Everyone uses clothing to tell a story about themselves. We dress to communicate our identity, religion, gender, marital status, tribe or clan, sub-culture, profession, and/or social status. Some people dress to blend in and others dress to stand out. We expect that everyone will understand the meaning of our choices. Conversely, we expect to read others accurately.
Humans first started to wear clothing 170,000 years ago (warning: tied to the evolution of body lice). They made garments to protect themselves from the cold, the sun, rain, thorns, insects, and poison plants. The first evidence of ornamental clothing or jewelry is from 75,000 years ago. As humans developed better skills at farming, tanning, weaving, sewing, and metal working, they created more durable, comfortable, and decorative clothing. Clothing laws were not far behind.
The Bible has many rules about clothing. It prohibits women from wearing men’s clothing and men from wearing women’s clothing. There is a prohibition on wearing cloth woven from a mix of linen and wool. There are prohibitions on flaunting your wealth. There are modesty codes to prove piety and restrict sexuality. These rules are the Judeo-Christian origins of contemporary gender policing.
The aristocracy and the clergy created sumptuary laws to visibly separate us from them. There should be no confusing who is who. The Romans had rules about who could wear purple and who could wear silk. In 16th century England, Queen Elizabeth I required the poor and working classes to dress in rough fabric, dull colors, and with little adornment. The law limited access to fabrics, furs, accessories, dyes, precious metals, and jewels (see chart at the bottom of the post). The laws required that your clothing match your station in life.
New York is diverse. There are a lot of immigrants. There are a lot of religious people. There are a lot of subcultures. There are a lot of eccentrics. Different people follow different rules.
I follow my own rules. One of them is that I don’t wear T-shirts with graphics or text on them. No sports teams, craft beers, or political slogans. It is a holdover from when I started binding and I didn’t want anyone staring at my chest. I was strictly into solid color T’s. After losing weight and having top surgery, I’ve starting wearing horizontal stripes again. I don’t wear baseball caps (facing forward or backward), henleys, ties, scarves, or bold prints (no Hawaiian shirts). I don’t wear women’s clothing.
I speak through my clothes. My gender expression is clearly and unambiguously masculine. I want my appearance to say that I’m not a corporate tool. I’m unconventional. I’m neat, clean, and well-groomed. I pay attention to what I’m wearing. I like the outdoors even though I live in the city. I’m from the East Coast but I’m not from a wealthy family. I value comfort over fashion. I prefer classic to ostentatious. I’m financially solid.
I dress to please myself. I can control what people see but I can not control how they interpret it. Fortunately, in New York, I’m not breaking any laws. Instead, I’m breaking the social contract that assumes that gender is binary, unambiguous, and not to be played with. Some people are upset by my breaking it. Some people are offended by it. Some people get tongue-tied while trying to figure it out. Some people roll with it, which gives me hope.
Notes: The title for this post is a 1973 quote from Umberto Eco, as referenced by Dick Hebdige in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style.
Below is a chart of the clothing laws under Queen Elizabeth 1 in England: