Humans alter our external appearances as a way to communicate with other people. Namely, this is to signal 1) what Tribe we belong to, and 2) our social standing within the Tribe.
You must be well-off.
Have just the plainest gown?
There's work to be done.
Is that cut of clothing a little strange?
|Images of native S. Americans from JCB Library|
You must be from the other side of town.
I'd wager this has been true since the first intelligent primate first balanced a leaf on his pecker. After all, being able to quickly recognize where everyone fits into a society's structure allows for a more efficient way to deal labor organization, territory disputes, sexual reproduction, etc.
The 21st Century is no different than the 1st. We're still sending out signals to everyone, perhaps with more conviction than our ancestors. It's no longer a simple matter of geography or linear hierarchy. In the United States particularly, people must sift through layers of tribalism as we commute to our schools, jobs, neighborhoods, and favorite night spots. And the social hierarchy? It's even harder to navigate through our various social circles. As a part of a complex culture, each person dresses not just for vanity or comfort, but to present his or her (self) worth and to feel safe within his or her Tribe(s).
Looking into any high school clearly illuminates the idea of Tribes. The distinct friend groups segregate according to intelligence, athleticism, social background, race, economics, etc. These tribes tend to have a distinct look to them. (Think: Converse, Wallaby, New Balance, Vann, Nike, etc) Teenagers are extremely aware of the importance of clothing. More than a form of self expression, clothing is a way to show their values. The outward appearance is a way to signal to the world that they have heritage, personalities, and histories, and are not merely cogs in the system.
Adults, too, have personalities and histories. In most cases, "grown-ups" have a deeper convictions on how to portray themselves to the world. They just tend to not be as extreme or as easily swayed by advertising. The life experiences a person has along with his or her cultural heritage factor into every sock, every shirt, every bra, every belt he or she wears. Choosing an outfit is to say that you belong to your Tribe(s), and that Tribe has certain values.
Of course, the values expressed through clothing can be misinterpreted (by wearer or observer), or correctly interpreted by an observer who does not have the same values. That's when the trouble starts. Such interpretations signal that the person with the 'wrong' outfit does not belong and therefore poses a threat to the observer's way of life/Tribe.
Not belonging can be a mild fashion faux-pas, like a man wearing a slightly too deep v-neck tee. Or it can be more serious, like wearing a Confederate battle flag shirt on the third Monday of January. Someone choosing to wear that shirt on that date does so because he or she values the Tribe which celebrates Robert E. Lee over the Tribe who celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.. However, the Tribe of the United States looks down on the tribal heritage of white southerners (because the U.S. won and hate crimes are scary). Dirty looks will abound. (Unless that person is surrounded by white supremacists.) If those observers are members of the Black Panthers- well it's not likely to end well. Of course, the person wearing the Confederate flag may have forgotten what day it was, or had no other clean shirts because of economic circumstances. Regardless of the reasons why, people will judge that person by his or her choice of clothing.
Perhaps less blatant examples would be wearing jeans to a traditional church or wearing a scanty dress to a dinner party. "But wait, Rihanna wore that 'naked dress' to an awards event- that's got to be a fashion faux pas," I hear you say. Most of us cannot wear a Swarovski covered fishnet dress to any
Obviously, Rihanna isn't a part of the Mennonite Tribe. Her floor length dress is 'okayed' because shes in these and more Tribes: Entertainment, Music, Barbados, and Female. She can wear the nearly-nude cloth because she's high up in the hierarchy. Popularity, respect, talent, sex appeal, fitness, and reputation all factor into her social standing within those Tribes. Because she scores high in all these categories she can "get away with" wearing just jewels in public.
The ornate, impractical, and provocative clothing of aristocracy is not that of most people. The price of materials and high skilled labor is the obvious reason for this divide. But even if non-aristocratic people could get their hands on such clothing, the peasant wearing a fancy frock would be ridiculed. Only a child would make fun of an Emperor's new cloths, but if Larry down the street took it all off he would have to be ready for serious humiliation. After all, they don't throw parades every time common people buy a new outfit, but who would every want to miss the red carpet's pomp.
Instructions: Put on best suit. Allow people to scream your name. Look stoic for photo. Walk on.
It is not as simple as getting Michael Kors instead of Prada. Unlike our feudal ancestors, where we stand on the social ladder- well let's just say it's no longer a ladder. It's more like a sprawling, muti-tiered, moving playground. It is so ridiculous, some argue that we should just ditch the idea of a social consequences for acting weird.
Until that is no longer idealistic, we're likely to continue to dress within our Tribe's rules. As a capitalistic society, our income does limit our worth, and people who dress outside the limits of their worth often run into issues. Those who feel they are worth more than their income collect those designer shoes by racking up credit-card bills or other socially unacceptable ways of getting 'stuff'. Which is not unlike the peasant who tries to wear a fancy frock. Perhaps they will be ridiculed, perhaps they will be arrested. More importantly, these people often don't carry the clothing as if they belong to that social level.
People with lower self-worth under dress themselves. This communicates to others, not that they have low self-worth, but that they are lower in the hierarchy, inhibiting their ability to move up in the hierarchy. They miss out on opportunities- social, economical, sexual, etc. Dressing for the wrong Tribe says "I do not belong," but under dressing for the Tribe says "I do not deserve."
Of course there are counter examples. The woman who purposely dresses higher on ladder of another's Tribe in order to gain respect. The man that renounces worldly possessions to live in the trees. Such people have a higher level of self-worth, and do not need others to validate their standing. They live in that 'idealized' world.
Our Tribes and social standing within them influence how we act and behave. How we present ourselves to the world is really a representation of how we think the world should perceive us. We wrap ourselves in heritage, personality, and values so that others can know that we have heritage, personality, and values. To show we are not merely cogs in the system.