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.