Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

Is Individuality the New Conformity?

It’s not the recipe that makes a person unique, but how the ingredients are combined

"The only reason I'm in fashion is to destroy the word 'conformity,'" says designer and style icon Vivienne Westwood. By her standards, Montrealers are lucky; we live in a city where personal style isn't only accepted, it's encouraged. Montreal is full of funky little boutiques that sell locally-designed clothing alongside vintage accessories, original artwork, CDs, 'zines and lip gloss. These stores aren't just selling merchandise, they're selling a lifestyle-in one fell swoop we can buy all that our eccentric hearts desire. After all, we Montrealers have a reputation to uphold-we're known for our individuality and great fashion sense. We're all unique ... right?

I thought so until recently. I had gone out for a late-night poutine on a rainy Thursday evening with my friend Guy. Our favorite Mile-End greasy spoon was packed with the usual gang of chain-smoking hipsters and down-and-out winos. The waitress swiftly took our order and, as the fries sizzled, the cheese melted and the gravy simmered in the kitchen, I took the opportunity to look around the bustling establishment. I couldn't help but notice how "cool" everybody looked-and not in that Vanity-Fair-photo-shoot kind of way. Everyone had their very own personal styles; but strangely, they all looked the same. They were all slightly disheveled and wore vintage coats and different incarnations of paperboy hats and old-school footwear. One girl in particular was wearing black pouffy capris, mesh stockings, black-and-pink zebra-print shoes and a red-and-white polka-dot apron. She got up and put her lime-green vintage coat on before walking up to the cash. She made no excuses for her outfit; she wore that apron as unselfconsciously as I would wear a black hoodie. The odd thing was that no one even flinched. Her bold, ironic, tongue-in-cheek style was lost in a sea of fashion statements.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not judging-I own as many pairs of old-school Pumas as the next person. But before we all collectively pat ourselves on our backs for being so cool (or anti-cool), fashionable (or anti-fashionable) and unpretentiously distinct, we should take a closer look at our so-called "individuality." Toronto writer Hal Niedzviecki said it best in his book, Hello, I'm Special-individuality is the new conformity. In a world where everyone wants to be special, look different, and stand out from the crowd, very few people actually do.

Here's an excerpt:

"These are hard times for individuality," Luc Sante writes in The New York Times. "Even if you engage in some kind of radical piercing, like encasing both eyebrows in tight rows of small rings, and by this means emphatically announce to the world that you are not employed in middle management at a Fortune 500 company, you are hardly doing something unprecedented.

In fact, Sante points out, the opposite is the case: Adopting this radical look "virtually insures that you've taken notice of all other humans in your town or on your travels who have done the same."

So basically, everything has been done before. A lot of girls dress like me and talk like me and have the same hopes and dreams as I do. So what makes me think that I'm so different from everyone else?

I'm not all that different. It's not the ingredients of a personality that make an individual unique, but how they are combined. A basic recipe is there, but it's the spices and the delicate balance of flavours that will make or break the dish. I can't deny that I share a common slang vocabulary, fashion sense, hairstyle, penchant for reality shows and a love of Sunday brunch with hundreds-if not thousands-of other people on the planet. My musical and film preferences aren't unique, and neither is the fact that I'm writing this while sitting on an Ikea couch. My only hope lies in the fact that there are other untouchable factors that set me apart from everyone else-my personality, sense of humor, and way of looking at the world are all exclusive to me.

I'd like to think that I'm special. Still, there's nothing wrong with identifying with a certain group. We all need a way to recognize like-minded people and to be able to categorize people quickly in our minds. For example, thick-rimmed glasses mean nerdy chic and tight barely-covering-your-ass miniskirts mean, "I'm trying way too hard to get attention." Wearing a skinny tie means, "I'm alternative and don't usually dress up-I'm just doing this for fun," while listening to a portable CD player means that you can't afford to buy an iPod yet. These are things we can zone in on right away and decide (albeit subconsciously) whether we can bond with someone or not.

The Hello, I'm Special website asks people to take "The Conformity Challenge." The publisher is looking for "The Most Special Person Ever." Here's an entry entitled "Special Powers," written by Joey from Halifax:

"When I was six I was hit by a car and lay in the dirt on the side of the road for hours.

Some results of that accident were immediately apparent: my legs were broken in three places each, my wrists were sprained, I was temporarily deaf in my left ear. These were the results reported by the concerned men that crowded my hospital bed, who gave assurances to my mother.

The other results became apparent years later. The accident gave me superhuman powers uncommon even in the comic books of the time: the power to consistently make poor life choices, an extraordinarily limited capacity for night vision, an accelerated propensity for the coining of t-shirt slogans, homosexuality, full-bodied hair, a nervous laugh...

I do know that my t-shirt design that reads "I got hit by a car, and now I'm gay" has been selling very well on eBay..."

If Joey from Halifax isn't special, then I don't know who is.

Back at the greasy spoon, we waited with bated breath for our poutine to arrive. When it finally came and we rabidly dug into the mound of fries sitting invitingly before us, we both agreed that it was the best poutine we had ever tasted. It's strange considering that the recipe is essentially the same everywhere in the city-it must have been something in the sauce that made that one taste especially good.

Daisy Goldstein shares her quirky insights on life in the city. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Daisy Goldstein.