Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Meaning of Clothing

"Clothing is to the body what education is to the mind. Clothing consists of similar elements for everyone, yet it varies according to the taste, attitude, order, care, elegance, and distinction everyone brings to it."
                                               Comtesse de Bassanville, Paris, 1859

Portrait of the Empress Eugenie dressed as Marie Antoinette by Franz Xaver Winterhaller, 1854, oil on canvas
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City)
In the book Fashioning the Bourgeoisie, Phillipe Perrot compares the origin of clothing with the origin of language, both defined by vast unknowns and complexities. Both clothing and language happen "somewhere in geographical and social space." And while the purpose of clothing is typically thought to be protection, modesty and adornment, the variety of body coverings across time and cultures refutes that. He cites the example of the natives of Tierra del Fuego who remain nude to hunt in the snow.

Perrot asserts that it is "through dress that groups and individuals give themselves meaning." For example, articles of clothing like the equestrienne styled blazer or yoga pants, that originally served functions for hunting or sport, are worn today to signify other qualities like an aristocratic aura or sportiness.

"Sign or symbol, clothing affirms and reveals cleavages, hierarchies, and solidarities according to a code guaranteed and perpetuated by society and its institutions." (page 8, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie). Consider the elaborate dress codes of the 19th century in which lace and feathers were forbidden before noon and decolletage, too-ample skirts or showy jewels were in bad taste before evening. And women of a certain age had to forego "bright colors, elegant designs, the latest fashions, and graceful ornaments such as feathers, flowers and jewels." Stepping outside of these dictates left one subject to ridicule and scorn.

It seems to me that with the exception of a few professions like bankers and judges, and perhaps a few formal occasions like weddings, dress codes seem to have been largely abandoned. And even though almost anything goes, clothing still  signifies status and identity. The clues are a lot more subtle, manifesting in cut, quality of textile, fit and also in accessories, especially shoes and handbags. Perhaps that is why prestige labels are so coveted.