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The Dress Code

On Human Finery

by Quentin Bell
Schocken, second edition, revised and enlarged, 239 pp., $14.95

Dress and Society, 1560-1970

by Geoffrey Squire
Viking/Studio, 176 pp., $16.95

Hollywood Costume—Glamour! Glitter! Romance!

by Dale McConathy, with Diana Vreeland
Abrams, 317 pp., $35.00

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, as with the spoken language, is that only one or at most two such “words” may be used in a “sentence” or total costume, which must be otherwise impeccably fashionable. The red wind-breaker is worn with obviously expensive pants and shoes, the jumpsuit is hung with a dozen heavy gold chains.

Articles of clothing from the past are used in somewhat the same way, just as a writer or speaker might employ archaisms: always a single “word”—a pair of 1940s platform shoes or an Edwardian waistcoat—never a complete costume, which instead of suggesting sophistication or wit would merely convey the information that one was on one’s way to a masquerade, acting in a play or film, or—far worse—ignorantly out-of-date. The sight of a white plastic Courrèges raincoat and boots (in 1963 the height of fashion) at a New York party or gallery opening today would produce the same shiver of ridicule and revulsion as the use of words like “groovy,” “negro,” or “self-actualizing.”

Dress also contains terms the impact of which moderates with time. Just as words like “naughty” and “mischievous,” once applied to the blackest thoughts and deeds, now describe endearingly childish misbehavior, so heavy eye-makeup is no longer the sign of the man-eating vamp but of the flirtatious teenager. Similar evolutionary changes occur in the sartorial equivalent of “dirty words”: the skin-tight sweater, the man’s shirt open to the waist, etc.

In Taste and Fashion,2 one of the best and most original books on costume, James Laver proposed a timetable for such changes. According to him, the same costume will be:


Mr. Laver’s timetable possibly over-emphasizes the shock value of incoming fashion, which may sometimes be seen merely as weird or ugly. And, of course, he is speaking of the complete costume, or “sentence”; the speed with which a single item passes in and out of fashion may vary, just as in spoken and written languages. Etymological rules remain to be worked out, but it has already been suggested that foreign “words” become and remain popular in rough relation to the international power of their native land. So Madison Avenue has recently seen a flurry of Communist Chinese quilted jackets, followed by a more serious and probably longer-lasting out-break of Arab caftans and turbans, and Russian embroidered blouses and shawls and skirts—the latter passing under the euphemism “rich peasant look.” (The related fondness of counterculture types for items of East or American Indian origin speaks equally clearly, with the number of Indian articles worn at once corresponding fairly accurately to the depth of commitment to vegetarian cookery, transcendental meditation, yoga, astrology, etc.)

In general, items which enter the fashionable vocabulary from a working-class or rural source seem to have a longer life span than those which originate in the underworld. The thigh-high patent leather boot, first worn by the most obvious variety of rentable female as a sign that she was willing to help act out certain male fantasies, shot with relative speed into and out of high fashion; while blue jeans made their way upward much more gradually from sport to daytime to evening use, and are only now beginning a slow descent.

The “grammar” of clothing, or study of the functions and relations of individual items in a “sentence” or costume, is a more difficult subject, one that needs an analyst skilled both in structural linguistics and the history of clothing. Such a scholar might, for instance, be able to explain the current function of blue jeans. Ninety percent of middle-class high school and college students of both sexes are now identical below the waist, though above it they may wear anything from a lumberjack shirt to a lace blouse. One possibility is that this costume is a sign that in their lower or emotional and physical natures these persons are alike, however dissimilar they may be aesthetically, intellectually, or socially. The opposite of such a statement can be imagined, and was actually made by my college classmates thirty years ago. During the daytime we wore identical baggy sweaters over a wide range of slacks, plaid and fringed kilts, full cotton or straight tweed or slinky jersey skirts, and ski pants. “We’re all nice coeds from the waist up,” this costume proclaimed, “but as women we are infinitely various.”

One problem in studying the grammar of dress is the bewildering profusion, not only of languages, but of regional, racial, occupational, and other dialects, some of which are intelligible only to a small in-group—like the knotted-towel code of sexual signals for habitués of public baths recently described in The Village Voice. What is more, all these languages and dialects are continually changing, altering the meaning of individual “words.” Some of these changes may operate according to rules which can be discovered. For example, nearly fifty years ago J.G. Flugel, in The Psychology of Clothes (1930), claimed that the focus of interest gradually shifts from one part of the body to another. And more recently Alison Gernsheim,3 one of the best British historians of costume, pointed out that fashion alternates between bright and neutral colors. When bright colors are in style, muted tints seem drab and dowdy; when soft colors are preferred, as now, brilliant hues and patterns seem vulgar. Rummage-sale racks today are full of splashy ruby and purple and sunset orange and emerald-green imitation Paisley and Art Nouveau print dresses that nobody wants.

Moreover a costume, like a sentence, does not appear in a vacuum, but in association with a specific person in specific circumstances, any change in which will alter its meaning. Like the remark “Let’s get on with this damn business,” the three-piece tan business suit and boldly striped shirt and tie which signify casual conformity at an office meeting will have quite another resonance at a funeral or picnic. And the meaning of this costume will alter according to whether it is worn by a fifty-year-old man, a thirty-year-old woman, or a ten-year-old child.

We must also consider the intonation in which the sentence “‘Let’s get on with this damned business” is spoken; and in the same way we will observe whether the suit fits well or is too large or small; whether it is old or new; and whether it is clean and pressed, slightly rumpled, or definitely filthy. We will take into account the physical attributes of the individual who is wearing this costume, assessing him or her according to height, weight, posture, physical type, and facial features and expression. The same suit will look different on a person whose face and body we consider attractive than on one whom we think ugly. (Of course, the idea of “attractiveness” is also subject to the historical and geographical vagaries of fashion, as Sir Kenneth Clark has brilliantly demonstrated in The Nude.)

Finally, there is the problem that any language which is able to convey information4 can also convey misinformation. A costume may be a lie, either conscious—Cinderella’s ballgown and the radical disguise of the FBI informant—or unconscious. It may be involuntary—as when a child is forced into party clothes by a parent—or voluntary. The long and complex history of the uniform, from boy scout and waitress to priest and five-star general, probably belongs here.

The serious study of costume has largely concentrated on what has been worn by the well-to-do classes in Western Europe and America over the last three centuries, probably because of its high visibility and the wide availability of sources. Several very good books have been written on the subject, and many theories proposed to explain why fashions change. J.G. Flugel saw it as an attempt to stimulate the opposite sex by exposing first one and then another area of the body. James Laver, while partly endorsing this view, also believes that styles in dress reflect what he, though with British reluctance, calls a Zeitgeist: “The Republican yet licentious notions of the Directoire find their echo in the plain transparent dresses of the time. Victorian modesty expressed itself in the multiplicity of petticoats; the emancipation of the post-War flapper in short hair and short skirts.”

  1. 1

    In Critical Essays (Northwestern University Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    Harrap, London, 1945.

  3. 3

    Fashion and Reality (Faber and Faber, London, 1963).

  4. 4

    A current paperback, Dress for Success, by John T. Molloy, tells businessmen how to choose their clothes so that they will look efficient, authoritative, and reliable, even when they are inefficient, weak, and shifty.

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