All the Pretty Questions

The clothing we wear is dictated, in large part, by our social environments. Our social environments emerge from innumerable factors that combine to create our cultures. According to notes from a University of Michigan “women’s studies” course entitled Gender and Popular Culture, “Culture is a system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society.” Specifically, according to the originator and proponent of that concept, E. A. Hoebel, “Culture is the sum total of integrated learned behavior patterns, which are characteristics of members of a society and which are, therefore, not the result of biological inheritance.” So, the styles of the clothes we wear represent one component of learned behavior patterns.

But why, I wonder, have we learned—in this society, at least—that men and women should wear clothing that, by and large, is unique to the sex of the wearer? Of course there are plenty of unisex clothing styles, but our society generally encourages (or requires) men and women to dress differently. While I have no interest in wearing flowery dresses or blouses awash in sequins (probably because I’ve been taught, successfully, those things belong only on the bodies of women), I wonder why our culture has decided such clothing is “feminine?” My limited research this morning suggests some ideas. First, it is important to understand that “sex” and “gender” are two distinct concepts: “While gender is a social, psychological, and cultural construct, our reason to polarize gender is influenced by sex, that is, the biological dichotomy of male and female.” (from, “Gender, Dress, and Fashion”). In our society, we clearly base our clothing parameters around both sex and gender. But so do other cultures; just in different ways.  That same article offers this: “In Indonesia, parts of West Africa, and in traditional Scottish dress, men wear an article of clothing that closely resembles a Western definition of a skirt. In Indonesia, both men and women wear the sarong, a length of cloth wrapped to form a tube. The wrapper, a rectangular cloth tied at the waist, is worn by both sexes in parts of West Africa. The Scottish kilt, still worn at many social gatherings to establish a social and cultural identity, represents the height of masculinity (Kidwell and Steele 1989). In North American culture, the sarong, wrapper, or kilt would rarely be seen on men except within the theater, film, or in the context of couture or avant-garde fashion.

Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.

~ Euripides ~

Everything I read seems to explain the “what” of different types and styles of clothing for men and women, but says virtually nothing of significance about the “why.” Why, for example, is a kilt the “height of masculinity” in Scotland, whereas in the U.S. a kilt is nothing more than a rare glimpse into another culture or a statement of defiance?

If I were to invest more time and energy into the question of “why,” I am sure I would find plenty of explanations. But that investigation would almost certainly involve a much deeper search and far more time than I am willing to commit. So, I am condemned to simply wonder. As I wonder, it occurs to me that I do not know what I would do with the answer, if it were presented to me. Would it prompt me to wear culottes and high-heeled shoes? Probably not. (Nothing could prompt me to wear high-heeled shoes; they obviously were the creation of callous, lustful men who did not care a whit about the safety and comfort of women—only about the shapeliness of women’s legs.) Although, during summertime, especially, I think I might find capri pants much more appealing than pants with legs that stretch almost to the floor.

As I contemplate clothing styles and wonder why styles are so remarkably different between men and women in this culture, my thoughts return to the general absurdity of clothing. Except to protect us against the elements, the idea of clothing is fundamentally puritanical. We wear clothes to hide our bodies from the eyes of others; generally, but not always, others of the other sex. I believe, with all my heart, that is a silly social constraint we place upon ourselves and willingly accept. Yet I am not the one to lead the charge for public nudity. Although I would gladly defend the person brave enough to do it. As I look at my own body in the mirror, I can imagine that our modesty may not be based entirely on wanting to hide our sexual paraphernalia but, rather, wanting to hide evidence of our gluttony and lack of body-toning activities and exercise.

The different standards applied to men and women with regard to clothing has always bothered me. Men can go shirtless in many situations; in those same situations, women would be arrested. Men have nipples, too, but apparently the size and shape of the breasts to which nipples are attached has something to do with the concept of public indecency. What idiocy. Intellectually, I can condemn the double standard, but in practice I find myself magnetically drawn to the exposed breasts of women, whereas I do not find men’s exposed breasts at all interesting. Is my intrigue based entirely on socialization; is my culture’s teaching responsible for my interest, or is my attention dictated by my genes? Could clothing styles be, in some weird and convoluted way, cultures’ responses to sexual (mostly male) arousal? But, then, why do other societies’ styles of clothing no mirror ours? If sexual interest plays a part in defining socially acceptable style, why in some societies (like some in Africa) are women free to expose their breasts publicly? Do different societies teach their members different lessons about sexuality? Are breasts in those African societies not considered sexual, whereas in most western culture they represent female sexuality?

A mind that questions everything, unless strong enough to bear the weight of its ignorance, risks questioning itself and being engulfed in doubt.

~ Émile Durkheim ~

How well I know, Émile. Entire disciplines have emerged from questions like those I ask, so I do not expect short, crisp, clean answers. But I love to think about the questions and I enjoy exploring possible answers. That is one of the things about life that makes it interesting.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to All the Pretty Questions

  1. Becky, I think you’re right that, in our culture, it seems that men wear uniforms and women wear costumes. And, like your costume, my uniform consists of either a pair of blue jeans or a pair of casual, comfortable shorts!

  2. Becky H. says:

    A young male co-worker once told me, “Men wear uniforms, women wear costumes.” At least in our culture, it does make some sense, I suppose. My preferred costume starts with good blue jeans.

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