How we dress and social signaling

3 minute read

I’ve been interested in clothes for a good while. While this feels rather self-centered to say in public, clothing is a fascinating intersection of self-expression and necessity.

Clothes are neccessary to cover our shame as well as to provide protection from the elements. Thus, noone can escape wearing clothes. However, clothes are also a canvas for personal and/or social expression.

Clothing can signal membership of subcultures - the tribes of modern adolescence. Lolita goth? Knee high socks, ruffled skirt, tight top. Punk? Ripped jeans, black DMs, piercings and/or a mohawk. Metalhead? Battlejacket, black converse, jeans. Hippie? Upcycled and homemade errythang, loose garments, long hair, shaving and underwear optional. Decidedly not counter-culture youth? Chinos, OCBD, and boat shoes. This becomes useful shorthand when navigating the fraught social landscapes of the teenage years. If you see someone dressing similarly to yourself, there is a more than decent chance that you will have overlapping interests.

Clothing is also used as signifiers of social belonging and/or class. The mechanic is likely to dress differently from the salesperson, who similarly is likely to dress apart from the manager, the lawyer, the doctor, etc. There is a whole other post to be written about the flattening of signifiers of social strata in modern times. The CEO is as likely as the designer as the workman to wear jeans, a t-shirt and a sweater - superficially, they are wearing the same items. The differences appear in the details. Cut, materials and accessories will be distinct, according to practical considerations, personal preferences and expectations of the peer group.

The workman might wear

  • loose-fitting most things
  • greater chance of pre-distressed jeans
  • large logos on tee or sweater, often from the brand
  • a cotton(blend) sweatshirt or hoodie
  • running shoes, sneakers or otherwise practical shoes

The designer I see wearing

  • slimmer, maybe even skinny jeans ironic and/or creative prints woolen
  • sweater, or slim, plain hoodie more fashion-forward sneakers, shoes or boots.

A CEO could wear

  • slim-straight jeans
  • slim, plain tee
  • wool or cashmere sweater, maybe layered with a blazer
  • dress shoes

Yes, I realize that these characters are all men. Write what you know, yes?

The designer might wish to convey a sense of playfulness and creativity; the CEO wants to appear put-together and serious, the workman is all about practicality and getting-the-job-done. Additionaly, there are social expectations within a peer group. It might be looked down upon to appear vain, for example, which precludes showing too much care in outward appearance. In a different social strata, walking around like Steve Carell in the start of Crazy Stupid Love would be unthinkable. Put in a little effort, man!

These social expectations also can apply more broadly to the breadth of a wardrobe. The workman might have flannels and cargo pants, but feel terribly self=conscious in a dress shirt (even when situationally appropriate); the designer probably owns both chinos and casual collared shirt; and the CEO most certainly has access to a nice-ish suit.

Hell, even the rebellious youth referenced in the introductory paragraph gravitate towards eerily similar uniforms! Let us all be different, together, similarly…

These are, of course, gross generalizations. The worker might be just as fashion-forward as the designer, and the CEO might well say ‘fuck it!’, and wear a black turtleneck, jeans, and New Balance sneakers to anything. But I hope I have illustrated my point: Social groupings and stratification influence what we even begin to consider appropriate to wear. This, in turn, somewhat deflates the notion that personal preference has much of an impact on how we dress - or perhaps, that which you find preferable is rather interleaved and interconnected with your current social context, as well as the previously mentioned necessity and self-expression.

I am not immune to this phenomenon, of course.

  • My job is of a practical, hands-on nature and i have small children
    • thus nothing too delicate to wash
    • avoid fabrics that keep stains
  • I’m on my feet a lot, so comfortable shoes
  • I still remember my ‘rebellious’ metalhead roots with fondness
    • Black double-rider
    • MA1 bomber
    • Army boots
  • I have no illusions about not being vain
    • I shave my graying, balding hair off and groom my beard
    • Part of my fitness motivation is to look good naked in swimming trunks

Interestingly, my experiences on this particular social stage have changed since starting the night shift. Being awake and alone all night means comfort reigns supreme. Sweatpants and slippers it is! And conversely, I have more freedom of expression in my off-week; my wardrobe is no longer dictated by the demands of my job (and the kids seem to be growing up too).