Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church
Why what we put on may be more important than we think.
[ posted 1/11/2012 10:44AM ]
- The wearing of clothing is exclusively a human characteristic. We share many attributes with other creatures, but the inclination to clothe ourselves is not one of them. Those who know the account of Adam and Eve will understand why this is so. There is a moral and even spiritual dimension to human clothing.
- Our clothes serve a variety of practical, social, and cultural functions. Protection and modesty spring first to mind, but our clothes do far more. We sometimes dress to conceal or deceive. More often our clothes serve to reveal. We use clothing for decoration, for sexual attraction, for self-expression and self-assertion. By our attire we display our gender, our religion, our occupation, our social position, or causes with which we identify (e.g., sports jerseys). Our apparel may express our group membership or our role in society (e.g., company or police uniforms). Many dress to impress, while others choose the reverse: they express their rejection by intentionally flouting accepted clothing norms.
- Our clothing is one of our most elemental forms of communication. Long before our voice is heard, our clothes are transmitting multiple messages. From our attire, others immediately read not only such things as our sex, age, national identity, socio-economic status, and social position, but also our mood, our attitudes, our personality, our interests, and our values.
- We constantly make judgments about one another on the basis of clothing. Common wisdom has it that you can't judge a book by its cover. But this is only partly true; we regularly read one another's covering. What's more, we're better at it than we think. Research suggests that if you stand someone before an audience of strangers and ask them to draw inferences merely on the basis of what they see, the audience's inferences will tend toward consensus, and those inferences will tend to be more or less accurate. Why should this be? We spend our lives making judgments based on appearance and then testing those judgments in our subsequent relationships. In this way, we become rather adept at the process. Judgments based on appearance are scarcely infallible, of course, and we are wise to hold them tentatively. But it's almost impossible to avoid making them in the first place.
- Because our clothing is one of the fundamental ways we communicate with others, what we wear is never a purely personal matter. Our attire exerts a social influence on those around us. One famous study, for example, discovered that unwitting subjects were significantly more willing to jaywalk when following individuals wearing "high status" clothing than when following individuals wearing "low status" clothing. What we wear can shape patterns of communication around us, depending on what messages people are picking up. Consider, for example, the varied cues we send by the way we dress: "I want people to notice me." "I'm very confident." "I want to hide." "I care only about comfort." "I want to look seductive." "I repudiate you and your expectations."
- How we dress not only affects others; it also affects us. This dynamic is often circular: how we feel influences the clothes we put on, and the clothes we put on in turn shape how we feel. Changes of clothes can generate a change of mood; the soldier feels different in his uniform than he does in street clothes. In some settings our choice of attire can make or break us. If we like the way we look for a job interview, for instance, it will tend to strengthen our confidence. We feel better about our chances, as reflected in improved posture, more fluent speech, more dynamic gestures. On the other hand, inappropriate dress can sap our confidence. We have all experienced the uncomfortable effects of feeling under-dressed in a particular social setting.
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