Clothes and Perception

amherst surcingle

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?