The declaration that clothes say something about their wearer is perhaps undisputable. It is certainly neither novel nor shocking. Whether in contemporary Western societies or the traditional practices of other cultures, a person’s choice of clothing is loaded with details that both describe and define aspects of their life as diverse as status, religion and life-style attachments. Moreover, judgements of personality and even intelligence are often made about an individual on the basis of their clothing alone. Appearance matters and first impressions of tastes in fashion count. Whilst these judgements may be made intuitively however, it is more difficult to determine the exact play of elements that combine to make this language, or code of clothing. The meanings conveyed by different styles change across time and place so that definitions are unstable and contextually embedded. According to the sociologist James Laver, a costume that is ‘indecent’ this year may be seen as ‘smart’ in ten years time, ‘ridiculous’ in a further twenty years and ‘beautiful’ in the next century. How then do fashion and clothing achieve their symbolic communications both to wearers and their viewers?
The symbols that form the code of clothing are both tactile and visual. All clothing styles and fashions must express their meanings through various permutations and combinations of texture, fabric, colour, pattern, line, shape and form. However, the psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler attempted to centre fashion’s key terms on psychological complexes rather than on the materially expressive elements available in different cultures. In 1953, he wrote, ‘Stripped to its essentials, fashion is no more than a series of permutations of seven given themes, each...a part of the female body: the breasts (neckline), waist (abdomen), hips, buttock, legs, arms, and length (or circumference) of the body itself. Organs ‘appear’ and ‘disappear’ as the theme of fashion changes, and one and then another part of the body is emphasized by succeeding styles’. Whether through elements of design or psychology, it is clear nevertheless that the clothing code draws on greatly limited constituent resources in comparison with the rich semantic resources of speech and writing.
Such a restriction of key expressive terms both accounts for and necessitates a high level of ambiguity in the statements made by fashion and clothing styles. In Western society, the same constituent symbols that proclaim beauty one year may also declare unattractiveness the following year and impropriety in another culture. The anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir noted, ‘The chief difficulty of understanding fashion in its apparent vagaries is the lack of exact knowledge of the unconscious symbolisms attaching to forms, colours, textures, postures, and other expressive elements of a given culture. The difficulty is appreciably increased by the fact that some of the expressive elements tend to have quite different symbolic references in different areas.’ If a wide and contradictory range of meanings is communicated by so few key terms, it is because the source of this ambiguity itself lies in the socially negotiated associations of symbolic references. In other words, searches to uncover the exact rules and taxonomy of the clothing code will always be thwarted by its continual shift of meanings within common cultural understandings.
Statements are therefore conveyed in clothing through linking the elements, or key terms of the clothing code, to prevailing concepts of the elements of fashion and style in a society or community. Furthermore, for fashion to ‘say’ the same thing to all wearers and viewers, everyone must share an appreciation or perception of the images invoked by different items and styles of clothing. This is not to imply that all members of a society have to ascribe to the same values in order to understand the statements made by fashion. Rather, meanings are conveyed through insight into the differences and similarities between the ideals held within a community. Whilst admitting that clothing styles display high social variability, the eloquent rebellions of the Beatniks and Teddy Boys in the 1940s, Mods and Rockers in the 1950s, Skinheads and Hippies in the 1960s and Punks in the 1970s could all be easily understood by those fluent in the vocabulary of alienation from mainstream values.