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The Psychology of Clothes

Suri tribesmen Kibbish

In addition to the environment in which man is placed by nature, without any participation on his part, he creates himself another, which is generally called the “cultural world.” When we consider the human being in this cultural world, we see that of all its multitudinous cultural forms his dress is not only the one which is physically closest to him but also that which most immediately and most intimately expresses his relation to the environment. Not even the cultural forms assumed by man’s most elementary vital activities, such as nutrition and reproduction, are so directly and so constantly interwoven with human life and the human body as dress is, except as they express themselves through it.

In seeking the motives which have given rise to human dress it has been thought possible to distinguish three which are fundamental. Dress may serve for modesty, for adornment, or for protection, or for all these purposes in varying combinations. However, we cannot regard this kind of psychological motive to dress, derived as it is from man’s attitude toward his environment, as more than indirect. For, on the one hand, it is not based on the really immediate and basic functions of the human mind, as these are demonstrated by psychology, and, on the other hand, it does not indicate concretely how the individual is rooted in the environment in ways which provide him with the stimulus to clothe himself. These three types of motivation are not even valid within their own spheres. Dress is not only an expression of modesty but also precisely of its opposite, sexual attraction; this can be shown to be one of the most elementary motives of dress, and cannot be interpreted either as adornment or as protection. The same can be said about dress as adornment. There are very widespread examples of dress which represent “disadornment” or concealment, by such an interpretation of motivation. Thus, for example, asceticism always makes use of clothing, which cannot then be regarded as arising either from modesty or from need of protection. Finally, against protection as the fundamental motive of dress there stand those forms of dress which are either weaponless or which positively impede the wearer in the use of arms. Indeed, there can be nothing which makes one more incapable of defense than medieval armor, even when it is considered from the viewpoint that it should be a “safeguard and protection.” Thus we see that modesty, protection, and adornment cannot be regarded as the fundamental motives of dress. One can point not only to counter motives for each of these but also to innumerable other motives.

The inadequacy of these three types of motivation is also revealed when an attempt is made to derive the origin of dress from any one of them alone. This effort has often been made, as a result of the very popular but very mistaken practice of transferring the evolutionary viewpoint from the field of natural science, and applying it to cultural phenomena. Aside from the fact that archeological finds give us no indication of what the first forms of clothing used by prehistoric man were like, the question whether the earliest and most primitive motive of dress was modesty or adornment or protection can only be raised by starting out from a false viewpoint. This can be shown by a glance at the animal world, which provides an illustration that can be used legitimately here. Many animals “put on” fur coats for the winter, as a result of the change of temperature; while in the spring, under the influence of the approaching summer warmth, which calls forth the generative reappearance of life-processes on the earth, they “put on” their robes of sexual enticement, or, if one will, of adornment. Thus there already occur among animals changes in external appearance which are the result of environmental changes, and which, when compared with the phenomena of human life, correspond to the kinds of motivation to dress which have been mentioned above. The animal “prot” itself and “adorns” itself in turn, in accordance with the environmental conditions. And there is nothing to justify the assumption that any different kind of causation was responsible when prehistoric man fastened to his body those articles which were the first forms of dress, and. which must be regarded as cultural products. If prehistoric man first appeared in a cold climate, then the first stimulus to clothing may have been the need for protection against cold, while, if be appeared first in a climate in which such protection was unnecessary, then adornment or modesty or something similar—perhaps sexual impulses—may have been the first incentive to attaching foreign articles to his body. Here the question of priority is quite unimportant, as, indeed, this entire approach to the problem of motivation is fundamentally unsound. What is important, and remains so in every cultural-psychological study of human dress, is that in so far as its purpose is concerned all dress appears to be motivated primarily by the environment. And therefore we have to take the environment as our starting-point in any study of the motivation of its purpose, or indeed generally for any scientific determination of the facts for a psychology of clothing. That is the only way to reach sounder conclusions than are represented by the theories of modesty, adornment, and protection, which merely start out from the attitudes present in man’s mental life. How these incentives to the purposes of dress, which are derived from the environment, are then elaborated by the individual is in turn determined by his actual disposition. Although the purpose of clothing is primarily determined by environmental conditions, its form is determined by man’s own characteristics, and especially by his mental traits. And here—to anticipate a little—we must distinguish between those incentives which arise from the fundamental dispositions of the human mind and those which arise from individual differences of character, and which bring about the many minor variations in dress.

The most dangerous source of error in any cultural investigation is that the origin of man’s cultural achievements may be too simply and too superficially explained. In reality, even the simplest cultural product is the creation of a whole world, and the problem is to find the most essential factors which were involved in its formation. The simplest article worn by a primitive, even a plain pendant, often owes its origin to complex motives. A fashionable modern dress, on the other hand, is the product of innumerable motives, which one must despair to determine completely and to evaluate correctly. Thus, we cannot do more than seek out and describe the most important factors in the background out of which dress has arisen.

If we first of all consider man’s environment, which has provided the principal motives for the purposes of human dress, we find that such motives have originated in each of the three spheres by which human existence is delimited. They arise not only from his natural environment but also from the world of sociological and cultural phenomena, and from the realm of metaphysical, supersensory, religious experience.

Of all these influences the most easily appreciated are those which come from the natural environment, because they are the simplest. However, they do not always evoke “protection.” Although efforts at self-protection are expressed in many forms of clothing which arise from the desire to avoid extremes of temperature—from the tropical raiment to the Eskimo’s furs—there are others, such as the housedress and the summer costume, which originate in a kind of “antiprotection.” And various other incentives to special types of clothing are provided by the natural environment: adaptation to the ground and to other conditions of the landscape (by special shoes, and leather clothes in rocky mountainous regions); defense against the attacks of animals (by flea nets, snake boots, etc); aids in mastering animals (costumes of jockeys, cowboys, fisherman, etc.).

Much more complex are the factors which prompt the origin of dress out of social conditions, and the social forces which influence its forms. Of course, the importance of the sex relation, which is the most elementary of the human social relations, has, under the influence of certain neurotic modern conceptions of life, been greatly overemphasized. However, in the matter of clothing it does actually play a very large part, although dress serves much more as a device for sexual attraction than as an expression of modesty. Nevertheless, it would certainly be incorrect to consider that clothing is influenced in its forms to any great extent by the kind of sexual symbolism which Freudianism regards as the basis of our whole lives, even going so far as to consider that the mere act of clothing one’s self is an unconscious uteral symbol. Sexuality in clothing is really something much healthier than this—it is a concrete form of attraction, used as a positive sexual device by the female, who in our society is so much more backward than the male in direct approaches. The exhibition of physical charms, not merely by use of décolleté, but also by emphasizing the breasts, the hips, etc., is a “natural” usage of this sort. Unconscious impulses play a large part in making use of buttons, pleats, ornaments, and the entire cut of the garment, not only in order to emphasize what should be emphasized, but also to constitute a kind of signboard for a wish that is often quite unconscious to the wearer, who may be overcome with shame when she is told that her dress creates such an impression. The placing of pleats or ornaments so that they run toward the lap or away from it, the cluster of pleats located there, or the row of buttons which ends there, are determined by a healthy, unconscious sex drive, and it is certainly much more correct to see sexual symbolism here than to find phallic symbolism in countless ornaments, or to find symbols of narcissism in many forms of clothing.

Besides the sexual-intrapersonal relationship, the most important social influence on dress is what we may call the element of “costume.” In the entire realm of dress this element of costume is what gives the general, inclusive stamp, while it has as its opposite the tendency toward the differentiation of social ranks. However, we do not use costume here in its narrow sense of local costume, which gives formal expression to the community character of a province, a district, or a group of peasant villages. Costume also includes the national characteristics of dress as well as the peculiarities of professional groups, of soldiers, of political groups and organizations. And costume also includes fashion. Recently there have been many articles written about fashion, including a number of experimental studies, which make the error of placing the novelty and timeliness of fashion in the foreground, so that its most essential characteristic has been pushed into the background or quite overlooked—namely, that for many people fashion is the social expression of a common costume, and that in its present commercially stimulated form it is meant as this. The contradiction of costume and fashion, according to which the former is the conservative influence in clothing and the latter the dynamic influence, is correct only in a very subordinate sense and should really apply only to the contradiction of fashion and style. The fashion is really our “costume,” the expression taken by the urge toward a common costume in our civilized international cultural conduct, which has transposed into a temporal dynamic the breadth and the depth of the social customs of the past.

A force which has a much more pronouncedly conservative effect on dress is the tendency to express through it caste and class distinctions. Privileged separatism is much more concerned with its own preservation, and hence is more conservative, than the simple feeling of sociability which is expressed in fashion, and which tries to assimilate and to adapt itself to everything with which it comes into contact. Many expressive forms of dress, which have, however, often been misinterpreted, owe their existence to this attempt to mark distinctions and display elegance. So, for example, the high lace collars which, after originating in England, were a prominent characteristic of women’s clothing for a considerable period about the turn of the century, were regarded as an expression of puritanical prudishness. Actually, the stiff neck, and the consequent appearance of the head being carried high and erect, were meant as an expression of “dignity.” Indeed, it remains a question whether the “old maids” who have clung to this custom, almost as if it were a social symbol, wear their fishbone collars more from a sense of prudishness or as the instrument of an illusory sense of worthiness and conservatism, as a prop to support them in their unhappy lives.

Least clearly seen of all are those influences on dress which originate in religious, metaphysical, or other supersensory relations, because they often pursue a conscious tendency to remain unconscious to the wearer or to the person on whom they are supposed to have their effect. Of course, the priest’s gown places a conscious emphasis on its bearer, and it is therefore a form of class dress. But, like every kind of dress which is determined by metaphysical influences, it is distinguished from the ordinary class costume by the fact that its design includes certain consciously employed elements of form and color, which are designed to have a psychological influence upon the spectator. The ordinary class dress is intended only to emphasize and distinguish the individual, although there are certain “worldly” aristocracies which (because of their esoteric background) deck out their special costumes with an effective symbolism. This is the case, for example, with most of the English robes of office. However, metaphysical influences are also evident in formation of the costumes of sociological groups, above all in the dress of religious societies. The costumes of religious sects and orders are distinguished from ordinary types of costume by the fact that they generally contain an individual, psychotherapeutic, pedagogical significance, and they have a corresponding purposeful orientation, which is usually ascetic. But such metaphysical influences are at work even in ordinary costumes. Not only the violet surplices of the theosophists but also many features in the commonest folk costumes have been initiated by religion. These features include far more than merely symbolisms and moralisms, containing genuinely hygienic factors, to the extent that they had their origin in the period when the church’s teachings still constituted a really healthful and meaningful folk pedagogy. Almost all oriental costumes originate in ritual commands, as, for example, the turban and the types of dress worn in India. However, such metaphysical influences are frequently at work even in our ordinary everyday clothes, although they generally go quite unrecognized. I knew a young boy who grew up in the country, in a completely Protestant neighborhood, and who certainly had no contact with a monastic or Catholic atmosphere. This child liked to wear a loose frock, and never wanted to have any clothes whose form did not distinctly imitate a monk’s costume. Later I heard that during his student years he entered a religious order. Very often women imitate articles connected with the Mass in the cut of their garments, without even noticing this themselves, and without being aware that this is the result of a suggestive influence. Such features of dress can often he observed in women who are strongly gifted intellectually, and they do not merely express dependence on one type of metaphysics or another, but they are often also the first signs of a tendency toward conversion. Years ago, I had some dealings with a girl student whose clothes gave clear indication of a certain oriental tendency of mind. I drew this to her attention, and surprised her greatly. A few weeks later she came to me, overflowing with gratitude, to tell me that she had at last found what she had been seeking for a long time, and that my remark had prompted her to go to a propaganda group for an oriental philosophy—to my dismay, because I am myself an opponent of the decadent Asiatic movements which have been penetrating our Western world.

Let us now try to consider, in the same summary manner in which we have treated the socio-psychological factors, the purely psychological influences on dress. The most important of these are those that originate in the basic characteristics of mental organization.

Structure psychology, which I regard as the soundest basis for cultural research, distinguished between the spheres of affectivity, of intellectual content, and of volition. Like all activities which have a fundamentally artistic character, dress also is founded primarily in the world of emotions. That is why those who consider it from the purely psychological point of view try to determine its characteristics by starting out from such typical emotions as modesty, desire for protection, and desire for adornment. However, just as volitional and intellectual factors, as well as emotion, enter indifferent combinations into the various arts, so they play a part in dress as well.

In my writings on the psychology of art I have pointed out that in painting and sculpture the design must be regarded as an intellectual element, the use of surface and color as an expression of emotion, and the modeling as essentially volitional. Clothing, which patterns and decorates the surface of the human body, stands as an artistic form of psychological experience midway between the plastic and the surface types. To the wearer itself it appears as his external surface, while for the spectator it has a more plastic character. For The wearer it is a predominantly emotional creation, while for the spectator it is special. In this there is a certain discrepancy, which is present throughout the entire problem of dress. Let us give a pithy illustration of this contradiction. “To adorn” means to make something beautiful, especially one’s self. Adorning is therefore an active aesthetic experience which it is correct to place in the sphere of emotional experience. But “adornment,” which is one of the most important aspects of dress, is the very aspect which is most strongly influenced by the intelligence, most consciously determined, most specifically pointed in its reference. Here the same discrepancy is again apparent. We must therefore expect to find that the mental influences which penetrate the field of dress belong to two different levels. One of these can be called the genuinely psycho-sociological level. It is on this level that the individual makes use of dress in order to fit into his environment. On this level the environmental drives which have been discussed above are the really initiatory, that is, the volitional factors. Alongside of these factors emotion plays its part in the process of adjustment, by which the dress is designed to suit the environment and the individual. And the intellect also participates, to direct the actual choice of what is correct for given circumstances.

The other level of mental activity which must be taken into account is the psycho-individual level. On this level the individual behaves in accordance with his own impulses toward dress. I have already indicated that the general aesthetic impulses express themselves in the specific forms which dress takes, being influenced with respect to plastic forms by volitional factors, with respect to color and surface by emotional, and with respect to line, contour, and finer details of pattern by intellectual factors. However, the fact that dress occupies a position intermediate between plastic form and surface pattern makes it a type of decorative art. As such it expresses not only individual traits but also, and to an even greater extent, the typical characterology of the human mind.

Many examples of this dress typology are obvious to anyone who is a keen observer of life. Primitive and strongly volitional types lay great emphasis on the shape of their clothing. The arrogant, puffy dress worn by the butcher’s wife, the old general’s padded, heroic chest, the athlete’s tight “sausage” costume, or, finally, the Hamburg carpenter’s broad trousers and top hat, are a few “types” of this sort. In color this type prefers shrill qualities and the use of complementary opposites, characteristics which are expressive of volition. It lacks all sense for refinement of form, for individuality and characterization, for details of outline and ornament, and usually employs these features in as meaningless and tasteless a manner as possible. The emotional types, on the other hand, lay their principal emphasis in dress on harmony and on the fitness of colors. The well-dressed lady of society, the artist, the priest’s suggestive robe, offer some examples here. The form as such is “well suit,” and is meant to heighten the aesthetic value of the body form. The greatest value is attached to the correct combination of colors, and also to seeing that the color is “really becoming.” The beauty of the clothing is seen above all in its color. The ornamentation is itself generally colored, and in the matter of design less emphasis is placed on details than on whether they “go well together.” The predominance of intellectual impulses is seen above all in the clothes of the “professor”—when he attaches any importance at all to good dress—and then in business women and religious groups that concern themselves with social matters. Here the effort is to have the general design reserved and neat; the color is “as decent as possible,” and is usually limited to subdued tones, in whose selection a marked sense of color is nevertheless revealed. Black-and-white combinations are favored, and a great deal of value is attached to the personal and the characteristic. Ornaments and decoration are carefully chosen, although they are often too intellectually and “inartistically” assimilated.

The same rules which hold in this psychological typology of the individual choice of dress are found in costumes generally, and they often provide a simple key to the group’s spiritual character. Thus, if one sensitively observes the robes of the various Catholic orders, one can sense the hardness and the voluntaristic character of the Jesuit costume as well as the emotional character of the Franciscan robe and the far more intellectual character of the Dominican Costume. The same thing is true of folk costumes. The Russian folk costumes, with their soft forms, their bright harmonious colors, and the full turns of their tumultuous ornamentation give direct expression to the emotional character of the national temperament. In Swedish folk costumes, with their rigid forms and their harsh coloring, and the frequent use of stripes for ornament, with complementary shades of red and green, the wilful character of this people is betrayed. Intellectuality usually appears in folk costumes as a sign of decadence, which makes the costume poorer, but which gives rise to beautiful but weakened colored ornamentation. These Developments can be observed in the folk costumes of central Europe, as well as those of Austria and Switzerland.

The limits imposed by the present article forbid our discussing the effects which other individual mental differences, as well as the various social types, have in elaborating the impulses to dress which arise from the environment. Nor can we enter more thoroughly into a discussion of the separate mental impulses that lead to particular articles of clothing, or particular styles of dress. For dress is not merely a kind of covering, beneath which and by means of which man reacts directly to the influences of the external world. Dress is also a kind of mimicry, through which man expresses many of his subjective social sentiments, the honorable as well as the dishonorable. Such mimicry has been responsible not only for a good deal of the heterogeneity of dress but also for its combinations, and above all for the history of and the traditional character given to certain particular articles of clothing.

It is on this plane of psychological experience that the factors of modesty, adornment, and protection, which were mentioned at the beginning of this article and which have so often been regarded as the fundamental influences to dress, originate and operate. But this level of experience cannot be regarded as one of objective events, either with respect to the motives which express themselves in it or the psychological bases on which it rests. It must be regarded as completely subjective. Let us ask, for example, how often is it really modesty that is the effective factor in motivating clothing on this subjective level of experience, that is, how often is it really the sense of modesty or shame that operates in circumstances which are likely to provoke the act of covering one’s self, and not anxiety, fear, timidity, weakness, desire for self-protection, and the like? Itis the same with “adornment.” How many women, when they dress for a social affair, are conscious of the fact that they are adorning themselves? How many other subjective feelings are not more likely to enter into this proceeding? And the same thing is true also of the third of these false fundamental motives of dress—protection.

One cannot get anywhere with this kind of unitary concept in dealing with the manifold world of our emotions, which is built up objectively according to quite different principles than those which are contained in a “Psychology of Clothing.” But this would lead us far beyond the scope of our present article.

We are not ashamed, we do not adorn ourselves, we do not protect ourselves, because of modesty, adornment, or protection in the abstract. These feelings are always directed toward an object which evokes them—toward those objective environmental drives which I have tried to point out. And these in turn do not have their effect, in the elaboration of the individual’s clothing, because of a reaction of mere modesty, or adornment, or feeling of protection, but through the medium of the concrete constitutional mental dispositions, whose basic traits I have tried to indicate.

The development of human dress proceeds from two poles—the cultural-psychological and the concrete psychological characteristics of men. And it is from both these that we must take our start if we wish to arrive at an objective and meaningful “psychology of clothing.”

ABSTRACT: Cultural and sociological theories have frequently tried to give oversimplified explanations of the motives of human clothing. Dress is not motivated only by modesty, adornment, and protection, or even—a still more onesided theory offered by Freud—by sex alone. All dress appears to be motivated primarily by the environment. Although the purposes of clothing are determined by environmental conditions, its form is determined by man’s own characteristics, and especially by his mental traits. Forms of clothing are influenced by (1) physical environment and (2) social conditions, including sex relations, costume, caste, class, and religious, metaphysical, or other supersensory relations. Dress is founded primarily in the world of emotions. It is not only a kind of covering but also a kind of mimicry through which man expresses many of his subjective social sentiments. The development of dress proceeds from two poles—the cultural-psychological and the concrete psychological characteristics of men.

Harms, E. (1938). The Psychology of Clothes. American Journal of Sociology, 44(2), 239-250.