Say the word “communication” and ask for associations. Most people are likely to focus on verbal expressions and transmissions as the primary association with the communicative process and function. Our personal image, though, also communicates volumes about who we are, what we believe, what we consider important, and how we want others to view us. As Hartley contends, we objectify ourselves in order to convey knowledge of ourselves to others; clothing is one important way of achieving this transmittal of information . As Keenan observes, “Always and everywhere bodies are impressing themselves on society through dress.
One of the things that clothing says about us is the identity we have established for ourselves . There are at least three levels of identity that clothing can convey to the observer: (1) personal; (2) cultural; and (3) historical . A woman wearing a hijab, for instance, is identifying herself as an adherent to particular religious and cultural norms. By negotiating these aspects of our identity by what we wear, we can either bring ourselves closer to others (i.e. by identifying ourselves as part of a particular group-through a uniform, for instance) or distancing ourselves from them.
Looking back over the course of human history, one sees how important clothing has been, not only in the process of conveying important information about ourselves and the groups with which we associate, but also in the process of establishing certain cultural and social norms that provide both shape and structure to society. We can go at least as far back as the Garden of Eden to find examples of the ways in which “dress controls” “extend far beyond the tentacles of formal government and [are] underpinned by a rich variety of rationales”. In Eden, Adam and Eve were originally unclothed, but then covered their genitals with fig leaves to achieve modesty. Ever since, clothes have been one way to establish our identity and communicate with others. During this article, I will examine many ways in which clothing has communicated throughout history. First, though, we must understand how clothing evolved from a functional object to a product representing innovation and creative self-expression.
The clothes of early human societies seem to have been more functional than fashionable, but this fact did not preclude the diffusion of clothes across human culture as an innovation. Early human clothing was necessarily functional, permitting hunter-gatherers, for instance, a certain degree of protection from the elements while maintaining ease of movement. It seems that there was not a great deal of variety or fashion-at least not in terms of elaboration and adornment– involved in the production of early clothing. The full expressive and communicative capacities of clothing had not yet been developed or exploited.
“Clothes,” writes Keenan, “are society’s way of showing where we belong in the order of things, our role and position in the social pageantry”. This was not always the case; however, the transition from clothing as a purely functional object to one that also had expressive and communicative capacities was relatively quick. African and Native American tribes, for instance, have extensive and rich traditions of elaborating clothing, especially for ceremonial purposes. The degree and quality of decoration, as well as the materials used, signified the wearer’s rank in the social order.
Eagle feathers and elaborate headdresses, for instance, were reserved for elders and important tribal leaders. Certain pieces of clothing were reserved for wear during important ceremonies and rites, and were not part of everyday dress. Such clothing was also believed to be imbued with special spiritual and protective powers. We see how these ancient traditions and uses of dress were carried over into Western cultures and societies. Consider, for instance, the importance of special and elaborate clothing and its use in the Christian church.
As this shift from the purely functional to the vast range of potential social uses of clothing began to occur, one can see how the types and styles of clothing began to diversify. In Western cultures, clothing began to be managed both by the church and by the state, so potent was its potential sorting power. We begin to see how clothing became profoundly gendered, as well as how it signified rigid differences among the social classes. Clothing would become an issue around which group identities would be forged-both by members of those groups and by external forces-and against which groups would struggle.
As clothing became utilized as a way of organizing and literally marking social divisions, groups who were subjected to the dictates of external powers, such as the church and the government, began to resist the use of clothing in this way. The diffusion of innovation, then, was not only in the types of clothing and the use of clothing, but perhaps even more so, in the resistance against certain clothing and its uses. One of the most powerful examples of this observation is the way in which clothing was re-conceptualized and new ideas about it were diffused by the feminist movement
The poster of Rosie the Riveter has become an iconic emblem of the feminist movement, and is symbolic of an effective piece of propaganda that represents the ways in which resistance against notions of clothing as a tool of gender enforcement was diffused. During World War II, as women began to work outside the home, helping with the war effort by working in factories, clothing became an important way in which identity and political beliefs were negotiated. The poster of Rosie the Riveter depicts a woman with a determined look on her face and a confident display of strength. Let’s look at some other aspects of the poster and its representation.
Although the poster only depicts Rosie from the torso up, it is clear that she is not garbed in traditional female dress for the time. Instead, she is wearing a functional blue denim work shirt, not adorned with any decorations. She is not wearing earrings or other jewelry, and she has a covering on her head, a bandanna, that keeps her hairout of her face. “We can do it!” is the slogan on the poster. The image of Rosie the Riveter is important because it diffused a whole new idea of women and their dress on a massive scale. While many women may have secretly wished to resist the social norms that dress imposed upon them, the poster, its widespread dissemination, and its appeal and popularity ensured that women could begin a social dialogue about new innovations in female dress.
In the West, at least, the mid 20th century represented a dramatic shift in the way that clothing was both conceptualized and used. The locus of authority establishing norms of dress also began to shift . Social norms about dress began to relax somewhat, and historians note a trend towards self-determination in this important form of self-identity and self-representation. The power of institutions to dictate who could wear what and why became diluted.
It was in the mid-20th century, then, that we begin to see the emergence of fashion as a concept. No longer purely functional, and no longer dictated-officially or informally-by external entities with special interests, clothing quickly became an instrument of self-determination, self-definition, and self-representation. As a result, industries oriented around clothing became increasingly pervasive and visible in society. Clothing producers began creating, marketing, and disseminating more types, styles, and varieties of clothing than ever before, creating an almost endless array of possibilities for the wearer.
Just because clothing was no longer strictly an instrument of the social machine did not mean that it lost its power as a marker of social status. On the contrary, as designers and manufacturers increased the variety of styles and made them available on the market, clothing became a more powerful marker of status than it ever was. Innovation created demand, and demand spawned various sectors within the clothing industry: high couture and budget clothing, to name just two segments of an increasingly structured market. Advertising and marketing became critical instruments for diffusing these innovations, stimulating buzz, and creating product desirability.
The acceleration of technologies and types of media during the second half of the 20th century had a significant impact on diffusing clothing innovations and creating both standards for style and market demand. Photography, , for instance, spawned the fashion magazineindustry, in which the arbiters of style allowed readers to preview the latest and trendiest fashions for the season . The culture of supermodels and celebrity obsession facilitated the dispersion of the fashionable even further. If a reader’s favorite star, for instance, was wearing Juicy Couture sweatpants, she had to have them, even when they were cost-prohibitive.
The close of the 20th century and the opening of the new century witnessed still more technological innovations and applications that diffused trends and innovations even before they appeared on the market. The Internet, digital photography, and online media such as blogs, YouTube, and the like have all had a significant impact on the diffusion of new fashion standards, which are either accepted or rejected by the buying public. These media serve to stimulate desire, inviting people who consider themselves trend-setters to adopt a product and bring it to a larger public.
Early adopters are important figures in the diffusion of clothing innovations. These individuals tend to have an internal locus of control, and are more concerned about “personal costs and benefits” than those who try an innovation later in its life cycle. Early adopters tend to define, establish, and diffuse what becomes a trend. Late adopters, on the other hand, tend to be concerned about what others will think of them, and are more likely to adopt an innovation after it has been vetted by the early adopters; the risk for them has already been tested and is deemed sufficiently low.
These media, whether print, television, or electronic, present new products to the buying public and the early adopters establish new trends. Trends, though, come and go. In the clothing industry, trends to be both seasonal and cyclical. The diffusion of clothing innovations depends heavily now upon these media to disseminate information as quickly as possible, to get early adopters to buy-in, and to encourage late adopters to join the fray before the trend has passed. What is trendy today is unlikely to be relevant or interesting next month. Clothing is a rapid-innovation industry.
We see, then, how clothing has evolved from a purely functional personal item to one of great creative significance, a tool we use to establish, express, and convey multiple aspects of our identity. Continued media innovations will be likely to influence the diffusion patterns in the clothing industry, as well as how we adopt trends and reshape them to fit our individual and group needs. Clothing does speak.