression on people, to fit in or distinguish ourselves. On the other, we want to be comfortable and lazy, we may even want to rebel or repulse.

“Fashion makes sympathizers or reactionaries of us all,” Adams says. “It’s only human to hold ourselves up to a paragon of perfection and want to achieve it. But we are also tyrannized by these ideals.” Feminists, for example, may want to wear baggy dresses to emphasize their freedom from the feminine ideal, but a baggy dress doesn’t usually attract the man of your dreams.

Many new styles of dress start out as protests to existing forms, Adams says. The all-black look may be daring today only in Des Moines, but it’s still an example of the power that artists have to create taste. “Artists are always among the first people who dress differently. They’re considered degenerate to begin with.”

Whatever your taste, any detail of your attire can be analyzed for meaning, giving you valuable information about yourself. “It’s almost akin to a kind of therapy,” Adams says. “Take any one element of your clothing and ask questions about it. Why this instead of that? What associations do you have with it? Just throw out words. How do your clothes feel physically on your body? Some people feel discomfort in tight clothes, others find them physically stimulating.” We seek to identify ourselves in our costumes, Adams says, as much as any actor on a stage.

Fashion is autobiographical, an unfolding of our individual histories. “I am really seeking to know the meaning of my mother’s past as a designer of ball gowns and a teacher of ballroom dancing at the Aragon Ballroom in the late 1930s,” says Adams. “But my mother was also mentally ill, and I became a nonconformist at an early age through no choice of my own. I, more than most people, wanted to be gloriously different from the masses.”

“The relationship between looking good and a kind of spiritual well-being is very clear. In dressing, we put on symbols of our desires. We model ourselves after an idealized self or idealized others. There is a fleeting Eden which only being in a fashion can create.”

But though we can choose our fashions, Adams says, we can’t choose to not be part of fashion. “It exists. It’s not something you can take or leave. I can’t think of anywhere you can live where you wouldn’t be touched by fashion if someone else were looking at you. Even if there were only one person on earth, if that person were you, there would still be that need to communicate with yourself, that need for self-esteem, that need for integrity, for identity. Fashion just might keep you from going crazy.”

Adams gives a free lecture and slide show titled “Taste and Fantasy, Fads and Design Elements in 20th Century Dress” at 12:15 PM today in the theater of the Public Library Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. A fashion show follows, in which staff members from the Department of Cultural Affairs model clothes from their own closets. Call 744-8928 for further information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.