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?