Part 2 — Introduction
Read the course Introduction below, click on any links that interest you. You are not required to read all the material on all the links, however:
Introduction: The Needle Before the Wheel
There are no people an earth who do not, to some degree or other, decorate or clothe their bodies, and the ways they decorate themselves help to identify them both as groups and individuals. Even in populations where clothing is minimal, there are defined traditions of hair cutting or dressing, tattooing or scarification, and body painting for specific social occasions. People in these “naked” social groups still use body decoration as a means to
- celebrate social/religious occasions
- visibly identify themselves with a group
- show status within their group
- attract persons of one’s gender preference
- express individual taste
These are all basic human desires that body decorations, including clothing, help humans fulfill.We are the only animal to feel these needs so strongly that we need to express them by altering our external selves on a regular basis. In a sense, the old biblical explanation of clothing as a result of knowledge giving us a shame of our bodies, is not entirely without a piece of truth in it. However we often do not dress to minimize our sex and selves, but rather to add to it since we fear we are inadequate. Men do not cover their sex organs because they fear they will be seen as too big, but because they fear they will be seen as too small. Most women don’t fear being too sexy when they are naked, they fear being seen as “too fat” or “to skinny” depending on the body type of the woman, and her cultural perceptions of attractive body weight.
We use clothing to make ourselves appear to be the people we wish we were. Late 20th Century middle class American cultural/emotional needs can be explained instantly by a through reading of old 1990s issues of The Peter man Catalog before it was swallowed by a corporation. Peter man, sold clothing by going directly into the American psyche and rooting out why people buy and wear clothes. He sold (to Americans in the 1990’s) a fantasy of the person who wears the clothes, then convinced his customers that buying the clothes would make their lives like the fantasy. In the old Peter man catalogs, everyone has glamour, status, wealth, aristocratic ease, sexual attractiveness, individuality, taste, and social acceptability. Peter man sold the idea that if you wear his clothes, you would have, or at least appear to have, all those things. Since these things are the reason for wearing clothing, Peter man clothing sold extremely well, despite very high prices.
But, you ask, what about weather? Surely clothing was invented to protect one from the elements? HA! A mere side effect in my opinion. However a tremendously important side effect. Humans are an indigenous tropical animal, much like most other primates. However, we have even less hair than the next least hirsute ape, and so are extremely limited in our natural territory. The moment we started deciding our own bodies were less attractive than the skins of other animals, and so wore the skins of our dead prey, we preserved body heat sufficient to allow us to live in any environment on the planet, including the arctic.
I, myself, lived for 18 years in Fairbanks, Alaska, a place that was inhabited for thousands of years due to the technological innovation of sewing. When you see a cartoon showing a caveman in loosely wrapped furs carving a wheel as a symbol of “invention” you have every right to laugh. It is an absurd anachronism. Tanning, sewing, patterning, spinning and weaving, to a very high level of technical skill, were all developed long before the first wheel and the first metallurgy. The needle came before the wheel. Alaska, and all of North and South America were inhabited because somebody sewed skins together into fully fitted and enclosed suits, gloves, and shoes, so the first humans could cross the Bering Sea ice bridge. Wheels weren’t needed. Bronze and copper were after thoughts. Fire and sewing gave humans the ability to cover the planet. This is one very important “side effect”.
So while the original motivation for body decoration was and is social, additional uses for clothing keep being found. The first, most probably, was clothing’s ability to help one hold onto objects of personal property. The earliest sculptures showing clothing show string belts with decoration hanging from the string. It is a small step from that to attaching utilitarian objects to the belt string, a common practice among modern groups that still wear similar minimalist clothing.
Besides holding onto objects, and to body heat, clothing has been found to be useful in reducing body heat and sun damage in desert climates, as protection from rough surfaces and war projectiles, and for reducing body dampness due to rain, sweat, and urination. The practical advantages of clothing are so numerous and obvious, and the emotional advantages so deeply rooted in human behavior, that socially naive persons often imagine that they wear clothes for purely practical reasons. In Alaska, where the practical need for clothing is so obvious, this view is pretty well endemic. However, one need only ask people if they would be caught dead in a lime green and orange polka dot parka to convince people that they make clothing choices on a combination of social, aesthetic, and practical factors. This is why the largest group of persons in Fairbanks who get minor cases of frostbitten skin are high school students. High school clothing choices are determined more by social concerns than by practical ones.
Clothing and social identity are so strongly entwined in our human brains that we have even rendered it a criminal act in certain instances for an individual to wear clothing of a group to which he/she does not belong, or clothing of which the general population does not approve. In times when the upper classes of Europe were trying to restrain wealthy middle class people from dressing in better clothing than themselves, “sumptuary laws” were passed that fined, taxed or jailed commoners who dressed in the fashions of the aristocracy.
The Old Testament laws require all followers of Jehovah to wear tassels on their clothing so as to distinguish themselves from persons of other religions, and further exhort believers not to wear clothing associated with the opposite gender. While the first instruction was and is ignored by members of the Christian and Moslem sects of monotheism, as well as by most modern Jews, the latter instruction has made it’s way into law in numerous countries. Even in America, where constitutionally we are supposed to have a separation of church and state, I was born, in 1959 into a country that then prosecuted cross dressing off of the stage as a criminal offense!
Nakedness too is considered a criminal “act” in most places on the globe, despite the fact that we are neither born with clothing, nor are “doing” anything when we are being naked. We are not doing something, we are omitting to put on clothing. Yet wearing clothing is so “normal” and “natural” feeling to most humans that public nudists are considered deviants who are dangerous enough to require arrest and prosecution. Nakedness is perceived as a threat. Forcing another person to be naked is also deeply threatening. Most persons, if strip searched by police or airport officials without cause, will be so deeply upset they will attempt to take legal action against the officials involved. Stripping political prisoners is a common way of humiliating and subduing them, and in cold climates is often used as a form of torture.
Clothing is also deeply personal. Artists, social reformers, and individualists of all kinds have found expression for their ideas and aspirations through dress. Lucy Stone a notable 19th Century Suffragist and Amelia Bloomer a Feminist magazine editor and lecturer, expressed their desire for female equality by wearing a trouser costume, (invented by their fellow reformer Elizabeth Smith Miller,) during their public lectures across the U.S. Andrei Breton is said to have chatted with his fellow surrealists in Parisian cafes wearing a carrot in place of a necktie (others attribute this wonder of sartorial juxtaposition to the poet Maya kovsky). I managed to make myself into a social pariah in High school by dressing in a psudo – Edwardian style in the mid-1970’s because of my adolescent love for the writing of Oscar Wilde and W.S.Gilbert.
Sexual attraction and repulsion are also served by clothing. People who go to nudist colonies and beaches often are surprised to find that mass quantity public nakedness is anti-erotic. Actual bodily sex differences are less pronounced visually than gendered clothing differences.People often develop fetishes for items of clothing that they perceive as sexual and are more aroused by the fetish clothing than by the particular person in it. A good example of this is women’s “sexy shoes”. Women unconsciously have a tendency to buy them when they are feeling sexually frustrated or unattractive. I realized this when my vow of celibacy during my Ph.D. work stretched to six years and I started having a closet that looked like it belonged to Imelda Marcos. Men more typically want to have sex with women wearing “sexy shoes”, or actually have sex with the shoe itself. Noted French Revolutionary writer Rest if de la Brettone admitted doing as much in his memoirs back in the 18th Century, so this emotional response is hardly new. Additionally, a significant portion of the male population (both straight and gay) find themselves aroused by wearing “women’s” shoes. A whole industry exists making “women’s” shoes in men’s sizes, for men who ascribe to this fetish.
Using a word processor on your computer, write a short report (200-400 words) about the clothing worn by a social group, clique, or individual that you find interesting in the present time in the place you live. How does this group or individual use clothing to
- Celebrate social/religious occasions?
- Visibly identify themselves with a group?
- Show status within their group?
- Attract persons of one’s gender preference?
- Express individual taste?
Save a disk copy of the text for your records. Then use your mouse to highlight the text and “copy” the text. When you have done so, go back to the Class Message Board and “paste” the text into a message to the group. Read the messages of some other group members, and post comments on at least one other person’s report.
Cross-dressing is one of the hottest topics in Fashion Theory at the moment. Dressing in drag, like this man, could get you arrested up through the 1960’s in America. The Modern Gay liberation movement was started in the 1960’s when a group of drag queens at the Stonewall Bar in NYC resisted arrest by police and began rioting for their rights. (Hemera Photo Objects)
Women’s high heeled shoes are one of Western clothing’s most feti shised objects. However, nearly every clothing object or style has been fetishised by someone. Objects as diverse as rubber diapers, pantyhose, athletic wear, and plastic “vampire” fangs are all kinky costume turn ons for someone. (Hemera Photo Objects)