Fashion and Clothing as Rhetoric – Ryan Langton

In his chapter titled “Why We Need Things,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlines the meanings and relationships that humans imbue objects with when they choose to own or keep them. Whether “demonstrating the owner’s power,” “reveal[ing] the continuity of the self through time,” or “giv[ing] concrete evidence of one’s place in a social network,” material things contain great symbolic weight for humans as social creatures (23). In light of the readings on clothing and fashion for this week’s class, I keep thinking about how clothes perform a specific function that mixes all of these functions: clothes and fashion operate as a form of rhetoric. In Jennifer Price’s chapter on the controversy over bird hats, she describes how upper-class women spearheaded the movement against bird hats as a product of their understandings of a woman’s domestic moral power and their perceived status as the aesthetic and moralistic vanguard of polite society. As the arbiters of proper domestic and natural morality and stewardship, women used their rejection of bird hats to signify their place in a community of socially-minded women who could exert new avenues of force and power in social clubs. Similarly, Leslie Shannon Miller describes in her article on corsets how the constrictive nature of the garment inculcated an “aura of high morality and youthful discipline that went hand in hand with the message of physical youth,” creating a way for women to sartorially demonstrate their virtue (137). For both Price and Miller, women understood that clothing “was always meant to be seen and interpreted by others,” making fashion a non-verbal rhetorical strategy where women signaled their values, power, and status to themselves and society (L. Miller, 143).

This concept of clothing and fashion as rhetoric inspires concerns, nonetheless. Some of these concerns are described in Daniel Miller’s “Why Clothing is Not Superficial.” In the selection, Miller warns against the predominant “semiotic perspective” of material culture studies that views fashion as a superficial mask that signifies deeper truths, demonstrating how ideas of superficiality collapse in the cultural and social contexts of Trinidad, India, and London. While I agree with Miller’s critique of superficiality as artificially locating “truth” within a person rather on their clothing or around them, I do not think his examples disprove the semiotic perspective he mentions (18). Whether it is Trinidad’s “saga boys” or “galleying”, India’s saris, or London’s anxiety-prone fashion scene, these tangible materials signify broader cultural or social processes and norms. Outer clothing does not semiotically represent inner truths, but instead visible evidence highlights invisible societal forces. The different practices and meanings behind clothes in Trinidad coincide with a society “relatively egalitarian” that “prefers metaphors which suggest that people are to be defined by their current abilities and achievements” (20). The battles between saris and the shalwar makiz in India is representative of debates over gender and femininity (31). The anxiety-produced conformity of London is a visible manifestation of the “burden [on women]…to know for themselves what is they want and who they want to be” that came about through feminist empowerment (38). Superficiality should be done away with, but not concepts of clothing and fashion as visible signifiers of societal processes or norms.

Another concern that Miller only hits on is the fact that clothing can lie (13).  The distance between rhetoric and reality can vary, and a few of the readings touch on this. While the sartorial abandonment of bird hats by upper-class women conveys the belief among late-nineteenth-century Americans that women were at the heart and center of misconducts against nature, Price also highlights how this rhetoric somewhat obfuscates the reality of the economic markets that rampantly hunted and killed these birds. With these tensions of rhetoric and reality in mind, can objects and material culture studies stand on their own or do they need to be supplemented with other traditional historical sources to fully check against these differences?

Works Cited

Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi, “Why We Need Things,” in History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, eds. Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery (London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 20-29.

Daniel Miller, “Why Clothing is Not Superficial,” in Stuff (Malden, Massachusetts: Policy Press, 2010), 12-41.

Leslie Shannon Miller, “The Many Figures of Eve: Styles of Womanhood Embodied in a Late-Nineteenth-Century Corset,” in American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture, ed. Jules David Prown and Kenneth Haltman, (East Lansing: Michigan State Press, 2000), 129-147.

Jennifer Price, “When Women were Women, Men were Men, and Birds were Hats,” in Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 157-209.