Friday, November 4, 2016

The Language of Clothes

by Jean Roberta

As various people have said, anything that anyone wears is a costume. There have been strenuous debates about whether dress codes should be enforced in schools, universities, places of worship, offices, restaurants or nightclubs. (An imaginary sign sent to me by a friend reads: “Men: no shirt, no service. Women: no shirt, free drinks.”) Freedom to wear whatever one wants seems like a very 1960s thing, much like sexual freedom, and the social conflicts that started then haven’t been resolved to this day.

As a university instructor, I am more willing to accept freedom of dress for my students than for myself. On campus, I wear clothing I consider classic (which now includes pants or trousers for women, but not jeans, IMO). I do this because I don’t want my appearance to distract anyone from the learning process.

On the other side of a generation gap or two, millennial students wear a dazzling variety of clothing styles, partly because they come from a dazzling variety of cultures. There are young women in hajibs, tunics and loose pants, and young women in leggings that look like body paint, with tops that show cleavage. A few young men wear suits to class, but most wear a range of casual clothes, including ripped and torn pants, and some items that look gang-related (but what would I know?). I won’t even discuss tattoos, piercings, hairstyles, or makeup. However young adults look in the hallways or the classroom, I don’t care. It’s none of my business. I have the right and the responsibility to enforce rules of grammar on my own students (no one else), and those rules are complicated enough. I don’t need or want to enforce a dress code.

The problem with freedom of dress, though, is that everything that everyone wears carries symbolic baggage. Clothes are never just arrangements of fabric (or leather, metal, wood, or plastic). Wearers of controversial fashions can be accused of transmitting messages they never intended. Clothing styles of the past can be misunderstood as being either more or less radical than they were at the time.

A book I reviewed several months ago (Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution by Jo B. Paoletti) describes the drastic changes of fashion that took place in the 1960s and early 1970s, led by innovative designers, who were mostly gay men (although this was never openly mentioned at the time), and their consumers, mostly the post-war Baby Boom generation.

Some of the responses to contemporary fashions (short skirts on females, long hair on males) by those in authority were so over-the-top that they need to be explained. Why did macho defenders of the armed forces (no matter what war they were fighting at the time) and even some school administrators despise “long” hair on young men? Why do school administrations still police girls’ clothing more than boys’ clothing? When girls are sent home from school to “change,” what are they supposed to change into? (And the ambiguity of either changing clothing or changing oneself seems deliberate.)

I learned as a teenager in that era that I could be suspected of wallowing in sex, drugs and rock-and-roll just because I wanted to look fashionable. Pants on girls were considered both sexy and rebellious because they showed the division between girls’ legs, AND they were considered “casual dress” until the invention of the pantsuit for women, which was intended to fix that problem by providing a modest alternative to skirts and dresses for school , the workplace and some churches.

Does anyone remember any more why parents and teachers frothed at the mouth when teenagers first started wearing jeans? (Consider the gang members in West Side Story: definitely not the role models that any middle-class parent wanted their son or daughter to imitate.) Denim pants, also called dungarees and levis (a brand name), were originally worn by working men in strenuous jobs who needed to wear durable fabric. Jeans on anyone else were interpreted as rebellion against authority and white-collar respectability.

On girls, jeans could also be interpreted as rejection of a ladylike code of conduct, a sign that the girl was sexually available. This must have been especially confusing for the aging dykes of my generation, who wanted to dress like boys in their youth, and who wore jeans as soon as they could get away with it. (The character of Anybodys in West Side Story is a good example.) Getting propositioned by males was exactly what they didn’t want.

When describing characters in my stories, I try to avoid specific descriptions of their clothing if I’m not sure how certain visual cues are likely to be read. Is cleavage still considered an invitation, or does that depend on the status of the person revealing it? Are tight pants on men more appealing to other men or to women? Does any item of clothing really shock anyone in 2016?

So I usually keep descriptions of clothing to a minimum in my stories, which is kind of a shame for several reasons. I loved to sew when I was a teenager, and I’m still interested in how clothes are made. I can imagine getting carried away with a detailed description of the ensemble of a lady or a gentleman in a historical piece, and this passage would seem sexier to me than to most readers.

I tried to practise restraint when writing a flasher for the old subscription website, “Ruthie’s Club,” for one of their flasher festivals. For this one, every flasher had to include a stiletto of some kind. Later, this piece became the title story in my own collection of reprints, Each Has a Point (2011, published by another dead press).

Each Has a Point

She was slim, smooth and glittering, like a jewelled blade. Even a glance from her dark eyes from across the room made him feel casually pierced, like an insect to be displayed by a collector.

“Lady,” he addressed her, feeling a need to protect himself with his usual sarcasm. “You look the part.”

The music was slow and stately. She acknowledged him accordingly, with a smile and a graceful nod of her head. She called him by his real name. “Gavin, sir.” She paused for effect. “We all wear costumes. At all times.”

He looked her up and down, letting her know that her tight scarlet bodice and her voluminous black skirt hid nothing. “Except when we are naked, my lady.”

“Even then.”

His clear blue eyes and tousled sandy-blond hair made him look boyishly innocent, but she could see predatory intent in the set of his jaw. He looked at her raven-black wig, coiled atop her head in an artful arrangement of braids. “No doubt you carry a hidden stiletto in your hair so that even without clothes, you would not be defenseless.”

“No doubt.” She smirked.

Gavin and Sarah had both performed in community theatre for so many years that they would hardly have known what to say to each other out of their current roles. And this production was big: an independent vampire movie named “Pierced.”

Sarah’s sly, ageless beauty had caused her to be typecast as the villainess. Gavin was the male lead. He distrusted her intelligence and determination. She despised his ego.

“And you’re probably standing on stiletto heels, the better to walk on some poor fool.”

She raised her rustling skirt and petticoats enough to show her ankles and the shiny black shoes below. Her patent-leather pumps were completely wrong for the sixteenth century, but they enhanced her vampire persona. She appeared to be standing weightlessly on needles, as though she could really fly.

“The dance has begun, Sarah,” he pointed out.

“Then we shall join it.”

He grasped her small waist with one hand, and began guiding her about the floor. She wobbled only slightly, but he loved feeling her unsteadiness.

“Someone, some day,” he whispered to her flushed cheek and exposed ear, “will penetrate your armour. He’ll find an opening, and go in hard and deep. You will surrender at last.” He let her feel the hardness in his codpiece.

“Why do you think I’m armed, sir? Do you think me unfamiliar with the cruelty of men?”

“You need a man with the cruelty to bring you relief, lady. And the selfishness to protect you from all others.” He lowered his tone. “You have a cunt, if not a heart. Can you honestly say you don’t want me there?”

“I will not lie,” she sighed. “Gavin, I’ve wanted you for years. And afterwards, I want to stick my blade in you. It would finish off the scene beautifully.”



  1. From what I see in California, men and women wear about whatever they want. Not a style or determinable vintage. The difference is in if they have an artistic or fetching approach. Some do some don't.

    The excerpt sounds like a black widow couple. :>) Well-described, Jean. Good pictures there. Love the historical dialog.

  2. Love the quickie, Jean!

    And also your point about never knowing how someone will interpret what you choose to wear.

    When I was in high school, I was hauled in to the principal's office because he believed my (hot pink) skirt was too short. As he looked up my student file (no computers back then), I could tell he expected to discover that I was some slutty juvenile delinquent who was barely passing her courses. When he found I was the top student in the school, it kind of took the wind out of his sails.

    He still sent me home, though.

  3. In my university, the students are expected to wear uniforms. The details vary with the department and with the year of the student. Thus, they provide very strong signals of relative status.

    Meanwhile, I'm very opposed to uniforms because I feel in reinforces what is already an unfortunate trend toward conformity among these kids. I haven't officially announced this, but word has gotten around that my students need not wear uniforms to my lectures or labs.

    I'd love to start a movement!

  4. I'm philosophically opposed to school uniforms, but pragmatically it blocks the competitive nature of clothing, especially among kids. I suppose it also reduces the time it takes for a kid to decide what to wear in the morning, but that's a small consideration compared to competition to show off how expensive your clothes are and how fashionable you are.

    That said, I'd have hated to have uniforms when I was in school. The required gym suits were bad enough. No required uniform is going to look good on every body type. My granddaughter actually prefers to wear her school uniform, even though it's not absolutely compulsory and allows slacks instead of skirts for girls, but she has the luck to be gifted with a form that looks good in anything (in spite of the fact that she lives almost entirely on mac'n'cheese.)

    1. In Catholic school, the girls wore those insufferable jumpers. The idea of 'looking good' was anathema to the nuns.

  5. I remember Each Has A Point in all its incarnations! (I miss Ruthie's Club...)

  6. Thanks for all the comments, everyone! Lisabet, your experience reminds me that I'm always learning things that make me aware of my own prejudices. Years ago, I had an attractive young African woman in one of my classes who always wore clothes I considered inappropriately tight, in bright colours, and with an obvious wig that looked like a braided ball atop her head. When she handed in a well-written essay, I suspected plagiarism and checked it out as hard as I could, but didn't discover anything. Then I discovered that she also wrote well on in-class tests, when my eyes were on her. She had neat handwriting, and outdid herself on the final exam. So obviously my suspicions were unfounded, and they were based on a vague belief that a woman who wears sexy clothes every day to class must not have a brain, which is ridiculous. (I still tend to distrust students in general, but I've learned, over and over, that intelligence and writing ability can't be guessed by someone's appearance.

  7. Re school uniforms, I've been on the fence since I was in high school. I went to a public school that served a mixed neighbourhood (some poor families, some more middle-class), and I often saw the girls from St. Chad's School for Girls (snobby Catholic private school, closed many years ago) in their pleated skirts, white blouses, and jackets with school crest on breast pocket. I thought they looked quite spiffy, and I wasn't the only one. Some of my classmates thought we peasants should have a uniform too.

  8. Giselle, I miss Ruthie's Club too. There doesn't seem to be anything like it now.

  9. Adding my name to the list of people who remember Ruthie's Club fondly...

    "everything that everyone wears carries symbolic baggage"

    I've thought a lot about this. When I was younger, what I really wanted was to find a way to dress that communicated nothing. Eventually, I figured out that this is impossible. So one is left with no choice but to try to figure out what to communicate with one's dress. It certainly feels complicated.

  10. I get frustrated by people I know who say that clothing just doesn't matter, or who say "whatever you like" when I ask for suggestions on how to dress for a social event when I'm not sure. Clothing gets interpreted even (or especially) by the leftist/alternative/feminist crowd who claim to hate "rules" about what to wear.


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