Clothing as Symbolic Allegiance

People manipulate objects such as clothes in defining themselves.” – Emma Tarlo

       In the readings, Tarlo discussed Gandhi’s desire to unite India via a national uniform, consisting of khadi fabric and (as they later became known) Gandhi caps. Clothing can be a powerful symbol of difference or assimilation, and history is full of examples of clothing being used in a political context.

Though the wearing of this fabric was intended to be equalizing, it soon became a very subtle status symbol. Rather than denoting status via the type of fabric or style of clothing being worn, very subtle differences in fabric quality began to indicate wealth and social standing. Additionally, the very poor struggled to afford khadi of any quality, further stratifying people. Some even began making khadi into Western style clothes. The “problem of what to wear” became a national concern, and the social requirement to wear this fabric undermined its original message. It was no longer a representation of a united belief in Indian independence, but rather the uniform of nationalism.

This idea that a particular clothing style or manner of dress can somehow be a symbol of morality has come up repeatedly in American history. During World War Two, when fabric was rationed to the public to help the war effort, women’s fashion began to favor slimmer silhouettes and shorter hemlines (not too short – it was still the 1940s). Girdles were also less common for a time, as the materials had to be used to make war equipment, and so clothes for women had structured waists to compensate. Due to women working in factories, pants were worn openly for the first time due to their functionality. Most scandalously, the bikini’s owes its invention in part to these fabric rations, given that the previous style was full coverage with a little skirt around the hips. Because of all these years of rationing, which continued for a few years after the war as the economy recovered, Dior’s “New Look” was met with shocked criticism by some, who saw it as an affront to national values. However, women were drawn to the new style, and it eventually won out.

       During the Cold War years, when everyone who stood out was at risk of being accused of being a Communist, modesty and conformity were the name of the game. There were clear codes of behavior, as spelled out in the video below, and others like it. Modern media depictions of this era emphasize conformity and traditional family roles, and correcting the behavior of others seems to be a recurring theme.

Ten years later, we have one of the better examples of Americans rebelling via their clothing. The 1960s were fraught with political protests and a national push toward social change. The wardrobe of the hippie movement both highlighted their difference of opinion and alienated them from those who stuck to mainstream values and wore more modest clothing. Jackie Kennedy’s conservative suits and prim hats are a strong example of this style which aligned itself with tradition.

Clothing is repeatedly employed to reflect the wearer’s social values, and differentiate the wearer from others who do not share in their beliefs. The use of khandi fabric separated those who stood for Indian independence from those who still seemed to outwardly side with the British. Wearing too much excess fabric as a woman during World War Two could be taken as one not supporting the war effort, and, by extension, the nation. Swaying too much from prescribed values, via clothing or otherwise, during the height of the Cold War could get a person branded a communist. Do any modern examples exist of people showing loyalty (or disloyalty) through clothing, in the United States or elsewhere?


12 thoughts on “Clothing as Symbolic Allegiance

  1. In terms of the last question, I have not come across a sturdy or ‘cult-ish’ group of people who enforce super strict ideas of dress code with those who may or may not follow, but perhaps I’m looking in all the wrong places. One of the strongest correlations to this would be the military or navy, as was brought up in class, but I do not know enough of the coding in the attire that I can expand on. What I can touch base on is with the idea that was in the post stating, “This idea that a particular clothing style or manner of dress can somehow be a symbol of morality has come up repeatedly in American history.” I feel that this is factual in the business/work world. As an advertising major, I feel that there is fluidity in the way people dress because it is, mainly, a creative field, but that is not to say that because it is a creative field that there aren’t restrictions. I’m an avid believer in dressing for however you feel on a particular day, disregarding any socially normative placed ideals on what is deemed okay to wear and what is not. However, when going into office hours for a teacher in my major, the first thing that was noted to me was that I needed to take off my piercings and dress more ‘put together’ if I ever wanted to succeed in the real world. There were so many things wrong with this statement alone. For one, I was going in there to get help with the course I am in, not to be judged on appearance…this wasn’t an interview. Two, it was out-of-line for the basis of the situation. Finally, it hit me that my garments had more of an influence with my presence before my inquiries on the class. I wasn’t going for an interview but this teacher was already judging my ability to perform in a working environment from the moment I stepped into the office. I feel that there is an unspoken (maybe sometimes spoken) rule to how one should dress in order to succeed and to show others that you are successful. So what if I walked in with my green Dr. Martens and a flower patterned dress? I could still perform at the same level as the others were. My piercings weren’t stopping me from thinking the way I was. This is when I feel that people in the industry might think of me as disloyal to what the norms are but I like to fight those thoughts. It seems so absurd to have to wear a suit, by force, when I feel so restricted and uncomfortable in one. But, at the end of the day, there are images that people want to uphold and this is relative to the loyalty they hold with the people they associate with (through jobs or other mediums). Like Gandhi, people around him were put-off by how vague his style of dress was that they needed to make-sense of it and categorize it to a group, and this is what people like to do in society. I’m not speaking for all, but I feel that there might be a sense of discomfort in difference, so keeping people unified and coded in the work force gives off the aura of stability, focus and organization.

  2. While,to me, there is no clear key political or social movement that is supported by the dressing of a certain group , there still exist social groups and for the most part, human beings denote these groups based on the way that an individual is dressed.

    On MTV, where videos were once played, they used to have cartoon figures of certain individuals to interlude between the videos. I vividly remembered the stoner, rock star and rap artist. It was clear to differentiate between these characters by their speech and gestures but most importantly by their clothes. As we were in high school, people still utilize clothing , sometimes unconsciously, to dictate what message they want to deliver to the world and often group themselves based on their similarities, one of which is sometimes dressing.
    For example, I believe a recent trend is the afro- soul movement among black Americans in the US. Not sure what the impetus of this movement was, but girls were suddenly chopping their hair off or growing out the natural texture. Dashikis were seen frequently around culture neighborhoods like Rogers Park and Hyde Park, and there was a revival of African prints in fashion. The totality of that signifies and trend and it was clear to see those who embraced this movement irregardless of skin color.
    Another group of individuals who i believe that clothing plays a huge part of their imagery is the ” hipsters”. I have seen this term being utilized in almost all facets and i believe that most people can identify if an individual is an hipster or not.
    The only thing I am unclear of is , are these definition simply new group classification or is the role of dressing becoming so fundamental in this zeitgeist and individuals are categorize simply by the clothes adorn.

  3. I think there are a few groups of people that are seen as being unpatriotic or patriotic depending on their styles. And as we have learned in class, it is much more telling of our nation (they people who are commenting on the clothes) than the people wearing them. I think that, for example, right after 9/11 people wearing clothing that is associated with the Middle East were looked as being unpatriotic or un-American. This is obviously an unfair and unjust accusation or claim to make, and it resulted in the furthering discrimination and prejudice of the Middle East culture in America. When Osama Bin Laden was killed this past year, my younger sisters said that a female exchange student from the Middle East was mocked in their high school for traditional clothing; comments like “Sorry to hear about your uncle were made”. There are other students that are exchange students from the Middle East in the high school my sisters attend, but they were not made fun of. It is because she dressed in the same style as Osama Bin Laden that she dealt with this horrible bullying. This is an example of how a type of clothing or a style can be interpreted as an alliance to a nation or culture, and it shows a way in which this can be a serious danger to many groups of people.

    A positive example of people using fashion to represent their feelings towards their nation is through the new fad of bands/bracelets. There are bands now for everything, many having to do with problems that the United States’ citizens are facing. For example, I just recently saw bracelets being sold at Starbucks that were red, white, and blue bands with a sign that stated all of the proceeds went to one of the committees creating more jobs in America. This is an example of purchasing a clothing item to show your allegiance to your country.

  4. Patriotic bracelets are definitely a great example of how people wear clothing to display their belief and attachment to larger ideologies. Since clothing and fashion are more superficial, however, people can often misinterpret them as actual symbols of ideology. A group of creative satirist writers got together to make fun of exactly that phenomenon in the feminist world with an online tv show called “Vag Magazine.” The show is about a group of women, parading as 3rd world (white) feminists, who want to write a feminist magazine. They become SO wrapped up in what makes someone feminist (mainly, if women like something, it’s feminist), that the magazine becomes about clothing and superficial things, just like the other, non-feminist magazine. It’s very funny, but adds intelligently to the commentary on how feminism has become wrapped up in imagery. If one wears flower-print clothes and has eclectic, “vintage” jewelry, one is obviously a feminist – or so the show plays with. The comedic nature of the show makes the introspection fun and easier than the more serious commentary usually pervading feminist and progressive circles.

    The episodes are only a few minutes long each – check it out! Even if you only have time for one. 🙂

  5. A contemporary example of people showing loyalty and disloyalty through clothing in the United States is happening in the Occupy Wall Street movement that is sweeping the nation. This movement began with a series of demonstrations in New York City in the Wall Street district in which protesters started addressing the economic inequality, corporate corruption, and their influences over the government. Many of these protesters wear masks as well as business suits to blend in with one another and show their loyalty to the cause. To them these masks and suits signify their unity to against of the continuation of this corrupt cycle of capitalism that is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. By wearing business suits they are mocking the workers on Wall Street to show their disagreement with their alliance with these corporations and how they believe these workers are contributing to the downfall of our economic situation. These masks unify this group which call themselves “the 99%” by making the point that who is behind the mask does not matter because so many people from different classes, race, ethnicities, and ages are unified towards this cause.

    While these masks and suits promote loyalty to this cause, they also show disloyalty and political unrest towards our government. By wearing these clothes people are making the statement that they distrust our government and want to see change today. This is beginning to cause fear of a national uprising against the government. While it is too early to tell how this movement will play out, it is for certain that these clothes and masks have had a huge impact on unifying the protestors together and created a certain look that is now directly associated with this movement.

  6. I really like how one of the previous comments mentioned piercings and the connection between body jewelry and not looking “put together”. I think that people definitely associate the amount of piercings people have with their personality – especially with how responsible and mature a person is. It is interesting, in this context, how piercings an. d tattoos are often used in Western cultures as a sort of fashion statement – as a way to rebel. Furthermore, they seem to often be connected with ideas of morality, in a certain sense. People with tattoos and piercings are often assumed to be more lazy and irresponsible. However, I have found that (obviously) a lot of the time these assumptions do not turn out to be correct. This is not directly associated with patriotism, I know, but I think that our “national values” sort of come into play in this case. Like the idea of hard work and what many people imagine as “good citizens”, for example.

  7. I like the previous comment about the patriotic bracelets. I’m sure we all remember when Livestrong bracelets became popular, and everyone seemed to be wearing them in order to prove how sensitive and socially aware they were. As a result, every cause under the sun came out with a little rubber bracelet in a bright color with the name of the cause or organization stamped on it. I especially appreciated the “Wriststrong” bracelets Steven Colbert started promoting, and how they oh-so-subtly mocked the phenomenon. The craze seems to be over now.
    On the subject of tattoos and piercings, while I agree that they are interpreted as a sign that the person wearing them is less responsible, does anyone else feel that they have also (in some circles) become a sign of being “in” with our generation? It seems like the people who are getting them at our age are saying, yes, I understand how older generations see these markings, but they SHOULD see them differently/accept me anyway/get over their antiquated ideas about conformity. Call me old fashioned, but I kind of agree with the “old person” perspective on this. Not in that I think they are a mark of laziness, but, in a lot of cases, they make people seem immature or shortsighted. Piercings you can take out if need be, tattoos on the shoulder/back/leg you can cover up, but that full chest tattoo is bound to be limiting in a lot of professions. I know a lot of the people in this class have tattoos. I’m curious: what do they symbolize to you?

  8. There are definitely modern examples of loyalty and disloyalty being shown through style of clothing. In a very vague sense, anything viewed as non-normative is something that calls into question one’s worth in our society. Earlier comments have discussed the stigma of piercings and other accessories/styles of dress that are deemed similarly “unprofessional,” and I think it is very interesting to think about how one’s choice to wear something non-normative calls into question one’s potential success in life and one’s loyalty a country, a company, etc.

    I think this basis in non-normative styles being viewed as disloyal stems from what these accessories and styles are signifying. One example, facial piercings, say more than simply what kind of jewelry one enjoys wearing. A facial piercing indicates a certain level of rebellion, I think, in that we know they are somewhat taboo in our society. Further, for myself, going into a job interview with my facial piercing could denote a potential for rebellion. Facial piercings are non-normative and my choice to obtain this fashion accessory says something about me, in that non-normativity does not bother me and my life, in addition to my fashion, may also be non-normative. Normativity, uniformity, loyalty, etc. are all important things to have in order to succeed in the United States and any fashions falling outside of these norms may call into question one’s ability to be unquestioningly loyal.

  9. One contemporary example that I can think of in the U.S. that people view as a form of disloyalty is the wearing of the veil by Muslim-American women. Ever since the attacks on 9/11, the veil has become a symbol of anti-Americanism and terrorism. There is especially a stigma upon women and teen girls who choose to wear the veil despite having grown up in the U.S. since the veil is often viewed as “backwards” and a symbol of oppression against women. Another example of “anti-American” clothing as perceived by some people is the wearing of other countries’ flags on T-shirts, such as when Mexican Americans proudly display the Mexican flag and colors on their soccer team shirts. Many people hold resentment and hate towards their pride, especially with the negative stigma against illegal Mexican immigrants. Other examples include t-shirts displaying supposedly liberal views, such as anti-war, pro-choice, or other such messages.

  10. I feel like a major way people show their loyalty to something is through graphic t-shirts. What was once not common, graphic t-shirts have allowed people to express their political, music, and religious views. A simple silk screen can say so much about someone and their beliefs. Many celebrities wear these shirts in times of “war” between an ex or someone in Hollywood. Everything can be seen on a t-shirt these days and that simple piece of clothing can reveal too much.

    Another way may be through clothing color. Gangs have various colors they use. I remember in middle school we could not wear baby blue and black due to it representing various gangs. I thought it was a bit much that we were band but clearly it showed a loyalty my school did not like.

    When it comes to wearing too little or too much clothing I cannot think of an example. I truly think the t-shirt is the most modern way we can express loyalty or a lack of loyalty to someone or a group.

  11. I feel that people do show loyalty to a certain organization, institute, nation, through clothing. When people’s values are questioned, or they are reminded of their own mortality, they feel the need to express the fact that they belong to something. For instance, when UofI has a win in a football game, the entire campus transforms into blue and orange. Students feel pride when their team wins, and can make themselves feel better by association. I am not part of any sorority or Greek organization on campus, so it is always interesting for me to see how girls (more than boys from frats) will all want to match on certain days displaying the letters from their sorority. This brings about a sense of belonging and pride in ‘in-group’ members, and thus strengthens the ties people have with each other. I feel that people dress in certain fashions or display club letters to show that they are part of something, and when their organization does good or proves itself worthy, the members also feel pride and thus display it through clothing. This phenomenon is also seen in gangs. Gangs often show signs or other physical ways of identifying themselves, not always through clothing. Gang members are appraised by each other for commiting various crimes, and they feel a strong sense of belonging in the gang through the appraisal that they receive from fellow members. People have a fundamental need to belong whether it is identifying oneself as a unique ‘hipster’ or as part of a fraternity, clothing plays a fundamental role in this process.

  12. What a perfect place to write a post. I’m currently in the library trying to find that one individual showing loyalty or disloyalty to the U.S. I saw a few individuals wearing veils. I notice one of the blogger’s comment on how the 9/11 attacks create this stigma towards women who decide to wear the veil, which is truly unfortunate. Instead a revisiting some of the previous comments. I decided to exam the culture of the University of Illinois.

    Of course, students display their loyalty for their school by wearing orange and blue apparel. A great example of someone displaying disloyalty is a U of I student wearing rival school apparel. For instance, those who wear apparel representing Michigan pride showcases disloyalty to the school’s pride for the Fighting Illini. Here’s a better example if I were to transfer to Michigan, and I wore the infamous ” Muck Fichigan, Ann Arbor is a Whore” shirt this would be considered a disloyalty to the Michigan culture.

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