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Clothing is an aspect of human physical appearance, and like other aspects of human physical appearance it has social significance. All societies have dress codes, most of which are unwritten but understood by most members of the society. The dress code has built in rules or signals indicating the message being given by a person's clothing and how it is worn. This message may include indications of the person's social class, income, occupation, ethnic and religious affiliation, attitude, marital status, sexual availability and sexual orientation. Clothes convey other social messages including the stating or claiming personal or cultural identity, the establishing, maintaining, or defying social group norms, and appreciating comfort and functionality.

For example, wearing expensive clothes can communicate wealth, the image of wealth, or cheaper access to quality clothing. All factors apply inversely to the wearing of inexpensive clothing and similar goods.The observer sees the resultant, expensive clothes, but may incorrectly perceive the extent to which these factors apply to the person observed. (cf. conspicuous consumption). Clothing can convey a social message, even if none is intended.

If the receiver's code of interpretation differs from the sender's code of communication, misinterpretation follows.

In every culture, current fashion governs the manner of consciously constructing, assembling, and wearing clothing to convey a social message. The rate of change of fashion varies, and so modifies the style in wearing clothes and its accessories within months or days, especially in small social groups or in communications media-influenced modern societies. More extensive changes, requiring more time, money, and effort to effect, may span generations. When fashion changes, the messages communicated by clothing change.



In the Middle Ages the European nobility used a dress code to differentiate themselves from the other classes.

The Americas

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast had a complex social structure, including slaves, commoners, and nobles, and dress codes to indicate these social distinctions. John R. Jewitt, an Englishman who wrote a memoir about his years as a captive of the Nuu-chah-nulth people in 1802-1805, describes how, after some time living there, Maquina and the chiefs decided that he must now be "considered one of them, and conform to their customs". Jewitt resented the imposition of this dress code, finding the loose untailored garments very cold, and attributed to them a subsequent illness of which he almost died. He was not allowed to cut his hair, and had to paint his face and body as a Nootka would.



Various traditions suggests that certain items of clothing intrinsically suit different gender roles. In particular, the wearing of skirts and trousers has given rise to common phrases expressing implied restrictions in use and disapproval of offending behavior. For example, ancient Greeks often considered the wearing of trousers by Persian men as a sign of effeminacy.

Social status

In many societies, people of high rank reserve special items of clothing or decoration for themselves as symbols of their social status. In ancient times, only Roman senators could wear garments dyed with Tyrian purple; only high-ranking Hawaiian chiefs could wear feather cloaks and palaoa or carved whale teeth. In Chinamarker before the establishment of the republicmarker, only the emperor could wear yellow.


Military, police, and firefighters usually wear uniforms, as do workers in many industries. School children often wear school uniforms, while college and university students sometimes wear academic dress. Members of religious orders may wear uniforms known as habits. Sometimes a single item of clothing or a single accessory can declare one's occupation or rank within a profession.

Ethnic and political affiliation

In many regions of the world, national costumes and styles in clothing and ornament declare membership in a certain village, caste, religion, etc. A Scotsman declares his clan with his tartan. A French peasant woman identified her village with her cap or coif.

Clothes can also proclaim dissent from cultural norms and mainstream beliefs, as well as personal independence. In 19th-century Europe, artists and writers lived la vie de Bohème and dressed to shock: George Sand in men's clothing, female emancipationists in bloomers, male artists in velvet waistcoats and gaudy neckcloths. Bohemians, beatniks, hippies, Goths, Punks and Skinheads have continued the (countercultural) tradition in the 20th-century West.

Religious affiliation

A Sikh or Muslim man may display his religious affiliation by wearing a turban and other traditional clothing. Many Muslim women wear head or body covering (see Sartorial hijab, hijab, burqa or niqab, chador and abaya) that proclaims their status as respectable women and as considered a means for covering the Awrah. A Jewish man may indicate his observance of Judaism by wearing a yarmulke.

Marital status

Traditionally, Hindu women wear sindoor, a red powder, in the parting of their hair to indicate their married status; if widowed, they abandon sindoor and jewelry and wear simple white clothing. However this is not true of all Hindu women; in the modern world this is not a norm and women without sindoor may not necessarily be unmarried.

In many Orthodox Jewish circles, married women wear head coverings such as a hat, snood, or wig. Additionally, after their marriage Jewish men of Ashkenazi descent begin to wear a Tallit during prayer.

Men and women of the Western world may wear wedding rings to indicate their married status, and women may also wear engagement rings when they are engaged.

Sexual display

Modern western culture recognizes cues such as (in women) extreme stiletto heels, close-fitting and body-revealing black or red clothing, exaggerated make-up, flashy jewelry and perfume, as being sexy. A man who is shirtless, wearing a tightly-cut shirt, unbuttoned to his sternum, or tight trousers, would be recognized as dressing in a sexually provocative way.

Sexual display has its place in culture, however. In some cases, differences across gender in interpretation of sexual display can give rise to victimization of the subordinate gender. In modern American culture, sexual display among college women, for example, is part of a complex social climate wherein females compete for male attention, while males vie for sex with females. This contradiction in intent - women intending to attract attention and men intending to have sex - is one of the many factors (along with gender socialization, campus policies, and other issues) which give rise to acquaintance rape or "party rape" .

The apparent contradiction in behavior and intent exists elsewhere. For example, a Saudi Arabian woman has to wear an abaya to proclaim her respectability, but choose an abaya of luxurious material cut close to the body and then accessorize with high heels and a fashionable purse. All the details proclaim sexual desirability, despite the ostensible message of respectability.

Some research has indicated that women's clothing choices are influenced by menstrual phase. Among normally cycling women (i.e., those not on hormonal contraception and with intact uterus and ovaries), revealing clothes are more common at the periovulatory phase of the cycle, while less revealing clothing is more common perimenstrually.(.) Evolutionary psychologists have speculated that this may be related to signaling of fertility to males. Many biological mechanisms exist to disguise fertility and almost none exist to reveal it; therefore the selection of revealing clothing to display fertility runs counter to our biology.

Sexual orientation

Clothing can also be used as a public signal of sexual orientation.

Gay pride-themed clothing or decorations, including symbols such as the rainbow flag, or the logo of the Human Rights Campaign, are fairly obvious choices for someone wishing to indicate that they are not straight. However, heterosexual gay rights supporters may also choose to display such symbols as a political statement, which leads to some possibility for ambiguity.

T-shirts with printed slogans or icons have also become somewhat popular for use in casual social situations, and are offered for sale at many LGBT-oriented clothing stores. They often include witty sexual innuendo, comical expressions of affection for people of a particular gender, or non-sexual use of gay slang.

Clothing can also be used to express interest in a particular sexual activity or role. One trend in the 2000s is a line of T-shirts that has iconic 1950-style depictions of the baseball positions pitcher and catcher, which are intended to correspond to the top and bottom sexual positions. An older example is the handkerchief code used in the BDSM subculture.

Laws and social norms

In Tongamarker it is illegal for men to appear in public without a shirt.

In New Guineamarker and Vanuatumarker there are areas where it is customary for the men to wear nothing but penis sheaths in public - this is uncommon in more developed areas. Women wear string skirts. In remote areas of Balimarker, women may go topless. In Indiamarker, Hindu contemporary daily dress like saris tend to often show bare stomachs in preference over bare legs.

In the United Statesmarker, a few businesses or restaurants display dress code signs requiring shoes and shirts, claiming to be there on account of a health code, although no such health codes exist,. these signs have remained popular since businesses looked for ways to reduce the number of hippies in their facilities. Also, it is common belief that there are laws against driving barefoot, however, no such laws exist. It is quite uncommon for people to be nude in public in the United Statesmarker, however, there are a few private beaches and resorts that cater to such a population.

Private dress codes

Dress codes may be enforced by private entities, usually imposing a particular requirement for entry into a private space. "Dress code" may also refer to a social norm.

Dress codes function on certain social occasions and for certain jobs. A school or a military institution may require specified uniforms; if it allows the wearing of plain clothes it may place restrictions on their use. A bouncer of a disco or nightclub may judge visitors' clothing and refuse entrance to those not clad according to specified or intuited requirements.

Some dress codes specify that tattoos have to be covered.

A "formal" or white tie dress code typically means tail-coats for men and full-length evening dresses for women. "Semi-formal" has a much less precise definition but typically means an evening jacket and tie for men (known as black tie) and a dress for women. "Business casual" typically means not wearing jeans or track suits, but wearing instead collared shirts, and more country trousers (not black, but more relaxed, including things such as corduroy). "Casual" typically just means clothing for the torso, legs and shoes. "Wedding Casual" defines yet another mode of dress, where guests dress respectfully, but not necessarily fancily. Basically, no jeans and T-shirts.

Transparent or semi-transparent clothing can play with the boundaries of dress-codes regarding modesty.

Dress codes usually set forth a lower bound on body covering. However, sometimes it can specify the opposite, for example, in UK gay jargon, dress code, means people who dress in a militaristic manner. Dress code nights in nightclubs, and elsewhere, are deemed to specifically target people who have militaristic fetishes (e.g. leather/skinhead men).

See also shoe etiquette, mourning, sharia, Dress code .

Work place

White collar work place clothing has changed through the years. In a corporate office, appropriate clothes are clean, formal clothes such as a shirt, necktie, and suit, or other similar outfits. Previous business dress code eras (the 1950s in the U.S.) featured standardised business clothes that strongly differentiated what was acceptable and unacceptable for men and women to wear while working. Today, the two styles have merged; women's work clothes expanded to include the suit (and its variants) in addition to the usual dresses, skirts, and blouses; men's clothes have expanded to include garments and bright colours.

Casual wear entered corporate culture with the advent of the Silicon Valley, California, technology company featuring informal work clothes on the job. Additionally, some companies set aside days — generally Fridays ("dress-down Friday", "casual Friday") — when workers may wear informal clothes. The clothing a company requires its worker to wear on the job varies with the occupation and profession.

Some businesses observe that anti-discrimination law restricts their determining what is appropriate and inappropriate workplace clothing. Yet, in fact, most businesses have much authority in determining and establishing what work place clothes they can require of their workers. Generally, a carefully drafted dress code applied consistently does not violate anti-discrimination laws.

Business casual

Business casual dress, also "smart casual", is a popular work place dress code that emerged in white-collar workplaces in Western countries in the 1990s, especially in the United States and Canada. Many information technology businesses in Silicon Valleymarker were early adopters of this dress code. In contrast to formal business wear such as suits and neckties (the international standard business attire), the business casual dress code has no generally-accepted definition; its interpretation differs widely among organizations and is often a cause of sartorial confusion among workers.

The job search engine offers this definition: In general, business casual means dressing professionally, looking relaxed, yet neat and pulled together. A more pragmatic definition is that business casual dress is the mid ground between formal business clothes and street clothes. Examples of clothing combinations considered appropriate for work by businesses that consider themselves as using the business-casual dress code are:

Generally, neckties are excluded from business casual dress, unless worn in untraditional ways. The acceptability of blue jeans and denim cloth clothing varies — some businesses disallow them as sloppy, not casual, yet tolerate men wearing blue jeans with a sports coat.

Inverse dress codes

Inverse dress codes, sometimes referred to as "undress code", set forth an upper bound, rather than a lower bound, on body covering. An example of an undress code, is the one commonly enforced in modern communal bathing facilities. For example, in the public bath SchwabenQuellen no clothing of any kind is allowed. Other less strict undress codes are common in public pools, especially indoor pools, in which shoes and shirts are not allowed.

Places where social nudity is practiced may be "clothing optional", or nudity may be compulsory, with exceptions, see issues in social nudity.

Violation of clothing taboos

Some clothing faux pas may occur intentionally for reasons of fashion or personal preference.For example, people may wear intentionally oversized clothing. For instance, the teenage boys of rap duo Kris Kross of the early 1990s wore all of their clothes backwards and extremely baggy.

A trend in underwear has moved toward underwear that looks less like underwear, e.g. undergarments that look like bathing suits or beach shorts.

Reversalism in the sociology of clothing

Social attitudes to clothing have brought about various rules and social conventions, such as keeping the body covered, and not showing underwear in public. The backlash against these social norms has become a traditional form of rebellion.

See also


  1. A Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, only survivor of the crew of the ship Boston, during a captivity of nearly three years among the savages of Nootka Sound: with an account of the manners, mode of living, and religious opinions of the natives. digital full text here p161 onwards
  2. Armstrong, Hamilton and Sweeney, (2006). "Sexual Assault on Campus: A Multilevel, Integrative Approach to Party Rape." Social Problems. 53:4. 483–499.
  3. Grammer, Karl. (1996). The Human Mating Game: The Battle of the Sexes and the War of Signals. Paper presented at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society annual conference, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.
  5. Dress Code Legal Issues. Personnel Policy Inc. Last accessed November 20, 2006.

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