Reading Garment History

by Drew Shiel

It probably seems like a strange thing to do, going delving into the history and particular distinctions of, say, jackets, just so that I can make a stab at why a particular ensemble of clothes looks good.

The reason for this is that people read clothes. It’s cultural, it’s not completely conscious, and it’s definitely unfair, carrying with it biases about socio-economic class, expected behaviour, and other unpleasantness. It is, however, something you can game, something you can, if you dare, play with. I’m dealing with this from a male point of view, because those are the clothes I wear and want to know about. But that in itself is an important point – clothes are strongly gendered in most parts of Western society.

Picture the following – you’re a man, headed to a meeting with a few people, to discuss a possible new project. You haven’t met them before, and indeed, you’re being sent there by your boss. It’s happening at a coffee shop, because you’re all busy people, and it’s a convenient place. You can dress however you want. If you wear:

  • T-shirt and jeans, and carry a small backpack: the other people will assume you’re the IT guy.
  • Cheap suit, slightly off-proper-colour-coordination suit and tie: the others will assume you’re a minor functionary.
  • Better suit, well-coordinated shirt and tie, cuff links: they’ll assume you’re upper management.
  • Sports jacket, shirt sleeves rolled up below the elbow, cravat instead of tie, deck shoes: they’ll assume you own the company, and further, that you’re pretty well off.

I have a great love for the combination of a sports jacket, good shirt but no tie, sweater vest, corduroys or slacks, the small backpack, and sleeves rolled above my elbow, because people do not know where to place me. “Academic”, maybe, but what’s he doing at a business meeting?

But those readings come from the history of the garments, and implications of formality, class, and wealth, and they’re just the surface. Particular subcultures have particular ways to read clothes. There’s the scarf code among goths (although I don’t think it was ever really taken seriously), there’s the Palestinian scarf, there’s the hipster horn-rim glasses, there’s the particular choice of t-shirt, or at the other end, what tie-pin you have. We classify these all the time, and take them more or less seriously, but we always read them.

This is something I was a late-comer to. My first school was small, and we all had around the same kinds of clothes. My secondary school had a uniform. So I was about fifteen, I think, before I realised that other kids, when we were going out, weren’t throwing on whatever non-uniform clothes were clean and had enough pockets. I did a very careful analysis of what people were wearing, and paid a note-taking level of attention to some music videos in the genres of the day – which was mid-grunge and heavy rock. And then I raided my father’s wardrobe, did some very careful shopping in charity shops, and melded into the crowd pretty perfectly thereafter – except that I have never been able to work out where people got the canvas sneakers from. But boots did fine, and I even had a conversation-piece pair of Swedish Army boots, square-toed and heavier than in any way reasonable.

Since then, I’ve paid some attention. I haven’t always had time to do so properly, and for the decade I worked in IT, I hadn’t any need to do so – comprehending other people’s programming was more important than what they were wearing, because they really had pulled on whatever came first to hand.

Now, I’m starting to question how these readings come about. Why do we interpret a good suit the way we do? Why does the cravat convey wealth? Why are cuff links more upmarket than buttoned cuffs, and why does the place on your arm to which you roll your sleeve carry any meaning?

And on a slightly different note, why is the current fashion nigh-on invisible now, and visible – and sometimes ridiculous – some years later? I knew grunge had a look, for instance, because I’d analysed it, but I didn’t realise how very distinct it was until I watched episodes of My So-Called Life in around 2005. ¬†And suddenly, there was grunge in all its layered, plaid-shirt glory, utterly distinct from the styles of the early 2000s.

So those are some of the reasons for digging into the history; you can’t do a literary analysis until you know something about the genre.