‘Throughout human history the most seemingly illogical of adornment and dress styles have served eminently practical purposes. Far from being frivolous and absurd, style is functional in the true sense of the word.
Central to any such argument is the idea that our dress, hairstyle, footwear, make-up and so forth - what the sociologist Irving Goffman collectively termed our ‘presentation of self’ - functions as a medium of expression. And, moreover, that such visual communication can ‘say’ certain things - or, at the very least, express them - more immediately and powerfully than verbal language ever can. (To appreciate this, try composing a brief, written description of yourself for a ‘personal ad’. Now get out a prized photo of yourself dressed in a favourite set of clothes. Which medium communicates ‘you’ more effectively and fully?)
Our lives are made up of innumerable micro moments of often trivial but sometimes enormously important visual interaction. Imagine that you are walking down a city street late at night. No one is around. And then, in the distance, a solitary figure approaches on the same side of the road. As you and this alien ‘other’ come closer and closer - with each step more and more visual clues are discernible - you scrutinise and ‘check out’ each other.
All the visual data is cross-indexed against an enormous data bank of previous experience to arrive at a tentative conclusion (dangerous / peculiar but not threatening / boring / interesting / desirable), out of which emerges a behavioural strategy - you run in the opposite direction; you cross cautiously, nonchalantly, to the other side of the road; you more or less ignore this person as irrelevant; or, perhaps, you try to catch his or her eye. Skills in ‘checking people out’ and, alternatively, in the presentation of self are fundamental to our lives - in particular, in avoiding those who might cause us harm and, just as importantly, in finding people who are ‘on our wavelength’.
In an ever more heterogeneous, complex world finding ‘people like us’ is no easy matter. While once it might have been sufficient to categorise people according to easily discernible and identifiable labels - white, middle class, conservative, respectable - such categories increasingly have little real meaning or value. To evaluate effectively where someone is ‘at’ today you need other kinds of (often extremely complex) information - information which, more often than not, is difficult or impossible to put into words. As the hipper people in marketing have come to realise, ‘people like us’ are now identifiable only by extremely subtle differences of personal philosophy as expressed in ‘lifestyle’ and ‘taste’.
Accordingly, it is the careful, subtle manipulation of our own appearance to send precisely the right signals, coupled with a sensitive, sharp ‘reading’ of other’s appearance, that is most likely to make the identification of ‘our kind of people’ possible. Verbal descriptions (‘left-wing’, ‘feminist’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘fun-loving’) have failed us; it is only differences of style that are capable of expressing the complex - yet increasingly significant - differences of personal ‘wavelength’ which really matter in today’s world.’ pp. 7,8,11
Human beings have always used their appearance as personal advertising - a calling card signalling who we are and where we are at. As our world grows ever more complex and fragmented, the importance of appearance grows ever greater: our visible differences and similarities facilitating interaction and relationships.
Extracts from my book Style Surfing
‘Perhaps the most important contribution of body decoration in traditional societies is the part it plays whenever new members are initiated into the group. There is little point in a social system which ceases to exist when its founding members die off, for only by surviving from generation to generation can a tribe become the depository of all the knowledge gained through daily experience.
For such a system to work, however, it is constantly necessary to effectively bring new members into the group, to replace those who have died. The young must be transformed into fully fledged members of the society and a great variety and number of tribes from all over the world have found that the most effective means of accomplishing this is through a rite of passage ritual which involves visibly changing the body of the initiate. By publicly and formally adorning an initiate’s body with the decoration reserved for adult status, the significance of this transformation can be underlined. And if those markings or decorations are themselves semiologically meaningful and/or permanent, so much the better.’ p.41
‘Body decoration has always aided tribal groups in their day-to-day operations and in their survival over centuries. Differences and similarities of adornment serve as a means of mapping out the structure of relationships and the rules or organisation of a social system, just as the colour coding of wires and resistors in stereo amplifier or TV set provides a guide to the electrical relationships of the components within the machine. And just as it would be extremely to design, build or repair a stereo amplifier without such colour coding of parts, it would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) for tribal units to function smoothly without these visible differences and similarities of body decoration, which serve as daily reminders of the social order which a society must impose upon its members if it is to survive.
If adornment activities use precious time and resources and sometimes involve considerable pain and discomfort, it is simply because there is no easier alternative way of accomplishing the same things. It takes a special form of communication to express the limits, internal mechanisms and fundamental beliefs of a socio-cultural system and the ‘language’ of adornment is uniquely suited to this task. By means of streaks of pigment on flesh, the feathers of particular birds placed in the hair, tattoos or scars cut into the skin and bits of jewellery and clothing added onto the body, the patterns and structures of a way of life can be mapped out and made explicit.’ p.41
‘In tribal and peasant communities, differences and similarities of adornment styles underline what is already known - they are means of formalising roles and relationships and expressing the structure of the group. In urban or suburban environments, on the other hand, body decoration, together with clothing, gesture and posture, is a semaphore system which allows even complete strangers a means of relating to one another. For us, adornment is a form of self-advertisement - how we tell people at a glance ‘where we are coming from’.
Just as rural people develop extraordinary skills in the perception of their physical environment, those of us who live in our world of strangers have developed extraordinarily skills in the management of our own image and in ‘reading’ and interpreting the signals which other people project in their appearance. These skills are as necessary for our survival as the ability to read the tracks of animals is for a tribal hunter. . . Whenever we are in public our bodies and the way in which we choose to adorn and clothe them are calling cards - sandwich boards advertising our personalities, social situations and aspirations. p.68
‘Without the visual clues of self presentation - no matter how dishonest their transmission or how prejudiced their interpretation - we are but strangers in a strange land.
From the urban to the tropical jungle, body adornment plays a vital part in creating and maintaining social relations. In tribal or peasant communities this takes the form of smoothing and reinforcing existing relationships by spelling out the boundaries of the group and differences of role, status and sub-group within the community.
In a modern urban/suburban context, on the other hand, in addition to assisting in such groups dynamics, differences of adornment and presentation of self also serve as a device for separating out people ‘like us’.
In either of these situations, if one were to strip away all the body decoration and adornment by which we advertise our similarities and differences then each of us would be bereft of visual meaning, signifying nothing and ill-equipped for any form of social interaction. It is our choice of haircut, make-up, jewellery, clothing, perfume and posture which makes more than a bunch of naked apes.’ p.71