Style of dress has defined a people's culture and era since the beginning of civilized societies. By leafing through any history book, it is easy to identify the culture and time of history by the illustrations and descriptions of dress. Dress is the defining article that relates time and culture.
If one were to stroll a local college during the 1950's, they would immediately grasp a sense of the society's culture. Women would be dressed in skirts and blouses and proper street shoes, while men would be donned in trousers, shirt and tie. None would be wearing jeans and sneakers as they do today. And certainly none would be pierced and/or tattooed.
When strolling a local campus today, one will encounter all matter of dress. Jeans, sneakers, tattoos and piercings are abundant, however, one is just as likely to catch glimpses of 1960's style skirts and shirts, khakis and sweaters, even suits and ties. Perhaps at no time in our history is there such a mixture and blend of styles of dress. Retro and deco, mod and chic, casual and professional. The 1970's bell-bottomed pants, along with wide belts and bare mid-drifts are even back in style and can be seen everywhere on just about anyone.
True, much of this dress is faddish, and by next fall, there will be a whole new array of choices at the retailers. However, for many, style is not simply what is in season, but rather is a definition of who they are, and thus, to some it is more a social statement than a fashion statement. For example, observed were three twenty-something guys talking to a fifty-something man at a local bookstore. Although at least thirty years separated the older man from the younger men, they were all dressed exactly the same -- each had shaved heads bearing tattoos as did their arms, each wore t-shirts, black leather vests, jeans, and boots, and each had numerous earrings, nose rings and to be the certain a couple of them had tongue piercings. These four were bonded by their dress and societal attitudes just as four of the same age group at a country club dance would be. They share the same values and their style of dress reflects how they feel and who they are or at least want to appear to be.
Other people in the bookstore included a baby-boomer woman with styled gray hair and wearing a pair of nice new faded jeans, expensive running shoes and a soft blue cashmere sweater, at least it certainly looked and hung on her body like cashmere. She is carrying a tan leather shoulder bag. The bag is well worn, broken in, no newness about it, but no cracks or tears. It merely looks as if its probably her favorite bag and she uses it daily because its comfortable and the size fits her lifestyle, not too big, not too small. One glance at this woman gives one the impression that she is very comfortable with her life in every area, or at least nearly every area. She looks like someone who has money, pays her taxes and enjoys many perks. Although she is not extreme in her dress like the guys, she is certainly making a statement about who she is and what she values. She wears little jewelry, a watch and a pair of small gold stud earrings. She is dressed very low-key, in a way that would allow her to fit in most anywhere. She could walk right into a PTA meeting or a gourmet restaurant and look and feel at home. She is a sharp contrast to the guys, even though the older man is about her age, they look light years apart. Compared to the guys, she looks like a member of mainstream society, yet one gets the feeling that she is a little deeper in her beliefs and values than the mainstream citizen. She looks more like an intellectual, rather than simply one of the sheep. She might actually share many of the philosophical and political beliefs of the guys. However, she doesn't draw attention to herself like they do. She's secure with herself and in twenty years she will still fit in wherever she goes. If fashion follows, the guys might look mainstream in twenty years. They might be just one of the sheep.
There was also a young Asian woman in the bookstore. She was dressed in a nice casual camel colored suit with a black turtle neck sweater underneath the jacket and wearing tan pumps with the handbag to match. Her hair was medium length and well groomed, and she wore only a watch. Although young, probably late twenties or early thirties, she looked like a woman determined to challenge the glass ceiling of the corporate world. She gave the impression of being no-nonsense and scheduled oriented. It would be a safe bet that her life was planned out with meetings and deadlines for the next few months. She was dressed exactly as she wanted to be perceived. She wanted to give the impression that she could handle any crisis that might arise and handle it with style and efficiency. Everything about her dress spoke of her identity. She was a career woman and her political and social beliefs were of no consequence to the image she wanted to convey to the rest of the world.
According to Michael Solomon, empirical evidence has been mounting to confirm the "long-held belief that the meanings transmitted by clothing profoundly affect the perception and thinking not only of the reviewer but of the wearer as well" (Solomon Pp). Solomon points out that people are social animals and that clothing is a social invention that is laden with symbolism that provides information about "social and occupational standing, sex-role identification, political orientation, ethnicity and esthetic priorities" (Solomon Pp). In an article for "Psychology Today" he states that clothing is a potent, highly visible medium of communication that conveys "who a person is, who a person is not and who a person would like to be' (Solomon Pp). Therefore it seems safe to say that the bookstore guys belonged to a social group, regardless of age, who were or at least wanted to be seen as apart and separate from main-stream society. However, ten years from now, the bookstore guys may look main-stream and thus their image may lose its meaning. For example, as the unconventional dress of 1960's activists became the fashionable norm, it lost its power as a social and political statement (Solomon Pp).
How important is dress? During the 1950's, psychologists Moroe
Lefkowitz, Robert R. Blake and Jane Srygley Mouton examined the willingness of pedestrians to violate the social norm against jaywalking (Solomon Pp). According to their study, "when strangers saw a well-dressed person of high status (actually a confederate in the experiment) jaywalk, they were more likely to follow his example than if the same accomplice was dressed in soiled and patched clothing" (Solomon Pp). Other researchers have documented the impact of dress on the likelihood of petition signing, showing that "people who dress like their potential supporters will be more successful in gathering signatures" (Solomon Pp). When campaigning for a liberal cause, a person is more likely to collect names if he or she is dressed more casually, rather than in conservative attire, such as suit and tie (Solomon Pp). Moreover, "newscasters' clothing style exerted a strong effect on whether the viewers found them believable ... when dressed conservatively, ratings were more positive than in any other case" (Solomon Pp).
As far as how people view themselves, Solomon found that "people are most reliant upon the symbolism of clothing during the process of transition from a familiar role to an unfamiliar one'…