A conversation on clothing came up the other day. Not the kind of chat where you compare different outfits in glossy magazines or which dress best matches your eyes (although if someone could suggest what goes well with brown…?) Rather it was a talk where we explored whether there should be limits to our dress. Whether there is an appropriate way to dress, whether we should dress within some societal expectations or if we shouldn’t give a damn what others think about our clothes.
I find it interesting that the people were interested by this topic in a somewhat hesitant or wary way, albeit unconsciously so. Living in a liberal society where the individual’s unrestrained happiness is the goal, I think people are somewhat scared to voice their opinions on what they deem appropriate or inappropriate. We are afraid now to inadvertently oppress someone. Anyway right now I’m not writing on the pros and cons of current liberal culture. That’s a ramble for another time.
Going back to the conversation, one point came up in our conversation. This point I think is extremely important and I personally believe it is not very well known in our society today: that clothing is a language. Let me briefly explain what I mean. Humans are without doubt social creatures. To be social we communicate. Not just through words but through unspoken methods such as body language, art, music, and yes, also clothing.
Before we focus in on how clothing as a language let us look quickly at one of the other examples. Music is also a language. I’m particularly thinking of instrumental music since using vocal examples kind of defeats the point I’m trying to make. Anyway when we look very simply at music, what is it? Well, in its simplest or most scientific description it is composed of sounds, sound being composed of vibrations of particles through the air. Now the human ear detect these vibrations in a certain way which is then transmitted and to the brain which perceives these signals in a certain way, which then triggers certain associations which the mind has about the sound.
Just to add another layer (hopefully this isn’t getting too technical) these associations are not just there. You don’t associate sadness with a certain type of sound for no reason. Oftentimes it is society, or more specifically social forces, norms and attitudes that have created these associations. The main point here is that a lot of our associations (not all) are acquired by our social environments (if people would like to know more about the processes google socialisation). When people then collectively share these associations, which they normally do when they are acquired by society, this process then acts as a language.
So now I’ll actually focus on the clothing part. So like sound association, visual associations such as clothing work the same way. When I see someone wearing a certain article of clothing I have ideas and thoughts already associated with this clothing. So for example when I see someone wearing the colour red, I may see it as aggressive or passionate, or bold and I then, especially if it’s a first impression, will associate it with the person wearing it.
This is why uniforms exist. When you go to a doctor in the hospital you usually don’t see them wearing builder’s clothes. They are usually wearing the classic doctor’s coat… you know white, quite long, and hopefully spotless. The doctor didn’t just decide to put that on because he or she felt like it one day. Rather they know that their patients associate doctor stuff with that uniform. Frankly I’d be slightly taken aback if a doctor walked in wearing overalls. I probably wouldn’t assume they were a doctor. I may even be worried and call for someone like a manager (do doctors have managers?). So we can see here that what you wear communicates certain things to the people around you, whether you like it or not.
Now however, the doctor isn’t morally wrong in the individual sense if he decides to wear the overalls. However he or she has to be aware that there will be consequences for them dressing as such. This then applies to us in our daily lives. You can in theory wear what you’d like. However you have to be aware that what you wear will communicate certain things, whether true or not which people will associate with you.
This is interesting then when we take into account that this rule of dress doesn’t just apply to our local communities but rather the world and all its different cultures. We have to be aware that certain countries due to different norms and values which they have collectively developed over their own histories will in some cases (not all) have fundamentally different perceptions of what is appropriate to wear in public and what it isn’t, the hijab coming to mind as a specific example.
What I’m not trying to say here in this article is not that I believe that everyone has to go dress up in suits because everyone is automatically judging them. All I’m trying to point out is that what you wear will affect those around you and as a result your environment and this is inevitable. I personally believe then that we should be aware of this phenomenon of unspoken language. We should try to understand why it exists and how it originated. Through this we can develop a better understanding of ourselves and others, both close to us and far away in distant lands. Being aware of this unsaid language can also help us exert a greater control over our own lives in the same way the mastery or speaking or writing can. And as mentioned above other cultures have their own version of this language, and if we identify this phenomenon we can look past it and find common grounds. Overall I think it’s a pretty useful thing to know about.
By Yusef Syed