New Worlds: Clothing and Status

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

I almost titled this post “clothing as communication,” until I realized there’s no way I’m getting through a topic that broad in a single essay. So let’s focus on one aspect of how clothing communicates things about you: status.

I own a book titled The Language of Clothes by Alison Lurie that is all about this thing generally, and devotes an entire chapter to “Fashion and Status.” Some New Worlds essays last year discussed things like sumptuary laws and specific articles of clothing that signal a particular rank, but the idea is much broader than that; there are easily half a dozen ways or more that you can show your wealth and importance through what you wear.

The first and most obvious of these is using expensive material. This might be caused by sheer rarity; for a while in the twentieth century many women owned fur coats, whether they lived in frigid climates or not, because fur was rare (especially certain types) and therefore coveted. Silk had to be traded long distances. Not just fabrics, either — some dyes, like red, purple, or a true black were harder to come by, and expensive as a result.

The rarity might also be less about the substance and more about the process of manufacturing it. Velvet, which we often think of as being made of silk, could also be woven from cotton, linen, or wool; its primary value comes its beauty and from the fact that manufacturing it is a much more complex process than weaving ordinary fabric. Prior to the invention of the Jacquard loom, brocades were similarly difficult and therefore pricy. Lace remains expensive even today, and handmade lace extraordinarily so.

But rarity can also be situational, too. Think about nylon stockings during World War II, when the fiber was needed for the war effort. Wearing such stockings during that period didn’t just signal that you had money; it also meant you had black market connections, which in its own way is a kind of status.

What’s better than wearing expensive material? Wearing lots of it. Quite a lot of fashion throughout the centuries has been about figuring out ways to drape the body in more fabric so as to better show off your wealth. You can achieve this through sheer volume — sleeves that brush the ground or skirts that use up a dozen yards of fabric — with gathering or pleating to shape it, or through layering, as with the Heian-era jūnihitoe or twelve-layer robe. The skirts of Renaissance gowns often parted in the front to reveal a contrasting underskirt. Pinking a piece of fabric creates small holes, through which you can show or even pull tufts of the underlying material. Insets of various shapes expand the surface of a garment, usually with (again) a contrasting fabric to vary the display.

Or take your expensive material, and then decorate it. Embroidery is not only labor-intensive (before the advent of machine embroidery), but often involves the use of vividly dyed or metallic threads — much less expensive than whole bolts of fabric made out of the same stuff, but requiring many long hours with a needle. Beading, quillwork, and even straight-up sewing pearls and gems onto one’s clothing add to the labor and the material cost, and as Lurie points out, sometimes amount to literally wearing your money.

As the materials and manufacture of such things have become easier, cultures have looked for other ways to show off one’s wealth. Tailoring shifts the labor from creating the material to fitting it to the body. A Japanese kimono is essentially a bunch of rectangles sewn together with straight seams, but an Edwardian gown requires an incredibly complex pattern, which then must be altered in a variety of ways to suit the person wearing it — at least if they want to look good. Two women might both be wearing velvet, but one of them is wearing an off-the-rack dress that’s too long in the waist and too tight in the bust, while the other slinks around in a whole-body glove.

Or consider the nineteenth-century European trend of differentiating morning dresses from walking dresses from riding dresses from evening dresses and so on. Then it’s not so much about a given outfit as about demanding that any rich, high-status person be able to produce all the different types of garment required to match their lifestyle. Men today can often get away with one pair of black dress shoes; women need heels of different styles and heights and colors and materials to go with their different dressy outfits.

And why do we have so many dressy outfits? Because god help you if you repeat yourself, going to fancy events too often (or even more than once!) in the same dress. As one of my patrons said in response to the previous essay, in the fifteenth century a certain wealthy Englishwoman had two good woolen gowns. Two. Even a high-status person at that time might well be able to list every single article of clothing they owned. I probably can’t even list all my t-shirts without looking — how’s that for wealth?

Going back to those high heels . . . maybe it’s not your clothing in its own right, but rather what it does to you. A Heian lady in her twelve-layered robe was not going to be doing much in the way of chores or even walking very quickly, with all that fabric draped on the ground around her. As I discovered when I tried to do karate in a Victorian dress, a corset might be somewhat restricting, but tightly-fitted sleeves are far more so, preventing me from exercising my full range of motion. A small heel on a shoe can be practical for riders, helping keep their foot in the stirrup, but the higher it gets the more your balance is compromised.

Wearing clothing that interferes with your ability to function is also a sign of status. It says, I have people to do that kind of thing for me. I don’t need to defend myself, to lift anything heavy, to walk long distances or go anywhere near dirt. (Why do you think people with office jobs are called white-collar workers? Because such people used to wear white shirts . . . which would be hideously impractical for anyone performing manual labor.)

The pinnacle of signaling status with clothing — or maybe we should call it a nadir — is the label. Nowadays most materials, even very fine ones, are well within the reach of middle-class people, and with a bit of alteration an off-the-rack dress can fit quite well. But the label? Ah, that’s a different story. You literally do pay extra for a tiny strip of fabric that says the garment was made by Oscar de la Renta or whoever . . . or you pay less for a knockoff. But for those who truly care, the knockoff isn’t the equal of the genuine article, no matter how good it looks. It isn’t real. And thus do we maintain the boundaries of status.

This has already run longer than a normal essay, and there’s more I could have said. But we will leave it here for now, and next week turn to a very different sort of sartorial communication.

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New Worlds: Clothing and Status — 25 Comments

  1. Cheap factories in Asia have completely distorted our clothing signals. Mark Zuckerberg wears sweat shirts and jeans. He doesn’t need to display his wealth with his clothing. Status these days may revolve around -not- having to wear a suit and tie; only the wage slaves have to do that.
    It is no longer economical, to make your own clothing. You can never sew a garment or knit a sock more cheaply than the sweatshops in Kuala Lumpur. It’ll be cheaper to go to WalMart or Target. So the one-off hand-made item may become a status symbol.

    • Handmade things, or the label. I do think there’s still status in wearing clothing from certain designers — even if many of us sneer at the thought of paying $100 or whatever for a designer t-shirt. (People sneered at the status signals of the past, too.)

    • Interesting how things change, isn’t it. When I was growing up, homemade/handmade clothing was a symbol of, if not poverty, then extreme backwardness (ask me how I know this…). Now, sewing is a niche activity that signals a certain level of leisure time and disposable income that the masses don’t possess. Not to mention a lost skill set that was once imperative.

      • I think in some quarters homemade clothing still carries that connotation. But yes, for most social classes it’s a hobby at this point — and it can be quite a pricy one.

  2. In the TV series “Firefly” there’s an episode where Kaylee the engineer delights is a dress in a store window. It is full of ruffles. When she needs a gown to go to a fancy shindig, she gets THAT gown. Then she doesn’t fit in with the society girls because it looks like something from a store window and not custom made.

    The price of fabric to make clothes with is now truly expensive. Not to mention the patterns. Add to that the time involved to complete the process. If you work outside the home, it is not cost effective to make clothes anymore. When I grew up it was. Now you sew because you love to sew or you need a special costume or your body is different enough that nothing off the rack fits. I sold my serger a couple of years ago and only keep my sewing machine for mending. That too may go soon.

    • Yes, I remember that episode! The assumption of the upper-class young ladies was that “her girl” (i.e. her seamstress) was really incomptent — because of course you have someone making all your clothes just for you.

      I’d disagree with the cost of fabric being expensiv, though, when compared against the long view of history. I’m sure it’s pricier than it was a few decades ago, but I suspect that’s in large part because few enough people sew now that it’s turned into a niche hobby; the stores most of us shop at cater to a middle- to upper-middle-class clientele, with all the markup that implies. But if you find the right stores, it’s not too bad — and massively cheaper than fabric in the pre-industrial days, especially when it comes to brocades or velvets or other things that were hard to make by hand.

      The time required, no question about it. I’ve sewn costumes, and even with the aid of a machine, it takes a lot of time and effort.

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Clothing and Status - Swan Tower

  4. For me a truly distinctive garment is worth the time and/or cost. But day to day I just roll around in tee shirts and jeans like everybody else.

    I found a great example of clothing as conspicuous consumption — except it wasn’t conspicuous. Queen Victoria is said to have never worn the same pair of drawers twice. They were, of course, hand sewn for her by her maids or sewers out of Irish linen or some other expensive fabric. Once worn, they were not thrown or given away. They were kept. You can still view cupboard upon cupboard full of nearly-identical drawers. I assume they gradually got bigger over time.

  5. You’ll probably cover this in a later essay, but what interests me is the trickle-down and trickle-up effect in fashion. Lower classes aping upper class styles as best they could (often through cast-offs, turned dresses, clothes stalls and the like) was a thing for a long while, and it still is with the lable vs. knock-off thing. But now you’ve got coolhunters and pop stars looking for urban/street styles, which they then co-opt and it becomes high fashion… and a few years later is in Walmart.

    • I wonder, actually, whether the trickle-up thing is a specifically modern phenomenon. Are there examples of it from the past? I can think of instances of things being imported from elsewhere, but that’s not the same as the rich deciding they’re going to copy the styles of the not-rich for some reason. And even things like Puritan styles were driven more by group signaling at multiple levels of society, rather than it being an upward diffusion per se.

      • Yeah, I was thinking it was mostly a modern phenomenon, but then I recalled Marie Antoinette dressing up like a milkmaid. I mean, a really fancy milkmaid, but still.

        That’s more an individual thing than a cultural norm, though. But there is something of a history of rich and artsy types adopting ‘peasant’ activities and dress as a ‘back to simplicity’ kind of a thing.

        • Good point re: Marie Antoinette, both with it being an example, and an individual one rather than a trend. All of the general adoption of peasant activities that I can think of, though, feels pretty modern — do you have counter-examples?

        • Its not peasants, but whenever I read or heard about a king or a noble sneaking around to see a mistress or go somewhere (granted, provided he didn’t bring his court with him), I figured he’d have been wearing very good clothes – but the king wouldn’t be wearing clothes that signaled he’s the king…maybe an outfit befitting a noble?

          • It really depends on the circumstances. In a lot of cases everybody knew that’s exactly what the king was doing — there was a lot less privacy back in the day than we’re used to now — but he might at least make a nod toward wearing something plainer.

      • Jane Austen talks about it in Northanger Abbey (and come to think of it, there are some excoriating essays in SPECTATOR, in the very early 1700s, about boys who dress up as coachmen and the like. Then there were all those shepherdesses among French aristocrats . . .)

        • See above — my impression of the shepherdess thing was that it was basically Marie Antoinette’s idea, and some other people copied it? But not that it was an ongoing fashion trend. I could be wrong, though — that isn’t really my time period/region.

  6. A Heian lady in her twelve-layered robe was not going to be doing much in the way of chores or even walking very quickly, with all that fabric draped on the ground around her

    That’s half the point. It’s not just the expense of the clothes. It’s that the clothes also make it obvious that you can’t do much, which proves you have people to do it for you. Clothing you can’t put on without assistance, or clothing you can’t do other essential things while wearing.

    • I have always marvelled at this delicious paradox of the aristocracy: make oneself dependent on the help of others as a symbol of one’s higher social status, and then belittle those very same people without whom one would be completely helpless.

      • The Stoics made fun of this. If the slave can manage without the master, but not the master without the slave — who’s really the slave?

  7. I confess to a love of natural materials, and I may start sewing again because I am having trouble with clothing made from petroleum products. But long ago something in me lost interest in any attempt at playing the fashion game. Part of it is that like Marie and Brenda, I either want to be fancy, or I want to be comfortable. The other side is like Phyl suggested. Can’t wear cheap shoes, and every attempt at shoes that were comfortable meant buying foreign shoes that American women thought “pedestrian.”

    Now I buy a couple of moderately expensive, well-fitting shoes every few years and ignore fashions. Wear what fits your body and makes you feel good.

    But that’s a freelancer’s conceit, and only works when you work from home. Wearing the wrong things in an office has all sorts of signals attached. We used to dress for the job we wanted, but again, it’s a game only certain people can play.

    • I’ve never had much tolerance for bad shoes. I think it’s courtesy of ballet: you don’t say “eh, that’s good enough with pointe shoes,” or you pay the price in literal blood. I once spent three hours in the store trying on every make and model of shoe until I found the right one. So when it comes to normal shoes, I want them to fit, I want them to support my (extraordinarily archy) feet, and I am not willing to put up with cheap b.s. When I get good shoes, I wear them until they fall apart.

      But as you said — that’s partly a luxury born of my career. I work from home, and can get by in my pajamas if I feel like it. Even at conventions, our standards are pretty lax, and I don’t have to wear crappy shoes if I don’t feel like it.

      • Same here–natural fifties Barbie doll arched feet. Few shoes can give me a good base. If I find a shoe that will support me for eight hours (currently a sports shoe with a good shoe store extra arch support in it, and a style of sandals with Velcro hidden everywhere for fine-tuning around the ankle) I feel blessed and functional. Since I live in warm climates I have a third pair of rubber-soled sandals for rain days. Otherwise, two weeks ago I gave up the search and bought two more pairs of these sandals in other colors. Just in case.

        (I didn’t pursue ballet long because I was slightly knock-kneed and a kind instructor told me I could never be more than back row corps because of it–which may or may not be true, but I believed it at that tender age.) Like yoga, with the right instructor that problem might have slowly straightened, but they didn’t really get me young enough. Tai Chi is straightening it, slowly, and it’s not fun. 🙁