Our elders’ clothes closets have much in common. Most are jammed full of old, worn clothes. That’s alright because we don’t need to be fashion plates. Nevertheless, our old closets are often up-to-date. That’s because what goes around comes around in fashion. Are narrow ties, string ties, wide ties, or no ties in fashion? We have them. Long skirts or short skirts? We have them — but mini-skirts aren’t as comfortable now. Dirty jeans or bib overalls with holes in them? Man, do we have those. We can just dig back into our old closets. I’m still waiting for brown and white men’s oxford shoes to come back in style.
Time flies, and fashion trends change more rapidly now than ever before. Omnipresent advertising, transnational migration, instant media and intercultural contacts push changes at a rapid pace. In our celebrity culture, wannabes wear radical, lewd or bizarre garb hoping to gain some media notoriety.
It is more difficult to determine what statement people are making when they decide to wear specific outfits. Current individualism encourages young people to think that they are expressing their individualism and freedom, like hippies in an earlier generation. However, sociologists suggest that people dress like those around them with whom they want to be associated, so what we wear is a uniform. Dressing is a ritual, with established rules and taboos, depending upon one’s identity group and social occasion. Sociologists define ritual as the communicative aspect of customary behavior — messages we convey to ourselves and others.
In addition to verbal and gesture language, most of our actions communicate messages. Architecture and positioning of our buildings and how we furnish our homes convey messages. How we decorate our bodies with clothes, tattoos, jewelry or cosmetics also communicates messages. Wabash students rarely dress up on campus and used to wear pajamas to class. However, when we see a student dressed in dress shirt, tie and blazer, he communicates that he is going to a job interview or his senior oral comprehensive examination before three faculty members. Professors in lab coats communicate that they teach science. Insiders understand the language of relevant rituals, and the messages projected are accurately received. If a person sits down in jeans and tee shirt at a dinner party where china, crystal and several knives and forks are on the table where others are dressed in tuxedos and gowns, he either doesn’t understanding the language or is intentionally obnoxious.
The message intended is not always perceived by the observer. A young man’s whose pants hang below his bottom and whose cap is off center may intend to be cool, independent and unique. Observers perceive that he is a jerk or belongs to a gang. He is certainly not unique; he is just copying rituals understood and appreciated within a particular social group. Or, a man dressed in suit and tie might communicate that he is a professional, but others might perceive a stuffed shirt. A woman in robe sits behind a raised desk with a gavel at hand communicates that she is a judge, but she might be an actor or a TV personality. Best heed the old saying: dress does not make the man or woman. Nevertheless, messages are being conveyed and received all the time through complex rituals of communicative aspects of our customary behavior.
Styles, codes, norms and intentions are so varied in our diverse and rapidly changing society that it is hard to stay current. Pandemic isolation will affect post-pandemic dress codes, but we don’t know how. Those of us who are elderly don’t understand many of the current rituals and are often too judgmental. All this makes difficult to know what to grab from the closet to wear in a particular social context.
What messages you plan to convey when you stand at your closet tomorrow morning?
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.