Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Dressing The Nation

During a recent trip to America, I attended a lecture in which thirty-three students, teenaged boys from schools around the globe, made an address to the audience. The boys’ presentation, about service leadership in a global community, was impressive, but what struck me the most was the array of school uniforms they wore. The boys were all decked out in jackets, trousers and shorts, as might be expected, but there was great diversity in the detail. Two boys wore bow ties; one boy had a skinny tie. One blazer, striped with burgundy, orange and navy, resembled an archetypal English gent’s summer garb (from the 1930s); other jackets had plain or striped trim. Most of the boys wore black shoes, although at least four wore either loafers or sneakers. The uniforms were a good example of how people use clothing to signal belonging and group distinction.

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Survival Of The… Selfish?

Erving Goffman and Alison Lurie have explored the semiotic significance of clothing from a sociological perspective.[i] More recently, Mark Pagel, head of the Evolution Laboratory at the University of Reading, has considered sartorial signification from the perspective of Evolutionary Biology, albeit briefly. In his book, Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation, Pagel seeks to understand a striking paradox of human behaviour, which sees us constantly switching between selfishness and selflessness. Pagel confronts us with the conundrum that people thirst for individual advancement and distinction and yet, simultaneously, seem willing to cooperate with each other. A possible answer to this anthropological riddle lies in the fact that a person’s chance of surviving and prospering increases – sometimes directly, other times in a round about way – if they work with others. Pagel suggests that humans are uniquely able to recognise the merits of cooperation through their social learning. He argues that we possess an inherent ability to learn, borrow and steal the ideas and actions of our ancestors and contemporaries, a feat that has enabled us to adapt to virtually any environment on earth:

[J]ust as genetical evolution brings together the sets of genes that produce a successful biological species or vehicle for a particular environment, cultural evolution brings together the sets of ideas, technologies, dispositions, beliefs, and skills that over the millennia have produced successful societies, good at competing with others like them, and well adapted culturally to their particular locale. These are our cultural survival vehicles, and it is important to see them as not different in principle from biological vehicles, it is just that the information on which they are based takes a different form: it resides in our minds rather than in our genes. Thus, when people walked into the Artic and survived, it was because they had acquired the knowledge and technology to make clothes suitable to that harsh environment, to build shelters out of ice, and to fish in the cold Artic waters. At a later and different place, when Polynesian people invaded the Pacific, it was because they had acquired the technology to produce seagoing boats, and the knowledge of how to navigate by the stars.[ii]

The tendency of humans to break into distinct groups is risky, but the pay-off, if a group survives and spreads, is that its genes and culture will endure.[iii] To protect itself from outsiders and to promote cohesion among its members, a group will develop unique cultural signifiers. Pagel cites the example of one New Guinean village that convened a meeting to change its word for ‘no’ from bia to bune.

The reason they gave [for the change of vocabulary] was that they wanted to be distinct from […] speakers in a neighboring village, and with immediate effect. They have spoken differently ever since. We can only sympathize with the confusion someone would have felt who had gone away hunting for a few days.[iv]

A change of language or dialect can be an immediate indication of group differentiation, but it is not the only one. Distinction in dress can be equally important.[v] This is almost certainly why the current edition of Monocle asserts:

If we decided to set up our own autonomous region, a national costume would be top of the list for our national brand.[vi]

National Costume

The Monocle editorial suggests two reasons for the adoption of a national costume, distinction and convenience. A national costume, through its material, cut and colour can convey the attitudes and beliefs of a country or region. For this reason, it can be used to express the virtues of the people wearing the distinctive garb and the land they inhabit. Simultaneously, the purpose of national costume can be prosaic. Its material and cut can offer assistance for and protection from the region’s climate, topography and, perhaps, cultural activities; although this assumes that national dress is frequently worn, which is now rarely the case even beyond western Europe. This leads to the third main reason why national costume is adopted. Legitimacy.

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By signalling conformity, national dress can confer legitimacy on wearers within a community. This was the point that Swedish Social Democrat Evin Cetin wanted to make when she wore her country’s blue and yellow dress to announce her candidacy for the European Parliament earlier this month.[vii] Cetin was wearing dress to show that her commitment to her country and its values was greater than that of her rivals. In a sense, she was wearing national costume in a similar way to Gandhi or Nehru, although they also wanted to demonstrate their separateness – and India’s separateness – from their British overlords.

National dress can confer legitimacy in more subtle ways. Firstly, it can provide legitimacy for a group if it is similar to dress of a more established or esteemed group. Secondly, the adoption a nation’s dress by outsiders can be a sign of their support and understanding for the group that typically wears it. Interestingly, it is in these two scenarios that national dress seems to be most significant today, as it is generally eschewed in preference for sartorial styles that make everyone seem alike. The recent G8 summit is a good example. The eight male leaders in attendance were asked not to wear ties in a bid to promote a relaxed atmosphere. The idea was to have a more amicable, and thus effective, conference. This could be achieved if the leaders looked more alike. Apparently.[viii]

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A Sign Of Understanding

When African leaders want to demonstrate the civility or modernity of their country, they use symbols of the West to do it, almost invariably Mercedes limousines and, for the men, shiny black suits. It has been suggested that the President of South Sudan, the world’s newest country, wears dark suits in conformity with other European political leaders to communicate his aspiration to emulate Western modernity.[ix] In Iran, during the 1970s, King Reza Shah ‘promoted, and enforced, a rapid process of Westernisation in dress, which included the abolition of the woman’s veil.[x] The conformity to western vogues and the suppression of native costume was an attempt to promote nation-building and to demonstrate the progress that Iran had made under Shah’s leadership.’[xi] More recently, Chinese consumers are flaunting their newfound wealth and signalling their social status by rejecting regional clothing styles and purchasing western brands, from Adidas and Nike to Gucci and Prada.[xii]

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More common, however, is the adoption of national dress by outsiders. T.E. Lawrence, perhaps better known as Lawrence of Arabia, is a well-known example of somebody adopting indigenous garb to ingratiate himself with a different group and its culture. The stunt has continued. In 1997, certain British female politicians, including the prime minister’s wife Cherie Blair, wore saris at the British Indian Golden Jubilee Banquet. In adopting national dress in this way, which indicated the strength of Britain’s relationship with India through materiality, the premier’s wife was following in the footsteps of Princess Diana and laying a path that others, including Angelina Jolie, would keenly to follow.[xiii]

It is ironic that national dress tends to gain notice when outsiders temporarily purloin it, but this reflects the homogeneity of our present sartorial outlook. Democratic and economic connections encourage people to share similar views, adopt similar patterns of behaviour and so look alike. That said, the interest we take when people consciously adopt different styles of dress when moving outside of their typical social group reveals the semiological power that dress still possesses. This fascination highlights another irony. The power of dress to communicate ideas and actions is arguably now more powerful than in the past because our daily garb is generally so expressionless; Cherie Blair’s sari-wearing gesture was deemed newsworthy because it punctuated the sartorial status quo. This may all seem counterintuitive, but as Mark Pagel explains, these paradoxes are part of our biological make-up.

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[i] E. Goffman, The Representation of Self in Everyday Life (London, 1959); A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000).

[ii] M. Pagel, Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation (London, 2012), 47.

[iii] Ibid., 53-54.

[iv] Ibid., 51.

[v] Ibid., 51-52.

[vi] ‘Fifty Things To Improve The Way You Live’, ed. H. Macdonald, Monocle 65:7 (July/August, 2013).

[vii] A. Törnkvist, ‘I need to reclaim Swedishess – Evin Cetin’. www.thelocal.se/48882/20130704. Accessed: 10-vij-2013.

[viii] V. Friedman, ‘The no-tie decree is a poorly dressed-up message to the world’, Financial Times (22/23 June, 2013), 9.

[ix] T. McConnell, ‘Seen not herd’, Monocle, 52:06 (2012), 58.

[x] On Reza Shah’s coronation, see D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 240-41.

[xi] See earlier post, ‘Clothes are not just for Christmas’, here: XX

[xii] P. Waldmeir, ‘Temple to Mammon outside Mao’s cave’, Financial Times (22/23 June, 2013), 1.

[xiii] S. Suri, ‘Cherie’s Sari Diplomacy’. www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?204647. Accessed: 10-vij-2013.

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