Thursday, January 2, 2014

Clothing and Social Control

The other day somebody posted to my social media complaining that his boss had changed the office dress code...and now he had nothing to wear.

Dress codes and school uniforms, not to mention the overall expectations of how people should dress in a "business" situation...we're used to them and we probably think of them as customs.

The truth is that clothing has been used to both indicate status and control people for a very long time.

Clothing as social control used to be more obvious in the form of "sumptuary" laws. These laws restricted who could wear what, often in great details.

For example, per the Elizabethan sumptuary laws: Only the royal family could wear purple silk or "cloth of gold tissued" - unless you were a duke, marquis or earl, in which case you could wear it in certain clothing items. Lower class women could only wear brown, beige, yellow, orange, russet, green, grey or blue (woad blue, that is, not indigo).

The ostensible reason for the sumptuary laws in this era was to reduce the importation of foreign dyes and fabrics - but the real reason was so you could identify somebody's status quickly. Sumptuary laws were also used to enforce gender rules - although women who cross dressed weren't punished too heavily. (Many women would dress in male garb when traveling alone in order to avoid, shall we say, unwanted attention).

These days, we don't have laws about what people can and can't wear - but we still have customs. Clothing is used to show status - and we make immediate assumptions about people based off of what they wear. If I talk about a young black man in a hoodie...assumptions there, right away. Too many of them, because plenty of people wear hoodies who aren't in gangs and living in the hood.

In the horse show ring, there are also rules about clothing - and growing up showing in England I had to change between classes. Americans tend to be far more lax about this - but it's expected in English rail classes for all of the riders to dress as close to identical as possible, with the ostensible reason being that it helped the judge focus on the horse. But there's a status tradition in there too. Depending on where you are, there are strong limitations on who can wear "pink" - a red coat. In America, the privilege is reserved for hunt staff, but in Britain it is the traditional privilege of gentlemen. Ladies would wear black coats. (Female Masters of Foxhounds are, however, always permitted to wear pink). The reason is that the red coat started out as a military thing. That's only for formal meets, though. For informal ones, you wear "ratcatcher" - tweed (Youth always wear ratcatcher). So, again, the clothing is a form of social control and status - and also a way to belong. (And truthfully, a formal hunt field looks pretty spectacular). But because of that I (being youth at the time) had to wear ratcatcher for hunter classes and black or blue for jumper classes. Had to. Or the judge would mark me down...or even excuse me from the ring.

Do we really ever wear what we choose? Even when I'm sitting here in jeans, T-shirt and sweater, in some way I'm wearing a uniform...the "geek" one. Clothing is much more about communicating our status than it is about expressing individuality.

Ah, but what about high fashion? That's control too...especially if you're female. Try buying any female clothing that's "out of fashion" and you'll see what I mean. The worst...and funniest...incident of that was the time I wanted to buy a nice sundress to wear at a destination wedding.

The fashionable color for sundresses that year was...white. It took me literally hours to find something that wasn't white. Because, of course, white at weddings is reserved for the bride - to show her special status.

Really, can you think of any item of clothing or way of dressing that doesn't immediately reveal some aspects of the social status of the wearer? And do we not still penalize people who dress out of their station?