On Clothes

The language of clothes, while perhaps rarely acknowledged as such by the average citizen, has nevertheless been distinctively present in American culture, from teen rape cases where the girl is accused of “wanting” it because she wore a short, tight skirt, to the self-help books that offer twelve steps to dress for success. Alison Lurie, in her book The Language of Clothes, writes “For thousands of years human beings have communicated with one another first in the language of dress. Long before I am near enough to talk to you on the street, in a meeting, or at a party, you announce your sex, age, and class to me through what you are wearing—and very possibly give me important information (or misinformation) as to your occupation, origin, personality, opinions, tastes, sexual desires, and current mood.”

The semiotic codes of clothing can be understood and interpreted in a matter of seconds, yet the message that is received depends on the knowledge base, the social context, and the attitudes of the interpreter. For example, an anti-militarist uniform worn for the purpose of social protest may in fact come across as the outfit of a bum or a hijacker. Then again, the same anti-militarist uniform changes in context when the wearer is an English teacher wanting to make a point in a critical thinking class. However, many times there can be a pre-disposition to a message transmitted through a certain article of clothing, judgments can be made in spite of the fact that the interpreter is ignorant of specific references in the message, and sometimes a lack of many statements in an ensemble will hide many details about a person.

The instructor David Clemens, from Monterey Peninsula College, came to class one morning in a dramatically altered costume from his normal attire. The students regarded him a bit strangely at first at the image type he presented. His clothing consisted mostly of army gear, but with several unique details, creating a statement full of slang and vulgarities, ostensibly for the purpose of protest. In a ragged, green field jacket, he resembled a Vietnam veteran, although he was rather young, despite his salt-and-pepper beard. His tiger-striped camouflage cargo pants were relatively new and in good condition, along with which he wore tattered, muddy combat boots. On his head, he had on a black watch cap, and on his hands, he wore green, wool gloves, with the fingers cut off.

From this, one might conclude that he was in the military and obviously used his uniform well. However, the first impression is not of a military man. To begin with, if was really in the military, his uniform would not be in such a shabby condition, which means he was probably a bum off the streets wearing his last coat. His pants, however, were too nice for that, so he was more likely wearing such a get-up for personal amusement. His cap resembled more that of a burglar’s cap and his dark, aviator sunglasses from the 70’s, along with his beard, almost completely covered his face, as if he had something to hide. In addition, a rope held up his pants, and clipped to his waist, semi-hidden, was a Russian bayonet. Vaguely aware that the army might not issue such a weapon, one then notices his pierced ear, a sign of rebellion and punk attitude. Finally, on closer inspection, one will see that he is wearing a black tee shirt with the words “Revenge is the reason I get up every morning.”

Lurie writes, “The uniform is often consciously and deliberately symbolic. It identifies its wearer as a member of some group and locates him or her within a hierarchy;” however, the lack of cleanliness or care in his outfit sends a deliberate anti-militarist message. The state of his dress with the sharply contrasting accessories is a mockery of the dignity of the standard military uniform. The immediate summation of this man is that he is probably some political nut case who owns guns, rifles, and attack dogs at his house and believes that the government is out to “get” him. However, the statement reads as someone who approves of the function of the military but is protesting conformity.

At the next class meeting, he came to school with an entirely different look. Rigged out in sports gear, one might have the impression that his is a die-hard sports fan. However, certain details do not add up to that conclusion and the impression is one of reading a semi-foreign text. First of all, he had on a navy and gold baseball jacket with the “Knights” emblem on the back, which may be easily mistaken for the New York Knicks, or as another real team. However, he wore a black and red baseball cap with the symbol of BBB in white letters. The idea that he is a baseball fanatic is immediately abandoned since a true baseball fan would have a cap that matches his jacket, in other words, maintaining a theme. Otherwise it is simply someone who loves the “look” of the gear, but for whom it has no real meaning or significance; wearing an Oakland A’s cap is the same as wearing the San Francisco Giant’s cap. In addition, over a navy blue turtleneck, he wore a gray jersey shirt with the words “House of David” printed broadly across.

This religious association is completely at odds with mainstream sports, and in terms of linguistic codes, it then becomes as a dialect or accent that one strains to understand. The lack of this reference point in one’s “set of all possible messages,” will most often have one supply a meaning, perhaps concluding that he is merely a doting fellow who found his clothes in a church rummage sale. Then again, his dark gray running pants were fairly nice, probably expensive, and his sports shoes and wristbands were from Nike, one of the most famous and chic brand names in all of sports gear. The symbols contradict with the quality and presentation of his clothes; the fact that his clothes were not cheap and were in good condition says that he respects the sport. Even the fact that he includes all of the accessories of sports gear (i.e. wristbands, baseball cap, turtle-neck shirt) shows that it means a great deal to him because he pays attention to detail.

The accessories of his person somewhat modify and shed light on this perplexing statement. Along with chewing gum in his mouth, he wore a stopwatch and a whistle around his neck, which says that he is actually part of the game, not just a mere bystander. The conclusion one might draw is that he is a coach of some sort, most likely of his son in a little league team, and probably not the head coach since his outfit does not fit together. However, if one understood the dialect, namely that one was able to recognize the reference to the film starring Robert Redford and that one knew the history of the Birmingham Black Barons, one could interpret the get-up in an entirely new way. One would then know that he is a vegetarian, a fundamentalist Christian probably from Michigan, and who loves to play baseball against pre-dominantly black teams.

Another instructor, Dr. Todd Weber, sends out an interesting message despite his evidently sparse vocabulary. There is not much description, but the message turns out to be in the form of a simple poem, absent of complexity, yet with almost hidden interpretive meanings. Many days his wardrobe and his message is casual, consisting of a pair of blue jeans under a knitted sweater, in either a deep navy blue, or, most often, a dull, light green. On some, his clothing may be considered what Lurie describes as “slang,” almost too casual; yet, on him, the tone of his statement is relaxed and comfortable, yet inconspicuous. His blue jeans are new, clean, and fit perfectly, showing deliberation and effort, in other words, as if much thought went behind his relaxed appearance. His sweater is not over-large, but can hide his stomach after the holiday feasts, as he once mentioned in class. The green color of his sweater suggests a sort of peace and tranquility, while the dull quality adds a touch of angst to the tone. His shoes are of brown leather, another statement of practicality and comfort, yet with perhaps an unconscious attention to aesthetics. His watch is simple, yet elegant, and shows an appreciation for time. In addition, he wears this outfit almost everyday, bringing to mind what Lurie states as “the repetitive stammer of the man who always wears the same jacket or pair of shoes.” And yet, since it is the whole outfit, it is almost as if it was his very thoughts that revolve around the same questions, as if he has never found and answer to them and continues to ask.

His outfit, however, is not a cliché; in fact, it is almost the opposite because his apparel does not correspond to his occupation or situation in life, only to his personality. Moreover, what is most remarkable is the absence of accessories, other than a dark blue coffee cup. His presentation is simple, honest, and unpretentious, yet there is the awareness that much thought has gone into it. The lack of information in his wardrobe may in fact be deliberate because there is no need for him to express his opinions loudly.

Before keeping any sort of appointment with a stranger, whether it is a first date, or an interview for a job, the first saying that may come to mind is that the first impression is always the most important. It is very easy to make and hold on to certain judgments about another based on that first message, either through inattention of certain details, misunderstanding, or insufficient details to consider.

“Fashion is free speech,” but an outspoken person is unnerving, shyness can be annoying, but moderation in speech, as in dress, is always just right. Modesty in dress and in the person says that one is confident with himself, at ease in the company of others, and is respectable. Malcom Gladwell, in an article entitled, “Annals of Style: Listening to Kakis,” he describes the success of the Dockers campaign geared toward the fashion sense of men and “what America’s most popular pants tell us about the way guys think.” In short, the fashion campaign succeeded by “training a camera on a man’s butt and having him talk in yuppie gibberish.”

Yet perhaps the Khakis winner was created, not only because of the ads, but because, as Lurie points out, men at that period needed another form of expression. Blue jeans could no longer function for the baby-boomers who were succeeding in their careers and becoming part of the well-off middle class. The Dockers ads presented a neat, sophisticated alternative that fit very well into men’s lives. The trend continues as many more young men become millionaires, such as the “techies” in Silicon Valley. The point that may be considered is that paying close attention to the unspoken language of others, while at times promoting some stereotypes, can at the same time be beneficial in better understanding the communication of others and oneself.

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