Fashion, among other things, is a form of communication. In the case of fashion, the parties who share responsibility for the communication outcomes are the fashion wearer and the fashion observer. Every day, messages are successfully communicated from fashion wearers to observers, and these fashion choices tell observers about everything from our favorite dog breeds and sports teams, to academic allegiances and professional affiliation, or even religious tradition and sexual availability.
Sometimes, evaluating fashion communication is not very complicated. For example blaming rape on American women who publicly wear common American fashions strikes me as completely inappropriate. In the USA, clothing commonly worn in public doesn’t communicate consent to engage in sexual activity.
There are more complicated cases to be imagined, however. For example, in a case where a person passively observes a piece of clothing on someone, the message is received in the form of a thought. Who should take responsibility for the thought? We can consider many questions: Did the sender understand how the message would likely be interpreted by observers? Is the receiver twisting the message in a way that was never intended by the sender? Is the thought of the observer unreasonable based on the cultural context? Did the sender need to consider non-expressive factors when making the fashion choice, such as for the safety or athletic performance? At what point does a thought transform from involuntary to voluntary in the mind of the receiver? These types of questions are more difficult to answer, but they are relevant to the communication-outcome inquiry.
One of the challenges in nonverbal communication is that it lacks uniformity and precision of verbal communication. Just as spoken words send different messages around the globe (sometimes with surprising outcomes), wearing one fashion in Europe may send a very different message in Saudi Arabia or Japan (with a potential for even more surprising outcomes).
Despite these challenges, fashion still contains communicative content because it is unified by forces of mainstream cultures. These forces create patterns that allow messages to be regularly and successfully communicated from fashion wearers to observers.
Because I am persuaded that fashion is a form of communication, I feel disconnected from assertions I have read recently about certain fashion choices because there is no discussion about shared communication. Some writers have simply asserted that fashion choices don’t send any messages and so people should wear whatever they want. I can’t see how this could be if fashion is communicative expression. This is like saying, “Say whatever you want because others won’t judge you for it.” Perhaps no one really believes this, which makes me wonder what would drive people to make such assertions. (One theory I have is that this type of assertion is driven by a strong desire to conform to fashion norms of the mainstream.)
Others have asserted that if an observer interprets a fashion message such that it reflects badly on the wearer, then the fault is the observer’s. In some instances, observers are even accused of perversion if the observer interprets a message as pertaining to sexuality. It goes without saying that observers can misinterpret communications and that some are unreasonably connected to sexuality, but this assertion is incomplete without an exploration of which messages are reasonable. For example, many posts I’ve come across lately discuss whether wearing a bikini is OK, but often the writers don’t seem to consider the fashion choice as a communication. What are the messages that wearing a bikini reasonably sends in American culture? How does the message change depending on location and context across the United States and among different ethnic and generational groups?
I think when it comes down to it, you have to remember that nonverbal communication is based on a lot of assumption. And whether that assumption is accurate is going to be based on the relationship of the two individuals involved in the communication. When my husband gives me a look, we experience nonverbal communication, and the chances are I get his intentions completely right with my assumptions. And this is because I know him as well as I know myself.
When nonverbal communication happens between two strangers, I think it is reasonable for either person to take for granted that the assumptions they make based on that any nonverbal communication is just as likely to be wrong as it is right.
A man who knows a woman very well and sees her at the beach in a bikini is likely to assume her message is “I’m going swimming.” or “I want a tan.” And maybe even the message is “I want to be sexy.” but the point is that only a man who knows her well is likely to ascertain that correctly. If a stranger sees her and assumes that the message is “I want to have sex with you.” I would hope that he would have the good sense to know that is likely a faulty assumption to make about a perfect stranger.
Like you said, non verbal communication lacks the precision of verbal communication. Which means we should know better than to rely on it as a means of interaction, no matter what the environment or circumstance is.
I agree that nonverbal communication increases in precision and accuracy as the sender and receiver of messages establish patterns. For example, “inside jokes” can be based on very subtle movements. It would be inappropriate for me to assume that I get the inside jokes of a perfect stranger.
On the other hand, if a policeman is wearing a uniform and walking down the street, then anyone who is familiar with American culture will be able to receive a message from that fashion choice, which is “Hello, I’m a police officer who has a duty to ensure public safety.” That doesn’t require much familiarity between the two parties of the communication, and our society benefits greatly from relying on such patterns.
I’m not arguing that nobody should ever try to change the patterns. I am acknowledging that such patterns exist and that sometimes it’s reasonable for people to rely on nonverbal communication.
I think your post makes a faulty presumption though. In espousing disbelief that one could not believe that clothing sends messages simply because that is what *you* believe you are assuming a lot.
Do people sometimes dress to get attention? Sure. So what? Any messages, subtle or overt, are _always_ going to be the problem of the observer because who on earth says the messages the wearer is sending is for them? Maybe the woman in the bikini at the beach is looking to be sexy after all, but who says it is for that observer? Maybe she is waiting on a lover to join her there.
When I get dressed it is purely a selfish endeavor. I am thinking about comfort and utility. Any message read into my clothing choices are entirely in the minds of the observer. Sometimes a t-shirt is just a t-shirt, and sometimes a bikini is just a bikini. I know you believe otherwise, but that doesn’t make it so.
The “always the problem of the observer” part of this argument is what ruins otherwise good points. I reject absolutes. I think they are too simple. I am bewildered that the orthodox feminist side of this argument can’t even begin to concede the point that, though problematic, at some point people dress provocatively to provoke and seductively to seduce and that is wrong, coercive. While I fully accept responsibility for my thoughts and actions, I think we have to realize that applies to everyone. I am not saying I get to judge necessarily when people are attempting to provoke or seduce but it seems silly to me to pretend it does not happen.
Jeremy, I did address that in my comment. It may very well be that a person is dressing provocatively, and dressing to seduce, but who says they are doing it to either provoke or seduce you? In that respect, it is always the observer’s problem. Unless they have firsthand knowledge (by being told) that a person is dressing a certain way to seduce them then they better mind their own and learn to school themselves. There is nothing wrong with recognizing that someone is attractive–it becomes wrong when that causes one to objectify the other person, fetishize them, and/or lust after them.
I fully agree with the non judgemental school thy feelings part and tried to indicate that. I’m not sure why anyone would think provocative dress would be directed at one person, but It’s not important. I just don’t understand why some clam it is so completely always wrong to teach someone to examine their own motives when they dress. So yes, I can’t assume what a woman’s motives are, but self examination of your own motivations still has a place and I can’t see that encouraging people to do so is necessarily wrong.
Thanks for your reply/clarification, Jeremy.
I think if someone’s feminism does not come with a healthy dose of introspection, then they are doing it wrong. We should always be examining our own motives and what makes us tick–on that I will certainly agree.
I assume one of two things whenever I see anyone walk down the street 1. Either they chose their clothes carefully for reasons unknown to me and not my business, or 2. Like me, they grabbed whatever was closest and cleanest and went with that.
That is really as far as I am comfortable going, because imo, clothes policing is the ugly step-sibling of body-policing/shaming and I just can’t.
Thanks for the comments EOR. It’s true that sometimes a bikini is just a bikini: when are those times?
Also, how is an observer relying on clothing-based communication of broad messages “clothing policing”? I’m not sure I understand what you mean by that, but it would be nice to get some explanation. Would you say that anyone that hears a person speaking on a megaphone in a public place is a member of the “speech police”?
Also when you say that nonverbal communication is “always the problem of the observer” do you mean that the sender is never morally responsible for the communication? Or do you mean that the observer will never be experience negative consequences (reputationally or physically)?
Would you feel more comfortable about my assertion that fashion choices are often communicative if I posted citations to academic journal articles that have concluded the same thing for over 50 years? I haven’t bothered yet because other people I’ve shown this post to have provided zero negative feedback on that point. Dozens of people have seemed to think it was natural and obvious. I still don’t think it is a particularly controversial assumption to make, although I tried to make clear that there could be alternatives by admitting that I am “persuaded that fashion is a form of communication.” (parag. 6 above) I don’t want to completely deter you from holding that belief: that your clothing choices are content-free. I will concede that fashion is less reliable as cultural commonality decreases (I’m thinking about some large cities where cultural diversity is more intense than parts of rural America). Perhaps that would explain why you haven’t relied on fashion patterns for communicative content as much as others.
So much of the commentary on bikini-drama tend to be either (1) modesty and hemlines are everything or (2) anything goes who cares?
If we go back to the definition of modesty:
Modesty is an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves.
So if you are modest you are proper and decent in a variety of ways. Can a girl be more immodest in a one piece than a two piece? What about if I go golfing in a sleeveless tee and shorts a bit above my knees. It certainly is an appropriate and decent outfit in the situation. Compare that to the endowed women who shop at “Sexy Modest” boutique, whose attitude is anything goes as long as my hemlines are the right length. And they are actively attempting to be ‘sexxy’ at church? Is modesty about hemlines? Or is it more? Is it about motivation? Why do you dress the way you do and is your behavior and attitude modest?
We have to admit that the conversation surrounding sexuality in Mormonism is based on fear and shame. So if a male has a biological reaction (which God has built his body to respond that way) is it a sin? Did someone cause him to sin? If the priesthood gives men power to move mountains surely it could help a little in the thought department. Acknowledge the reaction and MOVE ON.
So I teach my daughter that when she dresses to not think about other people. Don’t dress for their attention. Think about what she likes and what she wants to wear. Think about the situation and if it’s appropriate to wear it there. Then think if Heavenly Father is okay with that. Is she dressing and acting like a daughter of God? Then we’re good. Her outfits have included tank tops and sleeveless dresses, but I think we’re on the right track. Much more than the hemline Nazis or the anything goes camp.
First you say that discussions tend to take extreme positions. Did you conclude that my article is advocating for the Nazi-side or anything-goes? Regarding the definition of modesty, I’m using the Wikipedia definition of modesty: “Modesty is a mode of dress and deportment intended not to encourage sexual attraction in others….”
I agree that clothing should be situation-appropriate, and I’m glad that you teach this principle to your daughter. But I’m still left with the question of “How does a person determine when clothing is situation-appropriate or not?” Don’t you think that cultural norms should be a factor? I think the LDS-Church leadership endorses the view that clothing communicates messages since we have full-time missionaries dressing in a very specific way, which is based on cultural norms. Perhaps the message conveyed by the missionary clothing is that missionaries bear an important message that deserves more serious respect and consideration than would normally be given to young people.
What if a father thinks that his daughter is wearing an outfit that in inappropriate for a certain situation. Should he say something to his daughter? It seems that you think he should just “MOVE ON” and not say anything. I must be misreading you, but I’m not sure what else to conclude based on your comment. And what if a bishop could also share his wisdom with a youth that hasn’t received instruction from parents? Who is allowed to speak to a person about their concerns and who is not? You mentioned that the message recipient is experiencing a biologically determined reaction. I don’t believe it is biological, but rather clothing is a nonverbal language. That is not biological function, but rather it’s a cognitive/rational function.
I also agree completely with you that a man should be able to ignore messages sent by inappropriate fashion choices. That seems to be a good rule of self-control. Would you also agree that the self-control rule goes the other way? As in, should women also be able to ignore inappropriate verbal messages from men telling them to start/stop dressing in a particular clothing?