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.
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?