What clothes are saying?

Elle Fanning in About Ray
Elle Fanning in About Ray

The silence of clothes

“There can be no silence in the language of clothes,” said Soline Anthore Baptiste during a conference about the history of clothing at the Club 44 in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland. Her pithy statement came as a challenge for idle minds. What about the absence of clothes? Could nakedness be taken as silence? Socially it is hardly a quiet affaire. Then what about clothes that deny personality, that deny identity, that set out to deny humanness? The sinister uniforms of the emaciated prisoners in the concentration camps whose own clothes had been taken away and burnt. While there is a deathly silence about those uniforms, there is also a penetrating scream that reaches out to each of us.

From being seen to seeing

Soline Anthore Baptiste mentioned the British psychoanalyst John Carl Flugel (1884-1955) who wrote a book entitled The Psychology of Clothes (1930). He postulated that what he called the great renunciation, when men gave up flamboyant clothes in favour of staid grey and austere forms, went hand in hand with a refusal of feelings on the part of men. This ties in with the metaphor of men shielding themselves from attacks that underlies Soline Anthore Baptiste’s explanation of the evolution of men’s everyday clothes. The introduction of armor led to chests being padded against the shocks of battle, a fashion for men (of a certain class) that spilled over into society. According to Flugel, this shift from the colourful and the ostentatious to the dull and uninspiring forms and colours in clothes ultimately led men from a desire to be seen to a desire to see. As I have not read his work, I do not know how he justifies this conclusion. Apart from the suggested mutual exclusiveness of these two which strikes me as dubious, I am reticent about a theory that seeks to shore up what is clearly a stereotype of masculin behaviour.

 Being seen or not seen

That Flugel should think of men in terms of a drive to see (women) in terms of that which is concealed is not surprising. Psychoanalysis, and Flugel in particular, put much emphasis on clothing, on the part of women, as a tool to attract men by alternately concealing and revealing that which is seen as erogenous. This psychoanalytical obsession with the erotic and the belief that women exploit it as their chief commerce fails to see the importance of other major factors such as gender, identity and well-being, not to mention belonging or its counterpart, rebellion. In comparison, men’s clothes were seen by Flugel more as an expression of hierarchy and social status. So men are not interested in being attractive, what Flugel called ‘being seen’, but only in power and recognition. While this might be true of some men, it is a blatant charicature when applied to all of them.

Reforming dress

Along with other colleagues, Flugel created the Men’s Dress Reform Party which was active from 1929 to 1940. In their attempts to liberate men’s fashions they failed to realise that, in part at least, clothing is a language, and as such its unwritten rules are determined by social convention not by the dictates of a small political group. Yet at the same time, history illustrates that, unlike our spoken and written language, the way people dress can be influenced by various external forces. A powerful institution such as a hospital regime or education authorities, for example. But above all, the powerful persuasion of the fashion industry backed by a successful advertising campaign, coupled with the complicity of the media.

Piecing together the past

Flugel’s interpretation conveniently fits the stereotypes of what is man and what is woman. Such far-reaching interpretations leave me sceptical, especially when they lean heavily on a binary vision of gender that constantly opposes and contrasts fixed ideas of male and female, forgetting that these too are changing social constructs. There are many ways to weave together fragmentary evidence from the past to form a narrative that has a smattering of coherence and a zest of seduction. Both Flugel’s, but also Anthore Baptiste’s narrations are just a couple of plausible examples amongst many.

Postscript: Clothes and transgender

What clothes have to say about gender is one of the key variables in the life of transgender people along with bodily appearance, behaviour, sexuality and ultimately a feeling/idea of self in relation to gender and the acceptance of that vision by others. For everyone, their choice of clothes makes a statement about who they are or are not, often unwittingly so. But for those who are transgender it is what clothing explicitly or implicitly says about gender that is central to their choices. At any give period, items of clothing carry ‘gender markers’ that are interpreted as masculin or feminin. These markers are composed by transgender people to display (and also feel) an image of themselves which situates them with respect to gender.

The paradox

Paradoxically, and no criticism is meant here, only surprise, clothes and the related identity are thus defined in terms of that very binary division that the non-binary seek to transgress. These individual markers, rooted in a binary lOvid of gender, are then mixed and re-mixed like a pallette of colours in an overall tableau that ventures beyond binary divisions. Confronted with this way of painting an identity, the central difficulty of mainstream society lies in a desperate, if not fearful, need for coherence and unicity in line with a rigid division between two monolithic genders as enshrined in our language: he or she, and never the twain shall meet.

See my two novels about the adventures of a boy who wanted to dress as a girl and see how he fares in a world hostile to any ambiguity of gender or sexuality: Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls.

Read also The Gender of Clothes

One Reply to “What clothes are saying?”

  1. Wow! Fantastic article. I would be interested in learning more. Perhaps another post in the future or better yet, I will look up Flugel.

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