Clothing is a language, a nonverbal system of communication that through its symbols conveys much about the wearer to the viewer. Before people speak to one another, their clothing makes a statement that expresses their sex, age, class, occupation, origin and personality, as well as what they are or what they want to be at a particular moment. A businessperson is recognized in a well tailored suit.
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Fashion can suggest or signal status in a social group. Groups with high cultural status like to keep ‘in fashion’ to display their position; people who do not keep ‘in fashion’ within a so-called “style tribe” can risk shunning. Because keeping ‘in fashion’ often requires considerable amounts of money, fashion can be used to show off wealth (compare conspicuous consumption). Adherence to fashion trends can thus form an index of social affluence and an indicator of social mobility.
Humans often wear articles ofÂ clothingÂ (also known asÂ Apparel,Â dress,Â garmentsÂ orÂ attire) on the body . In its broadest sense, clothing includes coverings for the trunk and limbs as well as coverings for hands (gloves), feet (shoes,Â sandals,Â boots), and head (hats,caps).
Articles carried rather than worn (likeÂ pursesÂ and umbrellas) normally count as accessories rather than as clothing.
Humans also decorate their bodies with makeup or cosmetics, perfume,Â jewelryÂ and other ornament; cut, dye, and arrange their head and body hair (hairstyle), and sometimes their skin (tattoo, scarifications, piercing). All these decorations contribute to the overall effect and message of clothing, but do not constitute clothing per se.
People wear clothing for functional and/or social reasons. Clothing protects the body; it also delivers social messages to other humans.
Function includes protection of the body against strong sunlight, extreme heat or cold, and precipitation; protection against insects, noxious chemicals, weapons, contact with abrasive substances — in sum, against anything that might injure an unprotected human body. Humans have shown extreme inventiveness in devising clothing solutions to practical problems.
See: armor,Â diving suit, bee-keeper’s costume, motorcycle leathers,Â high-visibility clothing.
Social messages sent by clothing, accessories, and decorations can involve social status, occupation, ethnic and religious affiliation, marital status and sexual availability, etc. Humans must know the code in order to recognize the message transmitted. If different groups read the same item of clothing or decoration with different meanings, the wearer may provoke unanticipated responses.
Social status: in many societies, people of high rank reserve special items of clothing or decoration for themselves. Only Roman emperors could wear garments dyeed with Tyrian purple; only high-ranking Hawaiian chiefs could wear feather cloaks and palaoa or carved whale teeth. In other societies, no laws prohibit lower-status people wearing high statusÂ garments, but the high cost of status garments effectively limits purchase and display. In current Western society, only the rich can affordÂ haute couture. The threat of social ostracism may also limit garment choice.
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Occupation: military, police, firefighters usually wearÂ uniforms, as do workers in many industries. School-children often wearÂ school uniforms, college and university students wear academic dress. Members of religious orders may wear uniforms known as “habits”. Sometimes a single item of clothing or a single accessory can declare one’s occupation and/or status — for example, the highÂ toqueÂ or chef’s hat worn by a chief cook.
Ethnic, political, and religious affiliation: In many regions of the world, styles in clothing and ornament declare membership in a certain village, caste, religion, etc. A Scotsman declares his clan with hisÂ tartan; an Orthodox Jew his religion with his (non-clothing) sidelocks; a French peasant woman her village with her cap orÂ coif.
Clothes can also proclaim dissent from cultural norms and mainstream beliefs, as well as personal independence.
In 19th century Europe, artists and writers livedÂ la vie de Bohe
meÂ and dressed to shock: George Sand in men’s clothing, female emancipationists in bloomers, male artists in velvet waistcoats and gaudy neckcloths. Bohemians, beatniks, hippies, Goths, and punks continued the ( counter-cultural) tradition in the 20th century West. Now thatÂ haute coutureÂ plagiarises street fashion within a year or so, street fashion may have lost some of its power to shock, but it still motivates millions trying to look hip and cool. People such as inventor Dean Kamen or film director Peter Jackson wear simple functional clothing to distance themselves from the establishment (and possibly to attract additional attention).
Marital status: Hindu women, once married, “wear”Â sindoor, a red powder, in the parting of their hair; if widowed, they abandonÂ sindoorÂ and jewelry and wear simple white clothing. Men and women of the Western world may wear wedding rings to indicate their marital status.
Sexual availability: Some clothing indicates the modesty of the wearer. For example, many Muslim women wear a head or body covering (hijab, bourqa orÂ burka,Â chador,Â abaya) that proclaims their status as respectable women. Other clothing may indicate flirtatious intent. For example, a Western woman might wear extreme stiletto heels, close-fitting and body-revealing black or red clothing, exaggerated make-up, flashy jewelry and perfume to show sexual availability. What constitutes modesty and allurement varies radically from culture to culture, within different contexts in the same culture, and over time as differentÂ fashionsÂ rise and fall. Moreover, a person may choose to display a mixed message.Â For example, a Saudi Arabian woman may wear anÂ abayaÂ to proclaim her respectability, but choose an abaya of luxurious material cut close to the body and then accessorize withÂ high heelsÂ and a fashionable purse. All the details proclaim sexual desirability, despite the ostensible message of respectability. Similarly, a Japanese schoolgirl may wear the required school uniform in a way (skirt’s waistband rolled to shorten the skirt, long sleeves rolled up) that says “sexy schoolgirl” rather than “good girl”.
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