Eicher, Joanne B. and Sandra Lee Evenson. 2015. The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society, fourth edition. New York: Fairchild Books.
Oscar Wilde: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
Dress – not just clothes, but the grooming and accessorizing the body – sometimes even tailoring these things to what is in “fashion” as of late.
- Reasons for dress – to protect the body, to extend the body’s capacities or functions, to beautify or nonverbally communicate aspects of the wearer — an inherently human process
- Dress as a process: “involves actions that modify and supplement the body in order to address physical needs and to meet social and cultural expectations about how individuals should look” (3) – involves all five senses – perfuming, noisily-jeweling, etc.
- An assemblage of temporary or permanent body modifications (alterations), and/or supplements – “displayed and worn in a specific place and at a particular moment in time” (here 4, see also Roach-Higgins and Eicher 1992).
- Establishes connection/difference – usually precedes verbal communication – where assessments of dress frequently attempt to identify age, gender, social position, etc.
Types of Dress
- Body Modifications
- Color of body, hair, body parts
- Volume/proportion – through bras, bustles, cosmetic surgery, diet, bodybuilding, hair products
- Shape and structure – haircuts, beard cuts, boarding of skulls, corseting and foot-binding
- Surface design – nail polish, mehendi, tattoos, dig-steeps
- Texture – smoothing or scarification of skin
- Odor/scent – bathing, perfuming, deodorizing, tooth brushing
- Sound/movement – posture, gait, idealized sounds (may be gendered) – regulation of undesirable sounds
- Taste – managing after-meal/dental hygiene, skin taste
- Permanence of modifications – vary in range – a few hours to a lifetime
- Body Supplements – can take the form of clothing, jewelry, and accessories – may vary in permanence and utility – but overall tend to be more temporary than body modifications
*** I’m not going to go into defining all of these.
“Culturally specific terms for dress items and processes also assume a social context of use for each aspect of dress” (25) – differentiating between the use of a purse and a briefcase.
Dress can communicate identity, mood, intentions, relationships of the wearer, invoking complex meanings and analyses.
Cultures can be evaluated by linkages between material and nonmaterial cultures – however, by defining a culture as a specified way of life obscures the heterogeneity and difference within these groups, and fails to recognize groups/society as dynamic. Globalization creates complications with historical classifications of societies – promoting hybridized and increasingly interconnected groups/exchanges/identities. Dress – though manifested frequently in material forms, lends insight to the (norms/values/beliefs) of a culture.
Bodies are corporeal, but are also inherently social – they are sites where cultural practices become literally internalized (through food consumption, etc.), or manifested as we modify our bodies to fit with ever-changing sociocultural expectations.
Globalization increasingly breaks down the boundaries between (yet, may also serve to reinforce the need for) “world dress” (“similar types of body modifications and supplements worn by many people in various parts of the world no matter where the types of dress or the people themselves originated” (46)) and “ethnic dress” (ways people dress to identify with or to other members of a specific group)
Fashion marks the (frequently historicized) changes in non/material cultures prescribing certain modes of dress. “Dress is often one of the first types of material culture to document change in any society from the invention of new textiles to fluctuating gender roles to shifting economies. Because dress is a visual expression of what people are thinking, changes in dress point to transformations in nonmaterial culture. Individuals begin to reinterpret and reinvent their practices from the past to meet new challenges of life” (48).
Chapter 3 – The historical study of dress has been recorded in a myriad of ways – most recently, through photographs. However, many of these records (including photographs) present shortcomings – we can’t see the tools, techniques, or other essential information regarding the production of the material goods themselves, nor the nonmaterial culture that surrounds theses records. Thus, researchers may turn to other sources of information – including written historical accounts, interviews, historical production practices, etc.
Texts to Consider:
Anthropology: Miller (1998, 2003, 2011), Eicher (2001), Hansen (2004)
- Hansen (YEAR) argues that dress may be considered a process – “created through agency, practice and performance” (CITE)
Sociology: Simmel (1904), Stone (1962), Goffman (1959), Blumer (1968), Davis (1992), Kaiser (2012), Kawamura (2005)
Hansen (2013): trivializing the meanings of dress/clothing “devalues the significance of dress as a cultural and economic phenomenon” – frequently (and falsely) centers fashion as a Western phenomenon and as a “trickle down” effect from elites – NOT SO! This minimizes individual/community agency and creativity (4-5, here 86)
“Dress is a tool humans use to interface with the physical environment, pursue beauty, and communicate with one another. All human beings (kx^ ALL?) are capable of making artifact to clothe and decorate our bodies and to develop a system of symbols connected with particular aspects of dress” (128).
Physical features associated with race, sex, health, and age contribute to wide bodily variations and aesthetics that may draw from or try to resist the effects of these features/traits – framed by cultural values and maintained through social practices.
Bodies may modify themselves physiologically (through acclimatizing to particular climates). Conversely, humans may create cultural adaptations to manage threats/benefits of physical environments – to promote safety, warmth, protection, lift, or even to provide basic amenities (like oxygen-giving space-suits).
Part III – “The process of performing a body modification or donning a body supplement is more than a change or addition to the sight, smell, sound, feel, or taste of a person’s presentation of self to others. Both wearers and observers make many assumptions about the meanings of what they perceive through the senses and do not always – or even often- think consciously about these assumptions because they are enculturated. Body modifications and supplements have physical characteristics and associated cultural meanings that influence how individuals feel about themselves and interact with others. In addition, these modifications and supplements also affect how well individuals find themselves integrated into their particular sociocultural system. Conversely, the type of sociocultural system influences dress choices, both as individuals and as group members” (177).
Chapter 7: Commercial Sociocultural (Clothing) Systems
Major international clothing systems sustained by recognized cultural hubs, historical diasporas that broaden influences to dress (and yet assert homogeneity through dress choice), standard sizing and mass manufacturing, (symbolic capital coming with brand recognition?)
Clothing system may lend insight to stratification in class and economic systems – based upon the quality and newness of clothing worn, where one is at in the production/consumption process, etc. – or into the religio-cultural divisions promoted by particular expectations of dress.
Tourism may contribute to the adoption (ahem, appropriation) of certain endangered modes of dress – where guests purchase it and wear it, and locals maintain stereotypical practices of dress to fit tourist expectations: “There is a delicate balance between preserving and celebrating national heritage and commodifying and reifying stereotypical cultural practices in the interest of attracting tourist dollars” (193).
Tribal cultures are frequently nomadic and reflect relatively egalitarian divisions of labor despite harsh environments – thus, modes of dress may be designed to deflect physical environments. Nomadism (and at times horticulturalist development of crops for dress use) promoted exchange and change within these cultures. Where divisions of labor did exist, clothing systems served to mark out roles – and serve specific functions such as special holidays or rites of passage (including marriage, death, etc.)
Very literal symbolism is offered to modes of dress and supplements, as they are frequently imbued with magic or meaning – storytelling, identification functions – as a way to pass down wealth and lineage.
Imperial sociocultural and dress systems grow from stabilizing nomadic cultures – allowing greater division of labor/specialization (and thus, variety of dress to best suit the demands of these diversified titles) — but also promoting significant stratification between society members – usually marked by the collection of higher quality/quantity of clothes.
Establishment of caste/class/feudal systems ensured a surplus of workers to produce clothing materials, usually enjoyed by the very few. However, “trickle-down” fashion was a means to demonstrate aspirational (not yet meritocratic) status – marking knowledge of cultural capital, and possibly gaining good social graces with those of privilege.
However, “sumptuary laws” outlawed dressing beyond one’s means – reinforcing strict social divides and limiting access to the physical and social capital required for socioeconomic advance. Concentration of wealth and dress resources to the powerful, and institutionalized conformity (anonymity/dispensability?) for those who served/protected the elite.
We see an emergence of hybridized colonial and indigenous dress – requiring cultural authentication (where cultures adopt an innovation and justify its presence/inconsistency through a variety of means). Additionally, religious systems promoted specific modes of dress to demonstrate piety (yet hierarchy) within their service.
The aesthetics of dress centralize upon conveying a pleasant experience for those who are experience them – although their desirability may take on different forms of linguistic or behavioral approval (labeling them cool, etc.). Meanings of dress convey a variety of potential interpretations, based upon socioculturally-rooted understandings.
Cultural ideals of body and their dress vary across the world – however, trying to conform to body ideals may be more common than not – through concealing, modifying, drawing attention away, or creating visual illusions to detract from perceived imperfections.
Social acceptance (particularly from peers) may drive conformity to particular modes of dress – however, these are not as restrictive as institutional or organizational dress codes that make cultural dress standards very explicit.
Dress conformity may rely on the availability of materials/production capacity, individual social role, and personal preference. Frequently, large industrial societies promote individualization (despite calls for conformist industrialization). People may break-out or group around identities of age, race, gender, sexuality, occupation, nationality, religion. Nonetheless, dress conformity acts as a powerful tool of informing and asserting physical/symbolic boundaries between groups.
Those who do assert their individuality within dress systems manifest Polhemus (1994)’s notion of the “bubble-up” effect – where elite members of society draw from lower stratification classes (kx – i.e. Zoolander’s Derelicte). Fashion leaders are just slightly ahead of the right place and time (Blumer 1968) – to promote dress trends that others will adopt (through their high visibility or significant influence on major social icons).
Existing market for “wearable art” – garments/accessories that are made by hand to blend the relationship of the creator, the product, and its wearer. Body modifications may too be wearable art (i.e. tattoos).
Stage costuming (a type of art, in some cases) require significant historical and practical considerations – resulting in a variety of possible interpretations – possibly relying on number of people in the ensemble, the tone of the piece, or the movement needs of the performer.
Blumer, H. 1968. “Fashion.” Pp. 341-345 in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by Edward Sills. New York: Macmillan and Free Press.
Davis, F. 1992. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Eicher, J.B. 2001. “The Anthropology of Dress.” Dress 28: 50-79.
Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Doubleday.
Hansen, K.T. 2004. “Helping or Hindering? Controversies around the International Second-Hand Clothing Trade.” Anthropology Today 20(6):3-9.
Hansen, K.T. and D. S. Madison. 2013. African Dress: Fashion, Agency and Performance. London: Bloombury.
Kaiser, S. 2012. Fashion and Cultural Studies. London: Berg.
Kawamura, Y. 2005. Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies. Oxford: Berg.
Miller, D. 1998. A Theory of Shopping. Cambridge: Polity Press/Cornell University Press.
Miller, D. with M. Banerjee. 2003. The Sari. Oxford: Berg.
Miller, D. with S. Woodward. 2011. Global Denim. Oxford: Berg.
Polhemus, T. 1994. StreetStyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk. London: Thames and Hudson.
Roach-Higgins, M.E. and J.B. Eicher. 1992. “Dress and Identity.” Clothing and Textiles Research 10(4):1-8.
Simmel, G. 1904. “Fashion.” International Quarterly 10 (October): 130-155.
Stone, G.P. 1962. “Appearance and the Self.” Pp. 86-118 in Human Behavior and Social Processes: An Interactionist Approach, edited by A.M. Rose. New York: Houghton Mifflin.