Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: clothes from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Articles made to cover the human body. Clothes can be worn simply for warmth, but they have almost always had the additional purpose of indicating sex and status or of enhancing the appearance.

The earliest clothes were animal skins, replaced by textiles after the discovery of weaving and spinning. Simple woollen clothing predominated in the northern hemisphere but the ancient Mediterranean civilizations made sophisticated use of linens, cotton, and silk. Apart from changing fashions, the main developments in the history of clothing are the mass-production of textiles from the early 19th century and the invention of synthetic materials in the 20th century.

Summary Article: Clothing
From SAGE Key Concepts series: Key Concepts in Body and Society

In early modern England, sumptuary (clothing) laws were enacted to prevent anyone who was not of a particular (high) social rank from wearing certain garments (Hollander, 1980). The laws were deliberately aimed at policing social boundaries by ensuring the visibility of markers of stratification: dress codes set apart members of the nobility, members of guilds and colleges, artisans and so on. People who broke these laws could be fined or imprisoned. The objects of these laws in Elizabethan England were many and varied. They included, but were not limited to: the wearing of particular items of clothing (collars); the use of particular fabrics, threads or styles (silks, precious metals); and the degree of titivation involved (jewellery, embroidery). During this period, clothing was the most valuable possession the majority of the population owned, and the increase in regulation was due at least in part to a concern with excessive expenditure, but also the possibility that anyone who amassed money might be able to pretend to rank through their style of dress (Jones and Stallybrass, 2000).

Sumptuary laws, both at this time and in other eras or under other systems of law, can function as an exercise of power over a group and a means of conveying and marking out identity. In the instance of Elizabethan England, power was exerted to maintain distinction and to ensure the visibility of social stratification upon and through the body (Hollander, 1980). The banning of kilts in the Dress Act of 1746 by a later English ruler, King George II, recognized the power of group identity that clothing can convey: that is, wearing the kilt was a statement of clan allegiance and political rebellion, even if the kilt itself was not an original piece of Highland dress (Trevor-Roper, 1983). Foot-binding was a gendered expression of wealth and power (Kunzle, in Barnard, 2007). One does not need to look any further than the laws passed in 2004 in France, banning the wearing of the hijab, in particular in schools, to find contemporary examples of the political sensitivity and power that can be invested in a piece of cloth. Under these laws observant young Muslim women can be expelled from school and thereby denied an education for continuing to wear their headscarves.

Even where it is no longer subject to secular legal regulation, the symbolism of clothing as a bodily marker of rebellion continues to be understood and utilized by youth (for example, the punks of the 1970s and their many successors). Cross-dressing, the wearing of clothing that subverts the gender identity of the body underneath, can be seen as an act of conformity in the context of the Elizabethan stage, when there were female roles but no professional female actors. In contemporary society, it can also be seen as a rebellion against gender norms and stereotypes (Garber, 1992). Clothing can also be used as a conscious assertion of membership, community and conformity. Muslim women who wear clothing that covers them to varying degrees can be seen alternately as subjugated by their religious leaders or as empowered by not having to be subjected to unwelcome male attention – in either case it asserts membership, in this case of a faith. Orthodox Jews, similarly, abide by sumptuary laws as observed in their sects and publicly assert their faith through the embodied symbolism of dress. Mary Douglas has shown the power of the adorned body as a natural symbol across a range of cosmologies (Religion). Even in cosmologies where the majority of the faithful are not expected to wear specific clothing, the cleric will be marked off from followers by recognizable, ritual dress or adornment even if that is as small as a symbolic pin. In each of these examples, clothing is used consciously as an exertion of embodied spiritual and community identity.

Uniforms subjugate individual identity in the conscious solidification of a group identity that simultaneously marks out rank (Craik, 2005). Tribal armies assert a group identity through dress but these are not uniforms as such, they are their ‘everyday’ clothes (for example, the penis gourds or koteka of the PNG Highlands). Early modern armies were often funded by and named in honour of noble patrons who attired them in an early form of uniform of the noble's colours, which made for a multi-coloured battlefield. The Parliamentary Army uniforms of the English Civil War are an early instance of a group identity formed as a symbol of the state. In the mid-eighteenth century, Britain's Admiral Anson ordered standardized and ranked uniforms to be designed for naval officers, although the lower seamen continued to wear their own clothes at sea into the nineteenth century.

The intention of a uniform is to put the position one holds before any notion of the individual. Within armed and other forces, uniforms uphold the distinction(s) of rank through the stratified variation that marks out the position within the group of the wearer. As with Elizabethan sumptuary laws, improper wearing of the uniform has potentially serious consequences. Not maintaining one's uniform can lead to disciplinary action; wearing the incorrect uniform (impersonating an officer) can lead to court-martial and imprisonment. In putting on a uniform with particular insignia the soldier or seaman is putting on more than the fabric, s/he is putting on the role embodied in the clothing and its accompanying status and power. Military uniforms also become symbols of nation as well as status within the force. This becomes most present and obvious in celebrations of nation, from the massed soviet parades of USSR May Days gone by, to the annual memorialization of fallen soldiers past, to the flag-draped coffins of the returned dead from recent conflicts. Being found out of uniform in enemy territory is generally considered to be an admission of spying.

Clothing may be used in consciously performing individual embodied identity (Performativity) by making a statement about one's cultural allegiance or the health of one's bank account (Davis, 1994). Most of the fashion houses that grew up in an era of haute couture, when only the richest could afford the individually fitted items, now have ready-to-wear lines. Some, like Stella McCartney even produce lines specifically for budget mass markets. Fashion is simultaneously a powerful industry, a process that subjugates pieceworkers in developing countries, and a set of undeclared rules that we adhere to in our daily lives (Küchler and Miller, 2005). Even in rejecting fashion, it is difficult to find clothing truly outside it – as we find out along with Anne Hathaway's character in The Devil Wears Prada, when she is lectured by her boss, Meryl Streep, on the temporal progression of a particular shade of blue from high fashion to bargain remainder bin. Appropriating the clothing of other cultures is a fashion, or a style statement, in itself and it can also be a statement of post-colonial ‘ownership’ of traditional style, as witnessed in the ‘ethnic chic’ of Pakistani-American designer, Safia Ahmed and others (Paulicelli and Clark, 2009).

Barthes (1983) argued that clothing is a means of communication and representation that can carry meaning (have a semiotics) in the way a sentence carries meaning, so that an outfit can be organized for a particular occasion into a given syntax of the appropriate combination. Within that structure is another set of choices, between what type of a particular piece of dress (high heels v. ballet flats, Panama hat v. baseball cap) one will use to form the ‘sentence’ (Miller, 1982). Davis (1994), on the other hand, has argued that while there is undoubtedly meaning in our choice of clothing it is not as fixed a semiotic system as Barthes would have it. It may be a way to ‘say’ one thing but how clothing is ‘read’ is another matter entirely and will depend on the experiences of class, status, aesthetics and culture of the person observing: those choices will be interpreted in ways beyond the control of the person wearing the clothes.

We use dress to say something about ourselves and in the political charge lent to clothing we are also making claims about our power over ourselves and our bodies. Dress is a means of communication, to express erotic desires, identity, power, belonging or outsider status, our ability to consume, our modernity or post-modernity: in short, ourselves.


See also readings on Media and Representation, Identity and Religion for the use and meaning of clothing as bodily adornment.

Jones and Stallybrass (2000) is a fascinating study, specifically concerned with the historical place of clothing in early-modern England. Baclawski's book (1995) is an excellent illustrated encyclopaedia which details specific items of clothing that have been worn across the centuries. Barthes’ Fashion System (1983) is a somewhat dated but insightful introduction to clothing as language. Hollander's (1980) art and social history text is a frequently cited germinal text, that looks at the ways in which art has depicted understandings of clothing as both shaping and reflecting the (shaped) body. Garber's Vested Interests and Gaines and Herzog's Fabrications are similarly central texts in analytic approaches to the social and cultural meaning of clothing. Davis (1994) gives historically contextualized, sociological explanations of the popularity of particular forms of dress and its ambivalent effects on identity. Craik's (2005) volume on uniforms is a subtle treatment of the use and meaning of uniforms across time and cultures. And for a comprehensive introduction to the field of fashion theory, which takes a broad view of the history, anthropology, sociology and cultural study of clothing, it is hard to go past Barnard's (2007) reader.

  • Baclawski, K. (1995) The Guide to Historic Costume. B.T. Batsford London.
  • Barnard, M. (ed.) (2007) Fashion Theory: A Reader. Routledge London.
  • Barthes, R. (1983) The Fashion System, trans. M. Ward; R. Howard. Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc New York.
  • Craik, J. (2005) Uniforms Exposed: From Conformity to Transgression. Berg Oxford.
  • Davis, F. (1994) Fashion, Culture and Identity. University of Chicago Press Chicago.
  • Gaines, J.; C. Herzog (eds) (1990) Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. Routledge New York.
  • Garber, M. (1992) Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. Routledge London.
  • Hollander, A. (1980) Seeing Through Clothes. Avon Books New York.
  • Jones, A.R.; P. Stallybrass (2000) Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. Cambridge University Press Cambridge.
  • Trevor-Roper, H. (1983) ‘The invention of tradition: The Highland tradition of Scotland’, in E. Hobsbawm; T. Ranger (eds) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press Cambridge.
  • © Kate Cregan 2012

    Related Articles

    Full text Article CLOTHING
    Encyclopedia of the Arctic

    People throughout the circumpolar North share similar problems in dealing with the climate. The severe cold of the Arctic dictates that garments...

    Full text Article Clothing
    Encyclopedia of Global Religions

    Religious clothing refers to any type of clothing that holds religious meaning or significance for devotees of a particular tradition. Religious...

    Full text Article Clothes
    Bloomsbury Thematic Dictionary of Quotations

    See also appearance , beauty , fashion , nakedness It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds. Aesop 6th century BC ...

    See more from Credo