Monday, February 12, 2007

What are we trying to do when we wear clothes?

Blue jeans. Running shoes. A little black dress.

An impeccably dressed man. An elderly lady in a housecoat. A woman in a business suit. A twenty-something college student dressed in charity-shop threads.

A half-naked child with a bloated belly stares out from your television screen. A half-naked woman pouts for the camera, hoping you'll run right out and buy that Racing Red lipstick she’s donning. African children sport faded Nike t-shirts and bare feet. An overweight teenager wears a midriff and low-riders. A six year old girl dresses like a beauty-queen.

Whoever we are, our relationship with our clothes is, at the very least, an intimate one. As the only species on earth that both needs and desires additional covering for our hides, what we wear and how we wear it is a basic part of human life on earth. Some protection from the elements is necessary for our survival. But for all of human history, we have treated the making or purchasing of our attire as something more like an art form, involving careful craftsmanship and aesthetically pleasing design. Today, the ease and economy of manufacturing has put innumerable styles and fabrics at our fingertips. We all need a coat, but do we need a closet full of them? We need a solid pair of shoes, but ten or twenty pair? Clearly, we are trying to say something about ourselves, with the clothes we wear. What do your clothes say about you, anyway?

For ages, clothes have served as social signifiers, denoting such things as class, wealth, marital status or age. In today’s western society, these distinctions are fading. Is that woman twenty-five or thirty-five? It’s sometimes hard to tell. Are we losing something by blurring the lines? Gaining something?

One of the most obvious uses of clothing is to hide our nakedness. Stripping of the clothes is often synonymous with the stripping of pride. It is a form of intimidation and torture. The Seattle Times covered the story of an anthrax scare which required everyone within the potentially toxic zone to strip and be washed down. Even in the face of so grave a threat, a reluctant few refused to undress. The article was titled, “We’d Rather Die than Take Our Clothes Off”.

At the opposite extreme, Naturists advocate nudity as the natural and therefore, best clothing. They say it’s all about erasing the barriers between people of different social classes and about accepting yourself for who you really are. Are those of us who prefer wearing clothes, unenlightened—or worse—vain? Naturism reacts against the gnostic idea still prevalent in parts of our society, that the body is inherently shameful. Are they right? Is wearing clothes always a sign of shame? Or is there a certain metaphorical protecting and reserving or even—in direct contrast to the idea of Naturism—a reverencing of ourselves that takes place each time we pull on our clothes?


Tom Mulhall said...

Hi Rachael,

I like your questioning the role of clothes. You see, I am an expert as my wife and I own a nudist resort in Palm Springs called The Terra Cotta Inn. Our site is

My blog about nudism is Terra Cotta Inn blog

Skinny dipping and nude sunbathing have had a long history in America. Many of our founding fathers like George Washington and Benjamin Frankin enjoyed nude sunbathing. Norman Rockwell's famous painting of the boys skinnydipping was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

I think it was not until after WWII when the advertising industry started using nudity and sex to sell it products that Americans started being embarrassed about being nude.

Europeans moved in the other direction. For instance all beaches in Spain are topless with many nude. Same with France.

When you are brought up with nudity being no big deal you feel very comfortable with yourself.

You should try going to a nudist resort or nude beach some time.

Good luck.

de Silentio said...

What are we trying to do when we wear clothes?

Stay warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and confortable any other time.

Rachael King said...

Thanks for the comments.

Tom: You express an interesting but very fringe opinion about clothing. I’d like to throw out a few of my thoughts and see what you (and others) make of them.

de silentio: Yours is a common sense approach to this question which, I admit, is similar to my first reaction. But, as the onus was upon me to produce some sort of writing on the subject, I attempted to produce thinking on it which was at least as sophisticated. I don’t know if I have succeeded on either account, but I do think the issue is more nuanced than it at first looks.

If utility is the main purpose of clothing, then wouldn’t it make sense to forgo clothes in extreme heat or in the event that one feels “freer” in his birthday suit? Most of us feel we have a right to privacy and would experience some level of embarrassment, vulnerability or shame in the mandatory detox situation mentioned in my post. Is it proper for us to feel any one of those things or is it all a matter of social conditioning? The nudist gains power by voluntarily baring it all—he can never be “stripped”, so to speak and made vulnerable. But does he lose anything?

I’m going to evoke the Biblical story of God clothing humanity because I think it provides an interesting metaphor for the suggestion I’m about to make. In Genesis chapter 3, after Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, they realized they were naked, and were ashamed. So they pulled together a covering of fig leaves, in an attempt to hide their nakedness. God, once he had the whole story out of them, made proper clothing for them from animal skins.

Whether you believe the “fall into sin” explanation of our world or maintain that there is no essential “brokenness” in it, this story can be an intriguing way to explain our experience. Let’s say the partaking of the fruit is a coming into consciousness or becoming aware of ourselves as we relate to the world. They realized they were naked… Here, the primordial human beings discover themselves, step outside themselves long enough to see that they are naked. They are vulnerable to the elements, physically; but also to moral and psychic violence. Hence, the purpose of clothing is protection, which is more than mere physical pragmatism.

I can think of two ways in which our clothing might serve this purpose, and they are two sides of the same coin. First, clothes cover us (literally and metaphorically). Codes of modesty vary from one culture to another, but all have in common the existence of a modesty code. I’d like to suggest that the concept of modesty does not denigrate the human body, but understands our unique vulnerability as sentient and rational beings in a world that is often less than tender in its treatment of us. By wearing clothes, we are reserving the right to keep back select parts of ourselves. I don’t have to face a cruel world or the less salient but perhaps more injurious indifferent world, naked, as it were—I have a cloak of protection.

This leads to the second consideration. Wearing clothes allows us to select which bits of ourselves to reveal and, in the process, creates the possibility of meaningful intimacy. Mr. Mulhall makes a good point about the over-sexualization of the human body, propagated for advertising purposes in consumer-driven societies. This practice objectifies the body and associates a narrow physical prescription with sexual desire and personal fulfillment, while at the same time divorcing both love and personality from desire and fulfillment. But isn’t there a sense in which we are taking our reaction too far in the other direction if we fail to see that our bodies are at least partly representations of our inner selves and that the propriety we show in our dress can aid us in making meaningful distinctions in our relationships? If I am going to a job interview I want to look professional, so that the interviewer will see me for my applicable skills rather than become distracted by my appearance. I dress (present myself) in such a way as to eliminate as many invitations for harsh personal judgment as I can. When I come to trust someone, I am willing to take my shoes off or wear jogging slacks or no makeup in his/her presence. I can put forward less “presentation”, which leaves the door a bit open, so the person can “come in”. And, since our bodies are one element in sexual meaning, it seems that the freedom with which lovers reveal their bodies to each other is both enriched and protected by its singularity. Because of this, it seems to me that nudism, also, objectifies the body and divorces it from intimacy; it begins with different (and much nobler) goals than those of the advertising industry, but ends in the same place.

Any thoughts?

peter downton said...

Rachael, thanks for your ideas on this. I think the notion that we use our clothes both to hide and to reveal (or express?) aspects of ourselves is fascinating. Might this expression reflect or embody something deeper about the transcendent aspect of human being and personality? Material dissection, description and analysis cannot capture the fullness of who we are without remainder. Emmanuel Levinas reflects on this at some length I believe in his musings on the otherness that is revealed in the human face - the light of the eyes, the complexity of the lines forged of a thousand expressions. Doesn't the nudist's conviction that we can only be liberated from social convention by voluntarily 'revealing all' reduce us to our visible, material selves? And aren't we the poorer for it?

Rachael King said...

Peter: Well, in a perfect world (one without death, violence and danger)I don't think we'd need clothes for anything other than comfort in extreme temperatures. In other words, I think our need for clothes says less about human essence and more about the nature of our world. But then, we only know what it is to be human within the context of this world.

A traditional Christian reading of the Genesis story associates clothing ourselves with shame. It's perfectly natural for us to question that link, particularly because so many of us have been stifled or stunted by an inappropriate feeling of unworthiness, thrust on us by a misapplication of the idea of shame.

I see the story as an apt metaphor for how we find ourselves in the world: part of it, but also alien to it; longing for connection, but remaining always separate. We feel ashamed because we are at odds with everything that is, while desiring most urgently to enter into it; and we know it is partly our fault. We violate the earth and one another and our own natures.

I see clothing, then, as a sort of grace; a "coping mechanism", if you will--a way to make meaningful advancement into the world without exposing our flanks to enemy arrows.

This makes an analysis of style quite interesting, and suggests guidelines for proper dress in varying circumstances and among varying company. Maybe "social convention" has its good side, too.

I'd hate to think we are rationalizing this issue simply because we aren't comfortable imagining ourselves clothes-less or because the idea of nudity seems initially so absurd. But I don't think we are. I think rather that our discomfort with it, along with the practical reaction de silentio had, should guide our thinking. In this case, our intuition prompts further questioning to confirm itself.

I'm quite interested to read Emmanuel Levinas. Do you recommend a particular book?

Rachael King said...

Here's what two fashion design students are doing to explore clothes; their meaning, the social expectations surrounding them, and what they say about our individuality. Thanks to my friend, Michelle, for pointing me to this article: