What Do Clothes Mean? Do Clothes Matter?

Posted by Jill Chivers in My Story

 Hello and welcome to blog #43. We are deep in Autumn here in Australia and it is simply glorious! Days have just enough crispness in them to make layering necessary but are not too anything — cool or warm, wet, dry, sunny, cloudy, windy, mountainous.

In blog #28 (Lyle and Kasey) back in early April, I promised I’d come back to this topic of what does clothing mean. I mean, it’s just not possible that clothing is only and always just way of hiding our nakedness, is it? For some people in the world (and its the third that I’m thinking specifically of here), this is undoubtedly true. Sobering moment, with a silent prayer and moments’ silence about how blessed the rest of us are.

For the rest of us, clothing is a marker, a message sender, a meaningful form of expression, even if we’re not entirely sure what it’s saying. Ok, here’s some examples I’ve come up with to bolster this side of the discussion that clothing matters.

If clothing did not matter:

…No American teenager, attending a high school that does not enforce the wearing of a school uniform, would ever be teased or picked on for wearing something that others deemed to be out of style or geeky or unusual. Think Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink” (that’s her in the picture to the left). Those “richies” making fun of her $15 second-hand shoes and mix’n’match pink volcanic ensembles – she showed ’em! And thank god for Duckie (in an extreme departure for Jon Cryer from his character in Two and a Half Men) who dressed in even more eyebrow-raising styles than Molly did. And what about James Spader’s character, Stef, wearing those crinkled linen suits — really? He represented the “in” crowd with that get-up? Yikes!

  • Ok, my ’80s nostalgia is over now, but evidence exists elsewhere! There’s “Clueless” with more of a makeover theme to it, but the same “here’s whatcha wear if you’re IN, people!” And don’t get me started on Sesame Street.
  • …. No Australian or British teenager, attending a high school that enforces the wearing of a school uniform, would ever feel the need to differentiate themselves in some small way from the crowd. There would be no “huh, uniform says my socks must be white — ha! I’ll rebel: mine will be white with a blue stripe!”. I remember my high school uniform-wearing rebellion. The girls at our school wore white shirts and frog green skirts (that’s the colour, not the texture, of the skirt). I delighted in wearing different and brightly coloured bras under my white shirts. Schools being schools, it became something of a game for my classmates to check out the colour I was wearing that day. I so beg the forgiveness of every teacher who ever had me in their class during Grade 11 and 12. But I should put this in perspective: my rebellion, in uniform-wearing ways and all others, was considered mild in the school I attended. Mild, people. It’s all context, right?

If clothing did not matter:

  • Muslim women would not wear the abaya and hijab
  • Arab men would not wear the keffiyeh
  • Catholic cardinals would not wear crimson red, and Catholic Bishops would not wear purple (and Priests black)… in what is a regimented and respected dress code that is never wavered from


If clothing did not matter:

  • there would not be television shows devoted to the “after Oscars” workshopping of the best and worst dressed actors from the awards ceremony
  • there would not be the countless number of make over shows! Style by Jury — complete strangers assessing your personal qualities based on how you look. Style Her Famous – making you over based on the style clues left by celebrities. How Do I Look? – makeover show that takes a hapless or hopeless case and injects style into their eyeballs with the help of 3 ‘accomplices’. Trinny and Susannah – do not get me started on this pair, but one cannot ignore the fact that they are out there on TV, telling everyone the stuff they’re telling them about how to dress. How to Look Good Naked – you wouldn’t think this was about clothes, really, based on the title of the show, would you? Nevertheless, it is. The gorgeous and generous Gok (in the UK – the US show has another host, Carson from Queer Eye) helping women with appalling body image issues to take the blinkers off. And these are just the shows I can remember off the top of my head. A thorough 65-second investigation of the Austar TV guide would possibly yield the names of a number of other shows in this genre
  • Branded clothing companies would not sponsor the hosts of high profile television shows(eg: Pippa is dressed by Portmans. She is. Really. There’s even a piece on the NZTV website about what Pippa is wearing)
  • we would never have known that Britney was not wearing underwear

If clothing did not matter:

  • I would not feel a certain way when I wear this, and another way entirely when I wear that
  • You and I could meet for a coffee and swap clothes and we wouldn’t feel any different to how we felt in our own clothes (ok, this does not apply to me and my friend Jennifer, who, when I was in San Francisco last year, we actually did swap clothes quite a bit. Gosh, I looked good in her gear)
  • There’d be no such thing as power dressing or ‘dress for success’. Whole rainforest’s could have been saved because 147 books on this topic would not have been written and published, including the classic How a Navy Blazer Changed My Life. Real title.
  • No man would ever wear a tie. Ever.
  • Ben Sherman would not be putting signs up in his stores like the one in the photograph above. Big bold statement, Ben! Taken in Auckland.

And just to finish on reality.

If clothing did not matter:

  • Superman would not need to wear red underpants on the outside of his blue tights
  • Catwoman would not need to wear that skin pinching black Lycra
  • Batman would not need to wear that beard chaffing and only-flattering-if-you-don’t-have-a-double-chin face mask


We’ve only scratched the surface of the examples of if clothing did not matter. Right? For those of us who have a choice in what we wear, clothing makes a difference. It matters. It says something on our behalf. Some of us reckon we know what our clothes are saying. Other people claim to not have thought about it. That’s ok – whether you’re conscious of it or not, whether you’re paying attention to it or not, and whatever you’re saying or not, our clothing has something to say, too. Right?

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