See also Armshow Footwear Leg Wear

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)


A sweet disorder in the dress

Kindles in clothes a wantonness. --Herrick, Delight in Disorder

After its invention some 9,000 years ago: Cloth would soon become an essential part of society, as clothing and as adornment expressing self-awareness and communicating variations in social rank. For good reason, poets and anthropologists alike have employed cloth as a metaphor for society, something woven of many threads into a social fabric that is ever in danger of unraveling or being torn. --John Noble Wilford (1993:C1)

Clothing should always move with your body. Fashion is an extension of body language. A new garment creates a new posture--and a new attitude--in its wearer. --Véronique Vienne (1997:160)

Wearable sign. 1. The act of decorating the human frame to accent its grace, strength, beauty, and presence, or to mask its less attractive features and traits. 2. Visually distinctive patterns of body piercing, dress, scarification, and tattoos worn to express a personal or a social (e.g., an ethnic, military, or national) identity.

Usage: 1. What we place upon our bodies (e.g., clothing, footwear, hats, makeup, and tatoos) adds color, contrast, shape, size, and texture to our primate form. Each day, myriad messages of adornment broadcast personal information—in a continuous way (i.e., as "frozen" gestures)--about our ethnicity, status, affiliation, and moods. 2. We may use clothing cues as a. uniforms (or "clothing signs"), b. fashion statements ("clothing symbols"), c. membership badges ("tie-signs"), d. social-affiliation signs ("tie symbols"), e. personality signs ("personal dress," e.g., the bow tie), and f. socio-political-economic signs ("contemporary fashion"), according to a typology developed by SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology professor, Ruth P. Rubinstein (1994). 3. "Social rank . . . has probably always been encoded through symbols in the material, design, color, and embellishment of the clothing" (Barber 1994:150).

Anatomy. Before pants, skirts, and shoes, there was the unadorned primate body itself: eyes, teeth, skin, hair, and nails, along with shapes formed of muscle, fat, and bone. Before adornment, the nonverbal brain expressed feelings and attitudes through body movements, postures, and facial cues. But with the advent of clothing and shoes the body's nonverbal vocabulary grew, as shoulders "widened," ankles "thinned," and feet stood up on tiptoes (see HIGH HEEL). As "optical illusions," stripes, colors, buttons, and bows accented or concealed natural signs, and drew attention to favored--while diverting eyes from less favored--body parts.

Bylaw. "We recognize the essential wholesomeness of the human body and that life is enhanced by the naturalness of social nudity." --American Association of Nude Recreation bylaws

Culture. The world's most extreme adornment may be the Afghan robe-like dress called a burqa: "I explain I was curious to see the world from within a burqa [journalist Vivienne Walt wrote], whose only opening, an oblong grid over the eyes, cuts peripheral vision, blurs everything else and makes breathing more difficult. [Gul] Bibi [38, from Kandahar, Afghanistan] laughs skeptically, then declares: 'I've been wearing this since I was a small girl. If I didn't, I would feel men were eating me with their eyes'" (Walt 2002:1A).

Law. The nonverbal power of clothing may be revealed by its absence. "The United States Supreme Court holds that strip clubs whose exotic dancers wear G-strings and pasties won't lure as many drunks and criminals to the neighborhood as clubs that permit the last stitch of clothing to be dropped" (Auster 2000:16).

Media. 1. According to the New York Times, the discovery by James Adovasio (Mercyhurst College) and Olga Soffer (University of Illinois at Urbana) of ancient weaving embedded in fired clay pushes the date of humankind's earliest cloth back to 27,000 years ago (Fowler 1995). 2. Forget that old hippie saying, you are what you eat. In the modern world, you are what you wear. --Suzy Gershman (Spokesman-Review, Webster 2000).

Prehistory. Early evidence for personal ornamentation consists of a European stone pendant with decorative grooves, and a tapered neck around which to tie a thong (Scarre 1993:43).

Fur. As primates, we are also mammals for whom a dense matte of fur is an evolutionary birthright. Anthropologists do not know when or why humans lost their body hair, but it is clear that clothing originated as a fur substitute to cover the skin and genitalia. (N.B.: That we see nude bodies in the workplace on but the rarest of occasions testifies to the power of clothing today. Once fashion appeared in Nonverbal World, it never went out of style.)

Beads. If a bear-skin robe made the body loom large, decorating the garment with beads attracted greater notice still. The elaborate beadwork of a man's fur clothing found at a 23,000 year old hunter's burial ground in Sungir, Russia, remained long after the furs themselves had rotted away (Lambert 1987). As fashion media, however, leather and beads could go just so far. Only after fabric replaced fur did clothing became truly expressive.

Leather. Full body dress originated in Africa or Eurasia to protect the body and keep it warm. The first clothes were made of prepared animal hides. Stone scraping tools from Neanderthal sites in Europe provide indirect evidence for hide preparation, suggesting that cold-weather clothing could be at least 200,000 years old (Lambert 1987).

Flounce & weave. The earliest domesticated sheep, from Zawi Chemi Shanidar, Iraq, suggest that wool clothing originated 10,500 years ago (Wenke 1990). Unwoven skirts and shawls made of flounces of tufted wool or flax were worn by the ancient Sumerians 5,000 years ago (Rowland-Warne 1992), although one of the earliest known textiles--a linen-knit bag from Israel (found in Nahal Hemar cave)--is thought to be 8,500 years old (Barber 1994).

Fiber & fabric. More recently, the invention of the flying shuttle (1733), the spinning jenny (1764), and the 19th century power-loom made cotton fabrics available in ever greater quantities, as consumer products. Mass produced clothing first appeared in 1851 with the invention of the sewing machine, and increased in production with the use of synthetic fibers (e.g., Orlon in 1952). As the adornment medium became subject to greater control, the diversity and number of clothing cues burgeoned (see MESSAGING FEATURE). (N.B.: In 1993 a Lands' End® Mesh Knit shirt contained 4.3miles of 18 singles cotton yarn [Anonymous 1993].)

Tattoo signals. "[U.S.] Teenagers with tattoos are more likely than their peers to drink too much, have sex too early, get into fights and engage in other risky behavior, a University of Rochester study shows" (Anonymous 2001E).

The color purple. With fabrics came dyes, and the ability to signal social status with color cues. In ancient Rome, e.g., only the emperor was allowed to wear a robe dyed royal purple (Barber 1994:150).

E-Commentary: "I've called you before on other feature stories and you've been very helpful. Currently, I'm doing a story on teen fashion. I'm looking at what's going to be the prevailing trend for spring/summer (it's lots of loud color). I have a question: What, in general, are teens trying to accomplish with the fashion and sense of style they cultivate?" --J.W., Sun Chronicle, Attleboro, MA (3/17/00 11:57:54 AM Pacific Standard Time)

Neuro-note. To the very visual primate brain, fashion statements are "real" because, neurologically, "seeing is believing."

Body Language Basics

Body Language Basics

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