American writer and wit Mark Twain opined that naked men have a negligible influence within society. The confidence and creativity of the clothes that were modelled in London and Milan earlier this year would seem to prove him right; men are engaging and experimenting with their dress as never before. Well, so we’re told by fashion editorials and photographers. But do the glossy magazines, Tumblr and Pinterest accounts reflect mainstream or marginal views about men and their dress? To consider this weighty issue, my students and I organised a debate: This House Believes Clothes Make Man. What follows is a summary of the two sides’ arguments, with one or two supplementary points.
Yes: Clothes Make Man
If we were in any doubt about the significance of dress, a recent article from Psychology Today left little room from for equivocation: dress not only influences people’s impressions of us, it determines how we behave. In a study involving seventy-four participants and a white coat, those who wore the coat thinking that it belonged to a doctor performed significantly better in sustained attention tasks than others who wore the coat and believed that it belonged to a painter.[i] In short, dressing smart makes us feel smart. Science thereby proves what history has long shown. In seventeenth-century England, Protestant partisans inveighed against the bejewelled and beribboned King Charles and his cavaliers because they considered their ostentatious raiment to represent the political and cultural vacuity of the kingdom; through their dress, the King and his dandical stalwarts revealed they were preoccupied with a fallible and material world and thought little of the incorruptible kingdom of heaven. Worst still, their attire betrayed sympathy for continental culture and Catholicism. When Charles II restored the monarchy, it is noteworthy that he introduced a new, simpler form of dress to court. Over night – on the 6 October 1666, to be precise – Charles banished bows, eradicated ribbons and dumped the doublet. In their place he introduced a long vest, which many deem to be an embryonic three-piece suit. Old ways died hard and the King’s sartorial reform took time to be accepted, but in sanctioning a conspicuous clothing reform to demonstrate his distance from his father’s policies, Charles II understood that clothes make the man.[ii]
Louis XVI, who was struggling to keep his throne and head in eighteenth-century France, revealed a similar understanding of the significance of dress, not that it did him much good. To demonstrate to his aggrieved subjects that his days of idle merry-making and profligate expenditure were behind him, he adopted the dress of the radical reformers, the Sans Culottes. The gesture was too little, too late, but the fact that the King used dress as a conduit for communication reveals that surface adornment is never only skin deep. The point can be demonstrated further with reference to twenty-first-century politics. The host of the 2013 G8 summit, British Prime minister David Cameron, urged male attendees to ditch their neckwear and participate in the proceedings with open-neck shirts; by jettisoning workwear, Cameron hoped the politicians would also leave aside any obstreperous modus operandi. Speaking after the event, British Chancellor George Osborne claimed the sartorial edict had its desired effect; the conversation was freer and more amicable: dress had not only changed people’s perceptions of one another, it had altered people’s perceptions of themselves, just as the Psychology Today article surmises it would.
The main argument against clothes making man is probably that people are so much more than this; to judge a person by their apparel is as shallow as it is misguided and harsh. In fact, the imperative that compels us to judge one another’s raiment is biological. Humans have only possessed the ability to communicate effectively through speech in the last 160,000 years (or thereabouts). This is a relatively recent development in the grand scheme of evolutionary biology, so it is hardly surprising that appearance, of which dress forms a major part, counts for so much in our relationships with one another and has such a significant impact on our behaviour. There might come a time when the evolutionary process discards such instincts, but until then clothes will continue to make man.
No: Clothes Do Not Make Man
Clothes have social and cultural significance, as many sociologists, from Thorstein Veblen to Erving Goffman, have shown, but they are one of multiple communication strategies between people. Looks and first impressions are undoubtedly important, but to judge a person solely on their appearance and dress is to run the risk of underestimating them, dramatically. The idea that man is made by clothes is particularly implausible when considering different cultures: how do we account for the reception and longevity of certain styles of clothing in some societies and not others: the kimono in Japan, for example, or the sari in India? In Africa, there are significant vestimentary variations across the continent, from tunics and kaftans to togas and loose trousers. There have also been changes through time, particularly with regard to the meaning of colours. In the medieval west, the colour blue was associated with loyalty; within the Iberian peninsula, it was linked to jealously; orange was their colour for loyalty. Now, colours are largely devoid of specific meanings, although blue and pink have associations with gender and sexuality in the West, as the birth of Prince George demonstrated. Distinctions in dress suggest that man is shaped by a multiplicity of cultural factors. At the very least, they reveal that there is no signal sartorial code, no lingua vestis.
To believe that clothes make man is also to assume that the messages clothes convey are unambiguous and understood by all to possess the same associations and meanings. This is not the case. Consider the outfit that John Galliano was photographed wearing back in February 2013. Some critics suggested he was making a cruel jibe against Hasidic Jews, whilst others defended his fashionable appearance. The point is that the clothes he wore were ambiguous, subject to myriad interpretations and so confounded simple classification. Consider, too, the diverse responses to the collections of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. The ability of these designers’ creations to provoke testifies to the power of clothing, but the queries and emotional responses they evoke reveal that it is very difficult for one designer, or one customer and wearer, to curate and control interpretations regarding their dress because clothes are, for good and ill, polyvalent transmitters.[iii]
The speed at which the cycle of fashion turns also mitigates against the notion that clothes make man. People may choose to replenish, or at least supplement, their wardrobe each season, but it would be churlish to suggest that the donning of new apparel at key moments in the sartorial calendar represents different character traits or wholly reinvented personalities. Moreover, if we were to accept that people can change their public image, and thus their social standing, with a change of their clothes, we limit the signifying ability that clothes convey. Whilst the colour, cut and cloth of the garments was formally regulated by sumptuary legislation, this is now rarely the case, implying that a change of clothes means little, or at least less than they may have done in the past, in the making and maintenance of human relationships.[iv]
The judges sided with the proposition and concluded that clothes do make man. Inevitably, this verdict had as much to do with the arguments made as the way each team conveyed their ideas. The way that men are currently experimenting with dress – the subject of many of the articles on Linleywild – would certainly imply that there is an indissoluble connection between clothing and character, however much we may dislike this fact. It would be wonderful if you could add your thoughts by way of a comment below…
[i] J. Gaines Lewis, ‘Clothes Make Man – Literally’, Pscyhology Today, 24 August 2012.
[ii] D. Kuchta, The Three-Piece And Modern Masculinity: England, 1550-1850 (Berkeley, 2002).
[iii] M. Barnard, Fashion As Communication, 2nd edn (London, 2002), 72-101.
[iv] C. Campbell, ‘The Modern Western Fashion Pattern, Its Functions and Relationship to Identity’, Identities Through Fashion: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. A. Marta González & L. Bovone (London, 2012), 14-19.