We are born without them, we die with them. Although most of us are happier when they can celebrate their absence with a playmate, they know us better than anyone else. They are our second skin: clothes. As a matter of fact, we are well aware about their vital role in saving warmth and protecting us, but very few ask themselves what symbols these pieces of fabric convey, and why we perpetually alter these symbols. Why does the teenager wear his baggy pants in mechanical disadvantageous depths? And why do most women change their wardrobe more often than politicians their opinion?
Garments can have various functions, but mostly they have a multilayered mélange of them, which are often even contradicting each other. That already our ancestors used breechclouts for protection and leather coats to warm themselves is obvious, but why do women wear high heels and short skirts and men suits made of expensive fabrics? The German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote: “Fashion is merely a product of social demand.” These social demands operate predominantly in a political and sexual context, whereby symbols are the mediators of meaning.
Clearly, uniformity of clothing is a symbol of group identity and power. School and military uniforms portray their togetherness as well as the power they are obliged to. Another example for political implementation of clothing are pantsuits for women, which symbolize the emancipation of women in a patriarchal society.
On the other hand, high heels, skirts and jewels have mostly a sexual connotation. They do not only signify the difference in sex, but are also an instrument in order to woo the male. The health risk and the disadvantages that high heels bring along can be observed when a female tries to balance along cobblestone streets. This would be a clear example of contradicting functions.
In addition, apparel is also a significant indicator of social belonging. Beautiful and expensive cloths always belonged to the upper stratum of society: no matter, whether flamboyant embellishments in the Rococo era, or colours in the Elizabethan era, where purple was exquisitely reserved for the royals and blue for the nobles. The lower class was even prohibited to wear them by the so-called Sumptuary Law. Eric Soubam, a well-known stylist, opines: “Even today cloths convey status. Just look how fanatic everyone is about expensive brands.” The ethnologist Laila Abu-Er-Rub says: “Expensive saris are a prefect example of how status is being symbolized.” Even though this is true, the Indian designer, Varun Bahl, observes: “The symbolism of status is not as important as it used to be. Even the wealthiest and most influential people wear the simplest clothes nowadays. On the other hand, almost everyone can express his individual character in the 21st century, and therefore the frontiers of social strata start to blur.”
So there was an obvious change and a decrease of importance when it comes to symbols of garments. Mostly, we are not even aware of what our cloths mean. Take Hip Hop garments as an example. The oversize cloths and the underwear-revealing position of the baggy pants were originally a symbol of solidarity for the gang members in prison. The inmates had not only solely access to one-size cloths, they were also forced to remove their belts, due to suicide watch. Thus, are our children suicidal as well, and are they commemorating their brothers in jail? Not really.“Not only individualization, but also increasing consumption caused symbols to loose its role and importance. But that is not necessarily a bad thing”, says Varun Bahl.
Although Varun Bahl works frequently with symbols, especially lately when he tried to incorporate styles of the Elizabethan era, he is well aware of the fact that most people do not recognize them. What is more important to him is the “expression of individual personality through clothes.”
In India, too, cloths used to compass a strong set of values. For example colours: red, the passionate, fertile colour of the nuptial couple; white, the colour of mourning; or saffron, the spiritual colour, symbolizing Agni, the fire which leads us from the dark into illumination. Even fabrics have underlying connotations, like velvet which symbolizes sexuality. With an increasing influx of western culture, there is also an augmentation of unprecedented symbols flowing in. “India has a strong culture and the West is adding value with its influx. We do not have to worry that our remaining symbols are being pushed away,” says Eric Soubam.
As capital flow urges us to reorder our wardrobe at least twice a year, it is all too natural that certain symbols change with it, as well. Trends are set for the season and as soon as these trends reaches the remotest part of society, the industry has to reinvent itself to reorder the world into trend setting and trend emulating parts. In times of industrialization and globalization this happens quite fast. In an environment of capitalism and individualism some symbols get lost entirely, others alter their connotation and for those few that remained, only time can tell how much longer they will do so. Garments are still social serviettes, but we slowly started substituting them with tissues and toilette paper or forgot them entirely. “The interchanging of symbols and the alterations of their meaning have always existed, but due to the speed of communication and exchange of information nowadays, the processes is being accelerated”, concludes Laila Abu-Er-Rub.