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Clothes and Perception

amherst surcingle(Siraj Sindhu)– I’ve been thinking a lot about clothes since I came to Amherst. To be fair, I thought a lot about clothes before I came to Amherst, too, but over the past few months, I’ve begun to think more critically about the significance of clothing and why we choose to wear the clothes we wear. After all, clothes are significant: they constitute much of the primary visual data on which we base our initial assumptions and judgments of others.

On a campus known for its diversity (social fragmentation aside), there exists a great spectrum of types of clothing. Throughout November and December, seemingly half the women on campus lace up a pair of 8” Bean Boots, and in the warmer months of spring and early fall, boat shoes and seersucker shorts and suits (Great Gatsby TAP, I’m looking at you) are common. Meanwhile, other students opt for simpler attire, such as running shoes and sweatpants. Plenty of clothing styles in between these extremes are also represented on campus. This makes perfect sense—different people wear different kinds of clothes, influenced by and influencing their identities and backgrounds.

Wait—what was that about social fragmentation again? Most of us by now are aware of the problematic fact that Amherst’s socioeconomically and racially diverse student body doesn’t really intermingle all that much. I’m certainly not the first to point out that students of differing socioeconomic status are largely socially segregated from one another at Amherst, and I recognize that this division arises out of multiple causes, many having nothing to do with clothing. I do, however, want to make the claim that clothes are a major sign and cause of this fragmentation. The clothes we wear certainly are not the absolute definers of identity, but they both reflect and affect our identities.

That is to say, that guy wearing Quoddy moccasins to class isn’t just sending a message about who he is; he’s complicit in the segregation of our community by alienating a segment of it. Of course, by logical extension of this claim, the reverse is also true: rejecting the “NESCAC prep” style that is so often attributed to Amherst also deepens the divides between members of the community. But let’s not single out one subculture. Though Amherst is stereotyped as a school where everyone walks around in surcingles and Vineyard Vines ties, as we become a more diverse campus, different styles of clothes abound: artsy, hipster, jock, street, workwear, among others. Some of these labels straddle many different socioeconomic groups, but regardless, one of the many functions of clothes is to serve as status symbols. Virtually any item of clothing that you put on says something about you to observers, and those unconscious associations almost always include associations and assumptions about socioeconomic status. It’s inevitable that we form groups based at least partially on socioeconomic status.

This fragmentation along visibly apparent socioeconomic lines isn’t just a symptom of a larger problem—it also perpetuates the cause of the problem itself. I also want to clarify that there’s probably no malicious intent behind our fragmentation along these lines. However, I think we would benefit from increased awareness of how the way that we present ourselves on an individual level affects social dynamics.

This is at least part of the reason why dress codes and school uniforms exist. But aren’t clothes supposed to serve this social function: to divide us up, to serve as external identifying badges so others can formulate initial judgments of us? Aren’t we supposed to be fragmented based on the choices we make in crafting our external appearances? Isn’t that why labels like “preppy”, “hipster”, and even “frat” exist?

I recently read an article by Sonya Nicholson that discusses the social functions of clothing. Nicholson argues that clothes are a medium of expression that sends important nonverbal messages to others, allowing us to identify ourselves in a visceral and convenient way. In a Jungian sense, she says, clothes are the bridge between one’s “persona” and one’s true, inner self. The persona is the mask that one presents to the world. Sometimes, it is transparent, matching the genuine self underneath it precisely, but usually our masks hide things, functioning as displays of what we want to be, or what we want to be perceived as. Then, clothes, she says, are the link between inner and outer self. I disagree with this idea; in a socioeconomically egalitarian world, it may be true, but in reality, Nicholson is claiming that those who do not dress to a high socioeconomic standard do so not out of inability, but out of choice. This is an absurd claim.

Nicholson goes on to explain extensively the sexual functions of clothing. While I don’t deny that clothes definitely do serve sexual purposes, my focus here is exploring other social functions of clothes: namely, as indicators of privilege, rather than as sexual signalers. Since clothes serve as external indicators of privilege and status, they influence the judgments of observers. In a 2012 study, researchers found that college students wearing brand-name clothes that reflected a high socioeconomic status were perceived to be more successful and attractive by the subjects than students wearing unbranded or store-brand clothes. Obviously, this psychological phenomenon contributes to social division and hierarchical behavior. I’d contend that this is actually a major cause of division, because social signalers as apparent as clothing influence all of our judgments of others, no matter how unconscious these judgments are.

I don’t write this to encourage anyone to change the way they dress. In all honesty, that is the last thing I want to do. I think the beauty of clothing is that it gives each individual a nonverbal and noticeable means of expressing his or her self in a different and meaningful way each day. Furthermore, to return to my point about Nicholson’s article, universally egalitarian dress is an impossible goal, anyway. I’m also not crazy enough to actually suggest uniforms as an option. But what I do want to do with this article is bring more awareness to the issue of how the clothes we wear affect society in very basic ways. So next time you take note of someone’s clothes, consciously think about the judgments and associations you make about that person. Also, think about the ways in which you present yourself, and how an outsider might perceive this presentation.

Finally, I want to call attention to the fact that the clothes you wear don’t only affect the way others perceive you, but the way you perceive yourself, as well. Awareness of appearance produces a self-awareness that can dramatically and positively change your thought processes and cognitive capabilities. So, if you become more aware of the effects of your clothes, the abstract “Amherst College community” won’t be the only benefactor; you, too, can personally benefit from your increased awareness of your appearance. Now what’s in your closet?

About Siraj Ahmed Sindhu

A thing can be true and still be desperate folly, Hazel.

5 comments on “Clothes and Perception

  1. Sharline Dominguez
    January 15, 2014

    I have definitely thought about the role of clothing in the formation of my identity not only on this campus, but beyond it. Love this article in so many ways. Great job Siraj!

  2. Anonymous
    January 17, 2014

    Really interesting article! I do have a question though. For me, there’s a huge gap in ignoring the sexualization of clothing, as it’s an imperative part of the privilege that comes with being able to wear clothes that cater to a certain gender, or the perception of women’s clothing in particular (as relates to socio-economic status, as that seems your focus.) I’m interested in your thoughts on that, if you can. Particularly with statements like “virtually any item of clothing that you put on says something about you to observers, and those unconscious associations almost always include associations and assumptions about socioeconomic status,” it worries me a little that sexuality is entirely ignored.

  3. Christian
    January 17, 2014

    There was a week during my first semester where I basically walked around in sweats and slippers because I thought that’s what college students at places like Amherst did. Then I realized that this place is basically a runaway and I was coming off as a slob, haha.

    “That is to say, that guy wearing Quoddy moccasins to class isn’t just sending a message about who he is; he’s complicit in the segregation of our community by alienating a segment of it. Of course, by logical extension of this claim, the reverse is also true: rejecting the “NESCAC prep” style that is so often attributed to Amherst also deepens the divides between members of the community.” I really like this line. It really puts the responsibility on everyone on campus to make a more conscious effort to reach out to others. It’s not just those preppy, Vineyard Vines folk who have to reach out; we fringe class people have to make the effort too.

    I love this post. Thanks for writing, Siraj!

  4. Anonymous
    January 19, 2014

    Your article runs into the same problematic you are trying to identify. Your thoughts are crippled by the problem you attempt to solve. You say there is a “high socioeconomic standard.” According to whom? You? You yourself identify this. Steve Jobs would disagree (black turtleneck and jeans). So would Bill Gates (rarely seen wearing a tie).

    You are attempting to say that our clothes are one more way we segregate ourselves and we unconsciously judge other people. Sure. Maybe. Not really though. You assume that people know what clothing others wear. This unnecessarily accusatory article relies on the fact that Amherst students know what brands (or whatever) people wear. I, for one, have no idea. Most of my male friends also have no idea. So I, and they, therefore cannot judge anyone.

    Sure, when I see a barbour, I think it’s ridiculous to spend $500+ on a jacket that doesn’t even keep you warm, but all that says is that someone has different economic priorities than I. I have no idea about their social status. Some people spend money on clothing, some people don’t. Some people buy “high socioeconomic standard” (whatever that means) and can’t afford it! (Read: financial crisis).

    I just don’t agree with your broad claims…

    I sincerely hope some of this criticism helps your thinking.

  5. JS
    January 29, 2014

    Agreed with the above commenter. This reminds me of the article by Professor Aries that every incoming freshman has to read. There was a portion where she described a low-income, African American female who always dressed nicely because she had a passion for clothes. Turns out this student was on a full ride and her roommate – the student being interviewed – falsely assumed the student came from a wealthy background.

    Long story short, clothes don’t tell the story you think they do. Sure, they reflect personality and allow us to judge each other on that level. But to make assumptions about socioeconomic status is unwarranted.

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2014 by in Fashion and tagged , , , , , , .
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