The famous saying “never judge a book by its cover” sounds all well and good, however it is human nature to judge people by their image and we do it without realising it.
If you were to walk into a room of strangers, you would automatically presume certain aspects about a person’s upbringing, occupation or character, just by their image. Before any words have been exchanged you will have already categorised them against your preconceptions and this will inevitably alter the way in which you behave towards them.
Humans are the least biologically determined of all the species and therefore we have to be taught social skills, such as how to dress appropriately within our social groups. We learn and adopt the interests, values and beliefs of the social groups we are born into and therefore share the patterns of dress.
Although verbal communication is the most obvious way of expressing ourselves it is not the only way and has been proven to be the least effective. Body language, gestures and our image are a far stronger form of communication and therefore the way in which we dress plays a very important part in expressing ourselves to others. Our clothes signify our social identity and help us to understand the roles of others, the groups they belong to, their status within a group and society as a whole.
Everyone is born into and belongs to a group or groups, some through choice and some not. People who chose to belong to a particular group express this through their clothes communicating to others that they are committed and proud to be a part of that group.
Where we are born determines which national group we belong to and automatically contributes to our overall identity. Many countries have a traditional dress that tells others their nationality and expresses their values and way of life. This was particularly apparent in history when there were very strict views on appropriate dress and there was less choice in clothing.
Now, especially within the western world where clothing is more easily assessable and there is more choice, such as in Europe, it is more difficult to identify people’s nationality through their clothing. However some areas, such as the Middle East have kept their traditional dress, showing they are committed to their traditional values, beliefs and way of life.
Another reason that traditional dress within the European countries has decreased is due to the ever-growing multi-cultural population. In Britain there are people from all areas of the globe, and also many people who have mixed race backgrounds. This has bought diversity and variety in clothing and it is now acceptable not to dress traditionally.
Due to this multi-cultural diversity in Britain there are many religious groups originating from all over the world. Many of these groups separate themselves from others because of their specific beliefs and values. They share a particular style of dress that shows they belong to a particular group, such as the Sikhs who wear a turban and the Jews who wear a Skullcap.
Within these religious groups individuals wear particular clothes to express their roles and status, for example a Christian Reverent will wear a dog collar that distinguishes him/her from other members of the group because of the special role they perform. This will determine how other will behave and respond to them.
There are also community groups or family groups, which are not necessarily associated with a particular religion but share interests and values. These are not as easily identified by their dress, although some communities do share the dress patterns. Some Indian groups within Britain still wear traditional dress, such as the Sari, even though it is not practical in Britain. This is making a statement about themselves and what they believe in.
Family groups are also not as easily identified through a style of dress. In the past families ran business or services within a community and therefore had a particular style of dress that represents their role. Now, family run businesses are less common and each individual within the family has a different occupation and therefore a different style of dress.
Occupational dress is something that is very prevalent in society. Many occupations require individuals to wear a uniform or an appropriate style of dress. A Policeperson wears a uniform that is practical and protective, however it also communicates to others the job they perform and therefore people will act in a particularly way towards them.
For a Businessman there is no strict uniform, however there is a socially acceptable way of dressing, a suit. This shows the person is conforming to specific social group and expresses this to others. When dealing with a client it is expected that they will wear a formal suit rather than, say a tracksuit, to convey the correct message otherwise they may think that they are unreliable.
Although people dress in a particular way to belong to a group, there are also many individual variations to dress within these groups. This is where fashion comes into their dress. However, there are limits to this self-expressive dress, so that the individual still conforms to the group image otherwise, they risk being excluded. On the other hand this can be a way of deliberately rebelling and making a statement against conformity.
As well as using dress to communicate our true identity, we can also use our image to give a false impression. Many people will choose to wear a smart formal suit to a court hearing. This will give their judge and jury the impression that they are presentable and therefore more reliable, law abiding and of good character, even if this is not the case. This form of false communication is also used regularly for entertainment such as in theatre, film and TV.
Dress as a form of communication is vital for the smooth running of a society. However, in order for this form of communication to be effective, the significance of the dress must to be taught and understood. For example, many people in Britain would not understand the significance of African tribal dress or body adornment, which is used to signify their status, age and sex.
In conclusion, my research shows that the way in which we dress is an integral form of communication within a society. It helps people to understand our social identity and to understand the roles of others, the groups they belong to, their status within a group and society as a whole.