Monday, September 18, 2006

Clothes Make the Person

The sense of appropriate and inappropriate deportment carries over to the clothes a person wears and how the person "carries" what he wears. The ideal, just like in active corporeal activities like dancing, is for the act of wearing a particular set of clothes to come naturally. A lot of this has to do with deportment, or how a person carries his body because a person who has the appropriate deportment can by extension wear clothes naturally. In Tagalog, we say wala yan sa damit, nasa nagdadala. I've even heard it said of people that they can wear sack cloth and they would make it look beautiful (kahit nakasako siya, maganda pa rin). This illustrates the primacy of deportment.

For most people, however, the trick is knowing how to dress appropriately. Here we ask the age-old fashion questions: is it better to over dress or underdress (to which I have heard stylists say it is best to dress appropriately)? What does smart casual mean? What is a good tie and what is a bad tie? Here, the legislators of style come to the fore: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and all the magazines sold by the Gokongweis and all those books on How To Dress.

Clothing also betrays the inequality of the ability to engage in or the inequality of awareness of appropriate practice. A person may have a sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate practice in terms of clothing but may not be able to afford the appropriate clothes. The lack of appropriate clothes may lead to self-restraint on the part of a person who chooses not to go to an occassion or to a particular place on account of not having the right clothes to wear. Clothing then becomes a principle of exclusion.

Those who are not aware of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate attire are looked down upon or are identified as not being one-of-us. This is often quite tricky especially when the sense of what constitutes appropriate attire is not obvious. Among the rich especially, displays of wealth are often understated except in the most formal of occasions and when it comes to cars and cellular phones. I had a friend who said he could tell if a person was wearing tailored slacks or RTW based on the fit. Rich adolescents seem to dress simply and some adults are shocked that they wear slippers to school without knowing that these adolescents can tell if the simple dress or slipper is branded (after all, one can speak of P600 slippers). There was once a suggestion to prohibit students from wearing garish jewelry which exhibits an ignorance of practice because adornment of the body with garish jewelry is already considered by students to be inappropriate behavior. Wealth and status must be displayed more subtly.

Good taste is acquired from a lifetime of socialization and is very difficult to teach. One can have good friends who will give you a one-time make-over but maintenance will be difficult if you do not have a sense of what makes the make-over good in the first place and if you cannot carry that new look. That is why the Queer Eyes give out awards to the straight guys who are able to maintain their looks.

Good taste, like virtue, is acquired; it cannot be easily taught. It is difficult to explain to a person, for example, what makes a good tie. Either one knows, or one doesn't. Good clothing, like deportment, is most effective when it becomes second nature to a person.

1 comment:

Ricky Abad said...

Here's another take on clothes. I gave this in class last year.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas (1973, 1984) once said that the boundaries of the body are “leaky,” meaning that the biological body, the property of the individual, is semi- permeable, open, and therefore must be managed by others. In this instance, the body is also a property of the social world. The social situation imposes itself on the body and constrains it to act in particular ways. Michel Foucault (1977) articulates this insight: he observed that bodily practices are part of the capillary-like operations of power that work to render bodies docile and obedient. Foucault’s concept of power is novel in that it argues that modern power works not so much by repressing or forbidding things, but by inducing ways of acting and being, so that individual bodies come to manage themselves.

These ideas can be applied to an examination of dress in a wide range of social settings. What we wear, following the insights of Douglas and Foucault, is emblematic of the situation we are in. We dress differently when we are at home or when we’re at school, when we’re at a cocktail party or a funeral, when we’re at work or on the beach. We also dress in accordance to what we can afford, and what we can afford relates to our socioeconomic postion. In each case the social world impinges on our minds and hearts to dress up in accordance to the dictates of the social context. Dressing up in a uniform in school or at work is a clear instance of outside forces managing the body, and the fact that most people accept this convention show how successful authorities have been inducing others to follow a dress code. People have not only been brainwashed, so to speak, they have come to accept being brainwashed with a purity of heart. And so uniforms prevail and dress codes remain intact: we have homogenized the clothes we wear in specific contexts. We, the actor and the agent, have conspired with the larger society create a world of sameness. It’s what Giddens (1997:7) calls “the double involvement of individals and institutions” –the fact that “we create society at the same time as we are created by it.”