Decoding Dress: Communication and Self-Fashioning
Like a lot of men, I inherited whatever sense of style I have from my father. He was a man of rigorous and refined sensibilities—a trained tailor, a scholar, an activist, and an ordained minister. For years my dad endured my sartorial misadventures (asymmetrical “new-wave” haircuts, nylon parachute pants, the “punk” look, which consisted of deliberately torn
garments held together with safety pins or duct tape) in quiet despair. It is said that the boy is father to the man, but, at least in this case, it turned out the father was the father: at long last I followed my dad’s lead. I came to appreciate the virtues of well-cut tailored clothing, polished dress shoes, crisp shirts, even, on occasion, a necktie—though life in early twenty-first-century Northern California rarely calls for one. I learned how to tie a half and full Windsor and a four-in-hand knot and how to tie a bow tie—this last a skill needed only for rare black-tie events but, my dad insisted, worth mastering because “when the time comes, you won’t be stuck wearing one of those ridiculous clip-ons.” I learned how to tell the difference between a jacket properly constructed with a floating canvas and one that is fused (“glued together,” Dad would grumble). Most of all, I learned that clothing could be both a form of self-constitution and a medium of communication, and how attire conveys respect or disdain, purpose or aimlessness, seriousness or frivolity. This combination of personal significance and social meaning explains why governments, businesses, and the institutions of civil society regulate attire and why individuals often consider such regulations oppressive and insulting.
My father had died twelve years before I decided to enter Esquire magazine’s Best Dressed Real Man contest in 2009. My circumstances at the time will be familiar to any new parent: my second child was ten months old and my wife, Marlene, and I hadn’t been out to dinner or a movie in as many months; our aspirations to a glamorous and urbane existence were a faded memory, our fashionable—or at least serviceable—festive attire pushed aside to make room for a slew of cotton onesies and bright plastic baby toys; our feeble attempts at grown-up merrymaking reduced to cocktails hastily mixed in the kitchen in between bottle feedings and diaper changes. One day after work I decided it would be a welcome change of pace to enter the Esquire contest and rally our friends to support my quixotic campaign: harried forty-three-year-old dad versus a bevy of lantern-jawed aspiring actors, sinewy fashion models, and athletic-looking frat boys: David against Adonis. The entry deadline was the next day. Marlene got out the camera and snapped a series of pictures. My five-year-old son Cole explored my stack of old magazines while ten-month-old Ella did everything she could to get her parents’ attention. A few minutes later, with Ella screaming for a bottle or a diaper change, we called it quits. I uploaded the snapshots, filled out a short questionnaire, and hit “send.”
Then I scoped out the competition. Other contestants had professional photos shot in exotic locations with exquisite backlighting. Some had already amassed tens of thousands of votes; I was hoping to break into triple digits. Several weeks later the website posted the top twenty-five semifinalists and, to my astonishment, there were the photos of me holding a squirming toddler while trying to show a favorite blue pinstripe suit to its best effect. It couldn’t be right: I refreshed the browser and waited for the real list of semifinalists to appear. I was still there. A few days later my phone rang: Esquire had narrowed the field to ten, whom they were now interviewing in order to select five finalists who would fly to New York, receive fabulous prizes, and appear on the Today show. They wanted to talk to me about my personal style. How did you choose what to wear? Can you be more specific? What tips do you offer others? “Be yourself” isn’t very helpful, is it? Why is style important to you? Who are your style inspirations? C’mon, everyone says their father; who else? Everyone says Cary Grant. Everyone says Miles Davis too. David Bowie; that’s better. Which era? Let’s Dance? Really? A few days later, the editor called again to break the bad news: I was number six, just short of the cut-off for finalists. It was all great fun, but also humbling. Talking about my personal style should have been easy: I’m a professor, someone who explains things to people for a living. But I blew the interview. I knew intuitively why I wore what I did, but I could not explain it to save my life—or my chances at a fabulous, all-expenses-paid weekend in New York City. My dad’s guidance had—against all odds—helped me into the top ten, but he couldn’t help me decrypt the inscrutable codes of dress.
In a sense this book is my response, in l’esprit d’escalier. In it, I will explore dress codes antique and contemporary: medieval sumptuary laws and modern indecency statutes, Renaissance vestimentary norms and Victorian-era sartorial etiquette, the sartorial rules of the road—and of the street, workplace, and school.
To understand why we care so much about what we—and other people—wear, I had to look at how clothing and fashion shape our behavior and perception of the world. That’s not always easy to do because the way clothing affects our social interactions and worldview is a matter of habit, so reflexive and deeply engrained that we don’t even notice it. Of course we do notice the multibillion-dollar fashion industry dedicated to offering us an array of clothes to choose from, the styles that change every few months, the clothes magazines and newspaper columns that report on the latest trends, the stores full of clothes, and all of those dress codes, rules, and expectations around clothing. But all this ever-changing detail, as overwhelming as it can seem, is just a small part of the world of fashion, like an eye-catching appliqué on top of a jacket.
We’re immersed in these details, but we rarely question or analyze the larger patterns of dress. For instance, what makes some fashions masculine and others feminine? Why are some garments considered bold or edgy and others conservative or demure? What makes high heels frivolously sexy and flat shoes sensible but boring? We make small decisions about the fit, cut, and embellishments of our clothing, but almost no one questions its basic design. Two thousand years ago, a politician would have worn a draped garment—what we today might call a “toga”—when going to discuss affairs of state. The political leaders and elites of seven hundred years ago still wore draped robes not so different from the ancient toga. But most of today’s politicians wear tailored trousers—the garb of the barbarian or the peasant to the ancients—and a matching longish jacket with lapels: the business suit. Why and when did this change take place? No one would dream of wearing a robe or a toga to an important meeting, but many women in more tradition-bound professions still eschew pants in favor of a dress or skirt, both essentially draped garments descended from the ancient toga. We take all of this, and much more, for granted. These larger and more long-lived trends in fashion organize society and shape how we think about ourselves. They are often the subject of explicit rules—dress codes—that determine both what clothing means and when and by whom it may be worn.
We need to look at changes in fashion over a long period of time—not seasons, years, or even decades but centuries—in order to see these larger trends. Looking at the rules that codified these changes alongside the historical events of the time helped me to understand what fashion meant then and what it means for us today. I learned that fashion is much more than just clothes.
Fashion is a way of communicating ideas, values, and aspirations through clothes. Through our attire, we announce who we are, what we care about, and where we belong—or aspire to belong—in society. Sometimes the message is obvious and direct, like the way an officer’s uniform conveys authority; other times, more inchoate and figurative, like the way a punk-rock girl’s denim jacket covered with patches and pins conveys rebellious swagger. Less obviously, but perhaps more important, fashion is a means of transforming our sense of self and our sense of our place in society—what I will call, borrowing from the historian Stephen Greenblatt, self-fashioning. Attire can also change our self-perception and affect our learning, development, and sense of possibility. In a sense, we become what we dress for: our clothing trains us to occupy a social role—giving us confidence or sapping our courage, straightening our posture or forcing us to slouch, offering a sense of physical comfort and support or constraint and irritation. In this respect, in contradiction to the old saying, clothes actually do make the man (or woman, and they’ve long helped to establish the difference). Our clothing becomes a part of our bodies, both reflecting and shaping our personalities and helping us fit into various social roles—or making it hard for us to do so. An obvious example of this is women’s clothing in the mid-1800s, which consisted of large full skirts, frills, and boned corsets. These outfits not only sent the message that women were decorative objects, valuable mainly for their beauty; they also made it impossible for women to move around easily or quickly and harder for them to perform many types of physical tasks, which in turn served as a visual “evidence” that women were less competent than men. Most women internalized the dress codes of the time and only felt comfortable in such clothing. This in turn led some to think of themselves as helpless and fundamentally decorative: their clothing determined their social roles and ultimately their sense of self. Here’s another example of the self-fashioning power of clothing: psychological studies in 2012 and 2015 found that people who wore a white lab coat or dressed up for a job interview exhibited better abstract reasoning than people of comparable intelligence wearing jeans and T-shirts.
Dress codes are key pieces of evidence about both of these social functions of attire: communication and self-fashioning. “Dress code” has a double meaning: a code is a rule regulating action or behavior, such as a law, but a code is also a rule or a formula for interpreting or deciphering a text. So, a dress code is a rule or law regulating how we dress and also a rule controlling the meaning of our attire. In 1967 the semiologist Roland Barthes used the explicit discussions of clothing in high-fashion magazines as a guide to understand more mundane, day-to-day attire. He found that almost every detail of an ensemble—shirt collar, skirt length, color, pattern, fabric—could express passions, aspirations, fantasies, and convictions. The fashion magazine offered an incomplete lexicon of vestimentary meaning—it was at once a description of existing fashionable practices and a prescription for refining and improving them. I have a similar ambition for the study of dress codes. Dress codes simplify the often-overwhelming complexity of vestimentary custom because they take the form of rules. Because it must be specific in its prescriptions and prohibitions, a dress code—like fashion writing—makes the often implicit and unconscious meaning of attire explicit and deliberate. When a dress code requires or forbids an item of attire, it implies something of its social meaning. A dress code that excludes “unprofessional” attire simultaneously reinforces the perception that whatever attire it excludes is unprofessional. Ladies’ “fascinators” are modish and informal in comparison to hats that cover the top of the head; septum rings are edgier than nose studs. A dress code can be the Rosetta stone to decode the meaning of attire.
We can get a hint about how people understood an article of clothing by looking at the rules that allowed and prohibited it. Sometimes dress codes are quite explicit about the meaning of the attire they regulate: for instance, some Renaissance-era dress codes said that red or purple symbolized noble birth, and others insisted that jewelry and sumptuous adornments were signs of sexual licentiousness. Moreover, these dress codes didn’t just reflect preexisting associations between clothing and social status, sexual morality and political position—they also reinforced and at times even created those associations, changing the way people thought of those wearing a certain garment and how the people wearing it thought of themselves. Defining the social meaning of a garment can actually change the way it shapes individual self-image. For instance, remember that psychological experiment involving the white lab coat? It also found that people wearing an identical coat did not exhibit improved cognitive performance if they were told beforehand that it was a painter’s coat instead of a lab coat. (Pg.13)
WE&P by: EZorrilla