…Naked people have little or no influence on society."

The first part of the quote is “The clothes make the man.”

Our discussion on fashion relevance interested me greatly, though I’m less sure now what I think than I did before.  Basically, I guess we separate “fashion” from “trends” from “style.”  Fashion means the high art, trends means what’s ubiquitous in the shops at the moment, and style is the method of using clothes for self-expression.  Yes?

It also seems (from comments, feel free to contradict me) that high fasion has little to no relevance in daily lives of most people, trends are for those left to the tender mercies of their local shops, and style applies to the ways we use clothes to project our personality to the world around us.  This is a short way to sum the ideas expressed so eloquently in the previous post.   Please create sharper distinctions as necessary.

Following that train of thought, I have to wonder:  How do our clothes reflect and prescribe our behavior?  Do dress codes or social conventions matter?  Why?

To return to our quote: “The clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence on society.”  I only recently discovered the sage who spoke these words, but I was familiar with the first part of the quote for as long as I can remember.  Who hasn’t heard that, right?  In my lesser years, I dismissed this out of hand as an old-fashioned notion, but two experiences changed my point of view.  Let me tell you a story of one such experience.

As a student, I stumbled across a summer study abroad program in the Middle East led by a favorite professor.  I applied and was accepted.  Our professors prepared us in the spring with classes on the social customs of the country we would visit, as well as local news sources and literature readings, and how to adjust to an alien culture.  Normal stuff.

We were a small, mixed group- a few more females than males, grad students and undergrads, students of whimsy (I mean party kids who made good grades) as well as more serious scholars.  We were twelve in all.  Until you travel with a small, thrown-together group, you can’t know how much the daily movements of your fellow travelers influence the way you experience a place.

For example, a serious scholar friend of mine could be found at the same time every day in the late afternoon taking his espresso with cardamom in the hotel cafe, no matter which hotel.  Always the same time, always a discussion of leftist Arab politics over cardamom espresso with the World Cup showing on TV.  To this day, I can’t smell cardamom or see the World Cup without thinking of the Arab Left.

 I experienced a role,  an entire way of life I’d never tried before that summer and it changed how I thought about my place in the world.  For the price of a night in a Midwestern Motel 6, we stayed at former Imperialist hotels which seemed frozen in time: mirrors and crystal chandeliers, bell hops and laundry maids, bodyguards, slow 6-course dinners at 9pm in the hotel dining room with impeccable white-shirted waiters hovering in the background serving wines selected to complement each course.    It was my first experience of “dressing for dinner” as a part of daily life.  As a filthy college student, I felt I had stepped back in time to a more gracious age.  Nothing hurried, every moment made to be savored.

 Our clothes played a huge role in this.  We were prepared, especially the female students, to find ourselves in a more conservative country with a different take on what it meant to be properly dressed.  No one expected us to don burkas, but our professors appointed themselves the arbiters of dress.  They sat together over breakfast, and as we descended we were expected to come and say good morning to them and pick up the daily schedule.  More than once, they sent someone back to their room to change.  The boys were acceptable in pants (not jeans or cargos), a long-sleeved shirt, and a hat for good measure.  For the girls, no elbows, no knees, preferably no wrists or ankles, no cleavage and a hat or hijab, at least for the hottest part of the day.  At first, I found I rather resented being told to go upstairs and put on more clothes- it’s 100 degrees outside, for the love of Peter!

Then I noticed something- the boys who back home treated me with the same rough camaraderie extended to everyone began to treat me with a marked degree of respect.  I never touched a door or an elevator button, I never had to bicker with the taxi driver over a fare (though I did contribute my bit to the final price), I didn’t suffer the embarrassment of conversing with a stranger to order a meal (having already discussed the menu options with my fellow diners), my chairs were magically pulled out for me to sit and pushed in before I hit the seat.  If I wanted smokes or a coke or whatever, one of the boys would go out for them as if on a quest for the grail, even late in the evening.  I remember one girl wanting to go see the remains of some ancient boats on a free day.  No one else cared, but one of our boys went with her to see them.  The other girls in our group noticed the same thing, and we marveled over the high level of courtesy paid to us.  The attention was neither patronizing nor of a sexual nature- it just seemed natural and was whole-heartedly welcome.  It felt like magic, like we were queens of the world.  The boys, too, seemed to enjoy their role.  

 (A pretty embroidered shift, rather cool in the heat, I cut it down to a tunic and still wear it)

It was then I began to question my ideas of the roles of men and women, and question how I thought about dress.  I was (and am) sure that at least a part of the change in behavior had to do with the way we dressed.  After several mornings of being sent back to my room to change, I learned to dress in an exceptionally modest way.  That translated into a “nicer” way of dressing.  I wore my pretty embroidered long-sleeved shirts and swishy long skirts- more lady-like and somewhat more formal than what I would normally wear back home.

Part of what happened in our little group had to do with the place we were living.  If I went out alone dressed the same way I would at home, men would follow and say horrible suggestive things.  If I went out dressed modestly with my hijab in place (and a guard lurking several meters behind), fewer men harassed me.  If I went out dressed modestly in the company of one of our boys, no one dared cast their eyes in my direction, and the boy would broker a price for anything I bought.  They were a welcome buffer.  Bargaining may be intriguing at first, but when you discover you must bicker for the price of any item you wish to buy, it becomes a tiresome exercise.   

Through this experience I began to understand the clothes do make the (wo)man.  I could see that “dressing up” changed the way I behaved, and changed how others reacted to me.  I’ve had a few similar epiphanies since, but this one made the deepest and most lasting impression on me and how I think about the way I dress.  You could say it is the embryonic beginnings of my current approach to clothing.   I realized that showing skin had meaning, and that by covering I could have more influence and would be taken more seriously as a person.  I also began to ponder whether the mainstream interpretation of second-wave feminism had somehow sold me short as a woman.  These thoughts had never before occurred to my 20 year old self.

Anyway, I’m interested to hear what you think from your own experiences- Do clothes make the man?  Can naked people influence society?  


  1. Funny, I had this exact conversation with my hubby yesterday—gentlemanly vs. Egalitarian behaviour. It may be nice, as a woman, to be coddled, shielded, protected—but in a civilized society, why is it deserved? The law, and common courtesy, should be enough to protect me. Giving up coddling is a fair price, in my mind, for equal rights. It's ad unfair to expect a man to open a door for me as it is for him to expect me to make him a sammich.That being said, as I posted yesterday, I'm becoming (grudgingly) more accepting of clothing as a means of social manipulation—as you describe– rather than pure personal expression as I get older. We have much more control of our wardrobe than of other factors in how we are judged (age, race, sex), so why not use it to our advantage? It still offends my idealistic (and yes, feminist) innermost soul, however. How I'm dressed doesn't affect my morality as a person and it shouldn't affect how I'm treated, either.That it does is something I have to accept, and am willing to use to my advantage… But it still sucks. ;)

  2. While I agree with Tanit-Isis that women shouldn't need to be shielded, it is a thing of respect not only to yourself but to others to dress presentably. Of course this all depends on what culture you living.

  3. That's interesting. I was born in a place where women can't go out alone for fear of being harassed, can't live alone safely. And the men are always served first at meals. Sure, the men in such cultures are respectful if you live within a narrow code of conduct, but if you don't– you're going to be miserable. (It is slowly changing, but this is how it has been for most of my lifetime.)As for chivalrous behavior (opening doors, ladies first, etc.), I've personally only experienced that from American men. I am extremely grateful as a grown single woman, to be able to live alone safely, to own my own home, and to be able to go out alone (not having to wait for a man to take me) shopping or just for a stroll without being harassed, even after dark. Having said all that, I do tend to dress modestly (longer sleeves, rarely wear shorts), even in 100-degree heat, and it's fine. I think it's kind of funny how so many people think it's impossible to be comfortable in modest clothing on a hot day.

  4. This is a topic that seem to surface every other month in the blogosphere, and surely it must be because this is something we all find so interesting! Your experiences that you describe here are very fascinating, Steph. I have experienced some of the same things, but I´m not sure I like it, for the same reasons as Tanit-Isis explains. BUT I do (and quite shamelessly so) almost always "dress the part", because I know that people, in many situations, hear what they see. If I´m supposed to look "serious and professional", I wear my black turtleneck and I wear glasses. If I want to "blend in" I wear jeans and a tee etc. But I don´t feel schizophrenic by that, I always feel like myself, anyway. The important thing is to FEEL good in what we wear. I think, as is previously stated in the comments, that how we dress is one of the few ways of self- expression we actually have control over. But in a perfect world, I think that appearance should´nt matter at all. But alas, we are a long way from that world…

  5. Clothes, or fashion, are our visual language. If you can ask for attention using your voice, why can't you do it by means of clothes. I choose my clothes to express myself (not too loud though) and one day it's a bright print, another day it's toned down shirt. Young people tend to dress more provocatively, while mature women are more subtle usually. This is how I see fashion, and I do want to be treated as a mature woman who wants to be attractive but is not desperate… Of course, every culture adds a new context, but in general the idea is the same more or less. I think societies where women are not allowed to express themselves through clothes are also restrictive with regard to women's rights. There are other ways of earning respect of your environment than covering your hair and arms.

  6. Such an interesting topic, one that I must admit I am quite fascinated over. I too have noticed that the more "lady like" I am dressed the more I am treated like a lady. I an accounting major and have to dress in business attire for my classes, which usually translated to a dress, cardigan, and heels for me. Men are more courteous when I am dressed this way, though it is not always welcome attention. I do enjoy doors being opened for me and the like, but I don't like the increased attention I seem to get from older men.I don't know what it is, but it seems that a woman in a dress and heels can and will catch the attention of any man over 50. Naked people can't really influence society, but society certainly influences the way we dress. I have always lived in the "Bible Belt" and people here have very defined views of what is modest and what isn't. Go to church in a skirt that is shorter than knee length? You'll be the talk of the town. I have been in situations where a skirt that was about 1" above my knees caused quite a stir amongst people.Overall though these situations don't really change the fact that i wear what I please without too much though of whether others will fret over it. However, modesty or lady like dress is completely in the eye of the beholder. I don't think the real issue lies in the way women dress, instead it lies in what we teach boys and men. They should be taught to respect all women, regardless of how much or how little skin is being shown. Both women and men deserve respect regardless of how they are attired. To treat a woman in a lesser fashion because she shows more skin is to take responsibility off of a man's shoulders for his own behavior. Whether donning a bikini or a burqa women deserve to be respected and free from harassment. I also understand though, that women cannot change the actions of men. So if a woman finds she is treated better while being dressed in a certain way then it is completely within her right to dress herself as she pleases. Though in principle men should respect all women, in reality they don't, so it is perfectly fine for a woman to dress herself in a way that receives more respect, even if in a perfect world she wouldn't have to.I will get off my soapbox now, especially with such a long comment. :]

  7. I want to clarify- I don't think the change in behavior came about in our little group because the boys looked at us and thought "Oh, look, they're not dressed like strumpets anymore, the sweet little things.I think, rather, that clothing affects how we feel about ourselves, how we carry ourselves and that changes how we behave. The change seemed to have more to do with formality of dress rather than modesty. Should a woman be treated differently based on how she is dressed? Well, no, of course not, but that's the way the world works. I work in a sewing shop, most of our customers are women and many of them are my mother's age. Seldom a man in sight. When I started to work there, I began pull my hair back, wear glasses and clothes that covered me. It helped to be taken more seriously. So…. This interesting issue doesn't necessarily have anything to do with men.While clothes are an important visual language, I think that first of all they influence how we feel about ourselves.

  8. I was going to give a smart a$$ answer and say that naked people truly understand the concept of the wind chill factor :) I used to dress for airplane travel while in college (more than 20 years ago), and noticed that I would be upgraded more often than not. It is amazing to see passengers on airplanes today — it equates to a bus in the air. When I dress "nicely" the flight attendants are more attentive to me. I wish others would be more considerate of other travelers – not taking shoes off, not wearing tank tops (I really do not want to see anyone's armpits), shorts, etc.As an independent woman, I wish that it dd not matter what I wore, but as an observant person, I know it does.Lunachance

  9. some really interesting posts here…i used to rail against having to wear something i felt was being dictated to me, and when i read above that you were sent back upstairs to dress more appropriately my first instinct was 'the cheek!' i find the office i work in like a microcosm of society. we have the older men who won't even take their suit jackets off unless they're about to pass out in the middle of a heatwave, the younger guys who lose the tie and roll up their shirt sleeves whenever they feel like it, and then there's us girls who are more comfortable than the boys in warmer weather because its easier to maintain some level of office appropriate attire with a nice skirt and top (plus most of other girls break out the flipflops once the sun makes an appearance).anyway the point of this rambling comment is that when i started i was very uncomfortable trying to fit in with what i felt was expected of me. i don't own a suit, dislike the black trouser and shirt combo that my female colleagues wore as a veritable uniform and used to veer towards the more casual end of the spectrum. but now my work wardrobe is mostly me made, so i can tailor it to what i envisage when i think work wardrobe. it is made to fit me, to my tastes and specifications and most importantly i am happy in my skin and more confident in my work. it's not just me that sees it either, in my first year i was looked up and down by a female boss who used to pass comment on my appearance and be generally disrespectful to me, but not anymore.i still don't dress the same way as my female colleagues but what i wear is definitely office appropriate. i guess what i'm trying to say is that i think how you feel in your clothes has an impact on how you're perceived and consequently treated.p.s. thanks so much for adding me to your blogs of interest menu :)

  10. I took my daughter to do the written test for her driver's license. She failed. She was in a Very Bad Mood as we walked back to the car. She was dressed in a very small boob tube, a tiny stretch denim skirt, and stilettos. As soon as she got in the car, she rolled down the window and shouted unladylike insults at a group of men we had passed. When i asked her why she had done that, she replied "They were looking at me." I said, 'Well, then, they had it coming' and drove off. Honestly, where are we heading? Any suggestion that this girl 'had it coming' because of her 'immodest' dress is the first step on the road to hijabs. May all women, regardless of dress, be treated always with respect simply because they are women.

  11. All of the comments before me were very interesting and I always enjoy the perspectives of different cultures. Rather than throw gas on the fire, I'll share this story. My husband and I took a young friend who was raised as an army brat in Germany and the east coast of the US to dinner at our favorite sports bar. My friend frequently wears shirts that show her ample cleavage that I find distracting at best. She was quite offended that the waitresses were required to wear short shorts and even said something to the staff. I was embarrassed because honestly I hadn't even noticed! It's all perspective..

  12. Reading back over my comment, I realize that I reacted to some things in your post, without really addressing your main point. (I tend to have strong opinions about restrictions placed on women for the purpose of "respect". :P)So, does our clothing style affect the way we interact with others and/or the way we are treated? I think, absolutely, yes. I am definitely treated better when I am dressed more formally. I have found that it has become even more apparent as I get older. When you're young and casually dressed, people may still perceive you as "cute" or at least "pleasant", simply because you are a young woman. You are more likely to receive friendly, cordial treatment from the average person. But as you get older, casual wear starts to read more as "sloppy", and many people won't even give you the time of day. I don't know why that is, but I've definitely experienced it.At the other end of the spectrum, I've noticed that I also have to be careful not to be too dressed up. Very elaborate makeup or clothing in everyday situations can bring unwanted attention (especially from older men, for some reason). I guess it's a delicate balance.

  13. Interesting topic, Steph. Clothes certainly do send social signals, and I think that anyone who can master the art of dressing appropriately to the situation in a way that is a self expression for them, is going to get the best out of any situation. So often clothes are used as a weapon – look at all those teenagers who dress to delibeartely provoke a reaction and then get the hump when people react. Or people who have a 'style' which is just one way of dressing, no matter what the occasion. I believe that there is a self-expression of style for any occasion, be it a beach or a ball. I ove clothes and love to find my self-expression in any situation. In business, this sometimes means dressing not to provoke any reaction at all and that is fine too. Most thought provoking…

  14. I find this topic fascinating and the comments equally fascinating…having lived through 50 or more years of fashion, it's interesting how this keeps coming up…freedom versus working within the confines of a certain group/society. The confines of the group will ALWAYS prevail, and youth will ALWAYS rebel. As the current generation gets older, they bow to the conscripts of the group they've settled in, while their children will rebel. It is the way of the world.What I try to do for my clients (young debs, brides and their mothers and family) is keep it age appropriate, even appropriate and yet appreciate that the youth like to rebel and the parents like to look within the confines of their group. I did an interesting blog on this, mostly cause I can't embed a video here that talks about this very thing…with some interesting perspective from a gal who was on the "first line" of rebellion back in the 60's.

  15. Excellent post, Steph. I haven't really thought too hard about how others perceive me when I dress nicer than my usual Grad student fair of jeans, shirts and hoodies, but I do know that when I'm feeling sick or down or just not 100%, dressing up always ups how I feel about myself. This then has a huge impact on how others see me, as I'm usually more confident and 'standing proud'. Good topics, Steph! Your posts always makes me think. :)

  16. The idea of our clothes reflecting how we feel is very interesting. I know when I have more energy and am happy I wear dressier and more colorful clothes. I was ill and in an unhealthy relationship for a couple years and wore old jeans, white tees and baggy sweatshirts. I didn't feel pretty or interesting and my appearance reflected that. Part of becoming physically and emotionally healthy was dressing "cute" again :)I find that confidence is the sexiest thing I wear. It's cliche but so true! You can wear a gorgeous outfit but if you're not comfortable it shows.

  17. What a great case study of that phenomenon.The question I find most fascinating is how much did people unconsciously react to you dressing differently, and how much did they unconsciously react to YOU acting differently because you were dressed differently.I think it would be hard to even study something like that, since the people collecting data would be influenced by the same effects.

  18. Yes, exactly, ellipsis. And we were all a bunch of social sciences types, there was a lot of collective navel-gazing once we became self aware of our behavior. Too hard to figure it out.

  19. This post has stayed with me for a while. I finally realized what I'd like to point out. Its very easy for women to take responsibility for how others treat them based on how they – the women – are dressed. But what is also in your comment is that the men also were required to dress differently than they normally did. How much did their dress affect their behavior? I would guess that it was all somewhat of a virtuous cycle. Them dressing more formally helped them act more formally and accept more formal attention from the women. Same thing for the women.

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