As a former student of anthropology, l find the psychology of clothing and how it intersects with culture fascinating. Fashion has been an integral part in shaping history and art throughout time and continues to play an important role in our everyday lives.
Clothing is a means of communicates the personal to the world at large, shaping first impressions and reflecting our identity. As Clinton Kelly said, “How you dress tells others how you expect to be treated.”
Think about how you felt when you wear your favorite flattering dress or perfectly tailored suit to an interview. Or, on the other hand, how you feel having to wear your grandma’s knitted sweater to family get-togethers--ya know, the one with the reindeer and snowmen on it. The study of such feelings is part of a growing field of research called enclothed cognition--how we don’t just think with our brains, but with our bodies.
Think about what you’re wearing today. Do you know what material it’s made from, or in which country it was produced? Who sewed your shirt? Or how it got to the store?
The Color Purple
Let’s think back to a time before Wal-mart and boundless polyester. Centuries ago, the great empires of Rome and Egypt deemed purple the imperial standard. Purple dyes were very rare and expensive--it took some 12,000 tiny mollusks from the Mediterranean to make about 1 gram of dye. To wear a garment made of silk communicated to others that you were a person of means, as silk was very expensive, having to be shipped from the East.
For centuries, the clothing one wore had important economic and social implications. Tailors and seamstresses used natural fabrics to custom-make clothing. So when did we begin to lose our connection with the clothes we wore?
Fast forward to the latter part of the 20th century in America, when clothing became mass produced and commercialized--what we call “ready to wear” in the industry. Advertisements told women that these new threads were convenient, affordable, and up-to-date--which could be replaced easily as trends changed.
This conspicuous consumption has become so pervasive that it’s almost all we associate with the fashion we consume--until recently. The ethical fashion movement has swung the pendulum the opposite direction so that we pay attention to our clothing and its heritage.
Symbolism in Global Textiles
The West African symbol Sankofa demonstrates this concept beautifully. It symbolizes a respect for our ancestry, to learn from our past, so that we can achieve our full potential moving forward.
Each printed motif is imbued with meaning, reflecting our collective notions of strength, joy and vitality--in short, our shared humanity.
They say you are what you eat. What about what you wear? One way to look at it is through the lens of the slow food movement, which encourages people to have an intimate understanding and consideration of where your food comes from and the people behind it.
Slow food celebrates cuisines of different cultures and regions--likewise, ethical fashion cultivates a relationship with the people and materials involved in making our clothes. You are making an investment in quality, handmade pieces that really honor the artistry and craftsmanship that went into their production.
When you put on a Symbology dress, you are making a fashion statement in more ways than one. You are celebrating a unique cultural artform that requires incredibly skilled hands. You are rejecting the exploitation and waste of fast fashion. And most importantly, you are empowering the women who made it.
So to turn Mr. Kelly's on its head, I'd say ‘How you dress tells others how you treat the world.”