Clothes Maketh the Man

Being adjudged by one’s appearance is nothing new. Nor is it something which most people would hasten to contradict, as shallow and distasteful as the observation may initially appear. Mark Twain supportively opined: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Nevertheless there is a fervent element of the social order which prefers the dictum, “You cannot judge a person solely by his appearance” (the male attribute is no accident by the way though I haven’t a clue why, perhaps because men need more help than women). Likely the adage is a play upon the equally well known phrase, “You cannot judge a book by its cover”. Consider however your own reaction upon seeing your physician clad in a white coat. Or not. Any difference? I’m guessing there is. And not only in your eyes but likely in the eyes of the physician too. As such the “book” analogy, in spite of its scholarly intimation, borders on being trite.

It is common knowledge that apparel portrays an image – anything from rigorous conservatism to outlandish fashion. Whatever the choice, the projected doppelgänger can send a number of messages – some implying reliability, others individuality, others positive wackiness. Although it may be thought to be somewhere in the middle, a uniform can be as unique as either end of the clothes rack though the general consensus is that uniforms portray control. Uniforms might also convey status or at the very least distinguish one from others.

Quite aside from appearances, there is scientific evidence that we think not only with our brains but also with our physical experiences, including it seems the clothes we wear. That is why, for example, the doctors wearing white coats performed to higher standards than others who did not. The same study found that in order for clothes to influence our psyche we must “experience” our clothes. I imagine the difference would be a mere dress-up occasion like Hallowe’en. Debate about the effect of clothing lingers upon the issue of constancy; namely, do the cognitive influences eventually wear off? My guess is that even if we habituate, the effect will last.

Clothes are a trademark of status, position and occupation. We have come to expect that certain people will only appear particular clothing – airline pilots for example, judges, nurses, firemen and police officers, to name but a few. On the other end of the scale are those who snap their fingers at sartorial apprehension – the retired and the elderly, for example – people who cultivate a wardrobe of track pants and fleeces, inexpensive, comfortable and easily laundered. My personal source of amusement is the cowboy look, a label first brought home to me by J. R. Ewing of Dallas fame. I will never recover from the knowledge that businessmen actually wear ten-gallon hats to work – with a suit! It is a preposterous image which is only made remotely plausible by the accompanying sound of a Texas accent.

In truth there are plenty of outrageous outfits in one’s own back yard; viz., young men who wear exceedingly low-rise pants which drag upon the ground and which purposefully expose the flamboyant colours of their smalls. Again my fashion sensibilities are challenged to understand the value or attraction of having to walk as though transporting school books in the rear of one’s pants. Even if there were something toxic about the revealing couture, any advantage quickly disappears with the sight of the model having perpetually to haul up his trousers to avoid stumbling upon his own clothes.

On the subject of young people, the “hoodie” is iconic as popularized by the blockbuster Rocky film. While I suspect many youth sport the fashion especially for its element of instant anonymity and mystery, it may also appeal to others with criminal intent and for that reason alone many find it off-putting. Still others seemingly employ the hooded sweatshirt like a cowl attached to a monk’s robe though the religious connotation seldom has any legitimacy. The hoodie has even been likened to a Ku Klux Klan outfit (“not an appropriate article of clothing”). We can nonetheless be thankful for its utilitarianism. It is our own Canadian models in Saskatchewan who so often wear a hoodie under a coat or jacket to provide an extra layer of clothing in the winter. There, hoodies are often referred to as “Bunny-hugs”.

Androgynous fashion is not common, the distinction between feminine (expressive) and masculine (instrumental) traits. If it happens at all, it is mostly women wearing pant suits which are considered an imitation of men’s standard business attire, catering to the forum which demands action and assertiveness. Some research indicates that women so attired have a better chance of getting a job in traditional male occupations. Just as a reminder that fashion repeats, the pant suit was introduced in the 1920s even though it wasn’t until much later that it became acceptable business wear for women, culminating in the Hilary Clinton look when she became a U.S. Senator. Women who have out-of-doors jobs frequently wear the same traditional clothing as men – flannel shirts, jeans and work boots – but this is considered more practical than anything else, unless of course it figures as part of a nightclub scene.

A strict definition of fashion might not normally include jewelry but the custom has lately taken on such dimension that its ignorance is impossible. Many of the successful rappers equate large, ostentatious jewelry with automobiles of like standards. Given that fashion has now come to include broadly not only clothing and footwear but also makeup and body piercings, it is small wonder that accessories have a role to play. The role is far beyond the usual concept of fashion accessory such as hats and handbags (what formerly included hand fans, parasols and umbrellas, canes and ceremonial swords) and now includes hair sticks, barrettes, headbands, cufflinks, tie tacks, even sunglasses, smartphones and earplugs (a realm only exceeded by the Scottish sporran and sgian-dubh). Jewelry is a classic beacon of status frequently heralded by its trade name (Cartier, Bulgari, Tiffany, Rolex, etc.) although size and glitter (“bling-bling”) trumps all in the end.

If one hasn’t the energy or enthusiasm to afford endless attention to fashion it’s nice to know that the little black dress (for women) and jeans and a T-shirt (for men) still work.