The Significance of Your Clothes

Picture of By Cindy Zheng

By Cindy Zheng

What should I wear today? The weight of this question varies depending on how much value you put on your daily outfit. For many, it’s mainly functional, not a second more than necessary spent on the thought, while others will contemplate it for a longer while. However, on a historical and societal level, how you dress can be vital. You might not care about the clothes you wear but aren’t there certain pieces you wouldn’t put on? Certain dress codes must be followed, specific styles that are taboo. Clothing is a way to shape and find identity, quite possibly the most powerful silent communication device.

People get sent home from school for wearing too revealing clothing and thrown out of fetish clubs for wearing just too much clothing. Your clothes can be your entrance ticket or an eviction notice.

So yes, we all care about appearances. Who doesn’t? It’s something we cannot help, an autonomous reflex to check ourselves in the mirror or any other reflection. Especially with social media, we can’t help but be overly concerned with how we look, and how we are on par with the flummoxing societal dress code. With more channels than ever to present ourselves and observe others, we feel compelled to ensure we meet the intangible expectations. It’s something that can be quite tiring, and fashion already has a bad rep.

A belittled industry

Fashion might be the most irrelevant industry. One of the most egocentric, expensive, and useless interests to have, following trends that are doomed to repeat themselves.

It’s had this image for centuries. Jean-Jacques Rousseau denounced fashion as a threat to moral society, writing that “finery is no less a stranger to virtue.” Karl Marx condemned the industry, the “murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion”.

It’s no surprise that a piece of common dished-out advice is to “not care about how you look”, that it doesn’t matter. Does it really not matter? Something so inherently human is probably not wrong down to the core. It’s more likely that we have been corrupted in our view of clothing – our understanding of appearance warped, the functionality and meaning twisted.

Liberating yet constricting

Rhonda Garelick puts it like this: “[Fashion] is integral to our existence, not an irrational indulgence. It springs from deeply rooted impulses to adorn the self, to communicate sensuously, to participate in the social collectivity and lend it shape and legibility.”

Deciding on what to wear, purely depending on what others will think, is probably unhealthy. Clothing goes beyond comparing who afforded more expensive garments, it’s way more powerful if you construct what you’d like to communicate yourself.

Being actively able to decide and express ourselves might be the most gratifying aspect of clothes. Their symbolic power gives us freedom to become who we would like to be. Unfortunately, there are forces that try to limit this form of self-expression, and instead of a freeing activity, clothing can become restrictive.

Especially in clothing, gender is a concept.

Almost nothing is as thoroughly compartmentalized and gendered as clothing. And especially in clothing, gender is a concept: The categorization of blue for males and pink for girls is a very recent, and very conscious decision by manufacturers in the 1940s.

The separation into womenswear and menswear constricts the possible creativity of clothing – maybe some have experienced themselves being curious about other sections in a clothing store, whether for size or style reasons. Wearing another gender’s clothing – crossdressing – has a long history.

The stigma of cross-dressing

Crossdressing can be a simple and fun activity, but it can also hold deep significance for those that do. In the past, women cross-dressed to live a more adventurous life, gaining access to economic independence and other individual freedoms. The practice itself is more accepted for women than for men, for whom crossdressing is stigmatized.

Already in the bible, crossdressing is condemned. Several U.S. states used to have laws banning cross-dressing, naming it a perversion. It becomes clear how much culture plays a role when looking at Thailand, where it is a more accepted and visible practice.

Clothing has always been dependent on its historic context, mirroring society’s standards. While men in stockings may be perceived as crossdressers now, the garter band was originally associated with men’s fashion, as they wore it more visibly.

But there are signs that these restrictions are being upheaved – the rise of gender-neutral clothing and brands signify how this and future generations are tired of being told what they are allowed to wear.

A new era for gendered fashion

Gender-fluid clothing is in essence fashion that isn’t limited by the traditional gender binary, e. g. disregarding the association of pants with men, and skirts with women. Its popularity is flourishing; in 2018, non-binary even became a category at Fashion Week – but experts warn against associating the movement with specific companies or brands.

In essence, any clothing can be gender-fluid.

Dressing gender-fluidly is self-constructed, as in that every piece of clothing can be whatever the wearer chooses to view it as. In essence, any clothing can be gender-fluid. The inherent problem is “the notion that clothing as an expression of our personality belongs to one gender or another”, so Nick Paget, senior analyst at WGSN.

Especially for transgender people, that corporate epiphany could be life-changing. Finding the right size, design, and style to feel comfortable and affirmed with is difficult right now, although it can be just as important as the right pronouns. Because for everyone, the function of clothing clearly exceeds the need to be covered in material.

Functions of clothing, academically defined

Clothing acts as a non-verbal communicator, influencing interpersonal interactions and perceptions. To truly understand how clothing could be used as means of self-presentation, two researchers observed several women in their relationship with their clothing. They decided on three distinct perspectives:

  1. The woman I want to be

In which we use clothing to formulate positive self-projections. Favorite items of clothing were identified as useful in bridging the gap between “self as you would like it to be” and the image actually achieved with the clothing.

  1. The woman I fear I could be

Reflected experiences where clothing had failed to achieve the desired look or resulted in a negative self-presentation. They might have caused unintentional effects, e. g. highlighting unflattering body parts.

  1. The woman I am most of the time

The kind of clothing with which we have an ongoing and dynamic relationship – clothes that are a major source of enjoyment, as they are able to be used to realize different aspects of yourself.

The researchers emphasize that these views can be co-existing. While there are certainly social constraints shaping the relationship, the accounts also reveal that the women often attempt to “challenge, subvert, and rise above these constraints.”

Therefore, even though our clothes’ selection is dependent on creating an image that is influenced by a societal dress code, engaging with the clothes to create, reveal or conceal certain aspects of your identity is a pleasant and ultimate positive force in women’s lives. And it might go even beyond that.

How clothing affects us

Certain aspects of clothing even translate to our own behavior and can affect our performance. The symbolic power of clothes is translated to us psychologically, something researchers have coined “enclothed cognition”.

For example, when comparing business versus casual attire, in an experiment from 2007, participants felt more authoritative and competent when wearing formal clothes, same with another study in 2013. It’s the reason for a lot of clothing effects, like the white lab coat which makes you perform better.

However, some clothes can also bring you into a negative state of being. When in a study, participants were given either real or inauthentic designer sunglasses, the ones wearing fake sunglasses cheated significantly more in the following experiments and also expected others to be more dishonest. The inauthenticity of the sunglasses affected their own behavior and attitude. The same happened in an experiment in which people’s performance was tested while either wearing common clothes or a swimsuit. Since the latter induced self-objectification, it made them perform much worse.

Dressing consciously

Thankfully, you can decide actively whether you would like to wear clothes that make you happy or those that don’t. And it’s even more important to do so because if you dress specifically with the aim to impress someone else, it might not translate to others’ perceptions.

Instead of trying to determine which clothes would fit the expectations of society, it is more gratifying to focus on which clothes will make you feel most confident to tackle society.

In the process of forming a first impression (something coined thin-slicing as it happens in a very short amount of time), clothes are not necessarily interpreted in the way we’d like. In a study from 1992, the researchers have found that the intended social identity revealed through clothing, and the perceived identity can be quite lacking. Therefore, instead of trying to determine which clothes would fit the expectations of society, it is more gratifying to focus on which clothes will make you feel most confident to tackle society.

Find power through your clothes

We cannot help but judge people based on their appearance, whether that is in extreme or subtle ways. It is quite unfair because we don’t have that much control over how our body is shaped, its size, and its texture. But we do have control over how much we’d like to reveal, and in which ways we would like to envelop it.

More than hiding and conforming, beyond Spanx and push-up bras, it is about active control. It might be about that, too, but it can also be creating something completely different, any persona you would like to express.

While we shouldn’t forget that clothes remain a tool and not a replacement for identity, it might be worth thinking twice about what to wear. For others, your clothing communicates one-way only, for yourself, it’s a two-way street. On a particularly bad day, you can make use of clothes to lift your mood. For a challenging meeting, they can aid you by giving you confidence.

As Virginia Woolf put it:

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us… There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

Edited by: Yili Char

Cover: Cindy Zheng

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