On Human Finery
Dress and Society, 1560-1970
Glamour! Glitter! Romance!
The statement that clothing is a language, though occasionally made with the air of a man finding a flying saucer in his Queens backyard, is not new. Balzac, in Une Fille d’Eve (1839), observed that for a woman dress is “une manifestation constante de la pensée intime, un langage, un symbole.” More recently Roland Barthes, in “The Diseases of Costume,”1 speaks of theatrical dress as a kind of writing, of which the basic element is the sign. As far as I can discover, however, neither the structuralists nor other, earlier theorists have gone on to remark that the language of dress, like other languages, has a vocabulary and a grammar. In different places different “languages” are spoken, some (like Dutch and German) closely related and others (like Basque) almost unique; and within every language there are many different dialects, some almost unintelligible to members of the mainstream culture. In the language of dress, too, each individual speaker employs subtly personal variations of tone and construction.
The vocabulary of dress consists of items of clothing and styles of makeup, hairdo, body painting, and the like. Occasionally, of course, practical considerations enter into the choice of these items: considerations of comfort, durability, availability, or price. Especially in the case of persons of limited ward-robe, an article may be worn mainly because it is warm or rainproof or handy to cover up a wet bathing suit—in the same way that persons of limited vocabulary use the phrase “you know” or adjectives like “fantastic.” Yet, just as with the spoken language, such choices give some information, even if it is only equivalent to the statement “I don’t give a hoot in hell what I look like.” And there are limits even here. For instance, most American men, however cold or wet they might be, would not put on a woman’s dress.
A complete costume, deliberately chosen, on the other hand, may convey many different messages at once, providing us simultaneously with information about the age, sex, occupation, beliefs, tastes, desires, and mood of its wearer. In America a so-called “fashion leader” will have several hundred “words” at his or her disposal, many of them rare or specialized in other ways, and thus be able to form literally millions of “sentences” expressing a wide range and subtle variations of meaning, qualified with a great many elegant “adjectives” or accessories. The sartorial vocabulary of a migrant farm worker, by contrast, may be limited to some five or ten colloquial terms, from which it is mathematically possible to create only a comparatively few “sentences,” almost bare of decoration and expressing the simplest concepts.
It is quite true that nowadays the extensive dress vocabulary of expensive persons is apt to include some slang or colloquial items: a red windbreaker printed with football numerals, or a mechanic’s white jumpsuit. But their use is always carefully regulated to make certain that the total effect will be sporty, piquant, or “sincere” rather than in either sense vulgar. The rule,…
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